Vote your vote away

Sup. Wiener seeks authority for the board to change or repeal voter-approved measures


The article has been changed from the print version to correct an error.

In a surprising move that is causing a strong backlash from progressives and other groups that have won important reforms at the ballot box, Sup. Scott Wiener is pushing a charter amendment that would allow the Board of Supervisors to change or repeal voter-approved ballot measures years after they become law.

If voters approve Wiener's charter amendment, among the most vulnerable reforms may be tenant protections such as limitations on rent increases, relocation assistance for no-fault tenant removal, and owner move-in eviction limits, to name a few.

The Rules Committee heard concerned testimony about the proposal May 19 and opted to hold off on voting to send it to the full board for approval until the next meeting on June 2 to allow for more public comment.

If approved, the amendment will be on the November ballot, although the public may be confused about why such an amendment would be on the ballot in the first place. The measure covers ordinances and resolutions that were placed on the ballot by supervisors, and Wiener has said he plans to amend the measure to exempt those placed on the ballot by voter petition. Changes to taxes or bonds are not a part of the amendment because those are required by state law to go to the ballot box.

Paradoxically, Wiener's reasoning for the proposal is that he believes voters are bogged down with too many ballot measures with complex issues that need changes, measures he claims the board could deal with more efficiently. But critics say it makes progressive reforms vulnerable to attack by a board that is heavily influenced by big-money interests.

At the committee meeting, about a dozen people spoke in opposition to the amendment, saying it seemed broad in scope and would be a more appropriate change at the state level.

Matthias Mormino, a legislative aide to Sup. Jane Kim, who chairs the Rules Committee, said that his boss is still on the fence. "She has concerns and hasn't made up her mind yet."

Currently California is one of the last states where a voter-approved initiative cannot be subject to veto, amendment, or repeal, except by the voters.

"It's not a radical thing," Wiener told the Guardian about the proposed amendment. "My thinking is that we should do our jobs. We elect public officials to make decisions every week. I wanted to strike a balance where the voters still have a strong say."

But how strong of a say will the voting public have in cases where voter-approved initiatives are changed by the decisions of a board of politicians with their own influences and bias?

Wiener stated that he had no specific initiatives in mind when he decided to propose the amendment nor was he targeting any kind of legislation, except ones that are "outdated." Wiener cited an example of updating campaign consultant reporting from quarterly to monthly as a change that needed to happen but could seemingly be a nuisance at the ballot box.

He is proposing a tiered system in which, for the first three years, an initiative is untouchable. In four years, a two-thirds majority vote by the board could make changes to initiatives; after seven years, a simple majority could do so. That means a raft of tenant measures approved in the 1990s could come under immediate attack.

"Does he not like our sick-leave policy?" Sup. John Avalos told us. "It's so vague and unclear on what he is trying to do. I'm afraid that he is trying to change laws that are popular with the voters. It's not a democratic way to resolve policy issues."

Calvin Welch, a longtime progressive and housing activist, has his own theory on Wiener's proposal. "Voters don't have a big problem discerning which ones they agree with and which ones they don't," he said about voter-approved initiatives.

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