Why is Gavin Newsom trying to take away San Franciscans’ right to vote?
It’s been almost three years since Lt. Gov. Newsom, in his capacity as one of the three members of the State Lands Commission, filed a lawsuit against the people of San Francisco to do just that. Now the Chairman of the State Lands Commission, Newsom continues to sue San Francisco to invalidate Proposition B, the Waterfront Height Limit Right to Vote Act. San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved Prop. B in 2014 in the aftermath of the 8 Washington luxury condo fiasco to ensure voters always have the opportunity to weigh in on future plans to raise the existing height limits along The City’s shoreline. Three years and many legal filings later, the lawsuit is about to have its day in court at a hearing in June. Both sides have submitted lengthy legal briefs making the case to Superior Court Judge Suzanne R. Bolanos that she should rule in their favor. The impact of Bolanos’ decision will ripple far beyond one ballot measure and one city.
As they have from Day 1, City Attorney Dennis Herrera and his legal team continue to do a tremendous job of vigorously defending the right of San Francisco and its people to have a voice in decisions about development of the waterfront. The day that Newsom and the State Lands Commission filed their lawsuit, Herrera pledged to aggressively defend Prop. B, saying: “[T]he State Lands Commission seems to have embraced the notion that any local initiative — and, by extension, any land use regulation approved by a Board of Supervisors or Planning Commission — affecting port property is barred by state law, and therefore invalid. That view represents a radical departure in law and practice from land use decision-making in San Francisco and elsewhere. While the City must certainly honor its obligations as trustee in managing public trust property, it is a legally and practically untenable position to argue that San Francisco’s voters and elected officials have no direct say over how our city’s waterfront is developed.” The amount of high-quality legal work that Herrera’s office has done over the last three years has backed up those forceful words with the evidence, case law and thoughtful arguments needed to make a very compelling case to the judge.
On the other hand, when the State Lands Commission tried to find actual facts to back up its radical legal claims, it couldn’t find those facts — because they don’t exist. In their latest filings, the State Lands Commission dropped a number of its initial claims, such as that the passage of Prop. B decreased the Port’s revenue, negatively impacted the Port’s operations and blocked developments from proceeding. Oddly, the source that the State Lands Commission most heavily relies on to justify its remaining legal arguments is a sworn statement full of mostly opinion and speculation that was filed in support of their case by the person who was running San Francisco’s Port when Prop. B was approved — former Port Director Monique Moyer. Moyer resigned from the Port last year to become an executive with commercial real estate firm CBRE Real Estate.
If anything, Prop. B has provided more certainty in waterfront development decisions by making it clear that, instead of backroom wheeling and dealing, developers who want to raise waterfront height limits need to make their case to the people with complete transparency and in the light of day. Over the last three years, that’s exactly what happened when the developers of the Pier 70 and Mission Rock projects sought and received the approval of voters to raise height limits for their respective waterfront developments. A more open process made those projects better.
If Newsom and the State Lands Commission do somehow persuade the courts to silence San Francisco voters’ voice, the legal precedent will likely be used to attack an array of environmental protections up and down the state, such as the voter-approved prohibitions on oil-drilling on waterfront land in Hermosa Beach and Santa Monica. As Newsom runs for Governor touting the claim that, as mayor, he “made San Francisco one of the most environmentally friendly cities on earth,” how ironic it will be if his decision to sue his former city results in the repeal of environmental protection laws up and down the state that were passed by the same voters whose votes he now seeks.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.