Establishing a Public Advocate
Creates a new citywide elected office, public advocate, to be elected to four-year terms; provided with a staff, budget and offices within City Hall; and given a range of powers to review city programs and performance, investigate complaints against government, hold hearings and introduce legislation.
What the Measure Would Do
Proposition H is a charter amendment that would create a new citywide elected office — public advocate — and establish the powers for this office.
The public advocate would be elected by citywide vote in a general or special municipal election. She or he could not serve more than two consecutive fouryear terms, but there would be no limit to the number of nonconsecutive terms a public advocate could serve.
The public advocate would be required to have an office in City Hall and a staff, including a deputy public advocate and at least two assistant public advocates.
This measure would also make a nonbinding recommendation that the Office of the Public Advocate have at least two staff members per supervisorial district (a total of 22 additional staff) to perform constituent services and investigations.
The public advocate would have the power to:
Introduce legislation at the Board of Supervisors and hold public hearings
Review the administration of city programs by city agencies, assess compliance with required customer service plans, issue reports and conduct performance audits of city departments
Make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, mayor and agencies on policies to correct problems identified
Receive, investigate and attempt to resolve complaints from members of the public concerning city services; refer complaints to the city attorney and/or the Ethics Commission
Oversee the city’s Whistleblower Program — which investigates complaints against the city, its services and its employee management — in coordination with the city controller
Hire and fire the director of the Office of Citizen Complaints (to be known as the Department of Police Accountability should Prop. G pass)
Conduct investigations, issue subpoenas, access city records and contract outside experts to assist in performing duties
The authority to perform these functions currently exists in various city departments, which remain largely unchanged under the proposed measure. Prop. H combines many existing oversight and auditing functions and avenues for public complaint and departmental accountability and either puts them under this new elected office or shares these powers between the existing department authority and the public advocate.
The controller has projected that this measure would cost between $600,000 and $3.5 million annually, depending upon the ultimate staffing level.1
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
Currently, San Francisco has multiple mechanisms to ensure transparent and accountable government and provide for oversight in the public interest. The city has an Ethics Commission, an Office of Citizen Complaints, an Office of the Controller (which includes a Whistleblower Program), a City Services Auditor and a Civil Grand Jury, as well as numerous charter-mandated public oversight bodies and commissions associated with almost every major city department.
The only U.S. municipality with a public advocate is New York City, which created this elected position in 1989 as part of a restructuring of the local government. The New York public advocate is a citywide elected office with some oversight functions and the power to introduce legislation but little administrative authority, though the advocate is second in line to the mayor. According to analysts sympathetic to the office, “there is widespread confusion about its intended role in government.”2 Some other cities have appointed ombudspersons to field citizen concerns and promote policies to improve service in specific areas of government, but no other cities have followed the public advocate model.
This measure was placed on the ballot by a 6 to 5 vote of the Board of Supervisors. As a charter amendment, it must be on the ballot and requires a simple majority (50 percent plus one vote) to pass.
- The new public advocate position might identify areas for reform in San Francisco government that would not otherwise be highlighted.
This measure would confuse roles and reduce, rather than increase, accountability at City Hall. Prop. H would embed a “shadow mayor” with a considerable staff whose role is to find fault — yet who has no administrative authority to make any government functions work better.
Prop. H would politicize some of the city’s most sensitive functions, such as the Whistleblower Program, by moving them under an elected officer. This could have a chilling effect on government transparency, as city staff and departments might choose not to bring forward problems to an elected official who could have a political motivation for using the information (rather than a neutral entity, such as the Office of the Controller, which is an appointed position and serves through many elected administrations).
There is no compelling case that the functions assigned to the public advocate are not currently working well in San Francisco and would work better if the new office were created.
This measure would provide no new services for San Franciscans. The $600,000 to $3.5 million in immediate staffing costs to create the office could be much better spent on other activities.
Prop. H would give a single elected official the full power of subpoena to issue summons and compel testimony from city officials, employees, city residents and other individuals. Giving one governmental official or agency (especially one that is not a law enforcement official or agency) this power is highly unusual and presents significant opportunity for political abuse. The public advocate would have a much broader license to wield a subpoena than even the city attorney, whose subpoena power is limited to actions in which he or she is enforcing city laws, or the district attorney, whose subpoena power is limited to actions in which he or she prosecutes criminal cases. The public advocate could issue a subpoena to any person to investigate any complaint or perceived unfairness or insufficiency in provision of city service.
This measure could increase public cynicism toward government if the public advocate position is used for partisan advantage or if it reduces the ability of existing elected officials, such as the mayor and supervisors, to work together effectively
A major change to the way San Francisco is governed demands a compelling case for why it is necessary: Would it make the city better? Would the positive impacts outweigh any negative impacts? Would the change reflect principles of good government? Is it on the ballot for the right reasons? Would it make it easier or harder to make future governance and management decisions in the city?
The public advocate proposal fails every test. It reproduces, confuses and politicizes existing government services, in addition to dramatically growing their costs. San Francisco has advocates for the public in the Office of the Mayor and Board of Supervisors, as well as in the city’s dozens of public commissioners and numerous programs for government transparency, accountability and responsiveness to public complaints. If passed, this measure would be highly likely to contribute to dysfunction in San Francisco governance by creating unnecessary and expensive bureaucracy and inappropriately politicizing sensitive functions of government. It’s on the ballot for political reasons and could serve as a vehicle for trouble that would only make San Francisco less well-governed.