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At 8:30 a.m. sharp, the double doors close and San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera opens the meeting. A deputy arriving late at the weekly senior managers’ session might have been wiser to call in sick. The tardy one gets the Herrera treatment: a glance at his watch, a raised eyebrow and an invitation to bring doughnuts next week. “I believe in promptness,” Herrera said later. “We start on time. We finish on time. We get to the issues. We don’t have a college bull session.” About eight months into his term, the rookie city attorney runs his 200-attorney office with military crispness. So far, his performance generally gets high marks. Of course, he’s still learning his way around the numerous city agencies and departments served by his office, while also memorizing the names of everyone who works for him. In two moves that made good on part of his campaign platform, Herrera filed a lawsuit against Pacific Gas and Electric Co. seeking ratepayer refunds and asked makers of AIDS drugs to promote their products more honestly. However, Herrera has made a few missteps in his first few months in office. His relationship with at least one San Francisco supervisor, Leland Yee, has been frosty at best, while he’s reached out to others for a political detente. “He was good enough to call and ask for a meeting about what was going on in his office,” Yee said. “Because of our busy schedules, we never consummated that.” Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who didn’t support Herrera in the general election but did in the runoff, said Herrera has tried to remove politics from the office. Former City Attorney Louise Renne “was accused of being a very political city attorney, and indeed she was,” Peskin said. Herrera acts more “straight up.” “But if you cross him, there’s no coming back,” the supervisor said. “He has the tough, old politician demeanor, even though he’s a sweet, baby-faced personable guy.” Herrera concedes his relationship with Mayor Willie Brown is cool. But that’s better than frigid, which it was during Herrera’s election campaign, when he pledged to stand up to the city’s chief executive. “Since I’ve been in office, I think the mayor and I get along very well,” Herrera said. “He’s a good client.” Although Brown had appointed Herrera to the city’s transportation and police commissions in years past, the mayor declined to comment about the city attorney, according to his press secretary, P.J. Johnston. Perhaps Herrera’s thorniest critics are members of the San Francisco Elections Commission, who accuse him of deserting them during the Tammy Haygood crisis. The city attorney’s office advised the commission that it had legal standing to fire Haygood as elections director without giving a cause and at a secret meeting. When the Civil Service Commission ordered her reinstated, Herrera claimed there was potential conflict of interest and withdrew from the case, since his office represents both agencies. Each commission has since hired outside counsel. Michael Mendelson, president of the Elections Commission, said Herrera should have continued to defend his legal advice. “At this point it’s unclear to me whether the Elections Commission can rely on the city attorney’s office for any advice,” said Mendelson, who has a long-running battle with the city attorney’s office over a property tax dispute. But others, even two election opponents — James Lazarus and Stephen Williams — say Herrera is a worthy successor to Renne. “He’s doing a fine job,” said Lazarus, who was defeated by Herrera in a runoff election. “He’s kept most of the good people in place.” Attorney John Keker, of Keker & Van Nest, called Herrera a “consensus sort of person,” adding, “I think he’s exactly what the city needs in this new era of leadership.” Renne, who hand-picked Herrera as a successor, said he will bring his “strong voice” to city government. “I think his strengths are good judgment, sound legal advice and his diplomatic way of dealing with people,” the ex-city attorney said. If Herrera thinks he has any weaknesses, it’s trying to do too much and not delegating enough. “When you’re managing 200 lawyers and 150 support staff, you’re dealing with a range of issues, [and] you can’t possibly get in there and do it all yourself.” NEW YORK ROOTS Herrera, 39, is a former New Yorker who still retains some of the accent that comes with being born in Bay Shore, Long Island. His father is a psychiatrist, his mother a nurse. Herrera did his undergraduate work at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and earned a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. His wife, Anne Herrera, is a compensation consultant with Intel Corp. They have a year-old son, Declan. Mother and son were featured prominently in Herrera’s campaign literature during the November election campaign. Herrera moved to San Francisco 15 years ago to practice maritime law and eventually became a name partner at Kelly, Gill, Sherburne & Herrera. When he was elected city attorney, his former partners bought him out, he said. Herrera says he draws inspiration for his $150,000-a-year job from the career of former City Attorney Franklin Lane, who is unfamiliar to most San Franciscans. Lane served two terms during the early 1900s and brought progressive ideas to city government, including reforming civil service, promoting greater home rule and establishing initiative and recall mechanisms. Herrera wants to emulate Lane’s principles of “clean government, good government. � That’s a noble ideal and should resonate with people just as much today.” Herrera, who served as chief of staff of the U.S. Maritime Administration during the Clinton administration, notes that his idol Lane also served in the federal government, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to the Interstate Commerce Commission. During Herrera’s campaign last year, he said that as San Francisco’s top civil lawyer he would emphasize initiatives for stricter environmental enforcement, more integrity in government and recovering revenue for city coffers. He’s generally following through on his campaign promises, although his efforts are not grabbing a lot of headlines. Herrera doubled to 10 the number of deputies in his Code Enforcement Division. One result has been a successful lawsuit against a public housing management firm in the Bayview neighborhood that ignored code violations to the detriment of residents. It has corrected its violations, he said. Herrera and California Attorney General Bill Lockyer also announced a $46.8 million settlement with Atlantic Richfield Corp., which had failed to fix leaking underground gas tanks at 59 Arco stations. “Other city attorneys don’t have the willingness to do battle with the rich and powerful,” Lockyer said. “Dennis is ready to do that.” Herrera’s revenue recovery team pursues matters that he feels have been ignored. For example, if a driver knocks over a fire hydrant, Herrera wants to track him down to pay for it. He also wants his deputies to go after those who owe fees to the city treasury. He’s proud of his public integrity team that he says investigates “illegality, fraud and abuse.” “You could have private contractors who aren’t living up to city guidelines,” he said. “Or you could have public employees who are absconding with funds.” Herrera also pledged to continue the affirmative litigation practices of Renne, who gained national attention for battling big tobacco and gun makers. So far, his biggest splash has been the PG&E litigation. His lawsuit differs from the state’s by aiming to get refunds for San Francisco ratepayers. The AG’s litigation seeks to return money to the utility’s creditors. Discovery in the city’s case will begin soon in San Francisco Superior Court. Still a work in progress is Herrera’s intent to revise advertisements in BART and Muni stations showing athletic and healthy looking young men on AIDS medication. The city attorney argues that these ads are misleading. “We’re in the process of putting together a meeting with [the drug makers] to see if we can hammer out some compromise approach,” Herrera said. He added that litigation is not imminent. Herrera also told voters during his campaign that he would scrutinize city contracts and agreements, and he’s taking a hard look at one deal that could define his administration in coming years. He’s reviewing the contracts that the city signed with construction company Tudor-Saliba for the $2.4 billion expansion of the airport. Although Herrera declines to be specific, City Hall insiders say he’s concerned with possible change orders and cost overruns that have bled city coffers. “All I can tell you now is that the investigation is continuing,” Herrera said. Any time an investigation is undertaken means “we have a belief that there might have been some wrongdoing.” Herrera dismissed the suggestion that the cost and time spent pursuing a lawsuit may not reap a financial windfall for the city. “To look if it’s worthwhile to pursue litigation because of how much money we might get back I think is an awfully simplistic view,” he said. A PERSONAL TOUCH At the city attorney’s main offices at City Hall, Herrera’s personal touches include brightening his own office with better lighting and making it more welcoming — a small conference table has become his primary discussion area. His predecessor, Renne, kept the office darker and made little use of the conference table. His friendly yet businesslike demeanor has staff talking about the more egalitarian atmosphere of the office. Veteran Deputy City Attorney Burk “Buck” Delventhal says Herrera “trusts us to use our judgment but wants to make sure he’s kept informed about important issues.” “On occasion I’ll call down and say I want to talk to him and the next thing I know he’s up here,” Delventhal recalled. “That’s pretty amazing.” That was not the way things operated under Renne, who ran more of a top-down operation. Herrera also makes unannounced drop-in visits to his deputies, which Chief Assistant City Attorney Jesse Smith said initially made some lawyers nervous. “People are still a little on edge, but they’ve gotten used to it,” Smith said. Herrera said it’s his way of getting face time with his busy staff. “It’s very easy when you’re leading an organization to fall into an ivory tower mentality,” Herrera said. “You want people to see you, and you want them to know you’re interested in what they’re doing.” His starched shirt and well-groomed look are also leading by example. There are no dress-down days in the city attorney’s office, Herrera said. “Every day is a business day.”

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