Too Much Democracy (Or One Voter’s Guide To Civic Duty In San Francisco)

If you’re a resident of San Francisco, then a couple weeks ago like me, you likely received a 200 page Voter Information Guide & Sample Ballot. The number of pages is not a typo. California, in general, and San Francisco, in specific, remain somewhat extreme examples of direct democracy. I don’t remember voting anywhere else in my life (Iowa and Minnesota) where the process and the amount of work I needed to do to be an informed voter involved this much research. In an effort to ensure that I do that research, I thought I’d write a bit about the process, and really the book itself, because it’s a gem

Pages 0-13 Table of Contents and general information

I am sympathetic to this section, and the efforts of the city. It’s all important stuff (where to vote, language services, how ranked choice voting works). My favorite touches are the exhortations to recycle this voter guide and the fact that they have to explain the very purpose of the book (Purpose of the Voter Information Pamphlet, page 3), but the best is a note on page 3 telling you to go to page 153 to find out how to save paper. But this is the kind of basic stuff that is required, and therefore I have no issue with it. In addition, it highlights the multiple channels and resources for voters, and if there’s anything other places in the United States truly should emulate about the voting process in San Francisco, it’s that. Early voting, vote-by-mail, language services, accessible voting are all things this city seems to do well.

Pages 14-15 Candidate information

It’s nice to see the offices and their duties clearly explained. By far the most interesting aspect is the listed yearly salary. That way you can see just how much Ed Lee is making to not really do anything to make this city a better place to live. Segue…

Pages 16-18 Candidates for Mayor

Did you know there are 6 people running for Mayor in San Francisco? Which makes you wonder, if there are 5 other people running, how are there no legitimate challengers to a mayor that anecdotally not that many people seem to like? Still, I can’t bring myself to vote for Ed Lee. From his sycophantic support of the Twitter tax break (which, I agree is complex, but c’mon…) to his perplexing vow to veto relaxed Idaho Stop enforcement for biking, I’ve just never read anything that has made me excited to say he’s my mayor. Stuart Schuffman (known better as Broke-Ass Stuart) gets my protest vote.

Pages 19-20 Candidates for Sheriff

Three candidates, but this is really a two person race between challenger Vicki Hennessy and incumbent Ross Mirkarimi from what I can see. Mirkarimi is a deeply flawed incumbent. He may be noting aspects of his tenure like pushing to house trans inmates according to their gender identity (while still highlighting his and most cis folks’ unfortunate and weird obsession with trans folks’ genitals) but unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be much of a plan as to how to accomplish things like that and it contains weird onerous requirements cis people would never have to do. Hennessy seems to have walked back some of her criticisms of sanctuary city status, but essentially seems to be saying she reserves the right to reach out as necessary, whatever that ends up meaning. Certainly Kathryn Steinle’s death was senseless and tragic, but I was glad to see the city reaffirm its sanctuary city status recently. Mirkarimi has other issues (previous domestic violence charges, the prison fights, etc) and it’s dismaying that he is not on speaking terms with the Mayor, because that seems problematic. The totality seems to be he has more problems than pluses. To that end, even if I’m not entirely sold, I think Hennessy is my choice.

Page 21 Candidate for City Attorney

Page 22 Candidate for District Attorney
Page 23 Candidate for Treasurer

Three offices, three unopposed incumbents; the only real question is whether they deserve a vote or not, but that has no real impact on whether they get elected. I’m not seeing much negative news about Dennis Herrera, George Gascón, and José Cisneros. It’s there, of course, but nothing that says stay away, or merits a protest no in my opinion.

Pages 24-25 Candidates for Community College Board

Four people running for the remainder of a one-year term that we’ll vote on again in 2016? Yep. The three that stand out are Wendy Aragon, Alex Randolph,and Tom Temprano. Alex Randolph, the incumbent, is an establishment choice, with the endorsements to match. Both the challengers do as well in that regard. This is one of those things where it feels like they’d all do a pretty good job. In a coin flip, I like what I’ve seen about Tom Temprano, and while I think any of them would do a good job, he gets my vote.

Page 26 San Francisco’s Supervisorial Districts

I’m sad the guide doesn’t say anything about the Farallon Islands, which are technically in District 1, though that probably owes to their remote location, lack of humans, and rodent infestation.

Page 27 Voter Bill Of Rights

Again, just some good solid information that’s good to share with people and make known. See, sometimes we get stuff right here.

Pages 28-39 Sample Ballot

Yes, that’s how long it is.

Page 40 Local Ballot Measure and Argument Information

This apparently explains the logic of what’s going to fill more than half this book. In seriousness, though, again, transparency, it’s a nice thing

Pages 41-43 Words You Need To Know

Why yes, there is a 3 page glossary of words and terms. A shocking number of them are for Props G and H, so at least we’ve all learned something about clean, green, and renewable energy.

Pages 44-45 An Overview of San Francisco’s Debt

Wait, I thought we were all so rich here we didn’t have that.

Pages 46-58 Proposition A – Affordable Housing Bond

San Francisco has been doing a system of charter amendments and propositions since 1898. The public library has documents going back to 1907 online. Some of them are the very foundations of the city, setting up maintenance and operations for Golden Gate Park, for example, or setting up the recall mechanism for voters. It’s actually kind of entertaining to dig through if you find yourself with some time. Take, for example, Daniel S O’Brien, who wanted to remind voters even in 1925 that he was, in fact, “a native-born San Franciscan”. Several other candidates that year also made sure to state some variation therein, a reminder that geography as a qualification is not a new thing. By far the best line from that 1925 guide, though, belongs to Julius S Godeau when he said:

Cemetery Removal – I am for the orderly and decorous removal of the City cemeteries. Without confusion, these cemeteries, lying in the center of the City, should be removed and the people of the Richmond District given free and direct transportation from their homes to the downtown business section. (Always providing that the people vote their removal.)

May that also serve as a reminder that we have been dealing with many of these issues for a long time. That was not the first time the City voted to move the cemeteries, but as anyone who’s been to Colma knows, the City did eventually do just that. It’s also a reminder that we seem to be revisiting the same issues again and again. Of course, circumstances change, so it makes sense that votes change.

Back in the present day, Prop A, in short, is asking us to bond $310 million for affordable housing. It requires 66 and ⅔% to pass. This is really a no-brainer in my opinion. Do we need a lot of other solutions? Of course. But arguments against that we shouldn’t put any money in at all or worse yet, that it doesn’t do enough strike me as callous and disingenuous.The city has lots of goals and ideas, but this is a tangible commitment. Let’s make that commitment, San Francisco.

This is also a moment to talk about Dr. Terence Faulkner, J.D. or whatever other appellation he uses. Once you starting bringing the Vikings into your rebuttal, welp, I’ve got nothing else to add. Sometimes, I agree with him though, so make of it what you will. But not in this case. Yes on Prop A.

Page 59 – Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

This seems like a weird spot to slip in an FAQ, San Francisco.

Pages 60-64 Proposition B – Paid Parental Leave for City Employees

Basically, this proposal is to allow both parents to take full parental leave (12 weeks) if the are both City employees as well as amending the fact they have to use all other leave first by allowing them to retain 40 hours of paid leave.

One of the most important questions you have to ask yourself going through all these props is “should this be a Prop?” In this case, I’m not really sure this is what the proposition mechanism should be used for. I’m having a difficult time finding exact numbers on how many City employees there are, but it looks to be somewhere around 28,000. Considering how many of them are likely married or partners, this just isn’t a high impact issue from a cost perspective, so I don’t think that’s a persuasive argument. Where it is a high impact issue is setting a positive example for other municipalities to follow. Is it enough? No, we need much better leave policies for more than just City employees. Still, let’s be in the lead on something that the United States is abysmal at. Yes on Prop B.

Page 65 – Be A Poll Worker on Tuesday, November 3!

You know, that’d actually be pretty cool to do. I doubt volunteer time would cover it, since it’s paid, but maybe next year.

Pages 66-72 Proposition C Expenditure Lobbyists

This prop basically expands the definition of who is a lobbyist and requires them to pay some additional fees and complete additional registration and paperwork. Yet I’m not really sure this is something that’s necessary. Or that this is the means that it should be done by. I just don’t think this really makes the process that much more transparent, and it seems more likely to impact smaller entities adversely. And all the other municipalities might have disclosure requirements but does that really stem the flow of funds? This just doesn’t seem to be how you truly fight that. Money might be a problem in this city, but I don’t think it’s all that secret. It’ll probably pass, even if I don’t think this should really be something we use a prop on, but since they’re asking me, I’m voting No on Prop C.

Page 73 Ballot Drop-off Stations Outside City Hall

The City really wants you to be aware of the ways it does things well. They even advertise those coveted “I Voted” stickers.

Pages 74-91 – Proposition D Mission Rock

This is a bit wordy, and kind of a two-part issue. Should the city increase the height limit for development at the Mission Rock site from one story to 40 to 240 feet, and should the city encourage the development of that site, including eight acres of parks as well as housing, of which at least 33% will be affordable.

Should this be a prop. Hell no. Every section of the guide has a how “X” got on the ballot, and this has a nice story about how it got there by the number of people who signed an initiative ordinance, blah, blah, blah. But really, how did it get on the ballot? You’ll have to look back to Props B and C in 2013, which involved the 8 Washington project, which the City rejected forcefully. I didn’t agree then and I don’t agree now, but 8 Washington was also practically an exhibition on how to not make something happen. The City gets so caught up in what kinds of development fit its character that it seems to end up with very little to nothing. Emboldened by that, Prop B passed in 2014. They might have celebrated how it’s changed everyone’s development plans, but the irony of this is it also makes everything take longer and cost more, and not necessarily for much benefit. Now you have to win public approval for a project that I’m guessing a bunch of people out in places like the Richmond and Sunset will rarely ever see, unless they go to Giants games. Approval of this project would be a forceful statement about how the winds have changed in just a year. Here’s what I don’t get about the idea. There are places along the waterfront that are literally zoned to a height of 0 feet. I run by these lots all the time, and they are a sad sight. People would rather keep empty piers and parking lots and the views of expensive condos across the street because of character. Character is an intangible; I like character too, it’s tough to make a reasoned argument based on it. I don’t think it can ever be totally ignored, nor should it, but it’s worth remembering that. 8 Washington lost because of a different climate, a poor vision, and a lack of affordability; Props about waterfront development passed in elections that simply didn’t have as many voters. I just don’t think a waterfront wall is a reality, and frankly if it is one, I welcome it. I’d be more concerned about rising sea levels than a blocked view myself. But that’s not what we’re voting on (yet). I’m dismayed I even have to vote on this, but if I have to, you can bet damn well it’s going to be a forceful Yes on Prop D.

Pages 92-97 Proposition E Requirements for Public Meetings

The gist is should the City be required to stream City meetings, allow comments from anyone watching remotely, play pre-recorded comments, and allow requests for discussion of specific items at specific times. Got all that? Because I’m not sure. The City already broadcasts many of its meetings, has agendas available, and allows opportunities for people to speak or submit pre-recorded video, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be played at the meeting. So basically, it’s just more, more, more, but more of…what? It would increase staff, have some one-time costs, and generally feels like a very San Francisco kind of ordinance. It seems like a good idea, but what does it really do? The remote testimony portion is the part that definitely sticks out in a negative way. On top of the fact that they would have to broadcast four times as many meetings. Most of which I’m guessing people are either showing up for if they care. And I am sympathetic to increased access. But it doesn’t really seem to do the job well. Come back with a better thought out Prop and then maybe we can talk. No on Prop E.

Pages 98-113 Proposition F Short-Term Residential Rentals

Prop F is all about codifying the rule around short-term rentals to a further degree than they currently exist, dropping the number of rentable days on all short-term units to 75 regardless of hosting, and increasing paperwork requirements, but I think the sticking point for Airbnb, or why they’ve spent so much on it, seems to me to be allowing interested parties to sue hosting platforms instead of just the City.

Where to start? I have read a lot on this, from this awfully slanted No on F post that went viral to this much more even-handed response that seemed to generate as much response (locally at least). I’ve lived here long enough now to see Airbnb make more than a few stumbles, but their ill-fated ad campaign about how the City should spend its taxes after spending so long fighting paying those very taxes. It’s really baffling. They’ve obviously taken a lot of heat in regards to people pulling rentals off the market or evicting tenants to convert them to temporary rentals, and obviously it’s having an impact, but that seems to depend on who you ask and exactly what you count. I don’t think you’ll find anyone here who will disagree with that statement in general, though. Airbnb is one of the few of these sharing economy services that makes any sense at all to me, though it still has the same general impact of shifting who pays for what. Airbnb lines their coffers because they pass on so many expenses to you, the owner of that temporary unit. They might finally be paying the hotel tax, but they still don’t have to wash the sheets, or pay or a doorman, or anything. Your gain, of course, is taking advantage of that extra room. Or maybe an entire unit. That’s where things get a little nasty, it seems. But even if it’s people renting out a room, that’s an impact. Of course, if it’s there home and they are just looking for some extra money, Airbnb might make that easier, but people have been renting rooms for a long time. The problem seems to be who is renting those rooms, actual residents of the City or visitors. In a healthier environment, it’s doubtful anyone would care that much.

But I don’t need to tell you San Francisco is not a healthy rental market. Every newspaper of record has written about it. You don’t need me to tell you about it, whether you live here or not. You’re probably sick of hearing about it. Guess what? We are too. That’s where ideas like this come from. And in general, I don’t think a lot aspects of Prop F are problematic. But I also don’t think they are all that different from the current rules. And more importantly, it circles back to whether the City should use the Prop mechanism for this. And that’s where I think this fails. Props are very hard to change. So is that the process by which we want to govern something like this that is relatively dynamic? And more importantly, are you just doing this because you don’t like Airbnb, and by extension, many of the new tech companies? I am not a huge fan of them. They are tone-deaf, and like so many tech companies, they think they’ve invented something new when they’ve just moved the work around. They serve a narrow clientele, and while I have periodically used them, I do so with trepidation because I can’t exactly screen for transphobic hosts. I have a lot of complex feelings about Airbnb. I do not think they are changing the world. But I also don’t think a Prop is the best way to govern this, or to show our displeasure with them. I may not be a huge fan, but No on Prop F

Pages 114-122 Props G and H Disclosures Regarding Clean Energy

I am grouping them together because they are essentially the same, however G couldn’t be withdrawn. Both address CleanPowerSF and definitions about what’s renewable. I don’t think it’s going to cost anyone anything. I don’t think it really matters that much to be totally honest. But if that’s the case, why are we taking time to vote on this? Is this something the entire City really needs to vote on? The Yes vote here states essentially that we’ll use the State definition of some terms, and that we’ll urge CleanPowerSF to…do something? I do not understand why this is a Prop at all, and it’s somehow two? I know, I know it’s because PG&E got G on the ballot in the first place and it has a poison pill regarding what’s entirely green energy and a lot of other wonky stuff. So the idea is we vote for H to prevent G from happening, which no one even seems to support anymore anyway. No on both Props G and H for me, and no more thought at all about this other than to say, maybe you can see why San Francisco is a little screwy now?

Page 123 Voter Bill Of Rights

So good they had to print it again 96 pages later.

Pages 124-139 Proposition I Suspension of Market-Rate Development in the Mission District

Shall the City suspend the issuance and permits on certain types of housing and business development projects in the Mission for at least 18 months and establish a Neighborhood Stabilization Plan, to paraphrase the booklet.

The Mission Moratorium, as an idea, is an expression of many things, but mostly, I see it as an expression of anger. Anger that the city is changing. Anger that people are moving into the Mission. Anger that people are being evicted. Anger that long-time businesses are moving or going out of business. Anger over who this city is for, and who it intends to serve. Anger over the economic and racial disparities that are further highlighted and exacerbated by much of what’s changed there in the past several years. To that end, we get a Prop after it did not get the nine votes they needed from the Supes to pass it earlier this year. Not it only requires a 50%+1 to pass and it’s in our hands.

I understand that anger. I just don’t see this as the solution. You can call me a dirty urbanist or a believer in trickle-down or whatever. But we need more housing, overall. Do I agree we need stronger components in terms of affordable housing? Definitely  But I don’t see how this solves it? When I read memos like this, I don’t see many plans, just this idea that we need more affordable homes. It’s inchoate. It’s an idea. How are those places being built, though? Prop A? The taxes and money made by the city off those deplorable luxury condo residents? How is it addressing the high building costs in this city, and how is putting up yet another barrier helping that? Many have stated this is like a time-out. But the city isn’t waiting. People are still moving here. And they will keep moving here. Do other neighborhoods need to step up? Of course. But part of what makes the Mission appealing isn’t just its hip new bars and restaurants that people so readily decry, but the fact that BART runs right under it. The core, though, is who the city is for, who is a true San Franciscan, who deserves to be here. This is the angle where I think racial and economic justice makes sense. Those are questions we keep asking, frequently at the expense of newcomers. Have I been here long enough to not be one? Am I still a gentrifier even though I don’t live in the Mission, don’t work in tech, and definitely don’t make as much as the tech workers? Am I more a resident because I try to engage with the culture more? Is it easier to feel better about the fact I have had good fortune because I’m not just another white dude? I don’t know. There are a lot of questions here. My main question, though, is what are we doing to make this city more accommodating not just for the new folks, but how we do it conscientiously with the people who have been here. I don’t see how this addresses that.. As I’ve come to say to myself a lot recently after seeing it online, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. But this is neither.

I think this will pass, and I’m terrified at the thought of other neighborhoods also asking for the same dispensation instead of stepping up and trying to help make up for the fact that this is going to make things even tougher for a while. Of course what do I care, I have rent control. Well, I care in that I want there to still be a city around me. I care in that I’d like the option of moving someday if I wanted to. I care because I care about my city. I do think we need more substantive plans to address those disparities. I do feel bad about the problems in this city. I do want to do more to help, I do think we all want this city to be better, but I don’t think this is it. No on Prop I.

Pages 140-145 Prop J Legacy Business Historic Preservation Fund

This is about establish a fund for what are Legacy businesses. At present, legacy businesses have to have been here for 30 years or more, founded or currently in the City, that have contributed to the neighborhoods they are in that have maintained the physical features or traditions, as they define it. Think things like the Taqueria La Cumbre (secretly a great late night option…just saying) or Anchor Brewing, Cliff House or Tommy’s, Silver Crest Donut Shop or the Little Shamrock. They are things that contribute character to a city, no doubt. The Prop is designed to create a fund for businesses on that Registry, while provide grants and expanding the definition of what can be a legacy business. I don’t think there’s a problem with legacy businesses, but I’m not sure the definition needs to be expanded or that is what I think the city should be spending money on. Historic preservation certainly matters, but what’s historic? It’s a tougher question to answer than you think, and as we approach the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act, it’s worth thinking about the challenges there in. The idea of preservation is worthy, but the actual act of it represents a challenge. What maintains something as historic? Its use? Its look? Its location or primacy? These aren’t easy questions. I don’t really feel particularly qualified to address them, but they certainly impact me, because they impact the development of the places I live and have lived. Lowertown in Saint Paul is a curious example of that, with a lot of old buildings that have been converted into condos which certainly adds a cool character to it, but where some of those buildings worth preserving. It’s always a difficult question. I don’t really know. But I can look around and see things that don’t get developed because of that. It’d be great if another theater or similar concept moved into the Alexandria Theater space. But if it doesn’t, how long should we just let the husk of that building sit there undeveloped and unused like it has since 2004? I don’t know. There are other theaters with the same issue not all that far away. This is by no means me advocating just tearing all of it down and building whatever new thing you can. But things aren’t valuable inherently because they are old. And it’s worth a reminder that everything old was new once. Where does that new stuff go in? Sometimes it goes into old businesses. I think we can continue to grapple with questions of use and history without this fund, and I don’t think the definition of what’s a legacy business really needs to be changed at present. Not everything will be a legacy business. And if everything were, would anything ever change? I know that’s not what it’s about, but it’s a question to keep in mind. For me, this just doesn’t seem like a thing we need a Prop for. No on Prop J.

Pages 146-152 Prop K Surplus Public Lands

This is about expanding the threshold for allowable uses of property, and expanding the percentages, essentially. At present the City uses surplus property for housing that is affordable up to 60% of the area median income. Basically this raises the threshold to anywhere between 120% to 150% the median while still putting some requirements on how much needs to be affordable for people in lower thresholds. It basically gives them the ability to use the surplus land to create more housing and loosens the process a bit to push it more toward developing that based on what I’m reading about it. That can all be a little fuzzy in the abstract, but the City does provide the table on their website so you can see what they are talking about. This is one of the few things that almost everyone in the current government agrees on. Which is saying something. The City needs to build more and this is a good use of City power to do such. Doesn’t mean housing is going to magically appear, but this is a tangible step toward making more of that happen, especially in the affordable column.

Page 153 – You Can Stop Receiving This Pamphlet

Yes, please

Pages 154-155

You just read 150+ pages, so here’s a couple reminders about where to vote. No really, maybe you forgot in all the time you took researching and reading about these Props.

Pages 156-195

This is the actual text of and how it will go in the Charter, if you find yourself wanting to read even more about that. Which again, kudos to the City for providing that, but I’m no lawyer, but hey, Prop D has some pretty slick looking maps

Pages 196-197

Visit sfelections.org/toolkit to see all the stuff you just read and more!

Want to learn even more about elections in San Francisco? At this point, no, not really. Is it possible to actual excise some of what I learned out of my brain?

Page 198 Index

It’s in index. Yes, the voter guide requires both a Table of Contents and an Index.

Pages 199-200 Ballot Worksheet

All that to vote on 7 offices (8 if you live in District 3, but I left that out since I don’t) and 11 props. And they only provide 10 lines for notes?

Congrats! You made it. This certainly made me take more time to learn where I stand on some of this stuff, and I can see a shift in my voting patterns even from the last time I voted. I don’t want to say I’ve become more skeptical of Props because I was the first time I voted, but I have thought more about their broader purpose, and the question of whether they are necessary. In this case, I don’t feel like nearly as many are. That will shift from year to year, and I may not find myself on the popular side of several of these (in particular, F and I), but I feel like taking time has helped me get to a more reasoned position. But The City is squeezing everyone these days, it seems. Do we have time for that? And do we have the qualifications? That’s a question after 200 pages that I still do not equipped to answer. Direct democracy is a great concept, but in practice, I’m voting on a lot of things I don’t understand all that well. I don’t ask you how to stop money laundering. So why am I supposed to know the ins and outs of a legacy business? Some of these things seem like matters the entire city should tackle, but others feel like they are better handled by the people we are ostensibly electing to handle them. If we’re not given that, then we could all use some more time to learn and develop informed opinions on these issues. How many people are actually stepping up to share their opinions on the direction of the City come Election Day? We shall see.

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