The power of individual citizens to place measures before their fellow San Franciscans by initiative petition is a cherished right, enshrined in California's Constitution, our City Charter, and essential to what has made San Francisco such a special city.
San Francisco ballot measures put to the voters by citizen initiative petitions are responsible for a wide variety of achievements that define San Francisco: saving the cable cars, raising the minimum wage, protecting neighborhood firehouses, strengthening rent control, creating district elections and term limits for supervisors, enacting campaign contribution limits and anti-corruption laws, creating the Sunshine Ordinance, divesting city funds from the apartheid regime in South Africa and dozens of other advances. The people had to act because the politicians at City Hall failed to do their job.
But if Supervisor Scott Wiener has his way this November, San Francisco voters will sit down and shut up. Wiener, the Chamber of Commerce and big-business lobbyists want to run The City without interference from voters since they think — and I think some of them may actually believe — that only they know what's best for us.
That's the hidden agenda behind the legislation Wiener recently unveiled for the fall ballot to dramatically rewrite the citizen initiative rules to make it significantly harder for regular San Franciscans — but not supervisors or the mayor — to qualify measures for the ballot. Wiener's proposal would throw new hurdles only in front of citizen-initiated ballot ideas by increasing the signature threshold required for initiative petitions to qualify and forcing all citizen initiative petitions to go through the ringer of hearings led by politicians at City Hall before they can collect a single signature from voters.
Cloaked in the doublespeak of “improving” the initiative process, Wiener's proposal is classic Republican campaign deform that includes some positive major donor disclosure requirements in it in an attempt to give it a good government-feel while its main components strike at the heart of the ability of citizens to hold their elected officials accountable when they fail to do their job.
This is not the first time Wiener and the Chamber of Commerce have attempted to restrict the power of voter initiatives they disagreed with. In 2011, Wiener and the Chamber of Commerce sponsored Proposition E on that November's ballot that would have given the supervisors and mayor the absolute power to overrule the voters and rewrite or repeal ballot measures they didn't like that had previously been approved by San Francisco voters. The voters hammered Wiener on that one when they overwhelmingly rejected his attack on the power of the voters, defeating his measure 67 percent to 33 percent.
Wiener's proposal to put roadblocks in front of voter initiatives is being aimed at solving a problem that the actual facts show doesn't even exist. According to the Department of Elections, over the last 53 years, San Franciscans have voted on a total of 1,016 local ballot measures. The vast majority of those measures — 81 percent of them — were placed on the ballot by the Board of Supervisors or by unilateral act of the mayor, who can put measures on the ballot by himself for any reason at any time. Less than 15 percent of the ballot measures in modern history were brought to voters by citizen-sponsored initiative petition drives. So where's Wiener's beef?
If Wiener thinks the sky is falling because there are too many ballot measures in San Francisco, he needs to look no further than the mirror to find the most ballot-happy person in town. In just one term in office since being elected in 2010, Wiener has voted to have the Board of Supervisors put 20 ballot measures before voters. In the last election, while the entirety of San Francisco citizens put just three measures on the ballot through initiative petitions, Wiener voted to put eight different measures before the voters.
Since the vast majority of San Francisco ballot measures are coming from the Board of Supervisors and out of City Hall, why are the restrictions being proposed by politicians who claim there are too many ballot measures being targeted only at stopping the ideas and initiatives that come from the people? Voters beware: hidden agendas ahead.
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.