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Roberta Boomer: A warm farewell to the ‘heart and soul’ of the SFMTA

Roberta Boomer had seen and been through it all in her more than 20 years as board secretary at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors. Whether she was leading countless marathon meetings, fielding public complaints, drafting legislation or easing the transition for new directors, Boomer kept the wheels turning from the time the agency was formed in 1999.

Former SFMTA and current board members describe Boomer as a “matriarch,” “steward” and “mentor.” She is now embracing a new title: retiree. In April this year, and after 33 years serving The City, Boomer announced she would be stepping down from her post — Nov. 3 was her last meeting as board secretary.

Boomer, a San Francisco native, played an integral role in The City’s transportation landscape by helping draft legislation to create the Department of Parking and Traffic and co-wrote plans to merge the department with Muni when voters passed Proposition E in 1999, establishing what now the SFMTA. She later helped fold the Taxi Regulation into the agency’s operation.

Prior to her work on the board, she served former Supervisor Bill Maher as a legislative aide. She was quickly sought out to manage the SFMTA board affairs at its birth and has been doing so since. Boomer said:

“The job description was to manage the affairs of the board of directors. What the heck was that?”

Boomer’s job entailed far more than just making sure meetings started on time. She ensured board directors received staff reports and sometimes hundreds of public comments to make sure they had the best information available to inform their decisions on consequential issues.

SFMTA board Chair Gwyneth Borden said:

“There wasn’t a single item that Secretary Boomer didn’t think of. I always knew when I came to a meeting, I will be well prepared and that she would have already thought of everything in advance that I needed to know and how to brief me on it. With Roberta here at the agency, I always felt like she was the go-to person that anyone could rely on.”

SFMTA San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board Secretary Roberta Boomer.

During her tenure, she worked with 12 general managers and directors of transportation — she also trained and guided 40 different board directors, including the six currently seated.

Malcolm Heinicke, the former SFMTA board chair, said about Boomer:

“There’s really no question that Roberta is the matriarch of this family and is really the heart and soul of what we do.”

He added:

“It cannot be stated with too much emphasis that Roberta had a hand in everything we did, and everything we did well, every accomplishment from a Slow Street, to an improved subway line to better access to our meetings, to making transit equity not just a goal but a reality in San Francisco.”

In an email to SFBay before her final meeting, we asked Boomer about moments that stood out during her time as board secretary. She fondly recalled a meeting that addressed free Muni for youth and another focused on the topic of Sunday parking meters when she was impressed by a former director’s integrity.

She said:

“That one in particular was memorable because one (director), Joel Ramos, stood up for what was right in the face of a lot of angry people. He was inspiring and took a risk for the right thing rather than for political expediency.

Throughout her years, Boomer was inspired by board members who stood and spoke up for what was right, including when Director Cheryl Brinkman objected to a revised Caltrain ballot measure earlier this year.

Boomer was a steadfast presence through all of the agency’s successes and sagas, including the infamous “Muni Meltdown” in the late 1990s, the creation of the F-Line and crafting of Proposition E. But in an especially personal moment during construction of the Central Subway, she remembers:

“[W]riting ‘Go Mom’ on one of the two tunnel boring machines for the Central Subway — just a few weeks after my mom had passed away.”

There were days she told SFBay when meetings were emotional, when transportation network companies threatened taxi drivers’ financial security and when public speakers would share stories of hardship.

On her decision to retire when she did, she said that after more than three decades serving The City, it just felt like the right time, adding:

“There are other things in my life that I want to pursue while I’m still able to. And, with a new Director of Transportation having settled in and the next budget cycle a year away, it seemed like a good time.”

She will miss working with the staff, noting that the public is often unaware of just how much the staff does in the background to attend to resident requests.

She said:

“They are a remarkable group of people with huge hearts. I’ll miss the camaraderie, especially with the women with whom I work. They, like so many others, always stepped up to get the job done. It wasn’t always fun but staff always went for it.”

Boomer told SFBay she will not miss the long meetings inside City Hall’s Room 400, where she would be typing for up to seven hours with an aching back.

But the sometimes grueling work came with shining moments of pride.  

Of those times, Boomer is particularly proud to have been part of the first city department to post all meeting materials online in an accessible format and convincing the former Public Transportation Commission to install bike racks on buses.

Boomer’s mission is to continue learning and appreciating the simple things in life through her retired years, when she will:

“Enjoy my garden, cooking and baking, reading (something other than staff reports), traveling and learning another language. I’m starting my fifth.”

The SFMTA has hired Christine Silva to replace Boomer. Silva has worked as the manager of Commission Affairs for the San Francisco Planning Department over the past six years.

After the final agenda item was addressed on Nov. 3, Boomer was applauded as she adjourned her final SFMTA board meeting by saying:

“Madam chair, that does conclude the business before you today.”

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