Pub date October 13, 2009

San Francisco is facing the worst budget crisis in modern history. More than 1,000 employees, mostly front-line workers in the Department of Public Health, have been laid off, and the red ink continues. Yet the only measure on the November ballot that would raise any money for the city is Sup. Bevan Dufty’s plan to sell off naming rights for Candlestick Park.

That’s pathetic. During the summer budget discussions, Mayor Newsom vowed to work with business, labor, and the supervisors to come up with a reasonable plan to bring in some new cash for the city. But that collapsed — largely because state law would have made it hard to raise taxes this fall without a unanimous vote of the supervisors. And while eight members were willing to put a revenue measure on the ballot, the three supervisors closest to the mayor — Sean Elsbernd, Carmen Chu, and Michela Alioto-Pier, all Newsom appointees — refused to go along. And the mayor made only a weak effort to change their minds.

So while Democrats everywhere decry Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s insistence on a cuts-only budget, the Democratic mayor of San Francisco has forced essentially the same approach on this city. The only revenue increases we’re seeing are fees, like Muni fare hikes, that amount to taxes on the poor.

That’s the state of San Francisco as we head into what will almost certainly be a low-turnout election. Only two elected officials are on the ballot, and both are unopposed. Five ballot measures — several fairly significant — round out the local ballot. And with no big-name races at the top, they will win or lose on the votes of a small majority.

That’s too bad, because the issues matter. Vote Nov. 3 — and let’s hope next year’s ballot actually includes some new, progressive taxes.


City Attorney

Dennis Herrera

San Francisco hasn’t always had a good track record with city attorneys. George Agnost, who ran the office in the 1970s and 1980s, was a dour, secretive, conservative lawyer who let downtown call all the shots. Louise Renne, who took over from Agnost, ran the office in the 1990s as if it was a wholly-owned subsidiary of Pacific Gas and Electric Co. Herrera, who took over in 2001, has been a major improvement. He’s turned the office into a modern operation, professionalized the administration, and taken on an activist role on consumer, environmental, and public-interest issues. He’s been a big supporter of marriage equality and of the city’s landmark health-care legislation. On his own initiative, he sued to end gender rating in health insurance and crack down on predatory payday lenders. He also moved to enforce health codes in housing and has been out front going after corrupt landlords like Skyline Realty.

We have some concerns about Herrera. Although he’s been far more sunshine-friendly than his predecessors, open-government activists are still sometimes forced to sue the city to get access to records. He won’t use his power as city attorney to enforce the Raker Act and bring public power to San Francisco. And during the current budget crisis, he cut the number of city attorney hours the supervisors can use to draft legislation.

And if, as rumored, he wants to run for mayor, Herrera needs to start taking public stands on major issues — like the unfairness of the local tax code and the need for new revenue.

But we’re happy to endorse him for another term.


Jose Cisneros

The incumbent treasurer is running unopposed, and we see no reason not to endorse him. He’s done some very positive things: Cisneros worked to get the big downtown law firms and other partnerships to pay their fair share of city taxes. He closed a tax loophole exploited by the big airlines that put up flight crews in local hotels.

He also convinced local banks and credit unions to accept consular identification cards to allow immigrants to open accounts and has pushed those institutions to offer "second-chance banking" to people with past credit problems. During his tenure, more than half of the 50,000 households in the city that lacked bank accounts have been able to get away from predatory check-cashing outfits and open legitimate accounts.

As an elected official, however, he could be doing a lot more. The city still keeps all its short-term accounts in one bank — Bank of America, which isn’t even local. Cisneros has promised to open that deal up to competitive bidding, but doesn’t have a timeline. And although nobody knows better than the treasurer how unfair and regressive the city’s tax codes are, he has never spoken out or offered any solutions. Cisneros says he wants his office to be apolitical, but city money is, by its nature, a political issue, and we’d like to see a little more leadership from the person who handles it. But overall, he’s a professional money manager who’s done a decent job and deserves another term.

Proposition A

Budget process


We’re a little nervous about Prop. A, which would institute a two-year budget cycle for the city. Sup. Chris Daly, who opposes it, points out that the city controller’s budget projections are often wrong — badly wrong — and trying to plan 24 months ahead when economic conditions (and thus the city’s revenue stream) can change so quickly and unpredictably is a dangerous game.

But on balance, the approach in Prop. A makes sense. The budget debates would still take place every year, and the supervisors would still have to approve an annual budget — although the budget would be a rolling two-year projection. So next year, the board would approve a budget for 2010 and 2011, the following year for 2011 and 2012, and so on — leaving plenty of room for adjusting to meet economic changes. And two-year cycles might make it easier for nonprofits that rely on city funding to do some serious long-term planning.

Equally important, Prop. A requires the police and firefighters to negotiate their union contracts the same time the other unions do — before the budget deadline. The current system allows those unions to make demands that are unrelated to — and often outside — the current year’s budget realities.

Every progressive on the board except Daly supports this, and Sups. Alioto-Pier, Elsbernd and Chu oppose it.

Proposition B

Board of Supervisors aides


This one’s a no-brainer. The City Charter mandates that each supervisor be allowed to hire two aides. The requirement dates back to a long-ago era when city budgets were far smaller, problems were less pressing and complex, and the supervisors worked part-time. It makes perfect sense to take such an archaic law out of the City Charter and allow the supervisors to set their own budgets — and staffing levels — the same way the mayor does. Vote yes.

Proposition C

Candlestick Park Naming Rights


You have to give Sup. Bevan Dufty, the author of Prop. C, credit for trying. He’s looking for any angle he can use to help keep the 49ers in town, and allowing a corporate sponsor to pay for naming rights might possibly help cover the immense cost of substantially renovating aging Candlestick Park. And, like Prop. D (see below), this measure has a nice beneficiary: part of the money from naming rights would go to save the jobs of recreation directors, many of whom have faced budget-driven layoffs.

We agree that rec directors play a crucial role, particularly in neighborhoods with large numbers of at-risk youth. And we wish the Chamber of Commerce, Sup. Elsbernd, and other supporters of Prop. C were willing to accept some progressive tax hikes to fund those jobs.

But this isn’t a good deal. The city owns the stadium; the taxpayers financed its construction and spent 30 years paying off the bonds. But the 49ers, a private outfit owned by a very wealthy family, would get half the money from any naming deal. And the money that would come in would be radically short of what the team would need to rebuild the ‘Stick. Vote no.

Proposition D

Mid-Market special sign district


Again: credit for the effort. David Addington, who owns the Warfield Theater and several other properties on mid-Market Street, accurately notes that the city’s main thoroughfare, between Fifth and Seventh streets, is rundown, ignored, and badly in need of an economic boost. He argues that allowing new digital billboards would create something of a Times Square in San Francisco, attracting tourists and turning mid-Market into a thriving theater district. Nothing else the city has done has worked — why not give this a try?

We aren’t necessarily opposed to digital billboards and we’d love to see mid-Market reinvigorated. But Prop. D would give too much authority to an unelected, unrepresentative group. It would amount to privatizing city planning and set a terrible precedent.

Under the measure, the Central Market Community Benefits District, a private group of property owners, organizations, and residents, would be authorized to approve new general advertising billboards as large as 500 square feet. The ads would have to meet city codes, but the Planning Department and supervisors would have no ability to block new installations. And the money — potentially millions of dollars a year — would go entirely to the property owners and the CBD, which would decide how to distribute it.

Yes, like Prop. C, this measure would help a worthy group: some of the new money would go to youth programs in the Tenderloin. But the process this measure describes isn’t at all democratic. The CBD board selects its own members, and the only oversight the city has is the ability of the Board of Supervisors to abolish the agency and start over.

We’re open to new ideas for central Market Street. We’re open to lights and ads and maybe even billboards. But we’re not willing to turn over zoning and public finance decisions to a private group. Vote no.

Proposition E

Advertisements on city property


Proposition E, written by former Sup. Jake McGoldrick, would freeze new commercial billboards and ads on street furniture at 2008 levels and outlaw advertising on public buildings. It’s an extension of existing city policy, which seeks to limit the increasing blight of commercial ads in public space. Vote yes.