Proposition C - Election Sunshine/ Ballot Reform

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


What it does

This proposed amendment to the San Francisco City Charter would add a new procedure governing how the mayor or four or more members of the Board of Supervisors could submit an ordinance or policy declaration directly to the Department of Elections to be placed on the ballot. Under the proposal, if four or more members of the board, or the mayor, want to place a measure on the ballot, they would submit the proposed initiative to the Board of Supervisors at least 45 days before the deadline for submitting such initiatives to the Department of Elections. The president of the board would then assign the measure to a committee of the board, and the committee would hold a public hearing on the measure. If the committee did not hold a hearing on the measure prior to the deadline for the mayor or four supervisors to submit measures, the measure would still be placed on the ballot, but the Department of Elections would include a note in the voter information pamphlet explaining that the measure had not been the subject of a public hearing. The people who submitted a measure could withdraw the proposed measure at any time prior to the Department of Elections' deadline for submission of such measures.

Why it is on the ballot

The city charter allows either the mayor or four or more members of the Board of Supervisors to submit ordinances and policy statements onto the ballot. No public notice or hearings, and no notice to others supervisors, is required prior to submission to the Department of Elections. Such ordinances and policy statements may be submitted to the Department of Elections as late as early August for a November election. In recent years, San Francisco has seen an increase in the number of ordinances and policy statements submitted to the voters with little or no advance public review. In general, this trend appears to be part of the evolution of candidate campaigns.

Incumbents place measures on the ballot so they can campaign for a measure that "symbolizes" their values, motivates target voter groups or - most importantly - can receive donations to pay for "issue" advertising that includes the candidates' pictures. Most often, these measures are submitted to the Department of Elections very near the deadline for submission of such measures. This year, three measures were submitted on the final day, and a fourth one was submitted earlier that week.

In the elections of November 2000 and 2002, seven such last-minute measures were submitted for each election. After the November 2002 election, SPUR called for reform of these charter provisions to require at least one public hearing on measures submitted by four supervisors or the mayor. A proposed charter amendment was prepared and was the subject of some board hearings, but the board never voted to submit the amendment to the voters.

The election of November 2006 again represented why reform is necessary. Six measures were submitted at the last minute or without a prior public hearing. These measures dealt with important public-policy issues that ranged from sick-leave requirements to an increase in the parking tax. After the election, SPUR began working with a group of organizations to again push for ballot reform.

That group - consisting of SPUR, the League of Women Voters, the Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Advocates, as well as other organizations, continued the public support for this reform. In June, seven members of the Board of Supervisors voted to place this charter amendment before the voters. Since then, organizations such as Common Cause California and San Francisco Tomorrow also have signed on to support it.


Supporters of this measure claim:

  • The new requirements would bring needed "sunshine" - that is, open access for the public - to the ballot process, through 45-day advance public notice and a public hearing.
  • This reform would impose a needed discipline on the mayor and the Board of Supervisors to seriously consider the measures they would like to go before the voters, as measures will receive much greater scrutiny than under the current rules.
  • By changing the deadline for introduction to five months before the election, this measure reduces the incentive to use the ballot box as a proxy for a specific political fight.
  • "Sunshine" could lead to fewer measures being submitted to the voters - through public and political pressure to withdraw ill-conceived or poorly-drafted measures, through encouraging the Board of Supervisors to simply adopt a law themselves instead of pursuing a proposition, or through increasing the effort necessary to place a measure before the voters. It would also provide an opportunity to correct drafting errors in otherwise laudable measures.
  • This measure only affects ordinances and policy statements that appear on the ballot (It has no impact on signature campaigns or charter amendments). Ordinances and policy declarations are legislative actions that the board can pass without a vote of the people. We elect our politicians to deliberate on and pass laws, not to pass those responsibilities on to the voters.
  • The measure reduces the ability of an incumbent politician to use a ballot measure as a soft-money vehicle for a re-election campaign.


Opponents of this measure claim:

  • This measure would reduce the timeliness of last-minute ballot measures and the ability of City elected officials to put issues directly before the voters when the legislature fails to act. For example, this year's ballot includes an ordinance to fund a Small Business Assistance Center. This measure is priority of the mayor that did not receive sufficient support in the legislative process. The current charter specifically allows the voters to speak on issues when the legislative or executive branch is an obstacle.
  • If measures cannot be amended after submission to the Department of Election and a the required public hearing is never held, this charter amendment would do little more than change the current ballot deadline to an earlier date.
  • This measure would result in a greater number of proposed ballot measures that are used as political tools during the budget process, even if they are withdrawn before going onto the ballot.

SPUR's analysis

The measure would result in the several changes to the way ordinances and policy declarations are submitted for the ballot. It would make the deadline by which four supervisors or the mayor must submit ordinances and policy statements 45 days earlier than it is now, and it would require a hearing on such ordinances and policy statements.

This proposed charter amendment includes a provision that allows a submitted measure to go on the ballot without having a hearing. This provision prevents supervisors from keeping a measure off the ballot simply by refusing to hold a public hearing. It also enables a proposition to go to the ballot in the case of a scheduling error for a hearing.

It is unclear if Prop. C would allow a submitted measure to be amended within the 45-day period between the time it is introduced and the Department of Elections deadline. The City Attorney's Office and the supervisors who have supported the proposition are working to clarify this issue. Allowing for amendment within the 45-day window would make it possible to fix drafting errors or write slight modifications in response to public input. It would not allow the mayor or supervisors who submitted a measure to completely replace the wording or subject of a measure, a practice common in state Legislature bills that is known as "gut and amend." It also would not allow for the addition of a totally different topic within the same ballot measure (as can occur in a charter amendment).

This measure has been a core SPUR good-government priority for several years and we led the campaign to push to bring this measure onto the ballot. Public input and sunshine of ballot measures is necessary and will result in better-drafted - and potentially fewer - measures reaching the ballot. SPUR's goal in proposing this reform was always to improve the quality of public policy and we believe that Prop. C will achieve that goal.

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