Mayor Lee likes Question Time just the way it is: scripted and boring

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Deputies and the mayor's security detail were as stone-faced and vacant as most of the crowd during today's Question Time.
Steven T. Jones

Mayor Ed Lee appeared before the Board of Supervisors today for his fifth monthly Question Time session, where he was asked by Sup. John Avalos – and subsequently by reporters – whether he would be willing to “change the format to make it a truly interactive, substantive, and dynamic exchange?”
But Lee disagreed with the widespread perception that the scripted nature of these exchanges – a condition that Lee’s office insisted on during negotiations with the board earlier this year, with questions submitted in writing a week before the meeting – is a contrived and dull departure from what San Francisco voters intended when they twice voted to establish Question Time.
“Supervisor Avalos, this is substance, and I think it’s exactly what the voters had in mind with Proposition C,” Lee said, reading from a prepared text. Later, he added, again reading from his script, “I think these are very substantial and dynamic exchanges.”
But apparently, that view isn’t widely shared, as the format has been criticized by a wide variety of media outlets in town, and it was the main topic that the pack of reporters who intercepted Lee in the hallway afterwards wanted to discuss. He was asked whether the session would still be as civil as they are if they were less scripted, and Lee responded that he thought they would still be civil.
“But I like a little more structure to it,” Lee said, adding that he likes to have prepared notes to address the questions that supervisors might ask. “If we don’t set boundaries, it could be a free-for-all.”
But a bit more of a free-for-all is certainly what former Sup. Chris Daly intended when he drafted the legislation, which voters approved as a binding measure last year after first approving it as an advisory measure two years early, only to have then-Mayor Gavin Newsom refuse to come.
For example, when Sup. Sean Elsbernd asked Lee for a status report on the Central Subway project, it’s possible that Lee’s recitation of the project’s benefits might have been followed up with questions asking him to address recent criticisms or the tripling of the project’s costs, which he didn’t mention.
Or perhaps Sup. Eric Mar might have asked a follow-up question when Lee answered the question “Are you willing to require that CPMC enter into a Community Benefits Agreement before their proposal is approved by the city?” by saying, “These community benefits will be incorporated into a Developer Agreement,” reminding the mayor of the premise of his question that many of the benefits that the community is seeking cannot legally be included in the Developer Agreement.
Similarly, Lee also avoided directly answering Sup. David Campos’ question about whether the mayor intends to support legislation by Campos and Sup. Mark Farrell that would require city departments to return to the board for approval of budget supplements when overtime costs are significantly exceeding those that the department budgeted for.
But there is some wiggle room in the exchanges for supervisors who want to freestyle, as long as they are within the narrow confines of civility being practiced at City Hall these days. Elsbernd embellished his approved Central Subway question, calling it an “opportunity to move beyond the clichés and one-liners of political campaigns.”
And when Lee closed his answer to Avalos by inviting him to take part in an upcoming benefit ping-pong match in Chinatown, Avalos asked the mayor, with a slight taunt in his voice, “How is your game?”
To which Lee – perhaps reaching new heights in conflict aversion – said his style of play is “diplomatic and friendship first.” To which Avalos responded, again with an air of challenge, “I used to work at the Boys and Girls Club and played everyday.”
And that, I suppose, is what passes for political conflict and debate at City Hall these days.

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