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Planning commissioner changed controversial Airbnb vote after text message from Mayor’s Office

May 18, 2015

By Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez : sfexaminer – excerpt – (see notes)

The Office of Mayor Ed Lee silently intervened in a controversial Planning Commission vote last month to regulate home sharing platforms such as Airbnb, according to public records obtained by The San Francisco Examiner.

After Planning Commissioner Christine Johnson cast a deciding vote on a key regulation, she was immediately contacted by the Mayor’s Office by text message. Johnson then asked to “go back” and change her vote.

Long-time California good-government advocate Robert Stern told The Examiner that mayors commonly exert power over city commissions, often out of sight.

“Maybe they should tell the audience ‘don’t bother testifying, because I was told how to vote,’” Stern said. “It would sure cut down the time for the meeting.”

The eight-hour, bare-knuckle public comment from housing activists, an Airbnb lobbyist, and politicians took place at a regular meeting of the Planning Commission on April 23. The 16 home-sharing regulation recommendations each underwent a vote of the commission. The planning commission vote on regulating home-sharing platforms may heavily sway the Board of Supervisors in their final vote on those same regulations, according to insiders. Home-sharing critics are threatening to bring these regulations to November’s ballot if they are not ultimately approved by the board.

“I always review and take into account the recommendations of the Planning Commission, and very much respect that body,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, adding that ultimately he will make his own policy judgment.

Of the regulations the planning commission voted to recommend, No. 6 is “the linchpin in the enforcement program,” AnMarie Rodgers, senior policy adviser at the Planning Department told the commission that night.

That rule would prohibit any home-sharing platform like Airbnb from listing a unit without a city-provided registration number, or the platform could face penalties. Recommendation 6 passed on its first vote, 4-3 out of seven commissioners. That’s when Johnson was sent a text message from Nicole Wheaton, who is the Mayor’s Office appointments secretary.

“What happened?!? I thought we were in agreement on #6 and how that simply would be enforceable?” Wheaton texted, next texting “Wouldn’t*” to correct her previous sentence.

At 9:01 p.m. Johnson then texted Wheaton: “We have the opportunity to go back on our votes on these items, which I will likely do.”

Johnson then asked the commission for a revote. Recommendation No. 6 failed on this second vote, with the three supervisor appointed commissioners voting aye, and the four commissioners appointed by the mayor voting nay. “Thank you for taking that revote,” Wheaton texted to Johnson at 10 p.m. to which Johnson replied, “You are welcome.”

When told about the text messages, Sara Shortt, executive director of the Housing Rights Committee and member of Share Better, was incensed. “It seems like commissioner Johnson was voting on the actual merits of the issue related to the policy,” Shortt said, “and then was called out by her boss and realized she better vote based on the interests of the mayor.”

Wheaton declined an interview. But the mayor’s spokesperson Christine Falvey defended Wheaton’s texts.

“She is the mayor’s liaison to commissions, the board, and state and federal legislators, so informing commissioners of policy priorities and positions is entirely appropriate,” Falvey said.

Johnson denied the Mayor’s Office influenced her decision to change her vote. “In the beginning [of the meeting] I expressly said ‘are we allowed to go back and change our votes?’” Johnson told The Examiner.

Stern said mayoral appointees often vote with the mayor’s interest because “they need to go along with them or they’ll be replaced,” he said, noting it is a common practice.

Johnson denied that potentially losing a future reappointment affected her vote. The stakes for new home-sharing regulations are high: A recent city report shows up to 2,000 entire housing units have been taken off of the potential rental market by Airbnb hosts.

Generally, the mayor directing his appointees to vote aye or nay does not violate ethics rules, said John St. Croix, director of the Ethics Commission.

The mayor has been under scrutiny in the media for advancing policies which favor the tech industry and his close fundraising ally, angel investor Ron Conway, who is an investor in Airbnb.

The City Charter says commissioners are not required to be independent, but are required to make “recommendations to the Mayor.”

The recommendations that the planning commission approved are part of three competing proposals to amend home-sharing regulations: One from Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Mark Farrell, another from Supervisor David Campos, and another from Supervisor Jane Kim.

On Monday the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use committee will reviewed the Planning Commission’s recommendations and possibly vote to amend the law. Ultimately the change in regulations would require a vote of the full Board of Supervisors.

Watch the Proceedings here.

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