June Election Results: SF Votes to Save Murals — and Recology

By Corey Marshall, Good Government Policy Director
June 19, 2012

The shortest primary ballot in 16 years and the lowest turnout ever (30.83 percent) for a presidential primary. San Francisco’s ballot is experiencing a lot of interesting firsts in recent elections, but while the number of measures appears to be dwindling, their content is consistent: expensive implications.

This election, San Franciscans considered two proposals to change city services. Proposition A, a proposal to require the city to use competitive bidding in the award of contracts for waste collection, was defeated by 76.6 percent of the vote. Proposition B, a nonbinding policy statement to restrict commercial activity in Coit Tower, a popular tourist destination that has degraded with time, passed with 53.5 percent of the vote. SPUR opposed both propositions.

The results of Prop. A were very similar to previous attempts to change how waste is collected in the city. Efforts in 1993 and 1994 both went down to similar margins of defeat. But while some may read this as a vote against competitive bidding, it might be more about the city’s partnership with Recology — a regulated monopoly that has helped the city achieve record levels of waste diversion — and the associated costs of the measure. Prop. A would have required the city to own all supporting infrastructure for the waste stream (all currently owned by Recology) by 2018. That means the city would have been required to acquire significant real estate in a quickly recovering market and build sorting and transfer facilities, parking lots and other supporting infrastructure in just six years. In San Francisco. With no funding source. Voters may value the effectiveness of the city’s partnership, but they clearly balked at requiring the city to make significant financial investments in infrastructure that is already ably serving the city.

The success of Prop. B is the result of several different factors. Built in 1933, Coit Tower contains a series of murals that were completed as part of the New Deal’s Public Works of Art Project and have fallen into substantial disrepair in recent years. There have been disagreements over jurisdiction — the tower is managed by the Recreation and Parks Department and the murals by the city’s Arts Commission — which have led to inconsistent funding for curation and preservation of the building and the murals. But the outcome may have hinged on a more recent discovery: A conservator’s report revealed significant disrepair at the site just one week before the election, followed by an emergency infusion from the city of $1.7 million to fund repairs to the tower and murals. Clearly there is a problem here; Prop. B certainly drew attention to the condition of things at the tower, but this nonbinding resolution may have come disguised as a solution. It won't restrict potentially damaging activities at the tower unless the Board of Supervisors enacts legislation consistent with this policy declaration.

The interesting lessons of this election have less to do with the measures than with how voters make decisions. When proposals tap into a genuine frustration with existing services, voters will support even nonbinding policy statements in hopes that they might send a message to city officials — regardless of the measure’s potential impacts. Prop. B elevated an issue and thereby helped to secure additional public funding for a historic resource. However, the measure’s suggested restrictions on facility operations — and the resulting revenues — may have been lost amidst concern over the murals. But when proposals carry significant unknown costs and threaten to disrupt functional service relationships — as with Prop. A — voters are apparently not shy about rejecting them resoundingly. Prop. A clearly did not pass muster.

In spite of the lean primary ballot, it appears that we may return to a more typical laundry list of measures in November, with business tax reform, bonds and more coming to the voters for their stamp of approval. Even before the polling places closed for the June election, there were more than 10 initiatives either proposed or on the way to the November ballot. But with recent ballot reforms (pushed by SPUR in 2007), perhaps only half of those will ultimately make it to the ballot.

For those of us who remember the “good old days,” with upwards of a dozen measures just in San Francisco, that sounds like a half-day at the office.