Proposition E - Question Time

Voter Guide
November 1, 2007
This measure appeared on the November 2007 San Francisco ballot.

 

What it does

This measure changes the San Francisco City Charter to add a new requirement for the mayor to appear monthly at the Board of Supervisors' regular meetings to engage in "policy discussions." It also gives the Board of Supervisors, in consultation with the mayor, the power to set the rules and guidelines affecting the appearance before the board.

Why it is on the ballot

The idea for bringing the mayor to the Board of Supervisors to engage in policy discussions is modeled after "Question Time" in the British Parliament, which is regularly shown on the cable television channel C-SPAN. Question Time in the British Parliament is an opportunity for the "opposition party" to ask questions of majority party. It should be noted that the British prime minister is a member of the House of Commons and that he or she gets questions ahead of time and prepares responses in advance.

In July 2006, a similar measure was put on the ballot by four supervisors as a non-binding policy statement. It passed with 56 percent of the vote in November 2006. That year there had been an attempt to put "Question Time" on the ballot as a charter amendment but the proponents did not receive the six required votes from other board members.

Since the time voters approved the policy statement, the mayor has not attended any Board of Supervisors meeting to engage in policy debates. Instead, the mayor chose to comply with the "spirit" of the non-binding policy statement by holding monthly "town hall" meetings with residents throughout the city. All supervisors were invited to attend the meetings in their districts, and some have participated. This year, six supervisors voted to place this charter amendment onto the ballot.

Pros

Those who support this measure claim:

  • This measure could contribute to policy development in San Francisco, encouraging the mayor to formally give input on any pending initiative as it goes through the legislative process, and would allow the public to hear the various viewpoints among our City representatives on major policy issues.
  • This measure gives us the opportunity to be unique among North American cities in requiring the executive branch to appear before (and under the control of) the legislative branch.
  • This measure would provide added entertainment for those interested in seeing more face-to-face exchanges among competing viewpoints.
  • This would also allow the mayor to publicly give his or her input early and not wait until the end of the legislative cycle to express an opinion.

Cons

Those who oppose this measure claim:

  • This measure is a waste of time, energy and resources. The mayor can and does meet with most of the supervisors. It makes more sense to have policy dialogue on an ad-hoc basis, not as a requirement.• Requiring the mayor's appearance at the Board of Supervisors is a process change with no improvement to the delivery of government service targeting a specific outcome. Most residents want government to improve its performance, not its process.
  • The primary beneficiaries of this measure are supervisors who have an opportunity to garner additional press coverage. Under district elections, there are fewer opportunities for citywide exposure. Charter reform should not be used to enhance the publicity of a select group of elected officials.
  • This measure is largely a product of the antagonistic relationship that several members of the Board of Supervisors have with the current mayor - all of whom will eventually be termed out office. Charter reform should respond to the need structural changes, not in response to the personalities of today.

SPUR's analysis

This charter amendment requires the mayor's presence at a monthly Board of Supervisors meeting to engage in formal policy discussions in an open and public setting. This amendment makes two specific changes to the charter. One feature is to add to the 19 existing responsibilities and powers of the mayor, "Appearance, 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." The other calls upon the board to develop the framework for the exchange.

For the past 75 years, the mayor of San Francisco has had the authority to attend the meetings of the Board of Supervisors and sit in on debate. Under the current list of powers, the mayor today can "speak and be heard with respect to any matter at any meeting of the Board of Supervisors or any of its committees." Therefore, under current powers, the mayor can attend (and some mayors have attended) any meeting of the Board of Supervisors. This measure shifts the power away from the mayor to decide whether to appear before the board and makes it a responsibility of the mayor to actually come to the board meeting.

There may be unintended consequences of requiring the executive branch to appear before the legislative branch under as-yet-unspecified rules and guidelines that have been mandated by the legislative branch. For example, what would occur if the mayor were committed to attend a particular board meeting but then were faced with an emergency somewhere in the city? Since the Board of Supervisors could not bring charges of impeachment against the mayor for violating the charter in this regard, it sets up a possible conflict between the two branches without a means for resolution.

Proponents say that in the other 57 California counties, the county executive regularly appears at county Board of Supervisors meetings, and that the general workings of city government can benefit from more open communication among its officials. However, no other county in California, or any other governmental system with an independently elected executive and legislature, mandates such an exchange.

Although SPUR believes that more dialogue among the City's leaders and with the public at large is something that is healthy and should be encouraged, mandating this discussion to occur would be counterproductive. The City's system of government makes the mayor accountable directly to the people of San Francisco, not to the Board of Supervisors. While it may sound like a good idea to have Question Time, fundamentally changing this relationship is unnecessary and unwarranted.

SPUR recommends a "No" vote on Prop. E.