Politicians Create SF Ballot Mess

by on August 2, 2016

Supervisors Kim and Peskin back ballot measures to reduce Mayor Lee's power

Thanks to the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco voters will face a record number of major local governance questions on the already crowded November ballot. When you combine these estimated 25 local measures with city and state elections for candidates,  17 state ballot measures, a U.S. Senate race and a presidential race that alone sucks up at least 75% of most voters attention, even filling out the ballot becomes an endurance test.

I recall prior long ballots in San Francisco but none with so many important measures reaching the ballot without any real public debate. Many were only publicly discussed at City Hall hearings, those one-sided affairs where supervisors get to talk as long as they want while each member of the public gets three minutes (and no right to later ask questions).

As a result of this lack of public debate, most voters will not learn about some very important initiatives until they start receiving campaign mail. Given the role of big money in funding such mailers and advertising, this is not a good prescription for sound policy making.

Who’s To Blame?

Why is this November ballot such an overcrowded mess?

First, it’s easier to pass revenue measures in large turnout elections. That’s why the November ballot has a sales tax measure to raise money for transportation and homelessness, a Community College parcel tax, a School bond, a measure reallocating hotel tax funds and an initiative to set aside money in the budget for senior and disabled services.

Second, supervisors sought to tap into a broader zeitgeist. The combination of Black Lives Matter and local shootings led to the Malia Cohen-London Breed backed- initiative for police reform. Bernie Sanders call for free public college tuition (later embraced by Hillary Clinton) led to Jane Kim’s measure to raise the real estate transfer tax on properties over $5 million to pay for this benefit. Scott Wiener sought to tap into rising neighborhood concern about greening and sidewalk maintenance by backing an initiative that requires the city to maintain street trees.

A third reason for the explosion of ballot measures is—surprise— politics. Kim and Wiener are running against each other for State Senate, and each wanted to be associated with a popular ballot initiative as part of their sales pitch to voters.

Mark Farrell’s anti-camping measure would actually weaken the city’s camping restrictions but it will be framed by media and perceived by voters as a crackdown on camping.  Many believe Farrell  has put forth the measure to as a strategy for his future mayor’s race.

The Board’s six progressives are backing multiple measures to reduce the power of Mayor Lee. One imposes a Housing Development Commission over the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) and Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) (see my story on the blackmail surrounding this measure). Another eliminates the mayor’s power to make supervisor appointments in case of a vacancy (which will happen in D6 or D8 due to the Kim-Wiener race). A third splits the mayor’s appointments to the SFMTA Board with the supervisors and a fourth reduces the mayor’s powers by transferring key responsibilities to a new Public Advocate office.

Why four measures trimming Mayor Lee’s power on a single ballot? Are San Francisco voters really that up in arms with Mayor Lee’s power that they want to dramatically limit in in one election?  I certainly don’t think so.

I think the supervisors have overstretched with four measures, particularly as they contradict the standard left critique of Lee, which is that he is a weak mayor and “puppet” of “powerbrokers” like Willie Brown, Ron Conway, and Rose Pak. Depicting the consensus driven Ed Lee as a power -mad Mayor could prove a very hard sell; it parallels how Republicans went from portraying Barack Obama as ineffectual to accusing him of being a dictator.

Most puzzling is why progressives put measures on the November ballot that are far more likely to galvanize Lee supporters than other progressives. Former mayors Newsom, Brown, Feinstein and Jordan have already come out against this weakening of mayoral power and money from Lee allies will follow.

Further, talk about Lee’s use of a No on Recall campaign to raise money for other political purposes ignores that the progressive supervisors already created such vehicles through these anti-Lee ballot measures.  The mayor can raise unlimited donations to defeat these multiple restrictions on mayoral power, and progressives made it possible. So by going after the mayor through four measures, progressive supervisors created four funding streams for slate cards backing candidates and other causes.

While money will pour in to defeat the anti-Lee measures,  where are the money and ground troops going to come from for these anti-mayor changes? With key supervisor races and the Kim-Wiener race at stake, progressive resources were already stretched thin.

Progressive supervisors may be assuming that the long ballot will increase voter reliance on the San Francisco Democratic Party slate card, whose endorsements they control; but it still takes money for the Democratic Party card to have a big impact.

Are Voters Engaged?

If November were a strictly local election, voters would have more time to independently learn about San Francisco ballot measures. But most voters are focused on the Clinton-Trump race. Placing so many major local initiatives on this presidential ballot ensures an under-informed electorate, and is a bad way to set policies.

To this very point the SF Business Times reported last week that SF Made, a business dedicated to local manufacturing, nonetheless opposes a proposed ballot measure to protect PDR (production, distribution, and repair) spaces in the Mission and SOMA. SF Made Director Kate Sofis stated, “Good zoning policy on an issue as technical as (industrial space) deserves thoughtful attention. We all want to work on the issue, but a ballot initiative is not the way to do it.”

I recommend reading the full article to fully understand Sofis’ point and to get sponsor Jane Kim’s response (the Board added Kim’s measure to the ballot on August 2) . Sofis’ point also speaks to other issues on this November’s ballot. Many were never even heard about until proposed as initiatives. Most were also advanced by supervisors rather than reaching the ballot through signature drives that build grassroots power.

Due to San Francisco’s unwieldly November ballot, lines at polls will be longer than ever. If you are not a permanent absentee voter, I suggest you submit your application now.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses the 5 Rules for Successful Ballot Measures in The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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