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Opportunism knocks
Brought to you by Sup. Leno's political handlers, Prop. F gives a citizen committee the ability to block voter-approved bonds

By Tali Woodward

"F is for funky" is how one city hall official summarized Proposition F, the bond oversight measure placed on the March ballot at the last minute by Sup. – and 13th District state assembly candidate – Mark Leno.

There will be no arguments against Prop. F printed in the city's voter guide, but that doesn't mean there's no opposition. A number of city officials are criticizing it as a politically motivated stunt – one that might even hurt the city's strong bond rating.

If Prop. F is such a good idea, several officials have asked, why didn't Leno bring it before the Board of Supervisors? There's nothing in the measure that would alter the City Charter, so the same thing could have been achieved through ordinance. Instead, Leno got the signatures of fellow supervisors Tony Hall, Sophie Maxwell, Leland Yee, and Gavin Newsom and put the measure on the ballot without any public debate.

It looks like he had a very personal reason for doing that.

In November the San Francisco Chronicle took a bunch of old information about bond expenditures by the San Francisco Unified School District and presented it in a splashy "investigative series" package. It would have been pretty harmless if the paper hadn't implied, as it did, that the misuse of public money was the fault of the current district leadership, which it wasn't.

In the mild hysteria that followed, Leno, – or, at least, his political handlers – recognized a campaign opportunity. According to several sources, it was Leno's campaign consultants, hailing from the well-connected firm of Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter and Partners, who effectively drafted the legislation.

Leno told the Bay Guardian that claim is "inaccurate," but he also said, "I did use Mark Mosher as a reference – he worked through some of the details."

It's not hard to see how presenting himself as a fiscal watchdog might curry favor with more conservative voters – plus, one of Leno's opponents is Steve Phillips, who served for eight years on the school board. Phillips told us, "Apart from [Leno's] motivation, I think the concept is great, though I have to think more about the specifics."

Assemblymember Carole Migden, who has endorsed Leno's opponent Harry Britt in the race to fill her seat, is one official who has raised questions about the measure. "Migden believes that fiscal oversight is one of the prime responsibilities of an elected officials, and she's never in favor of abdicating that responsibility," Migden aide Eric Potashner said.

Most critics say that while oversight is typically a good thing, this particular proposal grants a citizen committee dangerously broad authority. The nine-member committee – which would be appointed by the mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the city controller, and a city grand jury – could halt any bond sale that has already been approved by the voters. And only a two-thirds vote by the Board of Supervisors could reverse its decision.

When asked if the committee might abuse that power by blocking any measure it didn't like, Leno said, "There's nothing that we do in government that's foolproof." He added, "The force behind the bond can go to court [and show that the committee] is abusing its authority."

Ironically, while the measure is being promoted as a prescription for school district problems, it's unlikely to affect the school district at all. Proposition 39, which California voters passed in 2000, encourages school districts to float future bonds on their own (and, incidentally, also requires several layers of fiscal oversight).

Jill Wynns, who was recently reelected president of the school board, is nonetheless bothered by the way Prop. F is being promoted. "I'm concerned because it looks to me like it allows people to run against the school district."

On a broader political note, Wynns added, "It's the Board of Supervisors' job to oversee the spending of city bonds. Are they telling the public that they haven't or can't do that?"

E-mail Tali Woodward at tali@sfbg.com.