Proposition D - Appointments to Planning Commission and Board of Appeals

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the March 2002 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

This charter amendment would change the way members of the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals are appointed, splitting the appointments between the Mayor and President of the Board of Supervisors. The full Board of Supervisors would approve or disapprove all appointees on a simple majority vote. (If the Board fails to act within 60 days, the appointee would be deemed approved.) Once seated, members of the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals could be removed only for official misconduct. It was sponsored by Supervisor McGoldrick and placed on the ballot by a 9-2 vote of the Board of Supervisors (Newsom and Yee dissenting).

Why it is on the ballot

The Planning Commission considers most major residential and commercial development projects in the city (and many minor ones), and implements the provisions of the Planning Code and General Plan. The Board of Appeals hears appeals of the decisions of various permit-granting city departments, including the Department of Building Inspection, the Zoning Administrator, the Police Chief and the Taxi Commission.

The Board of Supervisors has jurisdiction to hear appeals of decisions of the Planning Commission in conditional use cases and can reverse the Commission by a vote of eight of its 11 members. The Board has no jurisdiction to hear appeals from decisions of the Board of Appeals.

Under the current city Charter, the adoption of which SPUR strongly supported in November 1995, members of the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals (like almost all other city commissions) are appointed by the Mayor and serve at his or her pleasure. The Board of Supervisors can reject any mayoral nomination by a two-thirds vote. The Mayor can remove members of the Commission and Board of Appeals with or without cause.

Before the new Charter took effect in July 1996, the Mayor appointed five of the seven members of the Planning Commission, with two seats held by other city officials. These two earmarked seats were removed in an attempt to further democratize the Commission because neighborhood activists felt that the two as-of-right seats were too often representatives of the Mayor, and that, as city employees, they could not be as independent as appointees. Appointments to the Board of Appeals were the same under the prior Charter as they are now.

Since the 2000 election, members of the Board of Supervisors have expressed dissatisfaction with this structure, desiring to weaken the Mayor's control over these powerful commissions and increase their own authority. If Proposition D is adopted by the voters, the Mayor would appoint four of the seven members of the Planning Commission and three of the five members of the Board of Appeals. The President of the Board of Supervisors would appoint the remaining three members of the Planning Commission and two members of the Board of Appeals. All appointees would be subject to approval or rejection by a simple majority vote of the full Board. Thus, the Board of Supervisors would both gain the power to appoint new commissioners and retain its final authority to block appointments. Members would serve four-year terms and could only be removed during their term by a three-fourths vote of the Board of Supervisors following charges of official misconduct.


Those who support the measure state:

  • The Mayor has too much power over appointments to and dismissals from these important commissions.
  • The current Planning Commission and Board of Appeals have disregarded the law. They point to the approval of "business services" buildings outside the Proposition M office limit and to what is perceived as abuse of the live/work ordinance.
  • Dividing appointments between the Mayor and President of the Board would promote diversity in the composition of these commissions, in particular by making it more likely that those representing the neighborhoods would be nominated by a district-elected Board president.
  • Staggered fixed terms introduce stability and are preferable to at-will seats. In this way, no one Mayor can make a wholesale change in a commission at will.
  • Commissioners should be subject to removal only for cause, in order to insulate them from political pressures.
  • Subjecting nominees to the Planning Commission to public hearings will allow people to examine the candidate's qualifications.
  • The Planning Commission lacks public trust. Tying it more closely to the Board of Supervisors will increase its legitimacy, and perhaps reduce ballot box planning.


Those who oppose the measure state:

  • San Francisco's traditional split between legislative functions and executive branch functions has served the city well. The 1996 Charter continued the strong Mayor form of government, so that the voters can hold the Mayor accountable for the actions of the executive branch commissions at election-time.
  • There is value in separating the administration of laws, particularly in the field of housing and land use, from the political legislative process in order to insulate commissioners from political pressures.
  • The Board of Supervisors has complete authority to amend the Planning Code or General Plan if it perceives that the Planning Commission or Board of Appeals are not correctly implementing it. For example, the Board could have amended the Code to redefine "business services" or "live/work" if it believed the Code was not being property implemented, but chose not to do so. Similarly, the Board could have substantially increased funding for the planning function of city government, but has not done so. In this measure, the Board is punting its legislative authority by blaming the perceived problems on the current Mayor and his appointees, rather than on flaws in the Planning Code or the under-funding of planning, which they could fix themselves.
  • The Board of Supervisors already has authority to hear appeals of conditional use cases from the Planning Commission and can reverse the Commission's actions if abuses occur.
  • Within the context of district elections, the last thing we need is a Planning Commission that takes a district-specific, rather than a citywide, perspective. Good planning decisions can only be made by understanding the city as a whole. If this measure passes, issues such as where to locate housing or new transit are likely to be decided through district-based "horse trading" rather than sound planning analysis.
  • This measure is proposed because of a conflict between the current Mayor and Board of Supervisors. We should not enact fundamental structural changes in city government to resolve short-term political disputes.
  • There is no reason to expect that, over time, the appointments of future Boards of Supervisors will be any better than future mayors. It was not too many years ago that Quentin Kopp was the president of the Board of Supervisors; would the current supervisors be happy with his appointments?

SPUR's analysis

For many years, San Francisco has had a "strong Mayor" form of city government, where legislative functions reside in the Board of Supervisors (on which the Mayor does not sit) and administrative function reside in the Mayor's office and the executive branch departments and commissions, where the Board has limited authority to intervene. The Board of Supervisors functions as a true legislative branch of government, making the laws that the executive branch carries out.

Several members of the Board of Supervisors, especially those elected in the 2000 election, are critical of how the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals have administered the Planning Code. They perceive that neighborhood voices are not adequately represented, and that the Commission and Board are filled with the Mayor's political cronies. They proposed this charter amendment to weaken the Mayor's control over these key commissions, provide the balance they believe is lacking and insulate commissioners, once seated, from removal except for cause.

It is bad policy to make such a major change in the philosophy of the balance of powers in the city Charter based on the political leanings of current elected leaders. At the time the Charter was written, the method of appointment was discussed at length, over several years of public meetings. The decision was made, and the voters agreed, that such appointments are properly the Mayor's and that the Board should have the right to reject, but that rejection should be difficult to lessen the chances of political meddling taking precedence over genuine issues of qualifications. It would be a mistake to jettison this philosophy because of conflicts between a Board of Supervisors and a lame duck Mayor, who will be gone in two years in any case.

SPUR believes the lack of competence on commissions and boards has less to do with the appointing authority than it does with the vetting and training of appointees. When Mayor Brown was first elected, his senior aide Rudy Nothenberg put together a broad-based vetting committee that interviewed thousands of candidates for hundreds of positions. In general, the recommendations of this committee were taken. While not perfect, the system worked reasonably well. It has been in the replacement of commissioners that the charges of cronyism have come to the fore.

Candidates need to be vetted, at a minimum, to demonstrate that they have the scope, judgement and time to meet the important commitments of the office. They also should be required to demonstrate that they have a basic awareness and knowledge of the laws, policies and regulations which they will be using as commissioners.

Finally, commissioners need training. Unbelievable as it may be, most commissioners never receive any formal training in their responsibilities and the laws and procedures they are supposed to be uphold. SPUR recommends that Proposition D be rejected and instead that the Supervisors pass an ordinance, which they are empowered to do, governing the qualifications, vetting and training of commissioners, which will have far more effect that this perhaps well-intentioned, but ill-conceived, measure.

SPUR recommends a "No" vote on Proposition D.