Last month, the Potrero Hill Democratic Club (PHDC) sponsored a debate at the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House that featured candidates running for Sheriff and the Board of Trustees, City College of San Francisco (CCSF). The packed hall listened to Board candidates Wendy Aragon, incumbent Alex Randolph, and Tom Temprano discuss issues related to enrollment, marketing, accreditation, and funding. John Robinson, incumbent Ross Mirkarimi, and Vicki Hennessy debated Sheriff leadership and jail reform.

City College has faced significant challenges since 2013, when the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) placed the school’s certification on probation.  The college is accredited until 2017, and will remain so if it meets ACCJC requirements.

Since 2008, the number of students registered at City College has dropped by 20 percent, from 100,000 to 80,000. The state allocates about $5,000 of funding per fulltime equivalent student; the reduced student population has triggered $32 million in reductions.  The state has allocated interim funds to cover the loss for two years to help enable CCSF address the ACCJC-identified problems. If the college can’t bring its enrollment back up, it’ll have to make do with a lower funding level.

Temprano characterized enrollment as a priority issue. To make his point he’s signed up for a photoshop class at CCSF. “One of the reasons I’m running is because the current board isn’t talking about it,” he said.

The Board candidates generally agreed with one another on various issues. Aragon, a Richmond District resident who works as a construction project manager, tended to provide more detail on key issues.  All of the candidates acknowledged that enrollment has plummeted because of the ACCJC imbroglio, and called for more effective marketing to attract and retain new students.

Enrolling in the school isn’t easy, according to Randolph, who has almost a decade experience working for Gavin Newsom and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. “There’s only one person available to talk to on the phone about enrollment questions…We don’t even have a public information officer,” he said.

All of the candidates acknowledged that City College’s financial situation is wobbly. Under Proposition A, passed in 2012, a parcel tax was imposed that’s supposed to raise $16 million a year for the school. “There’s no oversight committee, and I know that because I was supposed to be appointed to it,” said Aragon. “We have no idea how that money is being spent. What I do know is that administration has been given a 29 percent raise, and our teachers are making what they were in 2008. That money needs to have citizen oversight.”

According to Aragon, Chris Jackson, a former trustee, had told her she’d be appointed to an oversight committee two years ago.  Although the Board is supposed to supervise spending, Aragon asserted that the voter-approved parcel tax merits the creation of a separate citizen oversight committee. 

Aragon believes that the college’s budget problems could be eased with contributions from San Francisco’s technology sector. “Tech needs to be a good neighbor,” she said. “They want tax breaks and to take this City and run a fiber economy…But tech hasn’t been a good neighbor…If you look at the IT program at City College, we don’t even have up-to-date computers…We also need to hold our mayor accountable. Our mayor is owned by the tech industry and he has done nothing to pay for our City College. The mayor has his ear to the tech companies; we need to make sure he has ours.”

After a short break, candidates for Sheriff took their places for their debate. Incumbent Ross Mirkarimi introduced himself as a proud Potrero Hill resident who’s heavily invested in the community. During his tenure as Sheriff, Mirkarimi has faced intense media scrutiny over such issues as gladiator-like fights amongst county jail inmates, the fact that his drivers’ license was temporarily suspended after he didn’t properly report a traffic accident in which he was involved, and the release of Francisco Sanchez from custody without alerting Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which resulted in the shooting of Kate Steinle at Pier 14 last summer. These issues drove the debate; Mirkarimi was repeatedly forced to defend his policies, actions, and leadership abilities.

Mirkarimi was elected Sheriff in 2011.  He previously served two terms on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, District 5.  He’s running on the themes of being an outsider to the law enforcement community, having a longstanding commitment to public safety, and with the political support of Michael Hennessey, who served as Sheriff for 32 years.  “A whole generation has grown up with Mike Hennessey, and I think people got used to the idea of what it means to be a forward-thinking sheriff. But he was never an insider. He was an outsider,” said Mirkarimi.

Mirkarimi pointed out that recidivism and jail population in the City have declined for the last few years. He proudly held up a 2014 issue of the San Francisco Examiner, which included an article claiming that the City’s jails were a model for prison realignment. According to Mirkarimi, third party recognition is a better measure of success than internal data.

Mirkarimi is responsible for a body camera pilot program, in which 30 cameras will be worn by officers at San Francisco County Jail Number Four, the first jail in the nation to adopt personal cameras.  He supported The Five Keys Charter School, which aims to give college credit to incarcerated inmates, which has been deemed successful by Jeffrey A. Beard, who previously served as Secretary of the California Department of Corrections.

Robinson questioned whether the Sheriff’s Department has been successful, and asked who was responsible for measuring programs’ effectiveness. While recidivism has declined, San Francisco had the state’s worst recidivism rate in 2010, according to Robinson.

Statistics don’t reflect overall leadership abilities, according to Vicki Hennessy. She questioned whether someone who doesn’t have hands-on experience as a prison guard or peace officer could understand the logistics of operating a jail. Hennessy, who is backed by the Deputy Sheriff’s Association, believes that the gladiator-style fights could only occur because Mirkarimi isn’t a strong leader.

Mirkarimi has flipped on the issue of whether a new jail should be constructed. He originally endorsed the idea, but changed his mind, according to a July issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. He now supports constructing a new jail because he believes that the existing facilities are outdated, not because of demand for more space “We’re reducing the need for a new jail, not reversing it.”

Before holding an endorsement election the club lowered the threshold for approval of candidates in multi-seat races, from 60 percent to 50 percent plus one.  PHDC endorsed Aragon, who won a majority vote after two rounds. Mirkarimi was endorsed in the first round. The club also voted to keep Rincon Park, with the iconic “Cupid’s Bow,” by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, from being over-shadowed by new developments.

Originally Published September 2015: Potrero View

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