Proposition E - SFPUC Commissioner Appointments

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the June 2008 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

Currently, the mayor can appoint all five members of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The Board of Supervisors can reject a nominee from the mayor with the votes of eight of the 11 members of the Board of Supervisors. If the Board of Supervisors cannot get eight members to vote against a nominee, the nominee automatically becomes a member of the SFPUC. In addition, the mayor can select whoever he or she wants to be on the SFPUC. There are no minimum qualification requirements for being a commissioner to the SFPUC.

Prop. E makes two changes to the charter section affecting the governing commission of the SFPUC. The first change is to reduce from eight to six the number of supervisors needed to reject a mayoral nominee. The second change would establish minimum qualifications for specific seats on the SFPUC:

  • Seat 1: Experience in environmental policy and an understanding of environmental-justice issues.
  • Seat 2: Experience in ratepayer or consumer advocacy.
  • Seat 3: Experience in project finance.
  • Seat 4: Expertise in water systems, power systems or public-utility management.
  • Seat 5: No specific experience required. This seat is “at-large.”

The onus will be put on the nominated commissioner and the mayor to prove that the individual meets the specified requirements.

If this measure passes, all current members of the SFPUC as of Aug. 1would resign. The mayor then would have to appoint new members to the SFPUC or reappoint existing members under the new minimum qualifications. To provide for staggered terms, Seat 2 and Seat 4 would have an initial term of only two years, while the other seats would have terms of four years. At the end of their respective terms, the members of the SFPUC could be reappointed by the mayor and again would be subject to the same approval process at the Board of Supervisors.

Why it is on the ballot

In recent years the Board of Supervisors has sought greater control in the nomination or approval of commissioners. For example, a 2002 ballot measure split the nomination of members to the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals between the mayor and the Board of Supervisors. Previously, the mayor appointed all members to those two City bodies. Prop. E continues that ongoing struggle between the City’s legislative and executive branches by giving more authority to the legislative branch in the approval of nominees.

Early drafts of this measure included provisions to give members of the Board of Supervisors the power to appoint some of the commissioners themselves. However, the final version included only language allowing them to reject or approve the mayor’s appointments with a simple majority of six supervisors, as opposed to a super-majority of eight.

This measure is nearly identical to a measure drafted several years ago by former Supervisor Tony Hall. That measure did not make it onto the ballot.


Arguments in favor of this measure:

  • Requiring a minimum set of qualifications is a practice used by many advisory bodies and committees, in both San Francisco and throughout the state. The qualifications required under Prop. E could help ensure that there will be the right mix of expertise on the SFPUC over time.
  • Unlike many commissions, the SFPUC makes decisions that directly financially affect many local residents when it sets water and sewer rates. By giving members of the Board of Supervisors greater power to approve or reject nominees, this measure allows supervisors to be more responsive to constituents who take issue with SFPUC rate changes.


Arguments against this measure:

  • This measure transfers power to the Board of Supervisors and reduces the authority of the mayor in nominating commissioners. San Francisco's traditional split between legislative functions and executive functions has served the city well. The 1996 San Francisco City 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.
  • By reducing the mayor’s power, this measure makes it less clear who would be held accountable for the performance of the SFPUC on major projects affecting the entire city.
  • Adoption of this measure could lead to the replacement of the entire membership of the SFPUC, which would be disruptive — especially because of the significant repairs and upgrade projects in progress for the water system.
  • This is a solution in search of a problem. There is no evidence that the current mix of commissioners on the SFPUC is inadequate or lacking in appropriate experience.

SPUR’s analysis

The institutional design of a public body needs to have a long-term policy logic, and should not be based simply on the personalities of the individuals who are around today. 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. This measure is, in fact, a straightforward power grab in the continuing attempt by the current members of the Board of Supervisors to reduce the power of the office of the mayor.

SPUR has been consistent in our view about similar measures to shift the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches. In 2006, we opposed Proposition C, which would have given the Board of Supervisors majority control over the Transbay Joint Powers Authority. In 2002, we opposed Proposition D, which gave the Board of Supervisors more control in appointees to the Planning Commission and Board of Appeals.

There are clearly policy choices the SFPUC faces such as the relative reliance on water conservation versus storage, how rainwater should be managed relative to sewage, and the extent of local investments in energy. These policy choices should involve the Board of Supervisors as the City’s legislative deliberative body. However, day-to-day management of City agencies is not something that needs to be overly politicized. Sometimes, we just need excellent service delivery. We believe that giving the mayor more leeway in nominees to the SFPUC is one of the ways to accomplish this. It also allows us to hold the mayor more accountable if the SFPUC does not achieve its goals.

While we recognize that other departments do have minimum qualifications for members of commissions, and we see the merit of including those qualifications at the SFPUC, we think the harmful impact of the timing of this measure trumps the public-policy arguments in favor of that reform.

SPUR recommends a “No” vote on Prop. E.