January 22, 2003

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Attack on district elections
Newsom picks up downtown's clarion call

By Savannah Blackwell

The San Francisco Examiner announced with a big page-one headline last week that Sup. Gavin Newsom has declared war on the district elections system. And although Newsom's aide, Mike Farrah, tried to toss his body on this little political grenade by insisting the idea was all his, Newsom has for several years been criticizing the process that best allows real neighborhood activists to get seats on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Indeed, shortly after the December 2000 elections that ushered in the current, reform-minded board, Newsom sat for an interview with the Examiner and said he was worried that a district-elected board might lose track of citywide issues. And at a drug policy seminar in January 2001, Newsom argued that district elections could lead to NIMBYism that might stop the expansion of drug abuse treatment and service programs in the city.

But Newsom is really just the errand boy. Downtown's political forces have been looking for a way to get rid of district elections since December 2000.

"The downtown business community feels that we've lost a direct voice in city government," Ken Cleaveland, the director of governmental affairs for the Building Owners and Managers Association (which represents the largest downtown property owners), told us.

In September 2002, developer and campaign financier Oz Erickson used a speaking gig at a business forum to take a shot at district elections, saying the process stands in the way supervisors implementing sound, citywide housing policy.

Meanwhile, the Committee on Jobs, the lobbying arm of the city's largest businesses, started making noises about getting rid of district elections. And the San Francisco Planning and Urban Policy Research Association has been flirting with supporting that notion, on the charges that the district-elected board delegates too many important policy decisions to voters.

District elections foes are trying to combine their attack with a plan they think might have political legs: a reduction in the size of the board.

Cleaveland said he was interested in a seven-member board, with five elected by district and two elected by a citywide vote. Newsom's proposal calls for five seats, all elected citywide, according to the Examiner.

Farrah told us Newsom will not introduce a change to the district elections system. "I can assure you, he will not be going forward with it," he said.

On Jan. 9, though, Newsom told members of the pro-landlord Coalition for Better Housing that he was looking at a proposal to reduce the number of supervisors and to have most of them elected citywide. "He said he hadn't decided what the final package would look like yet," a source who attended the meeting told us.

As one city hall insider put it, "That means Newsom can get his rich buddies on the board."

Pollster David Binder said Newsom's proposal is not likely to thrill voters. "My sense is that voters still prefer district elections by a fairly solid majority," he said.

That might be why Farrah told the Examiner he'd asked the City Attorney's Office to draft repeal legislation without even telling his boss.

E-mail Savannah Blackwell at savannah@sfbg.com.