Voters should electtheir elected officials

  • by John Avalos, Tom Temprano, Eileen Hansen, and RafaelMandelma
  • Wednesday July 9, 2014
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Let's elect our elected officials.

That's a silly sounding phrase, isn't it? But here in San Francisco, people regularly take elected office without a single vote being cast! When an elected office becomes vacant (because someone wins another office, resigns, is forced from office, or passes away) the voters don't get to select the replacement - the Board of Supervisors or mayor do, with no vote of the people. The power of incumbency then gives that appointee an overwhelming advantage when they run in the next election.

Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay elected official, once said, "It takes no compromise to give people their rights ...It takes no political deal to give people freedom."

The "Let's Elect Our Elected Officials" Act of 2014 will protect the voters' right to elect their representatives in competitive, open elections.

Currently, when the mayor's office becomes vacant, the Board of Supervisors appoints a new mayor. And when a seat on the Board of Supervisors becomes vacant, the mayor unilaterally appoints a replacement.

This ballot measure would instead require that these seats be filled by a democratic special election within 140 days (unless it could be consolidated with a regular election within 180 days of the vacancy). This would bring us in line with the more democratic processes for filling vacancies in the House of Representatives and our state Legislature.

It strengthens the separation of powers.

We all learned in middle school about how our democracy is based on checks and balances between the branches of government. Here in San Francisco, the separation of powers breaks down when our legislative branch unilaterally appoints a new executive (the mayor), or when the mayor unilaterally appoints new legislators (the supervisors). At one point in the 1990s, then-Mayor Willie Brown had appointed a majority of the members of the board, which he infamously called "my mistresses in need of servicing!"

It limits the power of incumbency.

With incumbency comes valuable name recognition, access to political donors, and institutional power that puts any would-be challenger at an almost insurmountable disadvantage. When an unelected appointee is given this power of incumbency, the voters are effectively shut out of the decision-making process - it could be an entire decade before the seat is truly decided by the voters in an open race.

It reduces backroom dealing.

Our political history is marred by unethical deal making when a single individual has the power to appoint people to elected office. The most infamous case in recent history was former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, who was convicted of soliciting bribes for the appointment to a U.S. Senate seat. Blagojevich was recorded saying, "I've got this thing and it's (bleep)ing golden, and I'm just not giving it up for (bleep)ing nothing."

One of the worst local examples of this was when former Mayor Frank Jordan wanted to appoint his goddaughter, Annemarie Conroy - a registered Republican - to the Board of Supervisors. To create a vacancy on the board, he appointed the assessor-recorder, Richard Hongisto, as police chief and then appointed Supervisor Doris Ward as assessor-recorder.

The police commission removed Hongisto from office only six weeks later for ordering officers to confiscate copies of the Bay Times , a local LGBT newspaper that had criticized him. And Ward failed to win re-election after the FBI alleged she committed mail fraud by using taxpayer funds to mail fundraising requests.

This type of backroom dealing that results in less-than-qualified appointees who are seemingly only appointed for reasons of political control stains the integrity of our government, makes people cynical about our electoral process, and contributes to lower voter turnout. The Let's Elect Our Elected Officials Act will restore the public's faith in our city government, maintain the appropriate checks and balances between branches, and ensure that voters are given the ability to choose their mayor and supervisor.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote at its meeting next Tuesday, July 15, on placing the ballot measure before voters. We urge the board to support this common sense approach to restoring the right of voters to elect their representatives at City Hall.


John Avalos represents District 11 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; Tom Temprano is co-president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club; Eileen Hansen is a former ethics commissioner and current member of Friends of Ethics; and Rafael Mandelman is a former Milk club president and currently serves on the city's community college board.