Just One Problem With Supes' Approved Plan To Defund $510K From Opera, Ballet, Theater -- It Wasn't Legal

While the supes voted to strip $510,000 from the opera, ballet and ACT, the person whose job it is to actually make such decisions says this won't happen

On San Francisco's fiscally sinking ship, a majority of our supervisors voted Tuesday to toss the record player overboard via half a million dollars in cuts to the city's opera, ballet and American Conservatory Theater. But while men frantically hurling items off a failing sea vessel aren't bound by a city charter, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors is -- and that measure violated it.

"The board has the authority to appropriate or de-appropriate city funds," explained city attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey. "They are prohibited from funding or de-funding specific expenditures within executive departments."

What's that mean? Well, hypothetically, the board could send a message to, say, the city attorney's office that they want this Dorsey guy gone by reducing the department's budget by the amount of Dorsey's salary. But the decision to fire or retain Dorsey can only be made by the department head -- in this case, City Attorney Dennis Herrera. 

So the board's specific targeting of the opera, ballet, and ACT was just as egregious an overstepping of its authority as the above hypothetical. City funds are distributed to artistic organizations by Grants For The Arts/San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund. And the only one who can decide how to allocate those funds is GFTA executive director Kary Schulman. 

The city attorney's office and controller's office noticed the problem with Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi's successful measure to defund the opera, ballet, and ACT shortly after it was approved -- and tweaked it so that the $510,000 will instead be yanked not from those three organizations specifically but from Grants For The Arts' overall budget. If Schulman wants to take $2,262 from all of the 221 organizations GFTA funds or divide up the $510,000 shortfall via any other mathematical possibility -- well, that's her call.

Schulman said she has until August to figure out how to make her cuts -- but she insisted there's no way she'll simply hack half a million dollars from three organizations as Mirkarimi's resolution intended. "No, that would not be the way this office operates, to have any three organizations shoulder the full burden. Or any 10, even," she told SF Weekly. "We'll try to do this in such a way so that we are very sensitive to equity and parity."

Supervisor Bevan Dufty was livid in the wake of the vote to defund the opera, ballet, and ACT and accused his supervisorial colleagues of philistinism. Dufty portrayed his fellow supes as searching for symbolic, low-hanging fruit to grab -- which they accomplished by going after cultural institutions perceived as bastions of the city's elite.

"I don't see these as being the province of the elite in San Francisco," said Dufty. "I go throughout the year to so many events ... that enable schoolchildren throughout the city to engage in the great cultural institutions. I feel like these were targets for some of my colleagues on the board." 

That $510,000 defunding comes on the heels of a $1.95 million reduction in GFTA's budget this year -- down to $9.02 million. And, again, how to juggle these reductions is solely Schulman's decision. When it comes to keeping the budgets of ACT, the ballet, and the opera relatively intact -- well, the fat lady hasn't sung yet.

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