Proposition E: “Question Time”

Requiring Mayor to Appear Monthly at a Board of Supervisors Meeting

Proposition E would amend the San Francisco City Charter to require the mayor to appear in person at one regular meeting of the Board of Supervisors per month.

This proposal differs from a similar measure voters approved in November 2006. That measure was a nonbinding policy statement suggesting that the mayor should pop in on a board meeting now and then, but Proposition E would add a monthly Board of Supervisors appearance to the duties legally required of the mayor under the charter.

The purpose of that appearance, according to the language of the measure, is for the mayor to “engage in formal policy discussions with members of the board.”

The requirement for the mayor to participate in a public conversation with the board is popularly known as “Question Time,” after the British practice in which the prime minister takes questions once a week in the House of Commons, the lower house of the United Kingdom’s bicameral legislature.

Anyone concerned with good government in San Francisco should indeed hope for more and better interaction between the mayor and the Board of Supervisors. But there are some big flaws with the idea that the mayor should be forced to appear before the board in the way the British prime minister appears in the House of Commons.

First, the British prime minister, in addition to being the head of government, is also a member of Parliament, a legislative body. So requiring the prime minister to stand for questioning might be considered essentially an internal affair of the legislature. San Francisco’s mayor, on the other hand, is not a member of the Board of supervisors, and as the head of the executive branch of government he doesn’t have to answer to the legislature (except in special situations, such as when the board overrides a mayoral veto of legislation). He is almost completely independent of the board, and instead is accountable directly to the voters. The mayor and the British prime minister aren’t even playing the same game, so it doesn’t make much sense for San Francisco to ape selected superficial details of a radically different form of government.

Second, the mayor already can — and already does — consult with individual members of the board on matters of policy and legislation. Furthermore, the mayor now may appear at a board meeting of his own free will, as many past mayors have done.

As a practical matter, it seems unlikely that adding this requirement to the mayor’s duties would itself result in immediate and dramatic harm to the governance of San Francisco or to the quality of life of the people who live here. And it certainly would provide regular amusement for those of us who follow San Francisco politics the way the Brits follow soccer.

On the other hand, it also seems unlikely to do anything to improve either governance or quality of life, and it has the potential to create what I’d consider an environment harmful in the long term, in which the charter is toyed with to satisfy the political whims of the day. At least most of the other attempts to change the charter through ballot initiative have been aimed at substantive matters of policy rather than a matter of form that almost certainly will have no effect on the laws and policies of the city. The charter is a living document and therefore is subject to change, but it’s also a document concerned with systems, not individual actors on the political stage, and the current mayor and supervisors will be gone in a few years.

Mayor Gavin Newsom probably should have come to the Board of Supervisors once or twice a year, as many other mayors have done, to pitch a draft budget or a particularly important initiative (and he should have started before poultry costumes came to be considered astute political commentary). The president of the board no doubt would have seen to it that Newsom was treated decently.

But inasmuch as this proposition is clearly an attempt by his most vocal opponents to pluck the beard of the current mayor, the question San Francisco voters should ask themselves is this: Is it worth tinkering with the governing principles of a great city, which will continue for decades to come, to satisfy their annoyance one or two temporary public servants?

Who’s for it:

  • Project Mayor-Supervisor Connect, Yes on E; ID PEN1423 (official recipient committee)
  • San Francisco Board of Supervisors members Tom Ammiano, Chris Daly, Jake McGoldrick, Ross Mirkarimi and Gerardo Sandoval
  • No paid arguments in favor of Proposition E appear in the Voter Information Pamphlet for the Nov. 6, 2007 municipal election.
  • San Francisco Bay Guardian newspaper

(Partial list)

Who’s against it:

  • Let’s Really Work Together Coalition, No on E; ID 1300324 (official recipient committee)
  • San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom
  • San Francisco Board of Supervisors member Michela Alioto-Pier
  • San Francisco Association of Realtors
  • San Francisco Chamber of Commerce
  • Scott Wiener, chairman of S.F. Democratic Party (Voter Information Pamphlet argument paid by Let’s Really Work Together Coalition, No on E with contributions from the S.F. Firefighters Local 798 union)
  • Christine Hughes, chairwoman of the S.F. Republican Party (Voter Information Pamphlet argument paid by Let’s Really Work Together Coalition, No on E with contributions from the S.F. Firefighters Local 798 union)
  • San Francisco Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting (Voter Information Pamphlet argument paid by Let’s Really Work Together Coalition, No on E with contributions from the S.F. Firefighters Local 798 union)
  • San Francisco Chronicle Newspaper
  • San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR)

(Partial list)

Resources:

Legal text of Proposition E (167KB PDF)

Official Voter Information Pamphlet: includes simple summaries of proposition effects, statements on projected costs, and both paid and free arguments for and against propositions (4.3MB PDF)

San Francisco Campaign Finance Database: find out who gave money to which campaigns

San Francisco Chronicle Oct. 18 article on the Proposition E campaign

San Francisco Chronicle editorial endorsement: No on E

San Francisco Examiner Oct. 2 article on Proposition E, including information on donations to the No on E campaign.

League of Women Voters of San Francisco: includes links to LWVSF analysis of and positions on ballot measures (the league took no position on Proposition E)

San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association analysis and its recommendation against Proposition E

San Francisco Bay Guardian endorsement in favor of Proposition E (the Guardian’s endorsements Web pages are really badly done, unfortunately — the endorsements are all run as one long article, so the Proposition E endorsement is split between two pages, for example, with the title on one page and the argument on another — but if you value the Guardian’s opinion, do make the extra effort to read and consider it)

“Recipient committee” list from the S.F. Ethics Commission, updated Oct. 30. This PDF lists committees formed to campaign for and against ballot measures. Note that for some ballot measures only a “for” committee is committee is registered and for others only an “against” committee is registered.

San Francisco Department of Elections: includes information about the candidates and propositions what will be on Tuesday’s ballot, a primer on how ranked-choice voting works, and help to find your polling place.

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