Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the size of the transit cuts that Leland Yee voted for as a state senator. He voted for budgets that took about $116 million from Muni earlier in his career. But more recently, he voted against budgets that took about $130 million from Muni, and he voted for a bill that gave Muni $30 million in 2010 and should give Muni $31 million next year. The article and the headline have been updated to reflect this information.
Two sides of Leland Yee were on display at Tuesday's San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency's board meeting: the mayoral candidate who tried to block Muni chief Nat Ford's $384,000 golden parachute and the state senator who had voted to take more than a hundred million from Muni to balance the state budget, helping to cripple the already struggling transit agency.
During the meeting, one of Yee's representatives plopped down a huge stack of paper in front of the board, evidence of the more than 1,000 signatures he had gathered in a just a few days in an online petition to stop the payout. The SFMTA board promptly approved Ford’s lucrative severance package with no debate.
Yee showed up after the meeting to talk to reporters Ford's golden parachute, so we asked him why, if he cares so much about Muni, did he vote to take money away from the struggling transit agency?
Over a four-year period, the state took $250 million that was supposed to go to Muni, according to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose.
Yee voted for two state budgets (2007-2008 and 2008-2009) that took $116.4 million from Muni to help balance the state budget. The cuts triggered a lawsuit by the California Transit Association, Muni and other agencies over the diversion of transit funding statewide that they eventually won.
Yee voted against the final 2009-2010 budget, which eliminated $62.6 million in state funding to Muni. He also voted against eliminating the State Transportation Assistance program, the vehicle for giving local transit agencies state funding, in the final budget, although he voted for eliminating it in an earlier version of the budget.
In 2010, Yee voted for a bill that partially restored the State Transportation Assistance program. That bill passed, giving Muni $30 million in state funds last year. Muni may receive $31 million in the upcoming year.
Finally, Yee voted against the final 2010-2011 budget, which ended up diverting approximately $70 million from Muni.
On Tuesday, Yee told us that no one at City Hall complained about his votes to take money from Muni.
Rose countered Yee's claim that everyone in San Francisco was just fine with taking the funds away from Muni.
"Not only did we protest, but we filed a lawsuit to protest diverting the funds from transportation," said Rose. "One would have to have known that we had protested over $250 million coming from our budget."
Joshua Shaw of the California Transit Association said that compared to other state legislators Yee had a good record on public transit: "While it is true that the California Legislature acted several times in the last few years to divert or cut funds that otherwise would have been spent on local public transit service, Senator Yee was one of the few legislators to stand up on the Floor of his House and cast a ‘No’ vote against some of these bills that cut transit funding."
Greg Dewar, a Muni watchdog who writes the N-Judah Chronicles, called Yee's petition "great short-term political theater." In an email, Dewar wrote, "Unfortunately, when you look at the facts, Yee's newfound Muni activism comes up short. Ford's buyout has been a part of his contract since he was hired in 2006 - yet Yee, and most elected officials, were nowhere to be found to object. Worse, Sen. Yee supported the Schwarzenegger/Democrat budgets that looted hundreds of millions from Muni."
Said Dewar in his email: "When Muni's riders needed a champion in the Legislature, sadly, Mr. Yee was again absent."
Yee's staff sought to clarify the senator's videotaped remarks.
"While he has voted for some cuts to transit, the major cuts are in the main budget bill which he has consistently voted against and in fact transit advocates in many parts of the state including his district in San Mateo County have publicly praised his efforts," Adam Keigwin, Yee's chief of staff, said in an email Tuesday.