Mayor's Choice to Replace Wealthy Supporters on Arts Commission -- His Own Employee

Nan Park Images
Ah, but is it art?
In San Francisco, the term "Arts Commission" is misleading. This is not merely a roomful of wealthy dowagers deciding where to place a bust of Adolph Sutro. A small percentage of funds expended on development projects in the city, by law, are sent the commission's way -- and that translates into millions of dollars a year. The city owns nearly 3,300 works of art valued at roughly $86 million. The Arts Commission is a big deal.

So it was a commensurate big deal when three of the commission's members resigned last month in the wake of stricter reporting requirements regarding their incomes. Handing in their walking papers were art collector Alexander Lloyd, art Professor Jeannene Przyblyski (wife of departed Gavin Newsom svengali Eric Jaye) and, most notably, Dede Wilsey -- Newsom's staunch and wealthy advocate.

Newsom has made some interesting choices in fielding their replacements. This week he tabbed ad man Greg Chew, artist Barbara Sklar -- the wife of deceased city politico Dick Sklar -- and landscape architect Astrid Haryati. It's this last nominee who is the most intriguing, as she's also the director of the Mayor's Office of Greening. So the mayor has appointed someone who works directly under him to serve on a "citizen's commission."
This is not illegal -- but not for lack of trying. A proposed city charter amendment that would have forbade city employees from serving on such boards failed handily in last year's election. The proposition's opponents, namely organized labor, pointed out that the language of the legislation would have prevented, say, a firefighter from serving on the environment commission -- and what does that accomplish?

That's a good point; this wasn't a very well-written proposition. Because it also doesn't make much sense for the mayor or president of the board to appoint his or her direct underlings to positions ostensibly reserved for "citizens."

And while that practice is not common, critics of Newsom claim he has brought it into the mainstream. Mayoral spokesman Nathan Ballard reported that Newsom has previously elevated city employees Bill Lee to the planning commission; Frank Lee to the Building Inspection Commission; and George Lau to the Fire Commission. He also placed Mayor's Office employee Dwayne Jones on the Housing Authority Commission.

Former Board President Aaron Peskin chimes in that Newsom even appointed two members of his office staff to the Board of Supervisors: Carmen Chu and Sean Elsbernd (the latter of which, incidentally, joined Peskin last year to support the curtailing of city employees being allowed to serve on commissions).

"This really undermines the notion of having real citizen commissions," Peskin says. "It's just an extension of the mayor's office."

Haryati did not return our calls. But it's difficult to say that she is not qualified to sit on the Arts Commission. She is a licensed landscape architect -- filling a seat on the commission earmarked for a landscape architect -- with plenty of experience devising and building public installations in major cities.

Arts Commission President P.J. Johnson, reached on vacation, hadn't heard about his three new colleagues. He declined to comment other than to say they all "sound great," and note that Haryati is the second landscape architect on the commission alongside Topher Delaney.

"We should be in good shape with landscape," Johnson says. 


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