Board questions the value of 'question time'

S.F. Examiner File PhotoMembers of the Board of Supervisors are calling the voter-mandated mayor 'question time' a waste of time.

The quaint practice known as “question time,” in which the Board of Supervisors has a chance to grill the mayor, started with a whimper and never picked up speed.

And as of today, participation drops to an all-time low, with just one question submitted for Mayor Ed Lee to answer. Seen by some as a boring waste of time, the voter-mandated Q&A session between the legislative and executive branch will have the shortest run time in its history.

“I’m questioning the usefulness of question time,” said District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim, suggesting it may be time to change the rules.

In November 2010, voters approved Proposition C, which required a monthly question time, but left the rules up to the board and mayor. They agreed that pre-written questions must be submitted the previous Wednesday by noon. Questions are alternately submitted by supervisors from odd-numbered districts and even-numbered districts.

Today was an opportunity for supervisors from the five even-numbered districts to participate, but only District 4 Supervisor Carmen Chu submitted a question.  

During the era of Mayor Gavin Newsom, the progressives fought hard for a forced exchange between the executive and legislative branches of government. The Q&A sessions were the brainchild of Newsom’s nemesis, Supervisor Chris Daly, and modeled after the prime minister’s weekly question time in the British Parliament. At the time critics said it was just an attempt to create political “gotcha” moments.

That concern perhaps led to the conservative rules. But the sessions, which run for about 20 minutes, are seemingly wearing on some city officials.  

Supervisor John Avalos, who represents District 11, said the idea was to inspire discussion between the mayor and supervisors in a public forum that would lead toward better city policy. But now it’s so scripted “it’s just deadening,” he said.

“It didn’t really live up to its promise,” said Avalos, who had sought to make the rules more flexible. “People want a little more excitement. It’s a snooze-fest.”

Not everyone is tired of the exercise. Supervisor Scott Wiener, who opposed the ballot measure, said he didn’t submit a question for the first time because “I didn’t have anything that I needed to publicly ask the mayor.”

But overall, Wiener said, “It’s not a waste of time.”  He said answers to his previous questions about streetlights or taxis have been useful.

“I was concerned it would become just a spectacle,” Wiener said. “If we are going to do it, the format we have is the correct one.”

In April 2011, Lee was the first mayor to undergo question time. Lee shows up and reads pre-written answers to board, copies of which have been provided to at least one reporter before his appearance.

“The mayor takes the questions seriously, thoroughly reviews and considers them and responds with what is a serious policy response,” Lee’s spokeswoman Christine Falvey said.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

Bay Area NewsGovernment & PoliticsJane KimJohn AvalosLocalPolitics

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