San Francisco voters will decide in November whether to create an elected public advocate based on similar positions in other major cities like New York.
Despite significant political opposition, the Board of Supervisors voted 6-5 on Friday at a special meeting to place the public advocate charter amendment on the Nov. 8 ballot.
The proposal, introduced by Supervisor David Campos, faced some powerful critics, including from trades unions and former San Francisco mayors Dianne Feinstein, Frank Jordan, Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom.
Even the legislative process became more contentious than usual. After being blocked by a moderate-controlled board committee earlier this month, the board’s progressive bloc called special board meetings to rescue the measure.
“We knew from the very beginning that any time you try to change the status quo there would be push back and opposition,” Campos told the San Francisco Examiner after the board’s vote. He said that “this is about giving the voters the chance to decide” whether San Francisco should have a public advocate.
Supervisors Katy Tang, Scott Wiener, London Breed, Malia Cohen and Mark Farrell opposed it. Campos, along with Supervisors Eric Mar, John Avalos, Jane Kim, Aaron Peskin and Norman Yee supported placing it on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Now that the measure will go before voters in November, a campaign is set to launch. Jon Golinger, a progressive political campaign manager, will lead that effort along with David Talbot, founder of Salon.com and author of “Season of the Witch,” who established the Reform Coalition political committee.
Supporters point to the success of the public advocate position in other cities. New York City’s public advocate, for instance, handled the concerns of 8,000 constituents in the past year alone, and in 2015 secured an additional $4.6 million for rape crisis centers, nearly tripling the previous year’s funding.
Its public advocate also saved taxpayers $170 million after investigating a $1.25 billion information technology contract. New York City created its position in 1993.
“There’s a natural fear of a new voice in the process,” Golinger said. “There is no question this is change.”
Golinger said the measure polls well, but the key is to explain why the position is needed. Some of the criticism is that it duplicates the role of other elected officials, is an attempt to grab power from the board, or simply that Campos, who is termed out this year, trying to create a job for himself.
But Golinger argues there is a need for an “independent watchdog.”
The more influential figures at City Hall may have lobbyists and lawyers on their payroll, but not everyday citizens. The public advocate would be “someone who has your back,” Golinger said.
Campos said criticism that he’s creating the office for himself is misplaced. “It’s not about that. This is about: is the office a good idea for San Francisco? A lot of different people can run for it.”
To shore up support, several changes were made to the public advocate measure since it was initially introduced.
For instance, the public advocate would no longer appoint the director of the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, after trade unions blasted that provision. A cap of two successive four-year term limits was added as well.
The Public Advocate would, however, appoint the director of the Office of Citizens Complaints, which investigates police misconduct, taking that power away from the mayor. Set-aside funding for the public advocate office was removed and instead it would be funded annually through the budget process based on staffing guidelines.
The public advocate proposal got held up in a board Rules Committee by moderate supervisors Katy Tang and Malia Cohen earlier this month, prompting the progressive bloc to hold the first special board meetings in at least 15 years to ensure the measure could make Friday’s deadline.
Later, the board’s progressive bloc attempted to fold into the public advocate measure Cohen’s charter amendment to rename the Office of Citizen Complaints as the Department of Police Accountability and improve its functions, such as by requiring an audit every two years of the Police Department’s handling of misconduct and use of force claims.
That set off political bickering during the July 19 board meeting, but in the end an agreement was reached. Cohen’s measure was placed on the ballot Friday in a unanimous vote.
Also Friday, the board voted 11-0 to place a charter amendment on the ballot that would require The City to take back responsibility of street trees, after shifting that burden onto property owners beginning in 2012.
The measure was the result of an agreement between supervisors Scott Wiener and John Avalos. The measure requires spending at least $19 million annually on tree maintenance.
Wiener predicted, if passed, the measure would “make San Francisco a greener, healthier more environmentally sustainable and more beautiful city.”