This November, incumbent District 7 Supervisor Norman Yee faces five competitors to keep his seat at the Board of Supervisors. Meet candidate Ben Matranga.
Alexander Mullaney: Tell me about yourself.
Ben Matranga: I was born and raised in the district. I did large-scale infrastructure investments in Latin America and Africa. I learned a ton about resiliency, how to get stuff done in complex places. Our biggest thing there that I’m really proud of is that we did a public-private partnership with government to build large-scale housing [in Latin America]. Then I spent some time in East Africa and then came back to New York and then back to San Francisco, joined the mayor’s office—I joined an investment fund first—but then I joined the mayor’s office in 2014.
AM: How’d that happen?
BM: When I got back to San Francisco and I was looking around, talking to different folks that I had known from my government days—I was an intern one summer in Gavin Newsom’s office when he was a supervisor. So I came back and talked to a lot of those folks that I still knew and at the time the mayor was launching this Vision Zero initiative. We had an incredibly dangerous December 2013 where there were quite a few deaths. All these departments signed up for the policy, the Board of Supervisors passed the policy but there was no kind of management. Like, how are we actually going to carry this out? So the initiative has enforcement, education and engineering. So how do you get all of these departments working on the same page, pushing forward an agenda, making sure we’re measuring, have accountability? So I basically set up the system and launched the program.
AM: Why run for office now?
BM: There’s a lack of leadership in the district. There are basic things that the district cares about: public safety, infrastructure. These are issues that were not getting our fair share and the current elected representative isn’t pushing them and isn’t making sure they’re getting done and I think folks are frustrated and it’s unfortunate. District 7 has always had a voice around fiscal issues, has always been a district of homeowners. They’re long-term thinkers. They’re going to be here for a long time. I’m fifth generation, so your natural viewpoint about things that come before the board is out 10 or 15 years and sometimes those are the more difficult decisions but you make them because they’re right. Because they’re effective for the taxpayers, they make sense and it keeps this city running, thriving for multiple generations to come.
AM: What do you think of participatory budgeting?
BM: It is the first step but not the only step and maybe not even the first step. It is one part of a much larger whole and it is great to see folks out there and really talking about the things that they want and look, I see it from when projects come up around street safety and that’s great. Getting more folks talking about it, voting on it and it’s empowering to see so many folks voting over and over again for those projects. So I like it from that point of view. I’m also quite cognizant that we have a $9 billion budget and last year that was $120,000 pot of money and I think it’s penny wise, pound foolish to only focus on that.
AM: I think the applications are due today.
BM: Look at the numbers and I think if you benchmark it… so I think it’s useful, I think it’s a great tool but it’s not an end in and of itself. The budget and leadership on the budget is much, much larger and I think how that… Ask an average citizen, “Do you think you’re getting $9 billion worth of services?” The vast majority would be like, “No” and … You know, the biggest tool the Board of Supervisors has is the power of inquiry to hold departments responsible and that rarely gets used and specifically on the budget that’s one of the biggest things. Asking the tough questions, holding departments accountable, making sure that they’re measuring what they say they’re going to do. That we’re getting more for what we’re paying for every year.
AM: What about homelessness in the district?
BM: It’s on the rise for sure. I mean there are three or four homeless people in and around West Portal. I think you’ve got to differentiate someone being homeless and the different behaviors you see. It’s unsafe for that individual, it’s unsafe for everyone that’s walking on the streets, you know, that kind of stuff. And my concern is that that would extend to West Portal and the Ocean Avenue corridor, that if we’re not dealing with homelessness at its core the problem begins to spread all over the city. It’s not right for the individual our lack of services… We spend a ton on homelessness in San Francisco! I think the Mayor’s approach to putting it all in one department, under one roof, it’s an approach that New York tried a decade ago, it’s smart, it brings accountability it brings all these services that were being run out of like thirteen different departments before will naturally be able to streamline the cost of individual service delivery and therefore be able to do more, have more beds and that kind of thing. I think the biggest thing, honestly, with El Nino upon us is that it’s unhealthy and unsafe for folks to be out on the streets.
AM: What do you want to accomplish on the board?
BM: The first thing is district priorities. So making sure that the quality of life in District 7 and the basic services that we have are being adequately funded and delivered at an acceptable level. I think that is the first job of a district supervisor. Make sure that your district and the services that are being delivered for your neighbors and your community are getting done. And that’s everything from making sure that the library hours are there, making sure that programs at rec centers are there. All of those basic government services that folks pay for and depend on. The second thing is, I think the best of District 7 supervisors have focused on fiscal issues. Sean Elsbernd did, Tony Hall did, Quentin Kopp did before there was even a District 7 out there was very good about that. And I think in that tradition, folks expect that. They expect leadership on, you know, you spend tax dollars, is it being spent efficiently? And that’s my background, it’s right in my wheelhouse, it’s what I know well, and I feel extraordinarily comfortable holding departments accountable. I’ve been doing it inside City Hall. The third one is general land use issues. San Francisco is growing and the one thing that excites me, and I think can scare people at the same time, is that San Francisco is changing at a very rapid pace. It’ll change more in the next decade than it has in the previous three and I think folks want to make sure that that growth is intelligent, is inclusive, is keeping families in San Francisco, is quality middle class development, right? You know we can’t have enough teachers in San Francisco because they can’t afford to live here. That’s something folks care about. You know, fire fighters, nurses, the whole bit.
AM: Transportation in the district.
BM: It’s been underfunded. I mean, bar none, it’s been underfunded. And no one is being a leader on it. You’ve got ten other supervisors who are quite vocal about making those projects get done but, no. The three biggest things that I think about Muni and that I always hear from other people is it’s overcrowded, it’s not reliable, and it’s not clean. And think those are basic customer service principles that any service we deliver across government we should be having and, look, MTA’s in my wheelhouse and I know it relatively well and that’s an area where there can and should be a lot more improvement. Basic things, you know. Do we have enough cleaners? Is every time a bus coming down the line does it get cleaned? Folks have a right to get on a clean bus, you know. We have a transit policy where we want to encourage people to take Muni more but I could see why they’re frustrated with because you wait there and you’re never quite sure if it’s going to come and if it comes it’s crowded and full, and maybe it’s not crowded but you go to sit down and there’s trash everywhere.
AM: What do you think about the Affordable Housing Bonus Program?
BM: I have a lot of reservations about it. I think that it is… They’re still figuring it out. Design review is incredibly important. It’s one of the principles of the Planning Department and permitting and how you preserve neighborhood character and I think it’s incredibly important. I think the Planning Department is still in the wait and see phase and I’ll be at the D7 meeting listening and hearing what the neighborhood’s concerns are, but I have a lot of reservations about it right now.
AM: So, how would you work with the mayor if elected?
BM: I like the Mayor, I know him on a personal level. I think he’s doing a good job. I don’t agree with him on everything. You know, born and raised in the district, no one will ever question where my allegiances lie, I can guarantee that. I think you’ve got to work together. I like his style, I genuinely appreciate his big tent, thoughtful approach to government and I think too often people in City Hall want to talk about who’s up and who’s down and I can guarantee you that my neighbors could care less. They just care that projects are getting done and that things make sense, so I will work with anyone, the mayor included, to get stuff done and I think I’ve built up relationships that will help. I think folks will see the pace of how things get done increase a lot.
AM: What do you think of the West Portal commercial corridor and how would you improve it?
BM: Right now there’s some basic stuff like how many times does the street get swept and is it clean and are we, kind of the beautification side of it, making sure it’s a vibrant commercial corridor. Those are some of the first things I would take on because it’s kind of the first uptick you get and people see it and feel it. Immediately when they see that their area is clean and well swept and people are taking care of it and they’ll take more pride in it. I remember as a kid walking down the hill and going to Shaw’s and grabbing candy and ice cream and we don’t see enough families out there and it’s dirty. It’s easier just to avoid it and go to a different part of the city. That’s the first thing from day one. We’ll make sure it gets clean and then you got to work with the merchants. Understand their concerns understand what are the things they need to make sure business is thriving there.
AM: What about Ocean Avenue?
BM: I think OEWD has done a pretty decent job with their planning effort in bringing folks in. I think it’s about implementing that plan and making sure it gets done. Absolutely the cleanliness on Ocean Avenue needs to be improved as well. Resources need to be poured into that to make sure that it’s a vibrant corridor. I think there’s some development issues that are different on that corridor and I think that’s where the plan comes into place. Working with merchants. It’s at a different evolutionary point of its life if you will—if every corridor has its life—which is a great thing. I remember when I was a kid going to the hobby store and it was the first place I bought a model plane set and learned all these things and you know those businesses unfortunately had to leave but I think we need to make sure those stores are getting filled. I think we need to make sure those stores are appropriate for the neighborhood and we need to make sure there’s no vacant ones.
AM: So how are you going to win?
BM: I believe that neighbors are frustrated and they want leadership and they want someone who’s responsive and I think it’s getting out there and telling our story. It’s retail politics, it’s grassroots, and it’s getting out there and knocking on doors, talking to folks. All the kids that I played t-ball with and coached me are in the neighborhood; it’s working with them. Like most politics you start with your base, you start with the communities you grew up in and then you build out from there. That’s our exact strategy. For all of the digital conversation about campaigns now, I think District 7 is an incredibly analogue place. And that is beautiful. People love the touch, the feel. They want to know they’re voting for a real human being who cares about their concerns and they want to ask you tough questions. They want to know where you stand on stuff. I think we win by getting out there and talking to everyone. Being incredibly inclusive and making sure they know what were trying to do and that we’re fighting for them.
This article first appeared in The Light’s March 2016 print edition. It has been updated.