Board of Supes Inaugural Highlights Need for Question Time

by Paul Hogarth on January 9, 2007

Yesterday presented the usual “feel-good” pomp and ceremony that comes with a typical inauguration of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors – as four old members and one new member were sworn in to serve a four-year term. What was unusual this year was the tension between the Board and Mayor Gavin Newsom – who has so far refused to abide by Proposition I and attend a monthly Board meeting to answer questions from the Supervisors. Prop I (modeled after “Question Time” in the British Parliament) easily passed in last November’s election and is official City policy, but it is not legally binding. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who was re-elected Board President yesterday, made a casual reference to Question Time as he introduced the Mayor. “I invite you to the Chambers,” he said, “where you are always welcome.”

Newsom has not attended a Board meeting in two years – when he attended the ceremonial Inauguration for the Board of Supervisors in January 2005. Now that he took a drubbing at the polls and the Board successfully overrode one of his vetoes, the Mayor faces a renewed Board of Supervisors who is willing to state its independence and challenge him at every step. Newsom congratulated Peskin and the newly elected Supervisors, and said that he looks forward to “engaging with all of you constructively.”

“This is a City highly critical of its leadership,” said Newsom, “and expects greatness.” But if the Mayor was ready to give Question Time a try and meet with the Supervisors on a regular basis, he didn’t mention it – instead opting for a vague speech where he stressed the need to work together on issues of consensus. Meanwhile, the Mayor’s Office has scheduled a Town Hall meeting on January 13th where he will answer questions from the voters – merely “inviting” the Supervisors to attend. But the Supervisors already see this as just a publicity stunt to kick off the Mayor’s re-election campaign.

Newsom stayed for the whole Board meeting where each of the newly elected and re-elected Supervisors got to address the Chamber. For a ceremonial event where the Supervisors were expected to largely keep their remarks to thanking their family, friends and supporters, Chris Daly – the main sponsor of Question Time – spoke about the “economic apartheid” facing San Francisco today. “In District 6,” said Daly, “we have some of the City’s most abject poverty on Sixth Street that is so close to multi-million dollar condos and the international headquarters of corporations such as Bechtel.”

“When the intersections of race and class collide,” said Daly, “when up to 70% of residents in our communities could not afford to live in their neighborhoods today, we have a full-blown polarization of our City. We are a city of postcard views, but we also have seniors living on fixed incomes, people living with AIDS in the SRO’s and immigrant families doubled up in apartments. Nobody is going to say that they approve of this dichotomy, but unfortunately it gets lost in the translation.”

Newsom has derided Question Time because, he says, it will degenerate into “political theater” and cheap shots. But if Daly’s speech was any indication of what Question Time would look like, the Mayor should delve into these types of substantive discussions with an adequate give-and-take. If the Mayor is serious about seeking re-election in November and then higher office in the years to come, he should welcome this dialogue to hone his political skills. “Press releases alone,” said Daly, “will never lead to social change” – an obvious swipe at the Mayor for governing the City through his public relations team.

Daly’s comments jolted the Chamber, as other Supervisors (from both sides of the political spectrum) began to give substantive issue-based speeches as opposed to generic platitudes on the need to work together. “We need to promote – not punish – small businesses,” said Ed Jew, who was elected as a conservative candidate from the Sunset District. “I oppose any legislation that adds to their already enormous burden. Taxpayers work hard for their money and deserve a fair return on their payment.”

“Our disparity is growing,” said Sophie Maxwell, as she credited Daly for pointing out the issue of economic inequality in his remarks. “Our middle class is leaving. We have the poor and the very, very rich. We have children dying in the street. The Housing Authority should not look like New Orleans when it rains. There are many issues facing our City – if you’re going to be progressive, you have to be progressive all the way.”

Finally, Aaron Peskin spoke about what the voters said in the last election – as he rattled off substantive issues such as paid sick leave, protecting small businesses, and tenants’ rights. He credited Ross Mirkarimi for leading the charge on police foot patrols, and Sean Elsbernd for being on the forefront of the City’s infrastructure needs. “We will lead by deeds,” said Peskin, “by actions, and not by hollow pronouncements.”

Some will argue that Supervisor Daly “politicized” what should have been a feel-good Inauguration Ceremony and leave the issue-based speeches for another day. But with the Mayor refusing to follow Question Time and appear at a monthly Board meeting, he knew that now was the time and the place to address the substantive issues that San Francisco needs to discuss.

Issue-based dialogue is important for the City – if our government wants to remain relevant and begin to tackle our substantive problems. If Gavin Newsom is afraid of Question Time because he doesn’t want to answer questions from Chris Daly, he must be afraid of a lot of things in this world. Daly wasn’t afraid to paper over the “feel-good” talk that one customarily hears at these Ceremonies – and get a Board of eleven Supervisors to begin debating the issues. The questions that Daly raised in his speech is not the type of “political theater” that Mayor Newsom should want to avoid.

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