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Proposal to limit SF recall elections weakens democracy

From left: Gabriela López, Faauuga Moliga, Alison Collins, Aaron Peskin. | Composite by Camille Cohen

By John Trasviña

Native San Franciscan John Trasvina served as dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law until 2018. He has served in three Democratic presidential administrations and is a former member of the SF Elections Commission.

A rising and broad spectrum of San Franciscans are using the power of the recall election and it is making at least some in City Hall nervous. Though San Francisco has not held a local recall election in almost four decades, Supervisor Aaron Peskin has crafted numerous proposals to amend the City Charter and weaken our voice in government. He should withdraw his proposals and allow the Board of Supervisors to fully focus on the myriad challenges facing our city.  

After hours of hearings, hundreds of negative constituent responses and two earlier drafts, the latest proposed version of the charter amendment seeks to exempt members of the Board of Education and Community College Board, as well as Supervisor Peskin and his fellow supervisors, from almost ever being subject to recall. It will also apply to other offices and is timed to go into effect on June 7, the same date that San Franciscans will vote on the recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin.  

Supporters of the proposed charter amendment have attacked recalls as the product of outsized and out-of-town spending from, in their words, “right-wing Republican billionaires.” Next week’s school board recall vote, however, is the product of over 80,000 San Franciscans coming out during the pandemic to sign petitions to recall three school board members and has earned overwhelmingly diverse support from Art Agnos to Quentin Kopp, Matt Gonzalez to the San Francisco Republican Party, five former school board commissioners and parents in every community. San Franciscans deserve to be heard, not admonished or punished for exercising this right of democracy. 

In response to this outcry, Supervisor Peskin first opposed the city paying for the recall election, leaving it up to the cash-strapped school district, which was already facing cuts to teachers, staff and programs. 

Unsuccessful in that endeavor, he changed tack with his latest charter amendment proposal, which effectively ends recalls of school board and Community College Board members and the Board of Supervisors. 

Even in the face of massive dissatisfaction with, or misconduct by, a member of the Board of Supervisors, Board of Education or Community College, it will almost always be either ‘too early’ or ‘too late’ for voters to seek a recall.

In order to consolidate or reduce the number of city elections, this new draft of the charter amendment doubles to 12 months the time these officials are free from recall at the beginning of their terms and adds a new 18-month period during which they are also exempt. This second “safe space” is not tied to the end of their four-year terms but to “a regularly scheduled election,” which is almost always less than two years away. So for 42 months out of their 48-month term, they are free from recall. In other words, even in the face of massive dissatisfaction with, or misconduct by, a member of the Board of Supervisors, Board of Education or Community College Board, it will almost always be either “too early” or “too late” for voters to seek a recall except for a small six-month window every four years.  

California voters added the recall provisions to the state constitution over 110 years ago in the Progressive Era. We have invoked it sparingly—the last time it was used for a local office was almost 40 years ago. In the governor’s recall last year, over 80% of San Franciscans said “no.”  We should trust San Franciscans instead of weakening this important tool of public accountability, a tool that the San Francisco Democratic Club, Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council and San Franciscans for Public Power deemed “a vital part of our electoral system” the last time we had a vote on the recall of a local official.  

The proposed charter amendment makes one other important change. It prohibits voters from deciding whether the replacement appointed by the mayor should remain. Instead, it bars the appointee from running and makes them a lame duck from day one. The bureaucracy and board colleagues can simply wait out the appointee knowing they will be gone within months. We want and need the best people in office at all times. When they step in at a time of crisis, voters should not be prohibited from choosing to keep them there. 

Currently and critically, this last provision applies only to appointees following a recall and not to those appointed after the previous office holder resigns, dies in office or gets elected elsewhere. Including the latter group in that provision was part of an earlier version of the proposed charter amendment and would have had a very negative impact on women and minorities. Prior to the current board, over half of African American, Latino, Asian American and women supervisors were appointed before they were elected. None would have been allowed to run immediately after their appointed term and we would have been deprived of tremendous leaders like Harry Britt, Gordon Lau, Susan Leal, Terry Francois, Louise Renne, Mark Leno and many more after just a few months in office. Thankfully, Supervisor Peskin dropped that idea.

Supervisor Peskin has offered different ideas to limit recalls and thus far what we have seen are limits on the mayor, on future appointed officials and on the voters—limits more harshly felt among women and minorities. Supervisor Peskin should pull back from these efforts, use his commendable talents for more critical city problems and let his colleagues do the same.    

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