What is does
The measure is a very brief, non-binding policy statement that reads, in its entirety, "It is the policy of the voters of San Francisco that the Mayor should appear in person at one regularly-scheduled meeting of the Board of Supervisors each month to engage in formal policy discussions with members of the Board." Under the current city charter, the mayor is allowed, but not required, to appear before the Board of Supervisors. If the measure passed, it still would not require the mayor to appear before the Board of Supervisors because the measure does not have the force of law. This measure requires only a simple majority to pass.
Why it is on the ballot
This measure was originally drafted as a binding charter amendment requiring the mayor to appear before the Board of Supervisors, but failed to gain the required six votes to go on the ballot as a charter amendment. Four supervisors then put forward the current version as a non-binding policy statement focusing on a "formal policy discussion." Policy statements and ordinances require four signatures of the supervisors to be placed on the ballot.
Those who support this measure claim:
- The measure increases accountability for elected officials by creating the opportunity for tough questions to be asked in a public forum where evasion would be obvious.
- Opportunities to hear from our local elected officials are almost entirely filtered through various media that may have their own axes to grind. Being able to hear directly from officials is a valuable means of communication for the public as well as the board and the mayor. This measure would strengthen the public awareness of their elected officials.
- The general nature of the provision leaves room to evolve a style of discussion that is workable for each mayor and board, and the public.
- The measure is neutral as to who will be able to take more advantage of it politically. It is just as likely that the appearance before the board will make the board members appear unprepared as it is that the mayor will be put on the defensive.
- California and San Francisco are often leaders in public policy innovations such as ranked-choice voting and consumer protection. This increase in democratic accountability is intended to be a template for a necessary national movement for greater transparency and accountability in government.
- The current mayor does not consult the board frequently enough on policy issues. This measure would encourage such consultation and dialogue.
Those who oppose this measure claim:
- The measure does little other than make a spectacle of our local politicians. The current British "question time" is filled with catcalls, boos and irrelevant speeches. Given the current level of discourse among and between the mayor and the board this attempt in San Francisco would be the same or worse.
- Although it is not clear from the measure, presumably the president of the Board of Supervisors would control the discussion, thus being able to embarrass or gavel-down the mayor at will. This would permit the opportunity for grandstanding and for members of the Board of Supervisors to directly attack the mayor. It could also result in various politicians ganging up on another. This could also lead to greater polarization among the board and the mayor as supervisors try to push the mayor into a corner.
- To the extent there is a communication problem between the board and the mayor, this measure (even if it were an enforceable charter amendment) would not fix it. The ability of the mayor and supervisors to communicate depends on the personalities and politics of the individuals. If the personalities and politics do not line up, "question time" will only further divide the players.
- As written, this measure sets no limit to the length of the policy discussion, thus creating the possibility that the question time could be quite extensive until critics of any particular politician have their say.
- Other areas that use this system have a parliamentary democracy, where the prime minister is elected from within (and by) Parliament, unlike San Francisco, where the mayor and board are elected separately. Forcing them to interact this way violates the separation of powers and duties of our executive and legislative branches.
The measure is modeled after the British tradition of "question time," during which the prime minister appears before the House of Commons and answers questions. At least six other countries have similar systems, including Canada and South Korea.
The actual length, content and character of the "policy discussion" is not described in the proposed ballot measure, although proponents have suggested that it could take the form of 10 minutes per supervisor (with roughly half the supervisors having an opportunity to speak per monthly session) or a one- or two-hour session overall. There is nothing in the measure that would limit the amount of time the mayor should appear and who would set the terms of discussion. It is likely that the president of the Board of Supervisors would preside over the meeting.
Supporters of the measure present it on its face as a measure intended to increase accountability, or "sunshine," in local government by allowing our two elected branches of government to question each other - or discuss in consensus, if they prefer - in public. Detractors believe that it is little more than an attempt to create opportunities for board members (or, conversely, the mayor) to score political "gotcha" points against each other. Further, detractors argue that the mayor is accessible to the board in many other ways (such as the location of the mayor's office just around the corner from all the supervisors' offices). If the supervisors are seeking productive dialogue with the mayor, opponents say, they should simply head down the hall to meet with him.
Supporters of the measure also may have advanced it out of frustration with the failure of Congress (and national media sources) to thoroughly question President George W. Bush before the Iraq war and to advance dissenting viewpoints. Opponents of the measure would argue that San Francisco's local politics are not troubled by the same lack of accountability, and that in any case applying this solution at the local level does little to affect federal procedures or national news.
Past mayors have occasionally appeared the Board of Supervisors, including Willie Brown, who appeared at a committee of the board. The current mayor has yet to appear before either the full board or one of its committees. While there may have been instances when the current mayor should have appeared before the board, SPUR believes that each measure should be evaluated on its policy merits without regard to the specific personalities of today. Although this measure is a non-binding policy statement, it does set forward a policy position for how the two elected bodies in San Francisco should communicate monthly. In this particular measure, the question should not be whether we want Gavin Newsom to be held accountable for his actions by the current group of supervisors. Instead, we should ask whether city laws should be amended to encourage whoever holds the office of mayor to appear before the board.
Although it is important to hold our elected officials accountable to the public, the temptation will be to turn the discussion into political theater, with great risks to our overall city discourse. We are increasingly polarized on many issues that must be solved through rigorous debate and examination of the issues. Unfortunately, a monthly requirement to appear before the board does not constitute rigorous public debate, as there are no provisions in the measure to limit or define the scope of the discussion. Further, SPUR does not support increasing such requirements on elected officials who should be able to work together on their own. Prop. I gives the appearance of sunshine while ultimately clouding the more important effect that our elected officials might replace substantive policy making with political posturing. There are many more important issues facing San Francisco. Preparing for and organizing this "question time" event will diminish our ability to adequately work together on those issues.
SPUR recommends a "No" vote on Prop. I.