City Hall standoff

Pub date July 27, 2010

Backroom politics, vote-trading, threats, and tricky legislative maneuvering marked — some would say marred — the approval of the city’s 2010-11 budget and a package of fall ballot measures.

For weeks, Mayor Gavin Newsom had been threatening to simply not spend the roughly $42 million in budgetary add-backs the supervisors had approved July 1, mostly for public health and social services, unless they agreed to withdraw unrelated November ballot measures that Newsom opposes (see "Bad faith," July 14).

The board’s July 20 meeting included a flurry of last-minute maneuvers interrupted by an hours-long recess during which Newsom, Board President David Chiu, and their representatives negotiated a deal that was bristled at by progressive supervisors and fiscal conservative Sup. Sean Elsbernd.

Ideological opposites Elsbernd and Sup. Chris Daly voted against motions to delay consideration of several measures — including splitting appointments to the Rent, Recreation and Park, and Municipal Transportation Authority boards; revenue measures; and requiring police foot patrols — until after approval of the city budget.

"What is the connection between [seismic retrofit] bonds and the budget?" Elsbernd asked as Budget Committee chair John Avalos made the motion to delay consideration of the $46 million general obligation bond Newsom proposed for the November ballot.

Avalos made an oblique reference to "other meetings" that were happening down the hall. Daly then criticized the maneuver, noting that "vote trading is illegal," later citing a 2006 City Attorney’s Office memo stating that supervisors may not condition their votes on unrelated items.

But that didn’t stop supervisors from engaging in a complex, private dance with the Mayor’s Office and other constituencies that day. In the end, the board approved the budget on a 10-1 vote, with Daly in dissent. Then Chiu provided the swing vote to kill the progressive proposal to split with the mayor appointments to the Recreation and Park Commission, with Sups. Daly, Avalos, Ross Mirkarimi, David Campos, and Eric Mar on the losing end of a 5-6 vote to place the measure on the fall ballot.

A measure to split appointments to the Rent Board was defeated on a 10-1 vote, with Daly dissenting, although that seems to be tactical concession by progressives. Campos, who sponsored the measure, said landlord groups were threatening an aggressive campaign against the measure that would also seek to tarnish progressive supervisorial candidates.

Removal of an MTA reform measure from the ballot, another mayoral demand, was also likely at the July 27 meeting (held after Guardian press time). Chiu told his colleagues July 20 that he was still negotiating with the mayor on implementing some of its provisions without going to the ballot this year.

Chiu rejected the notion that he cut an inappropriate budget deal, saying he was concerned the split appointment measures would be portrayed as a board power grab, noting that community groups need the funding that Newsom was threatening to withhold, and saying the board’s threats not to fund Newsom’s Project Homeless Connect facility and Kids2College Savings program were also factors in the deal.

"We were engaged with a number of conversations, they all took time, and we didn’t finish until very late," Chiu told us.

Even Daly acknowledged supervisors had few options to counter Newsom’s threats, but told us, "It’s just not the way we should be doing things."

The decision on three revenue measures (a parking tax increase, property transfer tax, and business tax reform) was set for July 27, with sources telling the Guardian that only one or perhaps two would make it onto the ballot. Newsom opposes all of them. Also hanging in the balance was Mirkarimi’s ballot measure requiring police to do more foot patrols, as well as another version in which Chiu added a provision that would invalidate the Newsom-backed ordinance banning sitting or lying on sidewalks, a retaliation for Newsom inserting a similar poison pill in his hotel tax loophole measure that would invalidate the hotel tax increase that labor put on the ballot if it gets more votes.

But most of the action was on July 20. The Transportation Authority (comprised of all 11 supervisors) voted 8-3 (with Chiu, Avalos, and Mar opposed) to place a $10 local vehicle license fee surcharge on the ballot, which would raise about $5 million a year for Muni. A Daly-proposed ballot measure to create an affordable housing fund and plan failed on 4-7 vote, with only Campos, Mar, and Chiu joining Daly.

There were some progressive victories as well. A charter amendment by Mirkarimi to allow voters to register on election day was approved 9-2, with Elsbernd and Alioto-Pier in dissent. A Chiu-proposed measure to allow non-citizens to vote in school board elections was approved 9-2, with Elsbernd and Carmen Chu voting no. And a Daly-proposed charter amendment to require the mayor to engage in public policy discussions with the board once a month was approved 6-5, opposed by Dufty, Alioto-Pier, Elsbernd, Maxwell, and Chu.

But the busy day left some progressives feeling unsettled. "How do you do this and not be trading votes?" Campos told us. "In the end, we’re saving programs, but what does it say about the institution of the board?"

Newsom spokesperson Tony Winnicker denied that the mayor made inappropriate threats, but confirmed that a deal was cut and told us, "Yes, the Mayor made his concerns about the budget clear. Yes, the mayor made his concerns about the charter amendments clear."