Requires that vacancies occurring in elected offices be filled by a mayoral appointment within 28 days and mandates that when a vacancy occurs on the Board of Supervisors, a special election be held within 180 days; the interim supervisor appointed by the mayor would be ineligible to run.
What the Measure Would Do
Proposition D would amend the City Charter to change the conditions of the mayor’s power to make an appointment when a vacancy occurs in an elected office. Under this charter amendment, the mayor would be required to make an interim appointment within 28 days to fill the vacancy. This measure would also require that, when a seat becomes vacant on the Board of Supervisors, a special election be held in that district to fill the vacancy for the remainder of the term of office. The interim supervisor appointed by the mayor would be ineligible to run.
The special election would have to be called within 14 days of the vacancy and held on a Tuesday falling between 126 and 140 days of being called. There are certain circumstances under which it could be consolidated with another scheduled election: if there is another election occurring within 180 days of the vacancy and/or if the Department of Elections requests a consolidation and the Board of Supervisors and mayor approve the request. If the special election were not consolidated with another municipal election, no ballot measures or other contests would be allowed on the same ballot.
As written, this measure would retroactively apply to vacancies prompted by the November 8, 2016, election,1 which is guaranteed to create a vacancy because either Supervisor Kim or Supervisor Wiener will be elected to the State Senate and leave the Board of Supervisors. If Prop. D passes, that vacancy would be filled as provided for in this measure.
The city controller estimates that over a typical election cycle of four years, the amendment could be expected to result in at least one additional special election for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. Based on Department of Elections costs, the controller estimates an expense of approximately $340,000 each time the city must hold such a special election.
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
As a consolidated city and county, San Francisco has the following elected offices: assessor-recorder, city attorney, district attorney, public defender, sheriff, treasurer and members of the Board of Supervisors, the Board of Education and the Governing Board of the Community College District (the City College Board of Trustees). Under existing law, when a city elected office becomes vacant because the officer has died, resigned, been recalled, gone on permanent disability or is otherwise unable to carry out the responsibilities of the office, the mayor has the authority to appoint a successor to fill the vacancy until an election is held.
San Francisco’s charter has given the mayor power to fill vacancies in the city’s elected offices since at least 1931. The charter has never established a deadline by which the mayor must make these appointments. Until the 1990s, the mayor’s appointee would complete the rest of the unserved term, which could be up to four years. The current charter specifies that the appointee serve until the next regular election, which would be two years at most, given that San Francisco holds elections in every even year. Per the charter, the election must be at least 120 days after the vacancy occurs. Under current law, the appointee is allowed to stand for re-election.
California charter cities and counties have a range of practices in place for handling vacancies in elected office between election cycles. According to a recent San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission report, the City and County of San Francisco is unique in California in not specifying a time frame for vacancies to be filled. Throughout the state there is a wide range in who makes appointments to vacated offices. According to the LAFCO report, cities and counties may have procedures that allow “appointment by an individual, appointment by a group/governing body, special elections, or other.” In the majority of places, appointments are made to fill a vacancy until the next regular election.4
In San Francisco, vacancies in elected office and on the Board of Supervisors occur with some regularity over mayoral terms. During five years in office, the current mayor has made two replacement supervisor appointments, a replacement assessor-recorder appointment, a replacement sheriff appointment and two appointments to the City College Board of Trustees. Sometimes the mayor’s appointee is re-elected by the voters. In some cases — such as the last two supervisor appointments — voters choose someone different in the next election.
Under existing law, Mayor Lee would appoint a replacement supervisor to a vacancy occurring as a result of the November 8 election, and that person would serve until the next regularly scheduled municipal election (most likely in June or November 2018). The clause in Prop. D that makes it retroactively apply to this November’s election — as well as the vote along partisan lines to place this measure on the ballot — suggests that a partial goal of this measure is to ensure that its proponents have the opportunity to maintain a partisan advantage on the Board of Supervisors.
This measure was placed on the ballot by a 6 to 5 vote of the Board of Supervisors. As a charter amendment, it has to appear on the ballot and requires a simple majority (50 percent plus one vote) to pass.
- Requiring vacancies in elected office to be filled within 28 days is a practice that could create certainty for the public and ensure timely transitions in leadership.
The placeholder nature of the interim supervisor appointment created by Prop. D raises concerns about the representation of voters and the position’s accountability. Under the terms of this measure, the interim supervisor would only serve for about four months before someone else would be elected to the seat. This begs questions about who would accept this kind of caretaker role, how they would choose to exercise a temporary vote on the Board of Supervisors and who they’d be accountable to (given that they would not have been elected by their constituents and could not seek election by them).
The provision that a special election could be called on a separate timeline from the city’s consolidated elections, with no other candidates or measures allowed on that ballot, would create conditions for an extremely low-turnout election. The results of low-turnout elections are less representative of the public interest and tend to underrepresent low-income, young and minority voters. In order to increase voter turnout and reduce the costs of holding many smaller elections, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to consolidate municipal elections in 2012.3 This measure would counteract that reform.
This measure’s unusual retroactive application to the November 8 election appears to be designed to maintain a partisan advantage on the Board of Supervisors following the election.
One portion of Prop. D makes a benign change to city practice, requiring that replacement appointments to vacated elected office be made within a specified time frame. But Prop. D bundles in a change to supervisor appointments that would undo charter reforms instituted by the voters and undermine democratic representation.
Prop. D would abridge the mayor’s vacancy appointment power and create a lame duck supervisor position with unclear accountability. It’s no secret that some elected officials don’t like the current mayor. But political grudges are the worst reason to permanently alter the City Charter to reduce the power of all future mayors. The city’s system of democracy has important roles for the Board of Supervisors and the mayor. The voters have upheld this balance of power over many years of charter reform measures.
Futhermore, if San Francisco’s goal is to allow more of its residents’ voices to be heard in elections, it should not be sanctioning new, oddly timed special elections in which low turnout would privilege the votes of fewer and more conservative voters. On this count, Prop. D would do a disservice to the true representation of the public interest.
1 Generally, a charter amendment goes into effect about one month after an election: after the vote count has been finalized by the Department of Elections, the results declared by the Board of Supervisors and the amendment filed and certified by the Secretary of State. Memorandum: “Election Results and Effective Dates of Ballot Measures.” Office of the City Attorney. City and County of San Francisco. June 27, 2016.