Ken Garcia: Late measures load ballot, lighten taxpayers’ pocketbooks

Supporters of guerrilla politics everywhere may have enjoyed the 11th-hour stunt pulled off by a group of San Francisco supervisors this year to place a bunch of measures on the November ballot.

But the smiles on the faces of those favoring stealth government may not last when the bill comes in, since, as with most things here in Fat City, this one comes with a few zeroes attached.

Leading the charge for the backroom deal to flood the ballot with a bunch of initiatives that received no public input was none other than our champion of special interests — Supervisor Chris Daly — who has gone on record as saying he wants to keep big money out of politics.

That doesn’t mean he wants to keep money out of election campaigns, certainly not yours, for Daly couldn’t pull off the trick without the help of the taxpayers in San Francisco, who are picking up the tab for the bloated ballot.

John Arntz, head of the Department of Elections, said the likely cost for printing, mailing and translating all the ballot measures this year will likely be around $850,000. That might not seem like a lot of money to spend to give local citizens a chance to pass a meaningless resolution to impeach the president and vice-president of the United States, but even some Bush-bashing Democrats might not like having their pockets picked for the cause.

Arntz said that as a general rule of thumb, each ballot measure costs about $50,000 during a general election (special elections cost more, and a lot of people in San Francisco like to think every election here is special). And of course, more ballot measures means that it requires more employee hours to process the ballot cards and guidebooks — though Arntz said the cost of staff wages are not factored in.

“There are so many variables to the question of how much an election costs that it’s hard to say exactly,’’ Arntz said.

So when supervisors decide to throw a bunch of ballot measures on the day before the deadline, that just pads the cost of an election — not something that they spend a lot of time explaining to their constituents. The funny thing is, most of the unscreened initiatives didn’t need to go on the ballot since they could have been handled by the board.

Why, for example, ask voters to require businesses to provide sick leave for San Francisco workers when the board could have passed a similar measure? Or why put a symbolic measure on the ballot asking voters if they want the mayor to have a “question time’’ period before the board? Chances are that they either couldn’t get enough votes from their colleagues, but it’s mostly because they’re issues designed to pump up lefty-progressives to get out to the voting booths and keep scholars like Daly in residence.

The ever-brash Daly doesn’t deny that the last-minute measures were meant to motivate certain, uh, constituencies. “I’ll never be ashamed of pushing turnouts for elections,’’ Daly told an Examiner reporter earlier this week. “Where there is actual conflict is when there’s significant money involved.’’

He must have meant money that went to consultants, because I think most people believe that costing taxpayers $50,000 for every campaign whim conjured up by the board is a steep price to pay. And we certainly know that he wasn’t talking about all the campaign money he’s been getting from the downtown business interests he vilifies, a fact that I reported on in a column several weeks ago about the attorneys, developers and lobbyists he now counts among his special friends.

There is nothing illegal about the supervisors pulling a fast one on the voters by cramming measures onto the ballot at the last minute. They’ve been doing it for years — often at the same time they were laying on their swords bemoaning the need for more open government.

But I think most people would agree that it’s wrong, which is why a number of downtown business organizations are working to craft a charter amendment to limit the board’s ability to place measures on the ballot without public input. A similar measure was authored by then-Supervisor Gavin Newsom a few years back but his colleagues blocked it — self-interest being greater than the public good.

“There’s a point where the excesses need to be questioned,’’ Newsom said. “This is politics with a capital ‘P.’’’

The legislative wheeling and dealing is especially worthy of attention, since many of the initiatives are redundant or unnecessary.

Of course, some people have been saying that about some of the board members themselves, so on some level it all makes sense.

Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at or call him at (415) 359-2663.

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