Budgets, Commercialism Dominate November Ballot

by Paul Hogarth on September 14, 2009

It’s easy to forget that San Francisco has an election on November 3rd. With our incumbent Treasurer and City Attorney both running unopposed, this election cycle has been very quiet – which is one reason why I’ll be going to Maine in a few weeks. But voters will decide on five local propositions, and the submitted ballot arguments show a few common themes. For one thing, the City budget crisis has dominated the discourse. We have a Charter Amendment to change the process, and two measures that involve selling commercial space in order to “raise revenue.” SF Beautiful plays a prominent role in three of the five propositions, while a Republican-led group called “Citizens for a Better San Francisco” weighs in on four. Supervisor Chris Daly is the lead opponent of two measures – and his rivals will probably again try to make him a lightning rod in the controversy. The most contentious measure will be Proposition D – which forms a sign district in the mid-Market area, and has spurred curious ballot arguments.

It’s always helpful to read the ballot arguments before the voter handbook gets printed, because it gives an idea of what propositions will be hotly contested – as well as what “talking points” to expect on the campaign trail. The paid ballot arguments also show what political alliances are shaping, and what it means for the future of local politics. The voters won’t have to sift through 22 propositions like they did last year (which made the pamphlet feel like a phonebook), but San Franciscans who turn out this time will be voting on five measures more consequential than expected.

The City’s grueling budget process is on everyone’s mind, and has shaped the dialogue of this fall’s ballot. Proposition A would change the how by enacting a two-year budget cycle, while Propositions C and D involve the what by selling space to business advertisers to “save” crucial services. Propositions B and E are not about the budget per se, but opponents claim that passing these measures would worsen the budget deficit. How the City responds to state budget cuts in the next few weeks can affect the outcome of these five measures, as voters conclude what is – or is not – appropriate public policy.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, Board President David Chiu, and Budget Committee Chair John Avalos all signed the official ballot argument for Proposition A – arguing that a two-year budget cycle would bring “greater accountability to city government” and allow the City to make better long-term fiscal planning. They are supported in paid arguments by the SF Chamber of Commerce, BOMA (Building Owners and Managers Association), the SF Republican Party and the SF Democratic Party – the latter of whom argues that it would “ensure city services are delivered more reliably to those who need them most.”

Supervisor Chris Daly penned the official ballot argument against Prop A – citing the difficulty of accurately projecting revenues two years in advance, and that a two-year budget process threatens our “system of checks and balances.” As usual, it appears that the “Yes on A” side has tried to use Daly’s opposition as a means to rally support. The initial draft of their rebuttal argument featured a sentence that said: “Chris Daly stands nearly alone in supporting the status quo.”

Daly challenged the veracity of that claim in a letter to the Elections Department, arguing that (a) he was not “alone” because four Supervisors, the SF Tenants Union and the Firefighters all oppose Prop A as well, and (b) Daly had previously submitted his own Charter Amendment to change the budget process, so it was not accurate to say he supported the status quo. The “Yes on A” side then agreed to eliminate that sentence.

With the serious subject of how San Francisco runs its budget process, one would hope Prop A will be decided on the relative merits of a two-year budget cycle. Judging by the ballot arguments, however, voters are likely to base it on what they think of Chris Daly.

Daly also penned the official ballot argument against Proposition C – which would allow the San Francisco 49ers to lease the naming rights of Candlestick Park, with half the revenue going to the City. Supervisors Bevan Dufty, Sophie Maxwell, David Chiu, David Campos, Sean Elsbernd, the SF Democratic Party, Treasurer Jose Cisneros and Parks Commissioner Jim Lazarus signed the official “Yes on C” argument – citing the need to “protect San Francisco recreation centers” without costing taxpayer money.

Paid ballot arguments in favor of Prop C come from the Chamber of Commerce, the SF Republican Party, Karen Kidwell of SF Parks Trust and a group calling itself “Citizens for a Better San Francisco” – with Republican activist Michael Antonini as its officer. San Francisco Beautiful paid for a ballot argument against Prop C – arguing it will lead to more corporatization and commercialization, without generating much revenue. “The sale of naming rights feeds the illusion of fixing budgetary woes,” said the organization.

But sparks really fly on Prop C with the rebuttal arguments. Writing in support, Mayor Newsom says: “Chris Daly is clearly a 49ers fan, but what about supporting thousands of San Francisco youth who play every day at our rec centers?” In opposition, Daly retorts “opportunistic politicians are worse than steroids in baseball,” and there’s “no guarantee” the money would go to rec centers. Daly then claims the real reason for Prop C is “the author [Bevan Dufty] is a close friend of the York family” and is “running for Mayor.”

Proposition D is another measure to sell advertising space – in part to generate new revenue for youth services in the Tenderloin and SOMA. Prop D creates a “sign district” on Market Street between 5th and 7th Streets, and the official ballot argument in favor was penned by Mid-Market property owner David Addington (who spearheaded the proposal), the San Francisco Democratic Party, the Chamber of Commerce, and Supervisors David Chiu, Sean Elsbernd, Bevan Dufty, David Campos, Sophie Maxwell and Michela Alioto-Pier. They call Prop D a “community sponsored initiative to revitalize Market Street.”

San Francisco Beautiful penned the official “No on D” argument – saying it will “erect massive, digital billboards,” that the neighborhood “requires political leadership that transcends an opportunistic initiative,” and that “we can’t fight blight with blight.” The environmental group SF Tomorrow paid for a ballot argument against Prop D – saying it goes against the spirit of a billboard ban that the voters approved in 2002, and Prop D’s decision-making power lies in a local business body that has “few checks and balances.”

Stearns Consulting is running the “Yes on D” campaign, and many of the politicians who signed ballot arguments in favor – Chiu, Campos, Maxwell, Kamala Harris, Debra Walker, Laura Spanjian – also happen to be its clients. While these politicians naturally must have agreed to putting their names down, not all of them “paid” for their ballot arguments. For example, one argument signed by Walker, Chiu and Campos proclaims that “Progressive Leaders Say Yes on D.” But the source of funds for the argument (which are disclosed by law in the voter handbook) are the Warfield Theatre, Market Street Associates, and Chamber of Commerce.

Other paid “yes” arguments include the Chamber of Commerce, the Neighborhood Parks Council, the SF Republican and Democratic Parties and Michael Antonini’s “Citizens for a Better San Francisco.” Dee Dee Workman, who identifies herself in a paid ballot argument as the former Executive Director of San Francicso Beautiful, writes in favor of Prop D (despite her ex-employer’s stated opposition.) Workman is now a political consultant – and according to Ethics Commission filings, “Yes on D” is one of her clients.

While Propositions C and D both deal with selling advertising space to raise revenue for the City, Proposition E does the opposite – by banning additional advertising on public “street furniture.” Six Supervisors (including Chiu and Maxwell, who endorsed C and D) penned the official ballot argument for Prop E – saying it continues the “fight against visual clutter.” San Francisco Beautiful has a paid argument in support, because advertising brings a “miniscule sum to the City Hall budget, but comes at a high cost.”

Republican gadfly Terrence Faulkner penned the official “No on E” ballot argument – calling it a “petty and anti-business measure,” and DCCC member Arlo Hale Smith joined him in the rebuttal. The Chamber of Commerce has a paid ballot argument against Prop E – saying that the City should not “cut off important revenue sources” in bad times.

Finally, we have Proposition B – which would lift the cap on how many aides the Supervisors can have. Former Supes Jake McGoldrick, Aaron Peskin and Leslie Katz signed the official “yes” argument – saying that Prop B gives the “needed flexibility” to respond to constituents’ concerns. They add in rebuttal that no other city agency has a cap in the City Charter on the number of employees. SF Tomorrow chimed in to support.

Howard Epstein of the SF Republican Party penned the official argument against Prop B, because allowing more aides would lead to a “more expensive bureaucracy.” The group “Citizens for a Better San Francisco” paid to oppose it as well, saying that it is unwise to do pass this in a budget crisis. The organization, which is not well known, directs readers to its website at www.cbsf.net – As of last night, the website in question did not exist.

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