Vote your vote away

Pub date May 31, 2011
WriterCarly Nairn

The article has been changed from the print version to correct an error.

In a surprising move that is causing a strong backlash from progressives and other groups that have won important reforms at the ballot box, Sup. Scott Wiener is pushing a charter amendment that would allow the Board of Supervisors to change or repeal voter-approved ballot measures years after they become law.

If voters approve Wiener’s charter amendment, among the most vulnerable reforms may be tenant protections such as limitations on rent increases, relocation assistance for no-fault tenant removal, and owner move-in eviction limits, to name a few.

The Rules Committee heard concerned testimony about the proposal May 19 and opted to hold off on voting to send it to the full board for approval until the next meeting on June 2 to allow for more public comment.

If approved, the amendment will be on the November ballot, although the public may be confused about why such an amendment would be on the ballot in the first place. The measure covers ordinances and resolutions that were placed on the ballot by supervisors, and Wiener has said he plans to amend the measure to exempt those placed on the ballot by voter petition. Changes to taxes or bonds are not a part of the amendment because those are required by state law to go to the ballot box.

Paradoxically, Wiener’s reasoning for the proposal is that he believes voters are bogged down with too many ballot measures with complex issues that need changes, measures he claims the board could deal with more efficiently. But critics say it makes progressive reforms vulnerable to attack by a board that is heavily influenced by big-money interests.

At the committee meeting, about a dozen people spoke in opposition to the amendment, saying it seemed broad in scope and would be a more appropriate change at the state level.

Matthias Mormino, a legislative aide to Sup. Jane Kim, who chairs the Rules Committee, said that his boss is still on the fence. “She has concerns and hasn’t made up her mind yet.”

Currently California is one of the last states where a voter-approved initiative cannot be subject to veto, amendment, or repeal, except by the voters.

“It’s not a radical thing,” Wiener told the Guardian about the proposed amendment. “My thinking is that we should do our jobs. We elect public officials to make decisions every week. I wanted to strike a balance where the voters still have a strong say.”

But how strong of a say will the voting public have in cases where voter-approved initiatives are changed by the decisions of a board of politicians with their own influences and bias?

Wiener stated that he had no specific initiatives in mind when he decided to propose the amendment nor was he targeting any kind of legislation, except ones that are “outdated.” Wiener cited an example of updating campaign consultant reporting from quarterly to monthly as a change that needed to happen but could seemingly be a nuisance at the ballot box.

He is proposing a tiered system in which, for the first three years, an initiative is untouchable. In four years, a two-thirds majority vote by the board could make changes to initiatives; after seven years, a simple majority could do so. That means a raft of tenant measures approved in the 1990s could come under immediate attack.

“Does he not like our sick-leave policy?” Sup. John Avalos told us. “It’s so vague and unclear on what he is trying to do. I’m afraid that he is trying to change laws that are popular with the voters. It’s not a democratic way to resolve policy issues.”

Calvin Welch, a longtime progressive and housing activist, has his own theory on Wiener’s proposal. “Voters don’t have a big problem discerning which ones they agree with and which ones they don’t,” he said about voter-approved initiatives.

He did the number-crunching and concluded that of the 983 policy ordinances on the books, 207 (21 percent) were policy initiatives. Of those, 102 (about 10 percent) were approved by the voters.

“Not quite overwhelming the ballot,” Welch said. “The argument that what is promoting this — the inundation of the initiatives — is not borne of the facts.”

Welch believes Wiener is targeting certain landlord and tenant issues that date back to 1978, when San Francisco voters first started adopting rent control measures. “That is what the agenda is all about — roughly 30 measures that deal with rent control and growth control,” he said.

Wiener denies this is an attack on tenants, and claims he doesn’t have a specific agenda in mind. “This is long-term reform, not immediate gratification reform. To take the big, big step, we would have to change state law. This is just a modest first step.”

Welch also took issue with the idea of “election proportionality,” calling the measure an undemocratic power grab since many initiatives in San Francisco’s history were approved with more than 200,000 votes.

“Mayors don’t get 200,000 votes — these measures do,” Welch said. “That a body can overrule thousands of voters undermines the election process of San Francisco. Why not limit government actors instead of the people? It’s about what Sup. Wiener wants to change.”

Budget set-asides have long been a target for legislators, explained Chelsea Boilard, a budget analyst with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth. Historically in San Francisco, moderate politicians have mostly honed in on social service programs, not those with a lot of clout and political backing, like police and fire budgets. Although the Children’s Fund, which was set up by a charter amendment, would be exempt, other social program priorities set by voters could be eroded.

“The reality is that the police and fire departments don’t have to go to City Hall every year to defend their budgets, but health and human services do,” Boilard said.

While many on the left would love for the California Legislature to have the authority to make changes in the property-tax-limiting Proposition 13 — like by removing commercial property from being taxed at artificially low levels — activists see real danger in Wiener’s measure.

“I think this is bad policy. I know folks are frustrated with Prop. 13, for example, and wish it was easier to amend or repeal. But the way he’s going about this is odd to me,” political activist Karen Babbitt told us. “For one thing, it appears to apply to retroactively to existing ordinances and policy declarations.”

Babbitt also cites legal research indicating that Wiener’s proposal might contradict state law and be subject to legal challenge if it passes. Plus, that challenge could come from any direction since it would allow liberal and conservative reforms to be challenged by the board.

One proposition that would fall under Wiener’s amendment is Proposition L, the sit-lie ordinance approved last year that prohibits sitting or lying on public sidewalks between 7 am and 11 p.m. After a divisive campaign against the measure, police began enforcing it in April. In three years and with enough votes by the board, the board could repeal a law that Wiener supports.

“It’s really interesting,” said Bob-Offer Westort, a civil rights organizer with the San Francisco Coalition of Homelessness. “I have a lot of questions. I guess it cuts both ways. We’d like to see the aggressive panhandling law changed. We’d like to see the sit-lie repealed. There are definitely things, with the right composition of the board, we would benefit from. And there are things that we would not want to see changed.”

Either way, the measure could result in some divisive fights at the board. “One person presenting this as a way to get it done is not the answer,” Avalos said. “I worry that he will use the amendment to dismantle certain voter-approved laws.”