Opinion: S.F.’s ‘recall fever’ has consequences

‘We may be entering a period that contributes to tumult and destabilization in The City’

In San Francisco, 2022 is shaping up to be the year of the recall. First up on Feb. 15 is the special recall election of three members of the Board of Education, Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez and Faauuga Moliga. A few months later, on June 7, San Francisco voters will choose whether to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin. The political issues behind these recalls — everything from school closures to changing the names of schools, and from concerns about crime to skittishness around meaningful criminal justice reform — are reasonably well known and many San Franciscans have already formed their opinions.

But what about other issues, such as how much these recalls cost, who pays and who benefits politically?

The estimated cost for the recall of the school board is roughly $3.2 million. If the cost of the recall attempt of the district attorney is the same, there will be about $6.4 million spent on recall elections in San Francisco this year.

On the one hand, in the context of a city budget of $13.1 billion, the recalls amount to a rounding error. On the other hand, that money could be used to help the homeless, provide support to struggling small businesses, clean up streets or otherwise deliver services to San Franciscans. In a city the size of San Francisco, to paraphrase Senator Everett Dirksen, 3 million here and 3 million there and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

After some deliberation and initial reluctance, The City will pay for the recall effort aimed at the three members of the Board of Education. Had The City not paid for the recall, the money would have had to come from the school district. It’s ironic that a campaign claiming to do what was best for San Francisco’s schoolchildren was willing to take more than $3 million out of the school budget to overturn an election.

Not yet determined is who will pay for the recall effort aimed at Chesa Boudin. But it is very possible the bill will be picked up by The City as well. While it is the responsibility of city government to pay for and administer elections, that principle becomes a little unclear when various political forces can relatively easily demand to have elections whenever they want.

This year there will be two recalls, but if one or both are successful, it is not hard to imagine that more people and organizations will be drawn to recall idea. If that happens, recalls could become an expense that not only takes money out of The City’s coffers, but disrupts political life and distracts officeholders for months at a time. Look no further than how Gov. Gavin Newsom spent much of 2021.

Another context in which San Franciscans should understand the recalls is that if either or both are successful, it will be an opportunity for Mayor London Breed to further consolidate her power. Breed has expressed support for the school board recall and while not taking a formal position on the effort to recall Boudin, she has not exactly suggested she opposed the idea.

Whoever is recalled in either election will be replaced by a mayoral appointment for the duration of the term. Supervisor Aaron Peskin has sought to change this through a proposed ballot initiative that would make it more difficult for a mayor to grab power by calling for the recalled official to be replaced by a majority vote of members of the board.

So the Board of Education would vote to replace recalled board of education members, the Board of Supervisors would replace recalled supervisors, etc. However, this proposal does not address what would happen if citywide elected officials were recalled. Peskin’s proposal would also limit the timeframe in which recalls could occur. This would be a helpful reform.

For now, with regard to the Board of Education recall, this means that the mayor will be the prime mover behind education policy. That may be OK, but the situation with the district attorney is a little more complex. Many cities have boards of education that are, in part or full, appointed by the mayor, but almost all counties have independently elected district attorneys.

Since becoming mayor in 2018, London Breed’s administration had not exactly distinguished itself by its impeccably ethical behavior. It is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that Breed’s ethical problems will get worse in the coming months. If that happens, it would be tremendously helpful for her to have a district attorney who she appointed, rather than an independent one who was elected by the people.

Thus these recalls may be many things, but they are also an attempted power grab by the mayor.

The combination of increased instability throughout American politics, conservatives being consistently unable to win elections in San Francisco and the relative ease with which organizations, particularly if they have money, can qualify a recall, means we may be entering a period where recalls are more frequent and contribute to tumult and destabilization in The City’s political system. Constantly seeking to overturn elections is not good for democracy or stability.

One way to address this would be to make the organizations that are calling for the recall pay for the recall. At first glance, this seems appealing and just, but there are some problems. First, while $3 million seems like a lot, it is not too onerous for well-funded efforts. Second, moving to privatize the administration of elections is a troubling precedent. Third, if recall petitioners have to pay for the election, then the recall would become a tool that is available only to wealthy activists. Recalls may not be a great idea, but if they exist, everybody should have equal access to them.

On balance, recalls are a bit of a solution in search of a problem. It is, in fact, essential to have a way to replace elected officials who have done egregious things or even run afoul of the law, and ultimately when it occurs in San Francisco, The City probably should foot the bill. However, there are some existing structures that address these problems. The first is the criminal justice system itself. If an elected official commits a crime they should, and can, be prosecuted, convicted and removed from office.

However, recalls are not simply about crimes. They are frequently about policy differences or dereliction of duty. My proposal would be that on a regularly scheduled basis, The City pays to give voters an opportunity to choose from among a field of candidates, which could include the incumbent if she or he wants to run and is eligible.

Sound familiar? It’s called elections — and if you lose a free and fair one, you should stop kvetching and forcing The City to spend money and work harder the next time. ​​

Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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