City Hall. (Mike Koozmin/2010 S.F. Examiner)

Voters may strip mayor of power to fill vacancies on Board of Supervisors

San Francisco voters could shake up city government this November by stripping the mayor of the power to fill vacancies on the Board of Supervisors.

Under Proposition D, when a board member exits his or her term early, the mayor would appoint a person to temporarily serve as district supervisor. But unlike the existing rules, the temporary supervisor wouldn’t be able to run in the election for the seat. An election would also have to be held within months after a vacancy occurs.

The Vacancy Appointments measure was introduced by Supervisor John Avalos after he spent years crafting the proposal.

Avalos said Friday that board members shouldn’t be selected by “the mayor and a handful of insiders.” The measure would make a clearer the separation between the legislative and executive branches of government, supporters argue, noting that a mayoral appointee to the board is a “rubber stamp” for the mayor’s agenda. Proponents also argue that the power of incumbency thwarts the democratic process, giving an upper hand to the temporary supervisor in an election.

The measure’s support and opposition is mostly split down ideological lines between the progressives and moderates, and the measure has drawn the attention of some high-powered personages.

Former mayor Mayor Willie Brown submitted a ballot argument against Prop. D along with former mayors U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Frank Jordan and former Board of Supervisors President Angela Alioto.

Opponents called the measure “unnecessary, wasteful and un-democratic.” To make that argument, they highlighted how the measure would result in special elections, which the City Controller’s Office estimates at $340,000 apiece. Meanwhile, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, a group of neighborhood associations, called it “a wise investment in true democracy.”

Avalos said Friday that the cost of special elections is well worth it and noted how Brown and other opponents of the measure had no problem spending millions of dollars up front to host the Super Bowl 50 party earlier this year.

“When the mayor dropped $5 million for the NFL, moving resources from our neighborhoods to serve tourists, $340,000 for democracy is nothing,” Avalos said. It should be noted that The City did recoup those dollars from event revenues.

Brown also argued that the mayor’s temporary appointment will “make decisions that impact their constituents with no need to respond to constituent needs and no ability to be held accountable to the voters.”

But Avalos said, “I hardly think a person appointed to such a high-profile and coveted seat would ruin their career by not serving the public to the best of their abilities.”

It’s true that mayoral appointees must stand election to continue serving, but opponents of the current practice argue there is an unfair power of incumbency, including donor access and name recognition.

Recent contests involving mayoral appointees to the board have had mixed results. Julie Christensen, Mayor Ed Lee’s appointee to the District 3 seat, was defeated in her first election by current seat-holder Aaron Peskin. Current board president London Breed beat out Lee’s appointee to the District 5 seat Christina Olague. Supervisor Katy Tang, the current District 4 seat-holder, was an appointee, and Tang’s predecessor, Carmen Chu, was also an appointee who prevailed in her election.

Prop. D backers also point to what will happen in the District 11 state Senate race between Supervisor Jane Kim, who represents District 6, and Supervisor Scott Wiener in District 8.

The measure, if approved, would apply to this vacancy on the board. But under the current rules, the mayor’s appointee to either seat would serve for a full 18 months before the next scheduled election occurs.

Prop. D is facing significant opposition from the “San Franciscans Against Wasteful Spending” political committee, which is also opposing three other measures that would reduce the mayor’s powers as well.

The committee’s first contribution is $250,000 from SEIU United Healthcare Workers West Political Issues Committee. The anti-Prop. D committee is being run by political consultant Ace Smith, who ran Mayor Lee’s previous two runs for the mayor’s office, and Tony Winnicker, who is on unpaid leave from Mayor Lee’s administration, where he worked as Lee’s top aide.

Avalos used Winnicker as an example of how a mayor exerts influence over appointees.

“I think they got the best person to represent the abusive power of the Mayor’s Office: Tony Winnicker, the guy who whipped and bullied Ed Lee’s appointees on the Board of Supervisors into line,” Avalos said.

Winnicker responded that “the only thing abusive is Proposition D, which abuses taxpayers” with special elections and caretaker supervisors without accountability.

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