Sunshine for city initiatives

An important charter measure adding an eminently sensible reform to the San Francisco initiative process has quietly qualified for the November ballot, thanks to Supervisors Sean Elsbernd and Aaron Peskin collecting signatures of seven board members.

Pushed for four years by San Francisco Planning and Urban Research, or SPUR, the Election Sunshine Measure would not prevent any initiatives from being voted directly by the public in a citywide referendum. But it still has power to shield voters from the kind of stealthy, ill-conceived, last-minute measures that have been all too common in recent city elections.

Election Sunshine would simply require all ordinance initiatives or policy resolutions to be introduced 45 days prior to the ballot finalization deadline — which is normally two months before Election Day. Then each proposed measure would also have to undergo a public hearing at a Board of Supervisors committee in time to amend or cancel it before ballot finalization.

This double safeguard is important because The City Election Code has long had several major loopholes making it too easy to manipulate the initiative process. San Francisco voters have become resigned to facing an irritatingly large number of cryptic local measures on every ballot. Eleven local measures were on the 2006 ballot, and there have been as many as 16 in recent years.

That is just too many initiatives for any normally conscientious voter to seriously consider. So many more measures show up here than in other cities because our threshold for submission is unusually low and there is no advance deadline.

Placing an ordinance referendum on the ballot now only requires signatures from four of the 11 supervisors. Or the mayor could just place a measure himself. (Charter amendment initiatives, which have the power to trump ordinances, are governed by state law, so putting them on the ballot does require a public hearing plus approval from six supervisors.)

In recent years, there has been an onslaught of last-minute city measures suddenly appearing on the ballot without any open legislative debate or public comment, according to SPUR. Since there are obvious advantages for dubious measures to be sneaked onto the ballot as quietly as possible, they now tend to be held back until the very last day of eligibility.

The end result is that voters get stuck trying to make sense out of a boring list of poorly written, confusing ballot initiatives improperly analyzed for unintended consequences. Issues are presented to the public in a one-sided and oversimplified form.

The Examiner has no false hopes that public hearings on proposed referendums would be thronged by citizens. But an early deadline for exposing initiatives to public oversight would enable the press to do its job of spotlighting blatant abuses of the San Francisco initiative process.

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