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Voters will consider measure to create elected SF public advocate position

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Supervisor David Campos, left, and Tom Ammiano, right, are supporters of Proposition H, which would create a public advocate role. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)
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Got a problem at City Hall? Let the public advocate solve it.

That’s what supporters of Proposition H hope will happen if San Francisco voters approve a measure Nov. 8 that would create The City’s first elected public advocate position.

San Francisco’s more progressive politicians and their allies argue the post is a necessary new watchdog position at City Hall. But opponents, the more moderate allies of Mayor Ed Lee, contend the measure creates an unnecessary new position.

The public advocate would appoint the director of the Office of Citizen Complaints, which investigates allegations of police misconduct; have subpoena power; introduce legislation at the Board of Supervisors; contract with outside, independent experts; investigate contracts and city departments; and handle some whistleblower complaints.

Supporters say the public advocate position is the right check and balance for City Hall, where the mayor holds much of the power.

And the mayor’s allies are spending big bucks to defeat Prop. H and three other progressive “reform” measures that would effectively further strip power from the mayor.

Some $841,000 was raised by a committee against the four progressive measures being run by the mayor’s top aide Tony Winnicker, who is also on leave, according to last week’s campaign finance filings. That includes the recent contributions of $100,000 from registered Republican Diane “Dede” Wilsey, the embattled head of the Fine Arts Museum, and $100,000 from real estate executive George Manus.

“They’ve released the hounds, apparently,” said Jon Golinger, who is running the Prop. H campaign and has raised $52,000. Golinger said anti-public advocate campaign backers fear “true independent oversight” and want to protect the administration.

Winnicker defended the contributions. “These propositions are so costly and damaging to our city, they have attracted a coalition of organized labor and business, Democrats and independents to oppose them,” Winnicker said.

New York City has a public advocate — a post currently held by Letitia James, the successor to Bill de Blasio, who went on to become the mayor of the Big Apple.

So, supporters say, why not create the position in San Francisco?

“It’s been very successful in the cities that it operates in,” said Tom Ammiano, a former Assemblymember and supervisor, during a recent San Francisco Examiner editorial board meeting. “We looked at New York for most of our guidance.”

Even though members of the Board of Supervisors are tasked with responding to residents’ concerns and there is a City Controller that audits city departments, supporters insist the post is not a duplicative function, but a new and vital one.

But critics maintain the position is redundant.

“The last thing San Francisco needs is yet another career politician with a six-figure salary and a costly bloated staff,” Winnicker said. He added that a public advocate is nothing more than an attempt to have a “shadow mayor.”

Should voters pass Prop. H, an election for the post would likely occur at the June 2018 election. The position is for two four-year terms.

The measure requires a staffing of four people, including the public advocate, which would cost between $600,000 and $800,000 annually. The measure also recommends a larger staff, which the City Controller has estimated would cost an additional $2.8 million to $3.5 million.

Supervisor David Campos, who introduced the measure, said the public advocate would provide a proper “check on that system” of a strong mayor.

Campos, who is termed out of office this year, has faced criticism of only trying to create a job for himself. While he hasn’t ruled out a run for the office, he noted the measure is most of all about sound policy.

Ammiano said the mayor’s allies can try to use “word play” to blast the measure, but doing that “side steps the inefficiencies that we do see, and the injustices that we do see.”

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