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Saturday, October 16, 2021

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UncategorizedTom's Town: Can we elect our elected officials?

Tom’s Town: Can we elect our elected officials?

By Tom Temprano

JUNE 14, 2014 — I’m sure I’m not alone in having mentally blocked out quite a bit of my middle school experience. That time period is rough on most anyone who isn’t at the tip top of the social hierarchy, and a mega case of acne and being a total band geek closet case led to a predictable slew of awkward and fortunately forgettable experiences, classroom instruction included.

One thing I do remember, however, was a social studies concept so simple that I can almost promise you remember learning it to: checks and balances. You know, the deliberate separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches that is as fundamental a part of American democracy as George Washington’s wigs?

48hillstomstownWell, apparently Middle School Social Studies concepts are well beyond the grasp of San Francisco’s local government, where our checks and balances couldn’t be more out of whack. In a system that would make the attendees of the Constitutional Convention turn over in their graves, our Executive Branch (the mayor) fills vacancies in our Legislative Branch (the Board of Supervisors) and our Legislative Branch fills a vacancy in our Executive Branch should one arise. James Madison would be SUPER pissed at us.

Supervisor John Avalos has conceived of a brilliant fix in our flawed system that could reverse our F in Social Studies into an A+: allowing voters to elect our elected officials. His proposed ballot initiative would cut down on the sort of back-room deal making that Willie Brown turned into an artform and would give voters a chance to do what they ought to be able to.

To boil it down to its simplest: In the instance of a vacancy in a supervisor’s seat, the mayor would still get to appoint a replacement, but this replacement would be the Interim Supervisor and would have a term limit that would end once a special election for the seat was held, within 180 days. That would allow voters to choose from a fresh slate of folks without the all-powerful weight of incumbency behind a mayoral appointee. Should the Mayor’s Office become vacant, something that has only happened four times since 1850, rather than a mad power grab behind closed doors as exemplified during the appointment of Ed Lee, the president of the Board of Supervisors would become acting mayor until a special election, also within 180 days, could be held for that seat.


It’s an idea that is simple, straight forward, and oriented with social studies curriculum. Should be a breeze to get it on the ballot, right?

Unfortunately, what middle school experience would be complete without complicated math? Currently the idea has the confirmed support of only three supervisors: Avalos himself, David Campos and Eric Mar. In order for the board to put it on the ballot as a charter amendment, he’ll need to add three additional votes.

I was never the best at math but if I were trying to count to six here’s how I’d break down a few possible additions to the equation.

Jane Kim is almost always good on this sort of common-sense legislation and votes progressive on most issues. This is a pretty strong progressive piece of legislation that she could easily lend her support to and yet not have to do the same sort of heavy lifting that she’ll be doing on her housing balance initiative and others.

David Chiu has said in a number of Assembly Debates that he would support voters in his District getting a chance to elect their next Supervisor should he win the battle of the Davids and go to Sacramento. Now here’s his chance to make good on that campaign promise. Should he decide to reverse course on this it could provide a pretty solid point of attack for the Campos campaign to call Chiu out for a flip flop.

London Breed seems like a strong opportunity for adding a vote to me – not only was she passed up for a mayoral appointment to the seat she currently holds, but she also has gone out of her way to highlight her independence from mayors past and present. She still represents one of the city’s most progressive districts, and this could be a solid credential to tout should she face challengers to her left in 2016.

Norman Yee has proved to be far (far) more amenable to pretty much every issue I think is important than his predecessor, Sean Elsbernd, and is one of five supervisors who signed on to put Jane Kim’s Housing Balance legislation on the ballot. Furthermore, Yee had to fight, and fight hard, to win his seat in an open election and I’d imagine he found that experience pretty valuable. Yee is a common sense kind of legislator and I could see the common sense in this one winning his support.

Malia Cohen is the only supervisor up for reelection who is facing a serious challenge for her seat. Her main competitor, Tony Kelly, has already stated his support for this initiative on social media, and her refusing to support it would only give Kelly, and her other competing candidates, more ammunition to use in debates and in campaign materials. Seeing as the mayor would much prefer Supervisor Cohen to Supervisor Kelly, it seems safe to say that he wouldn’t turn his back on her for going with a yes on this one.

Scott Wiener, Mark Farrell and Katy Tang seem about as likely to support the initiative as I was to get a date to my Middle School dance, but stranger things have happened, and perhaps one of the three might ask the ballot initiative to slow dance awkwardly to a Montell Jordan song.

How will all of this arithmetic play out? Well, the initiative cleared its first hurdle yesterday when the Rules Committee sent it to the full board without recommendation. At the hearing, Katy Tang was a solid no, David Campos a solid yes and Norman Yee a solid neutral. There is no date set for the legislation to hit the full board, but I’m looking forward to busting out my calculator and seeing if Avalos can count to six over the coming weeks.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. But that one person – the mayor – is elected city-wide and, in the case of Ed Lee, has won a high-turnout election by a huge margin.

    So effectively his appointment of a supervisor is a lot more democratic than your idea of a low-turnout election that could easily be manipulated by the “usual suspect” activists.

    You don’t want more democracy. You want to engineer a system that will give an outcome more in tune with your ideology. And just like when the left tried that with IRV/RCV, it can backfire on you horribly.

  2. Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein’s seats would also be settled by one vote — the Governors. The checks and balances angle doesn’t quite scale at the municipal level, where many Mayors are also part of the city council and judicial branches don’t exist.

    Traditionally we have relied upon the wisdom of the voters to confirm or reject the Mayor’s choice in the next general election. Cities haven’t tried to protect voters against themselves by saying that they can’t vote for the interim appointment.

  3. @SOS Voter turnout in a special election could certainly be a concern but in our current system all it takes to elect a new representative for a district of tens of thousands of people is one vote — the Mayor’s. Having folks in a District elect their representatives, even if the turnout isn’t as high as it is in some elections, would be an improvement upon our current broken system.

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