Activists Should Ignore Newsom’s Town Hall Filibuster

by Paul Hogarth on May 11, 2007

Tomorrow, Mayor Newsom will hold his 5th neighborhood “Town Hall” as he avoids the voter-approved Question Time at the Board of Supervisors. This month, it will be in West Portal. If you didn’t know about it, you’re not alone. The Mayor’s Office sent a press release this week announcing it with little fanfare. Most of the media ignored the last one, and for good reason. There really is nothing left to report, as these “Town Hall lectures” are just city-funded campaign events for a Mayor who is running for re-election unopposed. The protesters came to the first few and made their point, but what else is there to prove? By continuing to attend these sessions, progressives are hurting their own cause more than Newsom’s.

For those who would like to see the Teflon Mayor held accountable, it’s annoying that he continues to defy a simple proposition that the voters passed. But the activists who have attended every one of his “Town Hall” meetings need to re-think their strategy. Why continue to hound him at events that the media no longer pays attention to, and that the Mayor’s Office won’t even care to publicize?

At the first event in the Richmond, activists showed up in chicken suits to drive the point home that Newsom was “too chicken” to attend a monthly Board of Supervisors meeting and have a serious policy dialogue. They stole the show, and exposed the whole absurdity of the event. The Mayor’s Office had trumped up turnout with invitations and R.S.V.P. requests and held it in San Francisco’s ultimate “swing district,” so it made sense at the time to highlight Newsom’s shameless and cavalier attitude.

But beginning in March, the Mayor’s Office started scheduling these events on very short notice and did not make an effort to get people there. The third one, held in the Mission District, turned into a train wreck. Activists from PODER heckled the Mayor with complaints, and one resident finally took the mike and said, “this is not a Town Hall meeting, it’s a Town Hall lecture.” It was an unmitigated disaster, which may explain why Newsom has not drawn attention to these sessions.

Tomorrow’s event will be in West Portal. It’s probably the most conservative neighborhood in San Francisco, so Newsom should have a favorable crowd. With the short notice and lack of media attention, why allow a confrontation with the Mayor? It’s going to be just another scripted event – but unlike in the Mission or Bayview, you’re not going to have a lot of neighborhood residents ready to join the protesters.

Ironically, if Proposition I had been a charter amendment, Question Time would be legally binding and the Mayor could not get away with this. But charter amendments require six Supervisors to put it on the ballot, whereas non-binding advisory measures only need four. When Chris Daly put it on the ballot last year, he only managed to get three colleagues to sign on – Tom Ammiano, Ross Mirkarimi and Gerardo Sandoval.

Nobody expected Prop I to pass. It got very few endorsements compared with other progressive-sponsored ballot measures, and there was no campaign for it. With other issues at stake on the ballot, no progressive genuinely felt that this was a “priority” issue. Having the voters approve it by a healthy margin was one of the biggest surprises of Election Night.

But now that the Mayor has defied Question Time, a majority of the Supervisors support the idea. When the Board voted to schedule Question Time as a monthly item on their agenda, only Michela Alioto-Pier dissented. If just two more Supervisors had agreed before the election to place it on the ballot, we wouldn’t be having this charade. I doubt voters made the distinction between a charter amendment and an advisory measure, so it probably would have passed anyway.

All of this makes it even more disturbing for Newsom to get away with not showing up at a Board meeting – and hence the desire to continue protesting these Town Hall lectures. But now that we’re approaching the fifth installment of “Fake Question Time,” progressives run the risk of sounding shrill and reactive. With Newsom’s own re-election coming up in six months, acknowledging these events just gives him more publicity.

Clearly, progressives should not “give up” on holding the Mayor accountable. It’s just that voters will not have the patience to continue hearing about Question Time when there are so many substantive policy issues to focus on.

If progressives want to press the issue, file a Sunshine Request to find out how much taxpayer money is being spent at these weekend Town Halls (including overtime salaries for Department Heads and staff.) On the other hand, having Newsom appear at a monthly Board meeting will not cost the City anything.

With the Mayor asking every department to slash 3% of their budgets, this would be a timely pro-active move. Newsom opposes the $26 million housing supplemental because “we can’t afford it,” while he wastes the City’s money on campaign events that few people are paying attention to.

But attending – and covering – these meetings is no longer accomplishing what the first few did, which is why I won’t be in West Portal tomorrow. I look forward to a relaxing weekend where I don’t have to think about this stuff.

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