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Politics & Policy

Supervisors to rehash sanctuary law, sex work, and policing

District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen speaks at a rally in defense of Sanctuary in San Francisco outside City Hall on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

This week’s Board of Supervisors meeting features an extremely busy agenda with a lot of routine items—but also some naggingly familiar and controversial issues, including the fate of remote public comment, the city’s sanctuary ordinance and legalizing sex work. 

As these policy issues get rehashed, one gets the feeling that a new Board of Supervisors is emerging with a different way of doing business.

Mayor London Breed will also address the board, answering questions on housing and likely defending a key piece of her agenda: a budget supplemental to fund police overtime. 

Mayor’s Appearance: Ambassadors and Housing

Welcome Ambassadors 2
Brian DeBellevue is one of roughly 50 welcome ambassadors who have been hired to essentially act as the front-door greeters for San Francisco. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

Tuesday’s meeting kicks off with one of Breed’s regular appearances to field questions from supervisors and discuss policy. 

District 7 Supervisor Myrna Melgar has a question about implementing the city’s Housing Element, which should elicit further discussion of Breed’s Housing for All plan. After unveiling it in February, Breed predicted that the housing plan would “make people a little uncomfortable.” 

In line with a housing target mandated by the state, Housing for All calls for 47,000 units of affordable housing and 35,000 market-rate units to be built over the next eight years. Housing-related departments like the Planning Department and Department of Building Inspection will coordinate via an interagency team as part of the plan. 

Melgar’s district, which is home to any number of suburban-feeling neighborhoods ranging from St. Francis Wood to Ingleside Terraces, also has some relatively large redevelopment projects in progress—Parkmerced and Stonestown

District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston plans to ask the mayor a question about community ambassadors—and it will likely be a pointed one. Community ambassadors provide a patrol and response alternative to police officers; Preston, whose district now includes the epicenter of the city’s drug crisis, is the board’s leading police skeptic. 

He asked Breed in a March 3 letter to expand the number and coverage area of ambassadors in his district, including in Lower Polk and the Tenderloin.

“Residents of blocks not covered by ambassadors in the Tenderloin and Lower Polk neighborhoods have experienced worse street conditions, public drug use and dealing, and increased crime,” Preston wrote to Mayor Breed. 

Preston is also the leading opponent to Breed’s $27 million police overtime supplemental, which she says is crucial to getting more patrols on the street and aiding economic recovery. 

The supplemental also includes funding for six ambassadors who would patrol the Sunset neighborhood, which is especially understaffed and suffering rising crime, according to its Supervisor Joel Engardio. 

Unfinished Business: Sanctuary, Sex Work and That Other Thing

An "end" sign is attached to a barrier blocking a road in San Francisco.
Road barriers set up on Capp Street in San Francisco block traffic on Feb. 13, 2023. | Felix Uribe Jr. for The Standard | Source: Felix Uribe Jr for The Standard

Supervisors will also rehash a handful of resolutions that—despite being nonbinding and essentially serving as statements of values—have nonetheless grabbed headlines and served as springboards for fierce debates.

At the top of this list is District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen’s resolution denouncing the Department of Homeland Security’s requests for exceptions to the city’s sanctuary ordinance in order to arrest and extradite two criminal suspects in Mexico. 

Ronen supports extraditing the suspects but believes the exceptions are unnecessary and designed to impugn the ordinance. The sanctuary ordinance prevents the city from cooperating with immigration enforcement authorities in most cases, but contains exceptions for violent and serious felonies. 

District 6 Supervisor Matt Dorsey’s bill to remove fentanyl dealers from sanctuary protections is also central to this debate, and is why he declared his opposition to Ronen’s resolution, effectively forcing its continuance. 

Given the extreme lethality of the drug, Dorsey believes that slinging fentanyl justifies adding it as an exception to the sanctuary law. Meanwhile, Ronen and other supervisors see the addition as unnecessary and as providing another loophole for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to deport people who are only peripheral to the excepted crimes. 

Dorsey maintains that his bill is about “making the sanctuary ordinance stronger” by updating existing exceptions, but has yet to be heard in committee, and there’s talk it could stall there for a while, if not dying outright.

Dorsey is also exploring putting it on next year’s ballot, saying that “this is about building a movement” on one level. But he also says he’s “not giving up on the legislative process. […] This is a conversation that will go on for a while.”

To that end, he’ll continue to block Ronen’s resolution. Like other resolutions of this kind, which attempt to articulate a universal policy position of the board, it requires a unanimous vote. 

Ronen’s other resolution calling for the legalization of sex work, introduced out of desperation for a solution to street solicitation on Capp Street, is in the same boat. So is Preston’s resolution that condemns a congressional resolution denouncing the “horrors of socialism.” These are also up for further discussion Tuesday. 

District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan’s resolution opposing a 2024 ballot measure called the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act, sponsored by the California Business Roundtable and supported by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, has a better chance of passage. 

The ballot measure, according to sources, is squarely aimed at tax measures passed in San Francisco leveraging recent court decisions that allowed them to pass with a simple majority. If passed, the threshold for passage would be restored to a supermajority for all tax measures. 

One of these taxes, the Early Care and Education Commercial Rents Tax passed in 2018, has been subject to large refund payments, some from overcharging, some from economic effects of the pandemic. 

Notably, on the same day Chan introduced her resolution, the board approved a refund of over $13.3 million in revenues from that tax to WeWork. A $9.1 million refund was paid to Gap Inc. last September also included revenue from the tax. 

Another tax passed the same way, a 2018 measure that taxed businesses to fund homelessness services, saw its revenue fall by almost half in 2021 due to office workers staying home. 

Remote Public Comment Gets More Debate

Supervisors Joel Engardio (center), Myrna Melgar (center right) and Connie Chan (right) listen to public comment on Feb. 28, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Moving on to items that are actually binding, most on Tuesday’s agenda are likely to be routine. 

However, District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman’s motion to place some limits on remote public comment will also be heard again, after being continued last week. 

The motion to limit remote public comment received heavy pushback from some supervisors as well as members of the public who could not easily attend City Hall meetings in person. 

Supervisors are weighing whether there’s a happy medium with allowing some remote public comment while preventing abuses. This week, we’ll find out if they’ve made progress on that front. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the district Supervisor Connie Chan represents.