Reform the recall

Pub date June 12, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The Board of Supervisors — and the very notion of representative democracy — is under attack in San Francisco.

As city editor Steven T. Jones reported in last week’s paper ("Hazy Recall") and on our Politics blog ("Connect the Recall Dots"), a recall campaign has targeted Sup. Jake McGoldrick, citing his advocacy of car-free spaces in Golden Gate Park and a bus rapid-transit initiative that recall advocates believe district residents oppose.

Behind its claims of being a grassroots effort with legitimate concerns about McGoldrick’s leadership are some troubling indicators that there’s a lot more to this than potential petition signers might realize. The campaign’s biggest financial contributions come from the Residential Builders Association (which has long battled McGoldrick over conditions and restrictions he’s tried to place on developers) and the conservative property rights group Small Property Owners of San Francisco.

The lion’s share of the $24,000 raised so far has gone to Johnny K. Wang’s JKW Political Consulting. Among JKW’s other clients are the reelection campaign of Mayor Gavin Newsom (who would get to appoint McGoldrick’s successor, and whom the supervisor publicly criticized over Newsom’s sex scandal), Google and Earthlink (which Newsom wants to build a wireless Internet system for the city, a deal McGoldrick has taken the lead in scrutinizing), and malevolent downtown player Citizens for Reform Leadership (an attack group created by Newsom treasurer Jim Sutton).

It’s no surprise that Newsom and his downtown allies would want to knock off McGoldrick or any of the progressive supervisors who have been effectively setting the city’s agenda for at least the past two years. In fact, critics of the board have now launched another recall campaign, against board president Aaron Peskin, as well as a lower-level effort against Sup. Chris Daly. And this follows an unsuccessful 2004 effort to recall Sup. Sophie Maxwell, which had some behind-the-scenes support from downtown attack dog Wade Randlett.

None of these four supervisors have committed the acts of corruption, incompetence, or gross malfeasance for which the tool of the recall was created. Instead, people are trying to recall McGoldrick, Peskin, and Daly simply for being effective legislators with whom some of their more conservative constituents disagree.

This is an outrageous and dishonest abuse of the recall. Newsom should immediately and publicly express his opposition to the recall campaigns, and citizens of the district should refuse to sign the petitions. But that’s not enough. It’s time for the Board of Supervisors to consider placing a charter amendment on the ballot that would reform the way recalls are handled in the city, which is far more lenient than under state law.

The San Francisco signature threshold of 10 percent of registered voters is ridiculously low, particularly for district-elected supervisors, for whom only about 3,500 signatures are needed. Statewide, the standard is 20 percent of registered voters, and that should be our standard as well.

Raising the signature threshold is particularly important given the advantage that downtown interests have in recalling supervisors. The City Charter treats recall campaigns like ballot measures, allowing for huge political contributions rather than the $500 limits applied to candidates. This is grossly unfair to truly grassroots groups and should also be changed to cap contributions at $500.

Finally, we should remove the temptation for allies of the mayor to use the recall as a way of undoing popular elections and giving more power to the mayor. Most recall elections in California entail the replacement of a successfully recalled official by a vote of the people (as we saw when Gov. Gray Davis was recalled), but in San Francisco, the mayor chooses the successor. That needs to change.

Too often these days, the recall is a weapon wielded recklessly by wealthy special interests to subvert the true will of the people. By setting reasonable financial contribution limits, creating a high but still attainable signature threshold, and making the recall more democratic, San Francisco can once again make the recall an honorable — and seldom used — tool of the people. *