The San Francisco Chron- icle recently ran an editorial (“Length of November ballot spells problems in California democracy”) that took City Hall to task for the “interminable” length of the proposed Nov. 8 ballot:
San Francisco’s potential ballot … reflects a shocking abdication of responsibility on behalf of its city leadership. Instead of doing the hard work of negotiating the city’s priorities, they’re threatening to dump that task on the voters.
While the Chronicle editorial staff failed to analyze the underlying reasons why there is such a vacuum of leadership at City Hall — from the mayor to the president to the rest of the board — the editorial acknowledges that San Francisco voters deserve real access to direct democracy.
My personal philosophy has been that the ballot should always be used judiciously — as a last resort. Certain things require voter approval by law. For example, we must take charter amendments to the ballot by law. We must take tax increases to the ballot by law. And, when the legislative body fails its constituents during the legislative process, the voters have the right to take the discussion to the ballot via signature, like Proposition B’s “No Wall on the Waterfront” campaign.
In June, several members of the Board of Supervisors placed complex and frankly even silly measures directly onto the already-crowded November ballot, skirting any kind of dialogue or opportunity for a public legislative process at City Hall. After signature gatherers missed the deadline to submit their soda tax measure, Supervisor Cohen put it directly onto the ballot. Supervisor Farrell placed two measures directly onto the ballot: one a complex land use and planning measure, the other a controversial tent encampment measure. Supervisor Wiener placed a set-aside onto the ballot to create a special police unit that would pull officers from other neighborhoods to deal with whatever “quality of life” crimes are getting the most noise in the city. And Supervisor Tang put the density bonus legislation crafted by the mayor and the Planning Department directly onto the ballot as well. One of the problems with these ballot initiatives is that any future tweaks or amendments would have to go back to the voters rather than the city legislature.
My office has been diligently working with all of my colleagues to try to trim this ballot down. After several weeks of amendments at the board and ongoing negotiations with Supervisor Tang, we were able to pass a fully vetted 100 Percent Affordable Density Done Right version of the density bonus program. Not only does it have the support of affordable housing advocates as a practical and effective tool for affordable housing creation, but neighborhood groups that contributed amendments to strengthen and improve the planning process and protect both residential and commercial tenants have signed on to the legislation as well. This is what the legislative process is for, and it works when we let it.
Supervisor Tang has removed her density bonus ballot measure from the November ballot. After several weeks of negotiating with Supervisors Farrell and Wiener, we have agreed on amendments to my accessory dwelling unit legislation that will contribute another instrument for affordable housing creation. These discussions involving very technical issues, as well as additional community feedback, generated several more amendments that would not have been possible had Supervisor Farrell kept his measure on the ballot.
By the time you read this, there will be only a couple of days left to remove the remainder of the four signature measures from the ballot. I want to commend my colleagues who have taken steps to put forward legislative alternatives to these ballot measures at the board. For instance, Supervisor Kim has introduced an ordinance, with input from the incoming director of the new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing, to set forth a process at the Board of Supervisors that outlines best practices, based on the federal government’s Interagency Council recommendations, to deal with tent encampments. I am supporting Supervisor Kim’s efforts to get this done in the People’s House — not set in stone at the ballot, as proposed by Supervisor Farrell.
We were elected to do our jobs as lawmakers in the Board of Supervisors’ chambers. The mayor was elected to do his job as the city’s chief executive, in this case managing air traffic control on our unwieldly ballot. Punting issues off to the ballot is the easy and sloppy political way out. Going through a public process and crafting consensus legislation is hard work, but it’s what we were hired to do: our j-o-b.