Charter Amendments in Pipeline for November Ballot

by Paul Hogarth on July 9, 2008

At last week’s Harvey Milk Club meeting, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin promised that “we will not go beyond Proposition Z” in November – capping the number of local measures at 26. But it may be a close call, as petition gatherers submitted three propositions last week (decriminalizing prostitution, supporting JROTC, and renaming a Sewage Treatment Plant after George Bush.) Meanwhile, the Mayor and Board are pushing budget-related ordinances on the ballot, Newsom wants to modify the Transportation Authority, and an advisory measure will support de-funding the War. But today, the Rules Committee will consider eight Charter Amendments – which unfortunately require voter approval, even if some are mundane. And with the affordable housing Charter Amendment set to go, November’s ballot is destined to be a crowded one.

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick has proposed two Charter Amendments that would loosen the straightjacket that local government operates under. One of them is quite simple: members of the Board of Supervisors can have more than two aides. While the Mayor always has a flexible number of “special assistants,” the Charter puts a huge dent in legislative branch’s power by limiting each Supervisor’s staff to only two. McGoldrick’s measure won’t open the floodgates in a tight budget season, but it will offer some flexibility for legislators to have enough staff to adequately represent their constituents.

McGoldrick’s other Amendment is more substantive – and thus controversial. It would eliminate the City Charter’s minimum staffing requirement that we have at least 1,971 police officers. As the City endures a painful process of budget cuts, police officers – whose salaries saw a 24% hike last year – were spared the prospect of layoffs because they’re protected under the Charter. If the City has to make tough decisions due to its revenue problem, it’s time to eliminate minimum staffing requirements for good.

Aaron Peskin and Tom Ammiano have a Charter Amendment to give the Landmarks Preservation Board more power. Under current law, the Landmarks Board is an advisory body that only makes recommendations to the Planning Commission. This Amendment would create an independent Landmarks Preservation Board with the power to approve certificates of appropriateness on designated landmarks. It would directly make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors for landmarking property or creating historic districts. Minimum qualifications for Commissioners will also be in place.

Under current law, city employees only get retirement service credit for time that they worked or were on paid leave (sick or vacation time.) Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier has a Charter Amendment that would extend this to City employees who have taken unpaid leave to care for a newborn child. Throughout her Board tenure, Alioto-Pier has championed various civil service reforms for City employees – or Supervisors – who need time off to care for a new baby. This looks like more house cleaning.

Next up is a Charter Amendment to “promote and sustain music and culture in San Francisco.” In 2002, voters set up an Entertainment Commission to have jurisdiction over late night and outdoor venues – but the agency is notoriously underfunded and lack of coordination between City agencies has made it a frustrating process for everyone. This Amendment, which supporters say will “save SF culture,” would streamline the permit process – and allow the Board of Appeals to have jurisdiction over denials of permits.

San Francisco has a Commission on the Environment, which currently has the power to advise the City on any policy regarding its long-term sustainability – but not building or land use. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi has a Charter Amendment that would eliminate this exception – allowing the Environmental Commission to get involved in land use battles, as well as provide it with more teeth in its mandate. Again, the Commission’s tasks are in the Charter – so voters have to approve any changes (even if quite mundane.)

But Mirkarimi has another “green” Charter Amendment that will be more controversial: the Clean Energy Act. It would require the local Public Utilities Commission to come up with a plan for the most effective means of providing clean, sustainable and affordable electricity – along with renewable energy mandates. PG&E will wage a fierce campaign against it, but as Mirkarimi proved at the prior Rules Committee hearing, public power has been a winner for consumers in other jurisdictions.

Finally, there’s Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Charter Amendment to end all budget set-asides. As voters have been reluctant to pass additional revenue measures, progressives have increasingly used the budget set-aside tactic to guarantee funding for Muni, schools and libraries. Viewed as a not-so-subtle swipe at Chris Daly’s affordable housing Charter Amendment, Newsom’s measure would forbid any future budgetary set-asides that don’t identify a new source of funding. Moreover, the measure says growth in revenues from existing sources would not be considered “new funding.”

It’s tempting to look at our recent budget mess and conclude that we shouldn’t have any more set-asides that allocate funding for certain programs – as it constrains the City’s flexibility at moving money around. But unlike minimum staffing requirements (which obligate the City – regardless of its revenue situation – to pay more and more for police each year), budget set-asides only allocate a percentage of the City’s revenue for certain projects. So if the City’s revenue declines, all programs that get their funding through set-asides will take a corresponding hit. It’s true that set-asides ties the City’s hands at budget time, but not as much as minimum staffing requirements.

The Rules Committee meets at 10:00 a.m. today. We’ll see how many of these ideas make it on the ballot.

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