2022 promises to be a lively year at the polls in San Francisco. With recall votes on three school board members and the district attorney, a special election for state assembly and the regular fall elections, there will likely be four separate votes. And a big one in June will include a number of ballot propositions.
California’s unique ballot initiative laws mean that voters often confront complicated governance questions that would rarely be put directly to the public in other places. In San Francisco, it’s especially common: over the last ten years, San Francisco voters decided on 102 ballot local measures, compared with 29 in Los Angeles, according to Ballotpedia.
Here's a look at the policy choices San Francisco voters will likely face on the June 2022 ballot.
Q: At the last regular meeting of the year, the Board of Supervisors proposed a number of “charter amendments.” What exactly are charter amendments and why do voters decide on them?
A: Cities in California can be organized under the general laws of the state, or under a charter adopted by local voters. A charter is a basic law, similar in some ways to a constitution, that allows a city to manage what are called “municipal affairs.” What constitutes “municipal affairs” can be fluid, but it’s supposed to refer to workaday things like the provision of city services.
San Francisco first adopted a city charter in 1898. This was replaced by a new charter in 1932, which was amended over 500 times between 1932 and 1994. A new, simplified charter, adopted in a 1995 vote, reduced the amount of text by two-thirds while giving the mayor more power over the administration of departments and the Board of Supervisors more power over the budget and legislation. Since then it has been amended by the voters 89 times, and it remains a lengthy and detailed document dictating policy on matters ranging from changes in transit fares to employee pensions.
The charter can only be amended by popular vote. Charter amendments can be put on the ballot by a majority vote of the Board of Supervisors, or alternatively, by any group that can get around 50,000 signatures on a petition. The mayor can also introduce charter amendments, which must be approved by the board before being submitted to the Department of Elections.
How many charter amendments are being proposed? Will they all go to the ballot?
Right now there are six proposed amendments, including two which seek to shrink the power of the mayor and are likely to be bitterly debated by the board in the coming weeks. Like all legislation, the charter amendments must be approved by the rules committee and then the full board, before being submitted to the Department of Elections by February 25. It’s possible that some could be altered or withdrawn, depending on what transpires during City Hall sources say will likely be tense negotiations.
Are all the upcoming ballot questions charter amendments?
No. Some other types of propositions will be on the June ballot, including the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin and an initiative sponsored by Supervisor Catherine Stefani to create a Victims’ Rights Office and provide legal support for domestic violence survivors. Charter amendments, recalls and initiatives all have different rules for how they are placed on the ballot.
Two more initiatives, one dealing with herbicides in city parks, and another on setting garbage pickup rates, could also make it to the ballot depending on what deadlines they meet, according to Department of Elections staff.
Additionally, Supervisor Gordon Mar introduced another initiative, which would make the Public Health Emergency Leave emergency ordinance instituted during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic permanent, at the Supervisors' Jan. 4 meeting.
So what are these Charter Amendments and why are they being put forward?
Here’s the rundown on what each of the six proposed charter amendments would do:
- Create a new City Children’s Agency and Department of Early Childhood, which would replace and absorb the duties of existing agencies; and change the process for providing financial assistance to the San Francisco Unified School District. Sponsored by Mayor Breed and Supervisors Melgar and Mandelman.
As reported earlier by The Standard, this measure is in part a reaction to recent controversies around the school board and the school district’s collapsing finances. But it will also consolidate services to children and families currently provided by the city, such as pandemic recovery assistance, mentorship and pre-school and after-school programs.
- Split the appointing authority for 21 city commissions equally between the Board of Supervisors and the mayor, make mayoral appointments to these and other commissions subject to board approval; and increase the authority of the City Administrator. Sponsored by Supervisors Chan, Ronen, Peskin and Preston.
At the December 14 meeting, lead sponsor Connie Chan described it as a “clean government measure” aimed at “political cronyism” and the “pay-to-play culture” that led to major corruption scandals at the Department of Public Works and other city agencies. It’s the most radical of the charter amendments proposed and would substantially increase the Board’s power, all but guaranteeing a contentious approval process.
- Reorganize the Building Inspection Commission and Department. Sponsored by Supervisors Melgar, Peskin, Ronen and Mandleman.
Lead sponsor Myrna Melgar described this as an effort ‘to restore the confidence in the Building Inspection Department’ by, among other things, bringing appointments into a board approval process as done with other commissions. It would also remove dedicated seats for industries on the commission, a much-criticized set-up that she described as a "conflict of interest" where "the regulated are the regulators." It’s in reaction to scandals around the agency ranging from highly irregular permits to its failure to debar a “permit expediter” who also happened to be a former commission president and was indicted for embezzling from his own clients.
- Transfer the authority for appointing replacement members of the Board of Supervisors, Board of Education and City College Board of Trustees from the mayor to the Board of Supervisors by majority vote, and extending the timelines for recall elections. Sponsored by Supervisors Peskin, Walton, Ronen, Preston, Chan, and Melgar.
In his remarks at introduction, principal sponsor Aaron Peskin described this measure as "recall reform," but neglected to mention the part about removing replacement authority from the mayor. When a Peskin spokesperson was asked about the unusual presentation of his measure, he offered no comment other than to refer to the supervisor’s remarks at the December 14 meeting.
- Adopt a policy declaration urging the Retirement Board to divest from all fossil fuel stocks. Sponsored by Peskin, Preston, and Melgar
This measure reflects Peskin and allies’ dissatisfaction with progress towards divestment by the Retirement Board, which approves investment decisions for the city pension fund.
- Expedite review of certain affordable housing projects. Sponsored by Mayor Breed and Supervisor Safai.
This would apply to new buildings with at least 25 dwelling units that are either 100% affordable, or similar market-rate projects which increase the number of on-site inclusionary affordable units by 15%. Builders would also have to comply with city prevailing wage requirements.
Amendments 2 and 4 look like efforts to shift power from the mayor to the Board of Supervisors. What’s going on there?
The Supervisors have increasingly turned to the ballot as a mechanism for asserting more control over City Hall. Since 2000, there have been 11 charter amendments aimed in some way at shrinking the Mayor’s power to appoint officials or administer departments. Five of them passed.
This article was updated on Jan. 5, 2022.
Mike Ege can be reached at [email protected]