Alters how appointments are made to the SFMTA Board of Directors by creating split appointments between the Board of Supervisors and mayor and allows the Board of Supervisors to reject the SFMTA’s budget by a simple majority vote.
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What the Measure Would Do
Proposition L is a charter amendment that would alter how appointments are made to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) Board of Directors. The SFMTA is the agency that oversees the city’s transportation network, including public transit, streets and parking. Currently, the mayor appoints all seven members of the board of directors, and the Board of Supervisors confirms those appointments. Under this charter amendment, the Board of Supervisors would appoint three of the seven members, and the mayor would appoint the remaining four, who would still be subject to confirmation by the Board of Supervisors.
The charter amendment would also change how the Board of Supervisors reviews the SFMTA budget. Currently, the Board of Supervisors can either approve or reject, but not amend, the agency’s budget. Rejecting the budget requires seven out of 11 votes. This measure would lower the bar so that a simple majority vote of six out of 11 could reject the SFMTA budget. The Board of Supervisors still could not amend the SFMTA budget, but it would be required to provide findings if rejecting the budget. The SFMTA would then be required to respond to those findings when submitting a revised budget, thus simulating line-item review of the SFMTA budget.
Attacks on the City Charter’s Balance of Powers:
PROPOSITIONS D, H, L AND M
The distribution of power in San Francisco government is defined by its City Charter, the city’s constitution. In 1995, after years of work by SPUR and others, the voters adopted a new charter to replace the previous one, from 1932. Over time, the 1932 charter had become outdated and overly complex, with hundreds of incremental changes.* The primary purpose of the 1995 charter reform was to lay out clear lines of authority, responsibility and accountability between the commissions, the supervisors and the mayor to allow the city to act quickly and decisively as needs arose and to enable citizens to hold elected leaders accountable.
Ever since the 1995 charter passed, there have been piecemeal moves to chip away at the definition of roles, in particular to weaken the office of the mayor. The latest ad hoc efforts are the four charter amendments on this ballot that remove power from the office of the mayor and redistribute it to supervisors and newly proposed positions. These measures would create a public advocate position (Prop. H), split appointments to the SFMTA board between the mayor and the supervisors (Prop. L), put the management of two departments under a commission rather than the direct oversight of the mayor (Prop. M) and prevent a mayoral appointee to the Board of Supervisors from completing a term and standing for re-election (Prop. D).
SPUR is concerned by these piecemeal assaults on the City Charter and the lack of public input involved. Changes to San Francisco’s system of government ought to be undertaken inclusively and comprehensively, informed by a set of principles. Props D, H, L and M reflect political motivations and should not be enshrined in the city’s guiding document.
*San Francisco Select Committee on Charter Reform Records (SFH 32), San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
Following years of serious decline in transportation services, in 1999 voters approved Prop. E, which created the SFMTA by combining and reorganizing the formerly separate Department of Parking and Traffic and San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni). Prop. E included far-reaching governance reforms aimed at depoliticizing and rationalizing the city’s transportation functions.
Prop. L seeks to undo two of the key governance reforms included in the 1999 measure: independent governance and budgetary approval.1 Prop. E created a seven-member board of directors of the SFMTA, appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Board of Supervisors. It stipulated that directors could only be removed for cause. Prior to reform, the Public Transportation Commission served at the pleasure of the mayor and was subject to enormous political pressure, to the great detriment of Muni service. Prop. E also changed how the SFMTA’s budget is approved, making it a less political and more practical process.
The relative budgetary independence that Prop. E created for the SFMTA had a significant impact. During the preceding period, when the Board of Supervisors could make line-item budget changes, city supervisors consistently required Muni to keep its advertised service levels up but often did not provide the funding needed to do so. At times, city supervisors required Muni to keep routes intact that would have better been adjusted for changing travel patterns. Since achieving more budgetary independence, Muni has been able to focus on performance times and logistics instead of politics, and in the last several years has seen improvements in performance and reliability.
In recent years, the SFMTA has initiated multiple projects that change how streets and transit in certain areas of the city are configured. In some cases, individual changes that are part of a bigger system of improvement have generated concern among some residents and businesses. By placing more limitations on the independence of the SFMTA, Prop. L aims to make the agency more responsive to these concerns.
This measure was placed on the ballot by a 6 to 5 vote of the Board of Supervisors. As a charter amendment, it must appear on the ballot and requires a simple majority (50 percent plus one vote) to pass.
- We found no compelling arguments to support this measure.
Prop. L would unwind the important governance reforms that have allowed the SFMTA to provide better Muni service to San Franciscans. The agency’s budgetary independence has been critical to its ability to match service levels to available resources. Giving the Board of Supervisors more authority over the SFMTA budget would jeopardize the agency’s ability to offer service that it can properly maintain, potentially resulting in less reliability for all users of the city’s transportation network.
Splitting appointments between the mayor and supervisors and adding budget oversight by elected officials would drag the city’s transportation services back into the politics of City Hall rather than maintaining the independent transportation agency the voters asked for in 1999. It already takes many years to make the kinds of physical changes to the transportation network that result in reliable transit service, safe biking and walking streets, and parking availability that responds to demand. Creating a structure in which fights over individual stop signs, bus routes and parking meters get pulled into larger political battles would make those improvements that much harder to implement.
A system of split appointments confuses accountability. Under the current structure, the SFMTA Board of Directors is accountable to the mayor. If San Francisco residents are unhappy with the SFMTA, they can take their concerns directly to one person and know where the buck stops. But if residents are unhappy with an SFMTA whose board is appointed by supervisors and the mayor, the path to resolving their concerns becomes less clear.
Governance reforms of the past decade are beginning to result in an improved transportation system, with Muni performance and rider satisfaction getting better, the bike network expanding, pedestrian safety investments increasing and parking management improving. This measure threatens to undo those gains by politicizing the management of the SFMTA.
There is inherent conflict in managing a transportation system that serves the collective good. Changes that improve service for many can inconvenience some individuals. For example, putting bus stops on every block makes Muni slow for everyone riding that route. Removing a bus stop, however, can inconvenience the people who use that stop. Only an agency with independence from politics can successfully balance these needs. For this reason and others, the independent agency model is the one used by virtually every successful urban transit system in the country.
If San Francisco’s goal is an efficient, effective, well-loved, well-used transportation system, the city must continue to depoliticize, rationalize and effectively fund the management of its transportation system.
1 SPUR Voter Guide, The Urbanist, October 1999. SPUR helped develop and champion Prop. E, along with a broad coalition, and saw this as an extension of the 1995 city charter reform.