The recent debate over Mayor Newsom’s proposed “community court” revealed an ongoing split between the mayor’s political and policy camps. After Board President Aaron Peskin wisely reduced the proposed court’s budget from $750,000 to $500,000, and joined his Budget Committee colleagues in putting the money on reserve, Newsom re-election campaign manager Eric Jaye publicly attacked the move. Jaye sought to frame the issue as Mayor vs. Board, and said “the mayor’s on the side of the voters.” But Julian Potter, Newsom’s top policy advisor, expressed “delight” over the Board’s action, noting that it ensured that money would be available once a plan for the court was drafted. Is there a method to Jaye’s madness, or are the Mayor’s political and policy sides at war?

There is one undisputed fact about Mayor Newsom’s proposed community court for the Tenderloin and South of Market: it is an idea in search of a specific operational plan. Board President Aaron Peskin was not alone in reaching this conclusion after speaking to all of the relevant players in the court system and mayor’s office; Newsom policy director Julian Potter confirmed that there is “no detailed plan for the court” and that “all we have right now is models from other cities.”

As someone whose job is policy, Potter understands the need to formulate a court plan that will have broad support. But Eric Jaye’s job is politics. And he is committed to defining Mayor Newsom in the sharpest possible contrast to the Board, even if this means making points that lack a factual basis or good sense.

For example, in criticizing the Board’s action on the community court, Jaye claimed that if the Board doesn’t like the idea, “it’s never fleshed out enough, and if they do like the idea, it’s perfectly fine as is.” Jaye said the Board’s Budget Committee had “different standards” for supervisor’s “pet projects” than they do for the mayor’s.

Forget for a moment that Jaye’s analysis directly contradicts that of Deputy Chief of Staff Potter. Here we have the Mayor’s campaign manager accusing the Board of putting the community court funding on reserve for personal and political reasons, rather than sound policy.

That’s the type of charge that, if made by Supervisor Chris Daly against the Mayor, would be a front-page Chronicle story. Supervisor Alioto-Pier would use this charge to justify the need for a “Code of Conduct,” and Daly would be charged with “personalizing” a policy debate.

But Jaye’s comments were deep in the Chronicle story on the court, and did not become “news.”

If Newsom’s campaign manager sends us a list of projects that the Board has funded that have been as little thought out as the community court---which did get $500,000 despite lacking a formal program or budget plan---we will publish the list and confirm Jaye’s allegation. But I am unaware of any Supervisor’s “pet project” that was funded based solely on an idea, and see Jaye as ignoring the facts and sound city policy in order to frame the mayor’s re-election campaign around his alleged sharp differences with the Board.

Jaye’s approach not only seeks to politicize the policy process, but it would not prove effective against the only possible serious challengers to Newsom---Art Agnos and Matt Gonzalez. Agnos never served on the Board, and Gonzalez has been off the Board for over two years.

Moreover, Peskin’s ascension to Budget Chair has made him the symbol of the Board, and the media and public trust him on financial issues. So Jaye’s attack on the Budget Committee’s actions is not credible, and does more to undermine than help the Mayor.

Potter understands this. Her support for the Board’s action allowed Newsom to escape a political controversy that would have put him against the public defender, district attorney, and the Superior Court judges---none of whom are clear on how the community court would function.

In fact, had Peskin not intervened and the Board allocated $750,000 for use starting July 1, Newsom would have been forced to explain on the campaign trail why this money has not been spent, and to defend his lack of a formal plan for the court.

My view of the community court remains unchanged: I cannot express an opinion in the absence of a plan for its operation. But my experience leasing a space to the District Attorney for a satellite office (at the space we now run as DA Arts at 495 Minna at 6th Street) raises concern about the potential costs.

Satellite operations are extremely expensive to run, and are typically not cost effective. A community court with a judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys would require the full ambit of security procedures that itself is costly (metal detectors, security staff, court reporters, clerks and a baliff). It also requires the purchase or lease of a public space, one that is accessible to people with disabilities.

I can’t imagine what the Mayor would do with only $750,000, unless this covered only the non-personnel costs. And it seems far more cost effective to use an existing courtroom at either 850 Bryant or at the civil courthouse across from City Hall, since both are located in the areas the court is designed to cover.

In fact, the Superior Court – with help from the District Attorney and Public Defender’s Office – already has two programs that are highly effective - Drug Court for minor drug offenders, and Behavioral Court for mentally ill defendants. Both programs are housed at 850 Bryant.

While most of the debate about the court has been about the city’s approach to quality of life crimes and homelessness, the bigger problem is cost. And that’s why the Board’s putting the money on reserve was such a smart move, Eric Jaye’s protestations notwithstanding.

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