Editorial: Answer the questions, Mayor Newsom

When Supervisor Chris Daly instigated last month’s ballot measure requiring the mayor to stand before the board at least once monthly, there to answer questions about such policies as he’d formulated, we opposed what looked like an effort to introduce unproductive political theater. But The City’s voters said they wanted Proposition I. That should have been decisive.

Mayor Gavin Newsom should take the direction of 56 percent of voters. We accept it; indeed, as journalists, we’ll probably be entertained by it. In our editorial opposing it, we suggested that somebody had been watching too much “Questions,” on C-SPAN.

It was popular programming for American cable junkies, this trans-Atlantic televising of the House of Commons tradition of making the prime minister stand before inquiring members. There was something about that British repartee that made it irresistible.

Sure enough, Daly allows that he was inspired by “Questions.” If his ulterior motive was to put down traps for his nemesis the mayor, then why not? The exercise can sharpen a politician’s skills, and lord knows a restless mayor can profit from the practice if he wants to move on to, say, Sacramento.

Of course, Daly didn’t exactly incorporate that genteel parliamentary procedure in which oral questions are submitted three days in advance. The House of Commons requires that courtesy, enabling the prime minister to prepare, and allows an impromptu “supplemental” query.

Here’s where it’s obligatory to say that Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair — all turned the practice to their advantage. The right spoken word at the right moment, maybe as a squelch of a back bencher’s impertinence, can actually change history’s course. Without Thatcher’s deft language, for example, we might be calling the Falklands the Malvinas.

Newsom, alas, has attempted what has to be called an end-run around the voters’ wishes. In what’s being described as “a pre-emptive move,” the mayor has interpreted Prop. I to mean that he can schedule public meetings monthly and invite the supervisors to attend, each presumably welcome to ask questions.

This skirting of the voters’ clear intention, the mayor should finally realize, is too clever by half. We can only suppose, though it’s not a safe assumption, that he anticipated more pliable audiences.

Happily, there is room for compromise. The mayor could scrap his so-called town hall meetings — after all, they would constitute political theater every bit as much as the board’s question period — if the supervisors agreed to a British-style plan to submit their questions in advance. That’s only fair.

Mayor Newsom should accept the Prop. I challenge heartily. The City needs a leader, thinking on his feet, who doesn’t shrink from tempering the “progressive” agenda. The voters need proof there’s substance behind the slick. He may even find he rather enjoys it.

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