Political Notes: Gay SF health commissioner Bernal gets waiver to take UCSF job

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday October 13, 2023
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San Francisco Health Commission President Dan Bernal received a waiver from the Ethics Commission so that he can accept a top job at UCSF. Photo: Rick Gerharter<br>
San Francisco Health Commission President Dan Bernal received a waiver from the Ethics Commission so that he can accept a top job at UCSF. Photo: Rick Gerharter

Gay San Francisco Health Commission President Dan Bernal has secured the waiver he was seeking to become UCSF's vice chancellor of community and government relations. It means he will be stepping down from the oversight body and leaving his job as chief of staff to Congressmember Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

The city's Ethics Commission unanimously approved the waiver 4-0 for Bernal at its meeting Friday. In doing so, it ignored the recommendation from the city department's staff that it reject Bernal's request because he hadn't shown he would face "an extreme hardship" in having to postpone starting in the UCSF position until 12 months from his resignation date from the health commission.

"This is a once in a lifetime chance for me to continue working in the public sector at a high wage," Bernal told the commission, adding that, "due to my financial situation, I literally could not afford to ignore."

He plans to start in the new job in December, Bernal told the Bay Area Reporter.

As the B.A.R.'s Political Notebook first reported online October 11, Bernal fell under the prohibition for when members of oversight bodies can receive compensation from city contractors since the public university has multiple contracts with the city, nine of which totaling more than $75 million Bernal had voted in support of over the past year. He cited the legal bills he racked up from divorcing his ex-husband and the cost to travel to Florida to care for his ailing parents as the reasons why he wanted to immediately start in the UCSF job.

Doing so will not only double his income, he noted in his waiver request, but also provide him with "generous retirement and other benefits." According to the website Legistorm, which compiles compensation figures, Bernal earned $174,058.38 working for Pelosi last year.

"In many ways, it feels like I have been preparing my entire career for this position," Bernal had written in his request. "By granting this waiver, the Ethics Commission would enable me to continue my government service while addressing my current and future financial obligations and preparing financially for retirement without incurring more debt."

Commission Chair Yvonne Lee, a mayoral appointee, said her concerns ahead of the meeting about Bernal's role in approving the UCSF contracts had been addressed, as it was clear to her his votes were "more or less a ceremonial action, and I am satisfied with that." She also said it didn't matter how many people spoke in favor of Bernal, and that the oversight body looks at if not granting the waiver will also negatively impact the community, not just the applicant.

As denying Bernal the waiver would not only hurt his own professional development, but also "impact the city's disadvantaged communities," Lee moved to approve the waiver with two conditions of Bernal. He must resign from the health commission and avoid contact with the members of the city's health department and health commission for one year.

Ethics Commissioner Yaman Salahi, who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors, said Bernal had proved he would experience a hardship in not receiving the waiver. It was also clear that there were no ethical issues involved with his being offered the UCSF position, added Salahi.

"There is no indication that he received the job offer as some quid pro quo as opposed to the merits, so I will support it," said Salahi.

Bernal, 53, who has lived with HIV for more the three decades, was appointed to the health oversight body in 2017. He has served as Pelosi's chief of staff in her district office in San Francisco since 2002.

Because of his not knowing if he would survive his 20s, Bernal noted that he didn't bother to seek an advanced college degree. Today, it limits his job prospects, he told the ethics commissioners, pointing out that the vice chancellor position is one that he can apply for because it doesn't require him having a master's degree.

"I feel like I have been preparing my whole life for this opportunity," said Bernal.

Supporters turn out

He had received the support of Dr. Grant Colfax, a gay man who is the city's director of health, for being granted the waiver. In a letter to the ethics commissioners, Colfax called Bernal "an outstanding fit" for the UCSF job.

"While this role will result in his resignation from the Health Commission, I am confident that he will continue to make great contributions to the health and wellness of San Franciscans," wrote Colfax. "In particular, his focus on health equity as a Commissioner will be a major asset."

Colfax also addressed the ethics commission and stressed that Bernal played no role in the negotiations over the contracts between UCSF and the city's health department. He argued that Bernal is "uniquely qualified" to be a vice chancellor at UCSF.

"We need Dan in that position to ensure the special relationship that UCSF has with the health department is sustained and strengthened," said Colfax.

UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood had also written to the ethics commissioners and beseeched them to grant the waiver for Bernal. Not only did he call Bernal "uniquely suited" for the job, Hawgood noted it was critical for him to start in the position as soon as possible.

"We find ourselves in an ever-changing environment where health is increasingly a part of policy, economic and social debate," wrote Hawgood. "Having a visionary leader guide our community and government relations and anchor institution teams in service of UCSF's public mission is critically important."

District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, also sent a letter to the ethics commissioners in support of seeing Bernal be granted the waiver. He dismissed there being any ethical concerns in doing so in light of Bernal's having voted in support of a number of contracts for UCSF as a health commissioner.

"I cannot envision a more fitting position for Mr. Bernal and he would be a remarkable asset for UCSF and in turn for the people of San Francisco," wrote Peskin, who has known Bernal since the early 2000s. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for him to bring his broad experience, and to work in, for, and with a community he knows and cares deeply for."

Signaling Bernal's deep political and community ties, which UCSF officials said was among the reasons why they offered him the vice chancellor job in August, several local leaders and politicians had sent in letters in support of his waiver request. Lieutenant Governor Eleni Kounalakis, District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan, gay District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey, District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar, gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, and Chinatown Community Development Center Executive Director Malcolm Yeung were among those who sent in letters of support for Bernal ahead of Friday's meeting. Even more showed up at, or called in to, the meeting to voice support of Bernal's waiver request; no one called on the oversight body to reject it.

Peskin and Dorsey both addressed the ethics commission Friday, with Peskin arguing that Bernal's taking the UCSF job "is very, very different than what I think this particular section of code is written for."

As a longtime HIV survivor himself, Dorsey noted how important it would be for the people living with HIV to see Bernal serving in such a prominent role. Granting the waiver will also "enable our city to benefit from the next chapter of what has been a remarkable public service career for Dan Bernal," added Dorsey.

Former San Francisco mayor Art Agnos also spoke in support of Bernal's waiver request, saying denying it would be an "extreme loss" for the city.

"I add my voice to all of theirs in asking you to waive this rule for this particular man, not only because he needs it but, far more importantly, our city needs it," said Agnos.

Bernal's departure from the health commission not only means it needs to elect a new president, as he has served in the role the last three years, but also that Mayor London Breed will need to fill the vacancy on the oversight body. While Bernal is the lone gay man on it, there are currently two other health commissioners from the LGBTQ community.

Cecilia Chung, a transgender woman who is living with HIV, has served on the body since 2012 and is the senior director of strategic initiatives and evaluation at the Transgender Law Center. Susan Belinda Christian, a lesbian who is an assistant district attorney in San Francisco, was appointed to the health commission in 2020.

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