When the people lead

Pub date August 7, 2012

By Jon Golinger

OPINION Thursday, July 19, 2012 was an especially gorgeous day in San Francisco. On that warm and sunny summer afternoon, a colorful collection of more than 100 citizens from every corner of the city gathered together on the steps of City Hall to announce they had done something political insiders and powerbrokers had just weeks earlier dismissed as “impossible.”

This grassroots coalition of neighborhood leaders, tenant activists, homeowners, seniors, environmentalists, and recreation enthusiasts had just collected more than 31,000 petition signatures in less than 30 days from San Francisco voters. For the first time in more than 20 year, they had just qualified a referendum for the ballot challenging a Board of Supervisors-approved ordinance. They had just stopped in its tracks the seemingly done-deal to dramatically increase height limits on the waterfront for the proposed 8 Washington luxury condo high-rise project.

This citizen activism was made even more difficult by developer Simon Snellgrove, who went to extraordinary lengths to interfere with the petition drive and prevent it from succeeding, including:

• Using crafty legal maneuvers to require the petition to include not just the five-page city ordinance it challenges, but 515 additional pages of charts and addendums. This created a 520-page “book” that was expensive to print and heavy to carry.

• Spending $30,000 to pay hired “blockers” to encircle petition gatherers wherever they could find them and shout, intimidate, and otherwise interfere with their talking to voters.

• Paying an attorney to hover over the shoulders of workers at the Department of Elections as they counted petition signatures, repeatedly challenging their decisions.

While all of these hurdles and questionable tactics certainly had an impact, the citizen activists and volunteers nevertheless persevered. Soon after the 65 boxes overflowing with signed petitions had paraded through the corridors of City Hall, they were certified as sufficiently valid by the San Francisco Department of Elections. The “impossible” was done.

A recent poll by David Binder Research found that voters citywide would overwhelmingly reject the 8 Washington waterfront height limit increase by a vote of 56 percent to 25 percent if the Waterfront Referendum were put to a vote today. However, before it is officially placed on the ballot, the referendum process offers the Board of Supervisors a “second-chance” to make the right decision at its September 4th meeting.

Supervisors Christina Olague, Jane Kim, Eric Mar, and Malia Cohen — who all voted in favor of the waterfront height limit increase in June — now have the opportunity to take some time to talk with their constituents, reexamine their initial decision, and hopefully make a different choice.

But if they fail to do so, the referendum on the proposed 8 Washington project’s “Wall On the Waterfront” will appear on the November 2013 ballot and the people will decide. The people will decide whether a special exemption should be made to give away prime public land to a developer to build multi-million-dollar condos that 99 percent of San Franciscans can’t afford. The people will decide whether to allow the construction of a high-rise luxury condo building on the waterfront that would be 50 feet higher than the old Embarcadero Freeway. The people will decide whether we should protect or neglect our unique and beautiful waterfront. If the leaders fail to lead, the people will lead.

Jon Golinger is the Campaign Director for No Wall on the Northeast Waterfront www.NoWallOnTheWaterfront.com