Don’t undo ballot measures

Pub date May 31, 2011

EDITORIAL The California initiative process is broken. The state’s too big, and it costs too much to gather signatures and mount a media campaign for or against a ballot measure.

But in San Francisco, the initiative process has traditionally been, and for the most part continues to be, a check on corrupt or ineffective political leaders and a chance for progressive reforms that can’t make it through City Hall. That’s why Sup. Scott Wiener’s proposal to allow the supervisors to amend (or, in theory, abolish) laws passed by the voters is a bad idea.

Since 1968, the San Francisco voters have approved 96 ordinances; that’s an average of about two a year. Obviously the pace has picked up since the 1970s. In 2008, there were eight measures approved; in 2010 there were four. The length and complexity of the ballot makes it appear that the supervisors aren’t doing their work, Wiener says. He notes that when he was campaigning, one of the most common complaints was that the voters were being asked to decide too many things that should have been handled at City Hall.

Some of that is the result of an unwieldy City Charter. Benefits for police and firefighters, for example, are specified in the charter, and any change needs voter approval. Wiener’s measure, aimed only at initiatives and not charter amendments, wouldn’t change that situation.

But some of it relates to the political alignments in San Francisco. For much of the past decade, the supervisors and the mayor were at odds over major issues. The mayor couldn’t get his (bad) proposals, like a ban on sitting on the sidewalks, through the board, and the progressives couldn’t get their proposals past a mayoral veto. So both sides went directly to the voters.

That’s a lot better than the paralysis we’re seeing in Sacramento. At least the issues are getting decided.

And over the years, some of the most important legislation in San Francisco — growth controls, tenant protections, protections for children’s programs, the city’s landmark open-government law — has come through ballot initiatives. The only way public power advocates have been able to get the issue on the agenda has been through ballot initiatives.

Those were issues that generations of supervisors and mayors wouldn’t take on — the developers and landlords and secrecy lobbyists and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. had too much power at City Hall. And those protections for the public, the environment, and the most vulnerable residents only survive today because they’re set in law and can’t easily be changed.

If Wiener’s measure has been in effect a decade ago, for example, Proposition M — the 1986 law that set neighborhood planning priorities and limits on office development, would have been summarily scrapped by Mayor Willie Brown and a pro-developer board. Key rent-control laws would have been repealed or amended to death. The ban on buildings that cast shadows on parks would be gone. Killing the Sunshine Ordinance would have been Brown’s first act.

Today’s district-elected board is far more accountable to the voters — but there’s hardly a reliable progressive majority. And the point of ballot initiatives is that you can’t predict who will control City Hall next year, or in 10 years.

We don’t think the initiative process in San Francisco is out of control. Sure, big money wins the day too often — but on balance, it’s a check that the Board of Supervisors should leave alone.