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Public Advocate benefits would outweigh cost

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The creation of a Public Advocate and the accompanying positions in San Francisco would likely cost less than one one-hundredth or one percent of The City’s $9.6 billion budget. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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If it cost The City $4 million to save $170 million, San Franciscans would heartily approve the cost.

A Sept. 29 op-ed by Conor Johnston — “What’s this crap on the ballot?” — opposing five ballot measures was insulting, not helpful and too snarky (as he worried). It was littered with invective, bereft of facts.

The five measures he trashed aren’t “crap” to sponsors and supporters. Consider Proposition H, creating a Public Advocate.

Johnston claims it would cost $4 million. That’s inaccurate; the City Controller notes the four public advocate employees would cost $800,000, less than one one-hundredeth of one percent (0.008 percent) of The City’s $9.6 billion budget. The additional 24 potential public advocate employees — assuming they’re funded during annual budget negotiations — might push total costs to $4 million, just four-hundredeths of one percent (0.04 percent) of the budget.

Johnston claims we have public advocates — the Board of Supervisors. He neglected mentioning the board had 117 employees (including 11 turnovers) in Fiscal Year 2015–16, costing $7.25 million in salaries. Add the mayor’s 132 employees at $12 million in salaries and you’re up to $20 million (excluding fringe benefits and retirement).

The supervisors’ legislative aides are principally focused on developing legislation and other policymaking work; they’re only secondarily focused on addressing constituent concerns and don’t investigate city programs or services.

During Mayor Lee’s tenure, he’s added 6,414 full- and part-time city employees, increasing the payroll by $665.7 million. Adding $4 million for a Public Advocate is peanuts.

Johnston claims the City Controller is “independent. Most observers wouldn’t categorize the Controller or his whistleblower program as truly independent. The whistleblower program’s effectiveness and history is abysmal. It’s unlikely the Controller would audit Mayor Lee’s hiring binge, but a public advocate might.

New York City’s public advocate saved $170 million in 2015 investigating a single bad city contract and recovered $1.7 million from New York State’s unclaimed funds. That’s not “crap.” A public advocate in San Francisco could probably save that in a single year, making benefits of having a public advocate far outweigh potential costs. Plus savings in subsequent years.

Since “Tish” James became NYC’s Public Advocate in 2013, she’s handled more than 24,000 constituent complaints, protecting children, families, tenants and the environment; standing up for seniors and worker’s rights; and protecting the environment, among other issues.

Former City Assistant Assessor John Farrell identified more than $200 million in tax revenue not being appraised by the Assessor’s Office. A public advocate could save that, easily.

A public advocate would perform both constituent services and investigations — including investigating the distribution and mix — of programs and services throughout The City, and would assess city department’s progress developing customer service plans.

Prop. H expands the whistleblower program, giving a public advocate authority to receive whistleblower complaints the Controller doesn’t accept.

While some argue we have an Ethics Commission, the commission doesn’t investigate issues a public advocate would, nor does it go to bat for myriad citizen concerns. Ethics failed during the past 20 years to sustain any whistleblower retaliation claims. Separately, of 38 sunshine complaints forwarded for enforcement to the Ethics Commission since 2005, it upheld only one and referred it to Mayor Ed Lee, who took no action.

Johnston didn’t address the “crap” in Propositions P and U favoring real estate speculators that will worsen our affordable housing crisis — which the San Francisco Chronicle opposes.

Endorsements supporting Prop. H include the Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods; San Francisco’s Democratic County Central Committee; San Francisco’s League of Women Voters; 10 democratic clubs; League of Pissed-Off Voters; several labor unions; Sen. Mark Leno; District Attorney George Gascón; former mayor Art Agnos; Democratic County Central Committee Chair Cindy Wu; Firefighters Local 798 president Tom O’Connor; and Gordon Chin, founder of the Chinatown Community Development Center.

Each endorsed Prop. H believing it isn’t “crap.” Please join us in voting yes on Prop. H, since benefits will likely outweigh costs.

Patrick Monette-Shaw is a columnist for the Westside Observer newspaper.

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