A handful of San Francisco officials in elected positions have been appointed by Mayor Ed Lee in the past four years. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

Limiting SF mayor’s appointments empower voters

As the only former mayor to support Proposition D, which would limit mayoral power to make appointments, I believe it empowers the voters and corrects a serious imbalance in our city elections emanating from the extraordinary increase of mayoral appointments to political vacancies created by term limits. This recent growth in mayoral appointments denies the citizen the right to choose their representatives by giving a huge political advantage to the appointed incumbent.

In San Francisco, our strong mayor structure allows the mayor to make the appointments when a vacancy occurs in any city public office. Obviously, mayors like that power. Historically, those vacancies have been very few and far between, usually occurring from a death in office or an occasional election to a higher office.

However, with the advent of term limits limiting incumbents to two terms on the Board of Supervisors, we have seen a major uptick in incumbents seeking higher office at the
first opportunity, thereby creating vacancies in the offices they currently hold. 

That is happening right now with supervisors Scott Weiner and Jane Kim facing off for election to the California State Senate. A victory by either one will create a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors that Mayor Ed Lee will fill with his choice right away. Yet, Weiner and Kim have approximately two years left in their respective terms as supervisors, which means the voters will not get to vote a replacement until 2018.

Less than two years ago, we had the same situation when Supervisor David Chiu won a narrow victory over Supervisor David Campos. Since Chiu still had a year left in his term, Mayor Lee — not the voters of the district — picked Chiu’s successor, Julie Christensen.  

Another more glaring example occurred in 2007, when Carmen Chu, a non-political, competent budget staffer for then-Mayor Gavin Newsom, was appointed by him to replace Supervisor Ed Jew, who was forced to resign after a bribery conviction.

Chu served as District 4 supervisor until February 2014, when a vacancy in the citywide Office of Assessor was created by the election Assessor Phil Ting to the state Assembly. Once again, Chu was elevated to a new office by an appointment from a political ally, Mayor Lee, just as she neared the end of her two terms as a supervisor.

So now we see Assessor Chu now serving in a high citywide elected position without ever having faced the voters until she had the power of incumbency and all the advantages comes with it. But these seemingly continuous mayoral appointment opportunities did not stop there.

Supervisor Chu’s elevation from district supervisor to assessor created yet another vacancy in her district. And again, we see the power of appointment at work with Katy Tang, Chu’s personable policy wonk legislative aide, being appointed by Mayor Lee to fill the remaining two years of Chu’s supervisorial term.

As a political rule, incumbency is a virtual guarantee for reelection for appointed officials. It is a huge advantage in seeking endorsements and campaign contributions.

Chiu’s mayoral appointed successor, Christensen is a rare exception. She had to face the electorate within 12 months of her appointment against an opponent who was a very popular former district supervisor, Aaron Peskin. Peskin had the resources and know-how to defeat Christensen, despite the mayor’s efforts to the contrary.

The only other modern example of an appointed incumbent losing is Christina Olague four years ago. Olague was an authentic community activist-leader, appointed by Mayor Lee, who courageously refused to follow his direction in the case of his overreaching suspension of Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi. As a result, the mayors billionaire political benefactors, like Ron Conway, collected and spent hundreds of thousands to attack Olague for her refusal to obey the mayor. Olague, a political novice running for first time after her appointment, never had a chance and was defeated. 

So what does the “musical chairs” of political appointments by the mayor mean for the citizen?

It’s simple: Citizens are denied an opportunity to choose their own representative for any local government office because the mayor makes the choice for them.

Prop. D corrects this disproportionate mayoral power emerging “loophole” by allowing the mayor to appoint an interim replacement until an election can be scheduled to allow the voters to make their own choice. And in order to mitigate against an appointed incumbent changing his mind after promising to serve only as the interim replacement and running for election, the law clearly prohibits that possibility.

Prop. D empowers the people of San Francisco by preserving the fundamental right of citizens to make their own choices for their elected representatives.

Art Agnos served as mayor of San Francisco from 1988 to 1992.

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