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‘Question time’ changes could enliven policy talks between mayor, supervisors

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Mayor Ed Lee announces his 2015 budget proposal to the Board of Supervisors in June 2015. No question has been submitted for the mayor to answer during the voter-mandated “question time” since September 2016. (Mike Koozmin/2015 S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco’s “question time” between the Board of Supervisors and the mayor could become more “dynamic” as early as May under a proposal up for a vote Wednesday.

The board’s Rules Committee will debate legislation by Supervisor Aaron Peskin that would change the format of the voter-approved question time held at the start of Board of Supervisors meetings on a monthly basis.

When announcing his effort to revamp the format in January, Peskin, who was part of the progressive bloc in his previous tenure on the board that pushed for question time, said the existing rules have created “a very stilted, not-real conversation.”

“I don’t think it’s been fully utilized,” Supervisor Ahsha Safai, chair of the committee, said of the voter-mandated mayoral appearances for policy discussions.

SEE RELATED: Board questions the value of ‘question time’

Safai declined to confirm Monday whether he will vote to support Peskin’s legislation but said, “I don’t have a problem with [question time] becoming dynamic.”

Supervisor Catherine Stefani, another committee member, recalled advising Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier a decade ago as her legislative aide to oppose question time.

“We aren’t the British Parliament,” Stefani said. “In this city, mayors report directly to the voters, not the Board of Supervisors.”

But now that voters have approved it, she told the San Francisco Examiner on Monday “the current format is fine.”

Critics of question time have argued it is too scripted, boring and a waste of time. Many members of the board have simply stopped submitting questions. In fact, no question has been submitted since September 2016 for the mayor to answer.

While voters approved question time, the measure left the rules of the procedure up to the board to determine. The board adopted rules that require questions to be submitted the week prior to the session at the board and prohibit follow-up questions during the meeting. But Peskin’s proposal is expected to liven things up.

Members of the board would no longer be required to submit a question in advance, but only the general topic related to the question they plan to ask. And they would be allowed to ask a follow-up question related to the initial question or to the mayor’s response, and the mayor would be required to respond.

The mayor would also get to ask the questioning supervisor a question on the related topic and a follow-up question to that response.

The clock will be running. “The Mayor and the Supervisor may use up to two minutes for each of the questions and each of the answers,” the legislation says.

A question could be stricken “for good cause,” and no answer required through an oral motion approved by at least eight members.

Safai said Monday that some tweaks may be proposed, such as putting more parameters around what constitutes a “topic” to narrow it. He said he thought this was needed out of deference to noticing requirements, so the public knows in advance what will be talked about.

Mayor Mark Farrell could be the first mayor to experience the new format before he’s replaced by the winner of the June mayoral contest. Two mayoral candidates, Board of Supervisors President London Breed and Supervisor Jane Kim, would vote on the legislation if it reaches the full board.

One question has been submitted for Farrell by Breed for this week’s question time.

In the question, which appears on the board’s agenda, Breed asks Farrell if he will include in his budget proposal at least a 50 cent increase in the minimum wage compensation for nonprofit workers under contract with The City and at least half the cost for legal representation for tenants. Combined, the cost of the two proposals would total $18 million.

Peskin’s proposal would have members of the board ask questions on a three-month rotating basis, with supervisors from Districts 1, 2, 3 and 4 eligible to ask questions the first month, beginning May 1. Supervisors from Districts 5, 6, 7 and 8 would be eligible to ask questions the second month, and supervisors from Districts 9, 10 and 11 in the third. Currently, the submission of questions alternates each month between odd-numbered districts and even numbered districts.

Nearly 60 percent of voters approved the charter amendment that created question time in November 2010.

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