Proposition B - Parental Leave and Teleconferencing for Public Officials

Voter Guide
November 1, 2006
This measure appeared on the November 2006 San Francisco ballot.

 

What it does

This amendment to San Francisco's City Charter would require the Board of Supervisors to adopt parental-leave policies for supervisors and members of other boards and commissions. These parental-leave policies would include permitting members to attend and vote at public meetings via teleconference. This measure requires the approval of a simple majority of participating voters for passage.

Why is it on the ballot

Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier presented this measure in response to her experience of giving birth while in office, She is the first elected official in the history of the City to give birth while holding office. She was forced to miss several committee and board meetings because there exists no provision for supervisors or commissioners to attend meetings, such as via teleconference, if they are unable to be physically present.

Pros

Supporters of this measure claim:

  • Under the status quo, women who are elected to office or who serve on commissions are not allowed to fulfill their duties during the time they choose to build a family. Such a restriction disallows a woman from participating in her official duties at a time when she is fully capable intellectually of contributing.
  • This change allows full participation by women in the governance of the City. Without this change, the voters lose the participation of their elected representative if she chooses to give birth.
  • Although this measure primarily addresses equal opportunity for women in governance, the measure is written without gender bias, and specifically recognizes the importance of family leave - for either a mother or father - whenever a new child enters the home. It is, at its core, a pro-family measure.
  • Modern technology makes it relatively simple and inexpensive to participate remotely in important meetings. Such technology is routinely used in all other sectors and is well developed for use by government.

Cons

Opponents of this measure claim:

  • This measure is much more narrow in scope than is wise. Electronic meeting attendance should be allowed for any supervisor or commissioner who is unable to attend meetings in person for medical reasons. Limitation of the measure to one condition is discriminatory. The measure should have included a provision to permit attendance due to long-term disability as well.
  • The importance of personal interaction at meetings is vital to the public good. It is important for members of the public to be able to speak directly to their representatives, and for decision-makers to interact on equal footing, in person, to reach thoughtful decisions. The role of a public official - either elected or appointed - is ceremonial. Rather than permit the official to vote from a remote location, it might be a wiser and simpler option to delay important votes
  • The state law provision to require the teleconference meeting comply with public notice and attendance may result in limited use, if at all. By allowing public attendance at the meeting, it invalidates the original logic behind the measure to permit a mother to participate in a meeting while she is attending to her child in her home or another private location.
  • The measure was placed on the ballot by a sitting supervisor who is up for re-election this fall. This provision reinforces the power of incumbency because no challenger in a supervisorial race can directly place a measure on the ballot with only three other signatures from colleagues.

SPUR's analysis

Under the current San Francisco charter, a quorum for the board and for commissions is defined as the presence of a majority of its members. Although the word "presence" is not specifically defined in the charter, it has been construed to prohibit electronic attendance.

This measure makes two specific changes in the charter. First, it defines "presence" to include participation by teleconferencing or other electronic means but only when a member is unable to attend in person due to pregnancy, childbirth or related condition. Second, the measure requires the Board of Supervisors to adopt a parental-leave policy that includes allowance for a member of a board or commission to attend meetings electronically if the member is absent in order to care for a child after birth, or after adoption or foster-care placement.

While the charter amendment appears to be a straightforward provision to permit greater flexibility for public officials, it may have unforeseen consequences, particularly as regarding providing notice of and public access to meetings. Under California law, public officials (members of boards and commissions) are permitted to participate in meetings via teleconferencing if the teleconference meeting complies with the standard features of the "Brown Act" for public noticing (state Government Code Section 54953). This requires that "each teleconference location shall be accessible to the public" and that "each teleconference location shall be identified in [a] notice and [an] agenda of the meeting or proceeding [by] the local government." The local government is also compelled to "post agendas at all teleconference locations."4 These legal requirements suggest that an elected official or board member teleconferencing into a meeting would have to open his or her home (or other teleconference location) to the general public. For example, if Alioto-Pier were teleconferencing into a committee meeting from her home, she would have to give notice of the meeting and could not deny access to members of the general public to attempt to watch her as she participates in the meeting. Further, the state code also requires that all open and public meetings comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

Given these requirements, it is possible that elected officials and members of boards and commissions would make infrequent use of teleconferencing from private locations. This suggests that by making a private place a public one, the measure may not actually solve the very problem that prompted its creation.

Although the provision is written more narrowly than we would prefer, it still moves the City toward a more up-to-date practice and addresses an important social issue. While SPUR has taken a strong stance against measures that appear on the ballot in the same election as one of their sponsors, at least this measure was vetted through a process of several months in consultation with members of the City Attorney's Office and members of the Board of Supervisors. Most importantly, we agree with the public policy goals of the measure. We should also note, however, that teleconferencing is unlikely to be used very often given how it triggers public notice requirements and access to the teleconferencing location.

SPUR recommends a "Yes" vote on Prop. B.



4 See: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/calaw.html for Government Code. Search for "54953."