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Politics & Policy

Does San Francisco’s mayor need more power? This group says yes

Mayor London Breed visits the Margaret S. Hayward Playground and community center in the Western Addition neighborhood in San Francisco with City Hall visible in the background on Nov. 16, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

A new study released Tuesday by one of San Francisco’s most outspoken political groups suggests the city’s governmental structure and elections operate outside the norm of most major cities, and these differences not only exacerbate local crises but demand voter intervention.

The report—commissioned by TogetherSF, a moderate-leaning nonprofit that turned heads with an anti-fentanyl ad campaign designed to shame city officials—is intended to lay the groundwork for ballot measures that would alter power dynamics at City Hall, potentially in dramatic fashion. The authors of the study say that San Francisco’s current form of government has failed to adequately address issues such as housing, homelessness, crime and the collapse of Downtown in the wake of the pandemic.

Suggested changes include creating a hybrid electoral system for the Board of Supervisors that partially reinstates citywide races, as well as strengthening the powers of the mayor and reducing the number of city commissions.

San Franciscans meander in front of City Hall on Oct. 26, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Kanishka Cheng, CEO of TogetherSF, told The Standard in a phone interview that the report, which was carried out in partnership with the Rose Institute of State and Local Government at Claremont McKenna College, is designed to spark a conversation at City Hall that nudges elected officials into putting reforms on the ballot next year.

“We hope this report creates a public conversation around what’s happening in our city and that the system may be part of the problem,” Cheng said. “What’s really exciting about this is that it is also a blueprint.”

The most controversial issue explored in the study would be changing the makeup of the Board of Supervisors, which was the subject of a vicious redistricting process just last year. San Francisco has gone back and forth between district and at-large supervisor races over the course of its 173-year history. 

San Francisco’s election system has gone back and forth between district and citywide races for supervisor. | Screenshot of report

The report notes studies that have found district elections notably increase neighborhood representation by elevating candidates who more closely identify with the concerns of their communities. However, the report also suggests this came at the cost of elected officials who failed to keep the city’s larger concerns in mind, especially in terms of creating more multifamily housing.

A review of studies found results were mixed as far as district races leading to more diversity in representation, as concentrated demographics vary between different cities.

Moving back to at-large supervisor elections could put the city at risk of lawsuits for violating state and federal voting laws, so the report suggests a new hybrid model that would create at-large supervisor seats in addition to district seats. No firm determination is made on whether these seats should be added to the current number of 11 supervisors or maps should be redrawn to carve out space for three to four at-large seats.

Rafael Mandelman, far right, and other supervisors attend the Board of Supervisors meeting at City Hall in San Francisco on Feb. 28. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“Our goal with the report was to analyze and provide potential options for reform that prioritizes the needs of the city as a whole, while respecting the city’s long-standing diversity and values,” Ken Miller, director of the Rose Institute and co-author of the report, said in a statement. 

Other recommendations in the 76-page report include:

  • reducing the number of city commissions
  • strengthening the powers of the mayor to have greater control over departments and staff hires
  • increasing the threshold for voter-initiated ballot measures
  • eliminating the mayor’s unilateral ability to put measures on the ballot
  • altering the city’s ranked-choice voting system to a proportional model used by New York and some other major cities
  • changing the appointment process for the Redistricting Task Force

The Standard has previously reported on the almost comical number of advisory bodies and commissions in San Francisco, with only one city employee willing to go on record on the total number. San Francisco has 130 commissions, while other large California cities average 33 and other U.S. cities with populations similar to San Francisco have about 69, according to the study.

“I think [the commissions] were all created with good intentions, to create a very robust public process,” Cheng said. “But I think we know, at the end of the day, the average San Franciscan—the average voter—isn’t engaged in that public process. And they have no idea who these people are that are making these decisions on the various bodies. So, it’s hard to even hold them accountable or consider it truly transparent.”

The study’s look at commissions intersects with an inspection of San Francisco’s “strong mayor” system, which is considered among the most powerful in the nation. But that system also has been scaled back over the course of two decades of reforms. 

San Francisco Mayor London Breed speaks at a press conference concerning the city’s thousands of unapproved housing projects on June 29. | Jeremy Chen/The Standard

TogetherSF’s study, which says it relied on interviews with roughly 30 current and former city officials but not anyone currently working for the Mayor’s Office or supervisors, calls on the city to “review current limitations on the mayor’s ability to appoint and remove commissioners and department heads.” It also suggests mayoral staff should be paid more so they can appropriately direct department heads.

The report touches on numerous other issues and makes many more suggestions on how the city should seek to implement reforms. Most of these recommendations would need to be put to voters by the mayor or supervisors. If that fails to materialize, TogetherSF might consider collecting signatures and directly putting these reforms to voters next November.

“That’s always a possibility,” Cheng said. “It’s certainly not our desired outcome.”

Editor’s note: Michael Moritz, a general partner at Sequoia Capital who finances The Standard, has provided funding to the 501c3 nonprofit TogetherSF and its political arm, TogetherSF Action. He is not involved in editorial decisions at The Standard.