Endorsements: Local ballot measures

Pub date October 2, 2007

Proposition A (transit reform)


This omnibus measure would finally put San Francisco in a position to create the world-class transportation system that the city needs to handle a growing population and to address environmental problems ranging from climate change to air pollution. And in the short term it would help end the Muni meltdown by giving the system a much-needed infusion of cash, about $26 million per year, and more authority to manage its myriad problems.

The measure isn’t perfect. It would give a tremendous amount of power to the unelected Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a semiautonomous agency created in 1999 to reform Muni. But we also understand the arguments of Sup. Aaron Peskin — who wrote the measure in collaboration with labor and other groups — that the MTA is free to make tough decisions that someone facing reelection might avoid. And the measure still would give the Board of Supervisors authority to block the MTA’s budget, fare increases, and route changes with seven votes.

We’re also a little worried about provisions that could place the Taxicab Commission under the MTA’s purview and allow the agency to tinker with the medallion system and undermine Proposition K, the 1978 law that gives operating permits to working drivers, not corporations. Peskin promised us, on tape, that he will ensure, with legislation if necessary, that no such thing happens, and we’ll hold him to it.

Ultimately, the benefits of this measure outweigh our concerns. The fact that the labor movement has signed off on expanded management powers for the MTA shows how important this compromise is. The MTA would have the power to fully implement the impending recommendations in the city’s Transit Improvement Project study and would be held accountable for improvements to Muni’s on-time performance. New bonding authority under the measure would also give the MTA the ability to quickly pursue capital projects that would allow more people to comfortably use public transit.

The measure would also create an integrated transportation system combining everything from parking to cabs to bike lanes under one agency, which would then be mandated to find ways to roll back greenhouse gas emissions from transportation sources to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2012. And to do that, the agency would get to keep all of the revenue generated by its new programs. As a side benefit — and another important reason to vote for Prop. A — approval of this measure would nullify the disastrous Proposition H on the same ballot.

San Francisco faces lots of tough choices if we’re going to minimize climate change and maximize the free flow of people through our landlocked city. Measure A is an important start. Vote yes.

Proposition B (commission holdovers)


Proposition B is a simple good-government measure that ends a practice then-mayor Willie Brown developed into a science — allowing commissioners to continue serving after their terms expire, turning them into at-will appointments and assuring their loyalty.

Members of some of the most powerful commissions in town serve set four-year terms. The idea is to give the members, many appointed by the mayor, some degree of independence: they can’t be fired summarily for voting against the interests (or demands) of the chief executive.

But once their terms expire, the mayor can simply choose not to reappoint or replace them, leaving them in limbo for months, even years — and while they still sit on the commissions and vote, these holdover commissioners can be fired at any time. So their jobs depend, day by day, on the whims of the mayor.

Prop. B, sponsored by the progressives on the Board of Supervisors, simply would limit to 60 days the amount of time a commissioner can serve as a holdover. After that period, the person’s term would end, and he or she would have to step down. That would force the mayor to either reappoint or replace commissioners in a timely manner — and help give these powerful posts at least a chance at independence. Vote yes.

Proposition C (public hearings on proposed measures)


Proposition C sure sounds good: it would mandate that the supervisors hold a hearing 45 days in advance before putting any measure on the ballot. The mayor would have to submit proposed ballot measures for hearings too. That would end the practice of last-minute legislation; since four supervisors can place any ordinance on the ballot (and the mayor can do the same), proposals that have never been vetted by the public and never subjected to any prior discussion often wind up before the voters. Sometimes that means the measures are poorly written and have unintended consequences.

But this really isn’t a good-government measure; it’s a move by the Chamber of Commerce and downtown to reduce the power of the district-elected supervisors.

The 1932 City Charter gave the supervisors the power to place items before the voters as a check on corruption. In San Francisco it’s been used as a check on downtown power. In 1986, for example, activists gathered enough voter signatures to place Proposition M, a landmark measure controlling downtown development, on the ballot. But then–city attorney Louise Renne, acting on behalf of downtown developers, used a ridiculous technicality to invalidate it. At the last minute, the activists were able to get four supervisors to sign on — and Prop. M, one of the most important pieces of progressive planning legislation in the history of San Francisco, ultimately won voter approval. Under Prop. C, that couldn’t have happened.

In theory, most of the time, anything that goes on the ballot should be subject to public hearings. Sometimes, as in the case of Prop. M, that’s not possible.

We recognize the frustration some groups (particularly small businesses) feel when legislation gets passed without any meaningful input from the people directly affected. But it doesn’t require a strict ballot measure like Prop. C to solve the problem. The supervisors should adopt rules mandating public hearings on propositions, but with a more flexible deadline and exemptions for emergencies. Meanwhile, vote no on Prop. C.

Proposition D (library preservation fund)


In the 1980s and early 1990s, San Francisco mayors loved to cut the budget of the public library. Every time money was short — and money was chronically short — the library took a hit. It was an easy target. If you cut other departments (say, police or fire or Muni or public health), people would howl and say lives were in danger. Reducing the hours at a few neighborhood branch libraries didn’t seem nearly as dire.

So activists who argued that libraries were an essential public service put a measure on the ballot in 1994 that guaranteed at least a modest level of library funding. The improvements have been dramatic: branch library hours have increased more than 50 percent, library use is way up, there are more librarians around in the afternoons to help kids with their homework…. In that sense, the Library Preservation Fund has been a great success. The program is scheduled to sunset next year; Proposition D would extend it another 15 years.

If the current management of the public library system were a bit more trustworthy, this would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately, the library commission and staff have been resisting accountability; ironically, the library — a font of public information — makes it difficult to get basic records about library operations. The library is terrible about sunshine; in fact, activists have had to sue this year to get the library to respond to a simple public-records request (for nonconfidential information on repetitive stress injuries among library staff). And we’re not thrilled that a significant part of the library’s operating budget is raised (and controlled) by a private group, Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, which decides, with no oversight by an elected official, how as much as 10 percent of library money is spent.

But libraries are too valuable and too easy a budget target to allow the Library Preservation Fund to expire. And the way to fend off creeping privatization is hardly by starving a public institution for funds. So we’ll support Prop. D.

Proposition E (mayoral attendance at Board of Supervisors meetings)


If it feels as though you’ve already voted on this, you have: last November, by a strong majority, San Franciscans approved a policy statement calling on the mayor to attend at least one Board of Supervisors meeting each month to answer questions and discuss policy. It’s a great idea, modeled on the very successful Question Time in the United Kingdom, under which the British prime minister appears before Parliament regularly and submits to questions from all political parties. Proposition E would force the mayor to comply. Newsom, despite his constant statements about respecting the will of the voters, has never once complied with the existing policy statement. Instead, he’s set up a series of phony neighborhood meetings at which he controls the agenda and personally selects which questions he’s going to answer.

We recognize that some supervisors would use the occasion of the mayor’s appearance to grandstand — but the mayor does that almost every day. Appearing before the board once a month isn’t an undue burden; in fact, it would probably help Newsom in the long run. If he’s going to seek higher office, he’s going to have to get used to tough questioning and learn to deal with critics in a forum he doesn’t control.

Beyond all the politics, this idea is good for the city. The mayor claims he already meets regularly with members of the board, but those meetings are private, behind closed doors. Hearing the mayor and the board argue about policy in public would be informative and educational and help frame serious policy debates. Besides, as Sup. Chris Daly says, with Newsom a lock for reelection, this is the only thing on the ballot that would help hold him accountable. Vote yes on Prop. E.

Proposition F (police pensions)


We really didn’t want to endorse this measure. We’re sick and tired of the San Francisco Police Officers Association — which opposed violence-prevention funding, opposed foot patrols, opposes every new revenue measure, and bitterly, often viciously, opposes police accountability — coming around, tin cup in hand, every single election and asking progressives to vote to give the cops more money. San Francisco police officers deserve decent pay — it’s a tough, dangerous job — but the starting salary for a rookie cop in this town exceeds $60,000, the benefits are extraordinarily generous, and the San Francisco Police Department is well on its way to setting a record as the highest-paid police force in the country.

Now it wants more.

But in fact, Proposition F is pretty minor — it would affect only about 60 officers who were airport cops before the airport police were merged into the SFPD in 1997. Those cops have a different retirement system, which isn’t quite as good as what they would get with full SFPD benefits. We’re talking about $30,000 a year; in the end, it’s a simple labor issue, and we hate to blame a small group of officers in one division for the serious sins of their union and its leadership. So we’ll endorse Prop. F. But we have a message for the SFPOA’s president: if you want to beat up the progressives, reject new tax plans, promote secrecy, and fight accountability, don’t come down here again asking for big, expensive benefit improvements.

Proposition G (Golden Gate Park stables)


This is an odd one: Proposition G, sponsored by Sup. Jake McGoldrick, would create a special fund for the renovation of the historic (and dilapidated) horse stables in Golden Gate Park. The city would match every $3 in private donations with $1 in public money, up to a total of $750,000. The city would leverage that money with $1.2 million in state funds available for the project and fix up the stables.

Supporters, including most of the progressive supervisors, say that the stables are a historic gem and that horseback riding in the park would provide "after-school, summer and weekend activities for families and youth." That might be a bit of a stretch — keeping horses is expensive, and riding almost certainly won’t be a free activity for anyone. But the stables have been the target of privatization efforts in the past and, under Newsom, almost certainly would be again in the future; this is exactly the sort of operation that the mayor would like to turn over to a private contractor. So for a modest $750,000, Prop. G would keep the stables in public hands. Sounds like a good deal to us. Vote yes.

Proposition H (reguutf8g parking spaces)


It’s hard to overstate just how bad this measure is or to condemn strongly enough the sleazy and deceptive tactics that led Don Fisher, Webcor, and other downtown power brokers to buy the signatures that placed what they call "Parking for the Neighborhoods" on the ballot. That’s why Proposition H has been almost universally condemned, even by downtown’s allies in City Hall, and why Proposition A includes a provision that would negate Proposition H if both are approved.

Basically, this measure would wipe out three decades’ worth of environmentally sound planning policies in favor of giving every developer and homeowner the absolute right to build a parking space for every housing unit (or two spaces for every three units in the downtown core). While that basic idea might have some appeal to drivers with parking frustrations, even they should consider the disastrous implications of this greedy and shortsighted power grab.

The city has very little leverage to force developers to offer community benefits like open space or more affordable housing, or to design buildings that are attractive and environmentally friendly. But parking spots make housing more valuable (and expensive), so developers will help the city meet its needs in order to get them. That would end with this measure, just as the absolute right to parking would eliminate things like Muni stops and street trees while creating more driveways, which are dangerous to bicyclists and pedestrians. It would flip the equation to place developers’ desires over the public interest.

Worst of all, it would reverse the city’s transit-first policies in a way that ultimately would hurt drivers and property owners, the very people it is appealing to. If we don’t limit the number of parking spots that can be built with the 10,000 housing units slated for the downtown core, it will result in traffic gridlock that will lower property values and kill any chance of creating a world-class transit system.

But by then, the developers will be off counting our money, leaving us to clean up their mess. Don’t be fooled. Vote no.

Proposition I (Office of Small Business)


Proposition I got on the ballot after small-business leaders tried unsuccessfully to get the supervisors to fund a modest program to create staff for the Small Business Commission and create a one-stop shop for small-business assistance and permitting. We don’t typically support this sort of after-the-fact ballot-box budgeting request, but we’re making an exception here.

San Francisco demands a lot from small businesses. It’s an expensive place to set up shop, and city taxes discriminate against them. We supported the new rules mandating that even small operations give paid days off and in many cases pay for health insurance, but we recognize that they put a burden on small businesses. And in the end, the little operators don’t get a whole lot back from City Hall.

This is a pretty minor request: it would allocate $750,000 to set up an Office of Small Business under the Small Business Commission. The funding would be for the first year only; after that the advocates would have to convince the supervisors that it was worth continuing. Small businesses are the economic and job-generation engines of San Francisco, and this one-time request for money that amounts to less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the city budget is worthy of support. Vote yes on Prop. I.

Proposition J (wireless Internet network)


It’s going to be hard to convince people to vote against this measure; as one blogger put it, the mayor of San Francisco is offering free ice cream. Anyone want to decline?

Well, yes — decline is exactly what the voters should do. Because Proposition J’s promise of free and universal wireless Internet service is simply a fraud. And the way it’s worded would ensure that our local Internet infrastructure is handed over to a private company — a terrible idea.

For starters, San Francisco has already been down this road. Newsom worked out a deal a year ago with EarthLink and Google to provide free wi-fi. But the contract had all sorts of problems: the free access would have been too slow for a lot of uses, faster access wouldn’t have been free, there weren’t good privacy protections, and the network wouldn’t have been anything close to universal. Wi-fi signals don’t penetrate walls very well, and the signals in this plan wouldn’t have reached much above the second floor of a building — so anyone who lived in an interior space above the second floor (and that’s a lot of people) wouldn’t have gotten access at all.

So the supervisors asked a few questions and slowed things down — and it’s good they did, because EarthLink suddenly had a change in its business strategy and pulled out of citywide wi-fi altogether. That’s one of the problems with using a private partner for this sort of project: the city is subject to the marketing whims of tech companies that are constantly changing their strategies as the economic and technical issues of wi-fi evolve.

San Francisco needs a municipal Internet system; it ought to be part of the city’s public infrastructure, just like the streets, the buses, and the water and sewer lines. It shouldn’t rely just on a fickle technology like wi-fi either; it should be based on fiber-optic cables. Creating that network wouldn’t be all that expensive; EarthLink was going to do it for $10 million.

Prop. J is just a policy statement and would have no immediate impact. Still, it’s annoying and wrongheaded for the mayor to try to get San Franciscans to give a vote of confidence to a project that has already crashed and burned, and Sup. Aaron Peskin, the cosponsor, should never have put his name on it. Vote no.

Proposition K (ads on street furniture)


San Francisco is awash in commercialism. With all of the billboards and ads, the city is starting to feel like a giant NASCAR racer. And a lot of them come from Clear Channel Communications, the giant, monopolistic broadcast outfit that controls radio stations, billboards, and now the contract to build new bus shelters in the city with even more ads on them.

Proposition K is a policy statement, sponsored by Sup. Jake McGoldrick, that seeks to bar any further expansion of street-furniture advertising in the city. That would mean no more deals with the likes of Clear Channel to allow more lighted kiosks with ads on them — and no more new bus shelter ads. That’s got Clear Channel agitated — the company just won the 15-year bid to rebuild the city’s existing 1,200 Muni shelters, and now it wants to add 380 more. Clear Channel argues that the city would get badly needed revenue for Muni from the expanded shelters; actually, the contract already guarantees Muni a large chunk of additional funding. And nothing in Prop. K would block Clear Channel from upgrading the existing shelters and plastering ads all over them.

On a basic philosophical level, we don’t support the idea of funding Muni by selling ads on the street, any more than we would support the idea of funding the Recreation and Park Department by selling the naming rights to the Hall of Flowers or the Japanese Tea Garden or the golf courses. On a practical level, the Clear Channel deal is dubious anyway: the company, which runs 10 mostly lousy radio stations in town and gives almost nothing of value to the community, refuses to provide the public with any information on its projected profits and losses, so there’s no way to tell if the income the city would get from the expanded shelters would be a fair share of the overall revenue.

Vote yes on K.