The secret mistake of Prop C: Chilling the voice of our grassroots communities

Proposition C on November’s ballot was intended to root out so-called “astro-turf” nonprofits fronting for politically influential corporations, but instead casts too wide a net and sweeps in our city’s patchwork quilt of community- and faith-based organizations that represent the voice of neighborhoods and vulnerable communities. By doing so, Prop C threatens San Francisco’s rich history of including diverse public voices in policy debates. Instead of running the risk of failing to comply with complicated registration and reporting requirements, many small and medium-sized organizations will simply decide not to engage in advocacy.

San Francisco relies on community and faith-based organizations to provide a broad array of health and human services for children, youth and their families, seniors, people with disabilities, homeless families and people with HIV/AIDS, as well as building and managing most of The City’s affordable housing. Nonprofits also provide arts and cultural resources, job training and small business economic development assistance. Our reliance on community-based organization is known throughout the world as “the San Francisco model.” Moreover, neighborhood groups abound in San Francisco, bringing an organized voice to the public policy process and providing the infrastructure for civic engagement. That, too, is a recognized hallmark of San Francisco.

Yet, in a process that had no community outreach, Prop C’s creators inserted poorly drafted language into an otherwise commendable measure that will have a chilling effect on those voices. It was a mistake. The measure’s authors missed the target and are now explaining the mistake away by arguing that it’s simply acceptable collateral damage for the larger cause of clamping down on the astroturf nonprofits.

The implications of this measure are significant. Nonprofits often spend money on research, media, reports and studies, and polling to educate or engage the public on city policies. The intimidating prospect of small nonprofits being required to register as “lobbyists” will have a chilling impact on this advocacy and civic engagement work. The $2,500 threshold, which does not increase with inflation, is too low and creates a trap for unwary advocates. Once branded as a lobbyist, individuals and organizations will be required to pay an annual $500 registration fee for the privilege of expressing their free speech rights, and file monthly reports on their advocacy activities. Nonprofits are already subject to federal and state disclosure requirements. Adding new bureaucratic hurdles and fiscal liabilities for small organizations will drive many nonprofits out of public policy debates, and consequently disempower low-income and vulnerable populations.

San Francisco’s grassroots and neighborhood organizations have a long history of successful public interest advocacy for significant social, environmental, economic and cultural changes to address community needs, from civil rights to health care. This service-based and community-building mission is far different from private sector industries, nonprofit front organizations, and individuals motivated by personal gain. The drafters of this measure could have focused on corporate disclosure of large donations to nonprofits for lobbying purposes; such a measure would achieve the goal of exposing fake organizations set up to create false credibility, without burdening and repressing the voices of nonprofit community groups who advocate in the public square.

Prop C is well-intentioned, but has flaws that its drafters did not thoroughly consider. This measure should have gone through the Board of Supervisors as legislation, where it would undergo a fully vetted process in the most public forum and would allow for easier correction of flaws and unintended consequences. Instead, the proponents have locked in an inflexible and problematic ballot measure.

After careful reading of its implications, organizations from a broad spectrum of political backgrounds, from SPUR to the Council of Community Housing Organizations, the San Francisco Human Services Network and Alliance for Justice, are all opposed to Proposition C. Also opposed are the Latino Democratic Club, District 5 Democrats, the Tenants Union, the Affordable Housing Alliance, San Francisco Rising Alliance, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), SEIU 1021, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council and the San Francisco Labor Council.

Should this measure be defeated, we will have the opportunity to come together as a San Francisco community after November to fix the mistake and restore a reasonable expenditure lobbyist ordinance that truly addresses the moneyed threats to our public process.

Vote No on C.

Debbi Lerman is an administrator for San Francisco Human Services Network. Fernando Marti a co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations. Rebecca Cappy is the Northern California Director for Alliance for Justice.

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