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Politics & Policy

San Francisco residents could vote on drastic reforms to City Hall next year

An exterior photo of San Francisco City Hall on a sunny day.
TogetherSF Action, a political advocacy group, is sponsoring two ballot measures that would make drastic reforms to San Francisco City Hall. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

The very structure of San Francisco’s government could be a major issue in next year’s elections, as up to four ballot measures aimed at making drastic reforms to City Hall are in the works for the November 2024 ballot. 

TogetherSF Action, a moderate political advocacy group, held a press conference at its Mission District headquarters Monday to announce a campaign for two of the measures, one that would give the mayor more authority over hiring and firing of department heads, among other changes, and another that would dramatically decrease the number of city commissions. 

TogetherSF Action Executive Director Kanishka Cheng cited issues such as the city’s drug dealing and overdose epidemics, along with public safety and housing affordability, as driving the need for “bold reforms” in the way the city makes and implements policies. 

“There’s a common but often overlooked thread that’s holding San Francisco back from making the type of progress that we all expect and deserve,” Cheng told reporters at the press conference. “Our outdated city charter and overtly politically driven measures over the years have caused excessive bureaucracy and impeded progress on our top challenges. … It’s been acknowledged across political lines that something must be done.”

Max Young, a business owner and member of San Francisco’s Open Air Drug Dealing Task Force, spoke in support of the measure. 

Max Young, a bar owner, stands behind a podium next to a women with a sign reading "get it together SF."
Max Young, a SoMa bar owner, is among a group of residents advocating for sweeping reforms to City Hall in 2024. | Source: Mike Ege for The Standard

“We find ourselves in a place where our city’s policies are hindering the growth and sustainability of businesses of all sizes,” Young said. “My bar, Mr Smith’s, had to shut down because drug dealers took over my corner. I spent almost two years on the task force, and five years later, my corner is still a mess every night.” 

“We’ve got a governance structure that’s outlived its usefulness,” added Bill Maggs, a tech executive who is also a 25-year resident and parent. “It hasn’t been adjusted for a while and needs to be adjusted now. As somebody who’s trying to solve problems for myself as a homeowner, I’ve been astounded to learn that there are four commissions responsible for homelessness.”

Some of the goals of TogetherSF’s ballot measures overlap heavily with a separate measure, also proposed for the November ballot by Supervisor Rafael Mandelman. Mandelman’s version also wants to grant the mayor more authority over department heads and commission appointments but would additionally remove the ability of the mayor or four or more supervisors to directly place measures on the ballot. 

When reached by The Standard, Mandelman said that he wanted to “more carefully digest” what TogetherSF is proposing before commenting on its plans. He’s hoping to get the support of a majority of his board colleagues to put his reform measure on the ballot—reflecting hopes for what he called a “meaningful consensus.” TogetherSF plans to place its measure on the ballot through voter petition, requiring them to gather signatures from around 50,000 registered voters by July 8 to qualify. 

TogetherSF’s proposed reforms piggyback on a report the group published in August, which identified various inefficiencies within City Hall that impede its “ability to meet current challenges.” In particular, it noted a “large, complex, and burdensome” commission system—San Francisco has 183 different boards, commissions and advisory bodies—along with “procedural rules and norms” that allow groups and individuals to block decision-making. 

The report also identified the current structure of the Board of Supervisors as problematic, recommending alternative plans for electing supervisors, including a hybrid scheme that includes some district and some at-large supervisors. That was not included in either of TogetherSF’s measures, however. 

“We did explore dealing with the idea of changing the structure of the Board of Supervisors,” Cheng said. “We chose not to proceed with that measure at this time and just advance these two because we feel like these two will have the biggest impact most immediately.”

Michael Moritz, who is chairman of The Standard, has provided funding to the 501c3 nonprofit TogetherSF and its political arm, TogetherSF Action.

TogetherSF and Mandelman aren’t the only ones looking to put major governance changes before voters next year. 

Another voter initiative, supported by former state Sen. Quentin Kopp, could enable voters citywide to select each district supervisor if proponents are successful in gathering sufficient signatures. 

San Francisco last made major one-time reforms to the city charter in 1995, when voters passed Proposition E. That measure, which was based on the recommendations of a special commission, gave more power to both the mayor and the Board of Supervisors while lessening the power of commissions and department heads.

“In San Francisco, there’s always going to be a tension between efficiency and oversight in government,” Mark Mosher, a political consultant who worked on the Proposition E campaign, said in an interview. “It’s a conflict between the desire to get things done and stopping priorities that San Franciscans are conflicted or uncomfortable about.”