Civic Soap Opera Keeps San Francisco Captivated : Politics: Turmoil distracts city’s leadership when more pressing problems demand attention, critics say.


Spring is approaching, and in most big U.S. cities that means the bar and bus stop chatter has turned to baseball and income taxes. Not here.

San Francisco, land of political dramas that often seem to belong beneath the Big Top, is aswirl in a riveting civic soap opera--one that has engulfed City Hall and captivated the masses with its story line of sex, betrayal and bloodied careers.

The nucleus of this ever-mutating spectacle is a sexual harassment charge against Police Chief Anthony Ribera. On Wednesday, the San Francisco Police Commission said it had found insufficient evidence to charge the chief.

But his accuser--who is the Police Department’s spokeswoman--is pressing her claim, and the scandal has left smudges on the reputations of Ribera as well as a San Francisco supervisor and Mayor Frank Jordan.


The political turmoil provides terrific fodder for newspapers and cocktail soirees, but it has distracted the city’s leadership at a time when a whopping budget deficit and other pressing problems demand attention. Some San Franciscans are saying enough is enough.

“Life here feels like one big gossip column at the moment, and it’s unfortunate,” said political scientist Richard DeLeon, author of a recent book on San Francisco politics. “We have some very serious needs in our neighborhoods, but we’re not getting anywhere so long as this Administration is preoccupied with embarrassing and degrading shenanigans.”

Indeed, the episode is but one in a series of recent tempests that have swept through City Hall and embarrassed the beleaguered mayor.

Last Friday, Jordan’s top political adviser, Clint Reilly, went to the San Francisco Examiner to complain about its coverage and got in a fight with the paper’s executive editor, Phil Bronstein. Reilly, one of California’s most accomplished campaign consultants, wound up with a broken ankle that required surgery.

On top of that nasty business, Jordan press secretary Bob Forsyth quit this week, making him the second spokesman--and umpteenth staffer--the mayor has lost since taking office 14 months ago.

And then there is “panda-monium.” This little flap pits the mayor against Supervisor Angela Alioto, who announced Wednesday that she has sealed a deal to borrow a Chinese panda for the San Francisco Zoo. Sounds great, except that Jordan--who just returned from a two-week goodwill trip to Asia--had been working to score just such a coup himself.

But it is the current matter involving the police chief that has entranced San Francisco. The drama has taken so many bizarre twists that it resembles some wild concoction of tabloid TV.

The story begins on Feb. 12, when Officer Joanne Welsh accused Chief Ribera of kissing her, groping her and giving her a pair of gold earrings when he was a lieutenant in 1989.

The charges struck some people as odd. For starters, Welsh had been friends with Ribera for 10 years. Moreover, she and her then-boyfriend, Supervisor Bill Maher, were Ribera’s biggest boosters when the mayor named him police chief in November.

Ribera hotly denied the accusations, saying they “make me sick to my stomach,” and hired a lawyer and public relations firm to help him wage the ugly war of words that soon raged in the press.

The chief also went on the counterattack, setting his sights on Maher. The supervisor, he charged in a complaint to the Police Commission, illegally meddled in police business when he ordered Ribera not to transfer Welsh from her high-profile job as spokeswoman.

Hoping to silence a loud crowd of doubters, Welsh volunteered to take a lie detector test. The Examiner, anxious for an exclusive angle on the hot story, offered to arrange the test. Welsh flunked it--twice.

“San Franciscans,” local columnist Rob Morse wrote around this time, “will never again be able to claim The City isn’t really so wacky. It’s so wacky all of us feel like we’re following City Hall through a ‘Deep Space 9' wormhole to another dimension.”

By Wednesday night, however, it looked as though the Police Commission would bring the mini-series to a blessed denouement. Voting unanimously, the commission decided that Ribera would keep his job, and recommended that Welsh be transferred to a “less stressful assignment.”

Case closed, right? Not exactly.

Welsh, for starters, plans to pursue her harassment claim with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Examiner, in its lead editorial, stated Thursday that a “full, independent investigation” of the charge is needed “to satisfy San Franciscans that the truth has been reached in this multifaceted case.”

As for Maher, nobody is quite sure what is in store for him. In a letter Wednesday to Jordan, the supervisor admitted that he had improperly interceded on behalf of Welsh, who is now, incidentally, his ex-girlfriend. Maher apologized to the mayor and revealed that he is in therapy to help him with his “clouded” judgment.

Wherever all the dust finally settles, the saga has clearly been bad news for Jordan.

The drama has overshadowed the mayor’s recent successful goodwill trip to Asia, and enhanced the impression of a mayor who is not in charge.

Meanwhile, he is facing a $184-million budget deficit and the grim news that two credit-rating agencies lowered the rating of San Francisco’s bonds, a move that could cost the city dearly in higher interest costs.

Finally, Ribera’s troubles further call into question the mayor’s judgment on appointments. Ribera is the second Jordan-appointed police chief to get in hot water. The first, Richard Hongisto, was fired in May for ordering officers to confiscate copies of a weekly newspaper that lampooned his handling of protests after the not guilty verdicts in the beating of Rodney G. King.

“Frank Jordan is a very nice man, but he’s got to get his act together,” said Rollin Post, a veteran political analyst for KRON-TV. “The city is leaderless, adrift. Everyone is laughing, but it ain’t that much fun anymore.”