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Politics & Policy

Plan to fix ‘broken’ San Francisco blows up in 2 weeks

A person with long black hair stands next to a window.
Kanishka Cheng, CEO of TogetherSF Action, withdrew a charter reform ballot measure her political group submitted to the San Francisco Department of Elections in early December. | Source: Godofredo A. Vásquez/AP

In an embarrassing blunder, a moderate political group in San Francisco withdrew a ballot measure intended to cut bureaucracy at City Hall just two weeks after it announced the ordinance in a press conference.

TogetherSF Action confirmed to The Standard on Monday that it was pulling one of two proposed ballot measures to reform the city charter because, contrary to the group’s goal of empowering the mayor to make more decisions, it would actually hand more authority to the Board of Supervisors. 

The group decided to scrap the measure before a Tuesday deadline after huddling with officials in the Mayor’s Office last week. TogetherSF Action plans to revise it and submit a new version to the Department of Elections.

Earlier this month, TogetherSF Action announced it was introducing two ballot measures to reform the city charter—one to give the mayor more power and the other to cut the number of city commissions in half. The group contends that giving the mayor more authority is key to making progress on public safety and the housing, homelessness and drug crises. 

But the proposal to eliminate commissions contained a fatal flaw, according to multiple sources in and around City Hall: Eliminating certain commissions would kick oversight responsibilities over to the Board of Supervisors, a group Mayor London Breed has repeatedly criticized as being “obstructionist” and tone-deaf on the issues many San Franciscans are facing.

Multiple sources in and around City Hall suggested the errors in TogetherSF Action’s proposed measure came from a DIY approach and a failure to consult with experts until concerns arose. One source, who is familiar with the issues but was not authorized to speak publicly, called the proposal “sloppy.”

Kanishka Cheng, the head of the nonprofit TogetherSF and its political arm, TogetherSF Action, said in a statement Monday that the ballot measure to eliminate commissions—known as the “Cut the Dysfunctional Bureaucracy Initiative”—was being updated to change the “status quo” on city operations.

“San Francisco’s governance structure is broken and we are committed to advancing bold reforms at the ballot this November to ensure city government is better positioned to tackle the challenges facing our city,” Cheng said. “We are making updates to our reform measure that will make the initiative stronger and clarify authority and responsibilities between the executive and legislative branches. Voters deserve to know who is responsible for the city government’s decisions and to hold them accountable.” 

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

The second proposed ballot measure—known as the “We Need SF To Work Initiative”—would give the mayor sole discretion to hire and fire department heads, strengthen the mayor’s ability to control commissions, and allow for the creation of deputy mayor positions.

Under city rules, any voter-led ballot initiative must first be submitted to the Department of Elections. After a 15-day review period by the City Attorney’s Office, the proposal receives a title and summary, and advocates can proceed to collect petition signatures. Sources suggested it would take four to five months to collect the almost 50,000 petition signatures required by July 8 to qualify for the November 2024 ballot. That 15-day period was to expire Tuesday.

Plan to Cut Commissions in San Francisco

The “Cut the Dysfunctional Bureaucracy Initiative” proposed creating a task force to review commissions in the city and suggest which ones were redundant and ripe for elimination. As of this summer, San Francisco had 53 departments, 56 boards and commissions and 74 other advisory bodies.

TogetherSF Action’s original plan suggested the number of commissions be capped at 65. 

TogetherSF Action said the revised version will seek to keep bodies such as the Board of Appeals, Police Commission, Fire Commission and Planning Commission while allowing the mayor and supervisors the ability to hire and fire commissioners for the Public Utilities Commission, the Fine Arts Commissions, the War Memorial Board and the Airport Commission.

Permitting appeals would go to the Board of Appeals instead of supervisors. For commissions such as the Public Utilities Commission, the Airport Commission and the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the mayor would be able to appoint a supermajority of commissioners.  

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, the president of the Board of Supervisors, said the mistakes should be seen as a “teachable moment.” He suggested the group should have worked with Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, who also introduced a charter reform measure that had some overlapping goals with TogetherSF Action’s proposal. 

A man gesticulates and speaks with 1 hand extended out next to a podium with a gilded facade in the background.
Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin criticized TogetherSF Action's proposed ballot measure as ill-conceived. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

“We can have a discussion about what the best public policy is, but if it’s not what they intended, it shows this organization and its members don’t know what they’re doing,” Peskin said. “When you’re tinkering with your constitution, it should be tinkered with in public.”

The Mayor’s Office declined to comment.

The Department of Elections received a letter from Cheng requesting that the ballot measure be withdrawn Monday afternoon. She added that she plans to submit a revised version “in the coming days.” Once resubmitted, another 15-day review process would start before any signatures could be gathered. 

Mandelman said he has not seen TogetherSF Action’s ballot measures, but he and the group have been talking about ways to improve the city through charter reform. He indicated his ballot measure, which also suggests the creation of deputy mayors, would be more incremental with an eye on continuing to reform the city charter in 2026.

“To their credit, they are motivated by a sincere desire to fix problems in San Francisco city governance. In my experience, that’s not easy,” Mandelman said. “It’s hard to fault them for trying to come up with some structural solutions.”