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

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.


Why should it be any different here?

Perhaps Steven was looking forward to a Grand Inquisition, with one of the progressive wing acting as Torquemada. But I doubt that is what SF voters wanted when they passed this measure. Who does that benefit?

Posted by Right on Sister Snapples on Sep. 13, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

That's why it should be different here.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 13, 2011 @ 7:19 pm

During PMs questions in England, the Speaker of the House typically allows for at least three non-scripted supplementary questions from the leader of the opposition.

Also, not all questions are pre-scripted, particularly those from the back benchers who "have caught the Speaker's eye."

Posted by Luke Thomas on Sep. 13, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

However I'm not interested in political theater or grandstanding at the Board - which is supposed to govern. I can already image the questions from Campos - which will concern issues completely outside the Board's purview - issues like immigration and foreign policy.

In the interests of civility I think a few unscripted questions would be alright then.

Posted by Right on Sister Snapples on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 3:17 pm

However I'm not interested in political theater or grandstanding at the Board - which is supposed to govern. I can already image the questions from Campos - which will concern issues completely outside the Board's purview - issues like immigration and foreign policy.

In the interests of civility I think a few unscripted questions would be alright then.

Posted by Right on Sister Snapples on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 3:21 pm

There is a story in Fog City Journal right now about how Adachi has formally asked Lee to debate Pension reform. Lee's reps declined in a fashion consistent with the above, but really sounding a sinister note, in my opinion, when it comes to healthy debate in this town. Here's what they had to say, in quotes:

“Mayor Lee already debates his San Francisco approach to pension reform vs Adachi’s divisive Wisconsin way everywhere he goes and will continue”...

I don't know about you, but I don't appreciate labeling of any kind, as in the above. I like to think for myself—you know, substantively.

“This is nothing more than a cheap sideshow stunt to attract momentary attention to his floundering mayoral campaign.”

Again--can we do better than cheap, negative-style-campaigning pot-shots on such an important issue? Just asking...

“He has also gone across the city to discuss the proposal with San Franciscans.”

Well, I'm an interested citizen who would welcome a public debate with the 2 authors in tow…and let it be videotaped.

I'm angry about these responses, and I for one want to see healthy debate as par for the course on such an important issue—not blatantly evasive tactics. Cause I don't know where to be privy to the multitudes of conversations that have allegedly taken place all over the city—I haven't the time to go to all the forums, and the 2 I've been to thus far have not discussed pension reform in any kind of substantive way—far from it! We deserve better and this is one voter who doesn’t appreciate the minimizing of discourse going on here, nor the resting-on-your-undeserved-laurels-of-incumbency shtick. Frankly, it stinks!

Posted by Guest daniele erville on Sep. 13, 2011 @ 6:01 pm

They will hide from open debate and throw stones like these whenever possible.
The goal is to win, then further line their pockets and those of their masters.
They have no interest in public service or providing honest answers to taxpayer's questions.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 13, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

Color me doubtful that Ed Lee will be vacating Room 200 in the near future. Yep, four more years of him running the show at City Hall for his powerful backers are what I'm preparing for. I don't see Avalos extending very far beyond his progressive/protest/nonprofit base and pushing Lee out of office. Avalos is a good and decent progressive, but fire in the belly is no there, plus, he voted to install Lee, twice, if I'm not mistaken.

Posted by MPetrelis on Sep. 13, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

Avalos only voted for Lee in the final unity votes after the decision was a done deal. He opposed until he knew Lee had prevailed.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

Eric, this is a ridiculous strategy that does not work and makes no sense. Please stop defending it. You certainly do not see this happening locally with the Lee/Brown/Pak coalition or nationally with the Republicans. They tend to win by sticking to their prinicples, whether we agree with them or not.

Time to stop making excuses for weak backbones and start making demands for solid leadership starting with proposing well thought out alternatives to this type of measure.

Posted by Hope Johnson on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 3:44 pm

You misunderstand me. I definitely view Avalos' unity vote on the interim mayor decision as a mistake.

I'm just clarifying that Avalos did not outright support Lee.

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

...and question time is a complete and utter waste of time.

Did you hear we gave more raises to police and fire today - and yes it "saved us millions!"

The thought of Lee becoming mayor is simply appalling.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 13, 2011 @ 10:24 pm

Go figure.

"But my favorite question is from mayoral candidate Supervisor John Avalos, who wants to know "what are you willing to do to change the format [of mayor question time] to make it a truly interactive, substantive and dynamic exchange?" I can only hope that Lee responds by stating the obvious: the supervisors are the ones who set the rules of mayor question time, not the mayor. "So the question," I imagine Lee saying, "is what are you willing to do?""

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner:

Posted by meatlock on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 8:13 am

Just a reminder that the Supervisors foolishly supported the measure concocted by David Chiu and Eric Mar to establish these procedures for question time (which also illegally moves public comment on this item to general public comment).

And, yes, those aye votes included one from John Avalos. This was only done in May 2011. How quickly and conveniently forgotten!

No more cheap talk and attention-whore questions from the self-titled progressives - introduce amendments to fix your ridiculous cooperation with the immoral people who want us to believe they have the right to own this City.

Hope Johnson

Posted by Guest on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 10:02 am

yes meatlock except Griffin didn't do her job as a journalist and actually report the facts. oh wait she's an opinion columnist and no more a journalist than Chuck Nevius.

Steve has it right in this piece when he says:

"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."

Posted by CW Griffin on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 8:53 am

"during negotiations"

It's interesting how Lee has out negotiated the idiots.

Posted by matlock on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 9:22 am

I agree that the supervisors are as complicit as Lee in this charade, and it's all part of the "new tone of civility" that has replaced actual political conflict and debate at City Hall, something even Avalos has gone along with. Our Question Time has no resemblance to that in the House of Commons, where passions flare and real debate takes place. Conflict is a part of politics, and when we remove that part in the name of faux-civility -- which is actually just politicians going along with powerful interests and/or being timid in challenging them -- then we've lost something far more important than decorum. 

Posted by steven on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 11:16 am

Steve, everyone under 40 has been raised in a conflict-averse political climate where working through the system, either government, labor or nonprofits, is expected to get the goods and conflicts is deemed to be counter productive.

The right wing has reinvigorated its base, stoking enthusiasm amongst fundamental Christian and libertarian alike while the Democrats are still relying on their threadbare 80 year old coalition components that do not speak to most peoples' political needs or aspirations.

Unless progressives start getting uppity and refreshingly uncivil, we're going to forfeit the whole enchilada by default.

Posted by marcos on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

Beyond just becoming uppity and uncivil, it is time for progressives to begin evolving activism and governance into new forms based on structural anarchism (direct democracy) in the style of the affinity groups and spokescouncil that coordinated the anti WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.

Note: For those of you that think of rocks striking windows, face scarves and molotov cocktails when you hear the word 'anarchism' please understand that those things are in fact not what anarchism is about at all (and are even antithetical to it because they rely on coercion and intimidation). Modern anarchism is often called 'libertarian socialism' to avoid the stigma that has been foisted on the original term anarchism itself by propagandists (see last reference below).

Anarchism, in the true sense of the word, means people governing themselves and their community cooperatively, with no top-down leadership structure and no coercive capitalist economics; instead making their political and economic decisions equally together via consensus based decision making.


and 'Libertarian Socialism' on wikipedia

Posted by Eric Brooks on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 3:14 pm

The SF progressive's are always trying to legislate every aspect of peoples lives.

Posted by meatlock on Sep. 15, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

Yeah, you don't really need that apostrophe there.
You should take it and put it in your ass, to keep your brain from getting lonely.

Posted by Guest on Sep. 15, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

Hear, Hear, more fire and brimstone, no stiff upper lip, rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb

Posted by Pat Monk.RN. on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

Actually, conflict is a part of life—period! But it's true, we're not trained to deal with it in our culture, hence, the fear of it, and the lack of skill.

That's no excuse for lack of debate though, a pretty essentially democratic process if there ever was one, no?

"Compassionate Communication" needs to be taught in our school system—that, along with the immense insights and skill provided by meditation/mindfulness. But any adult in the Bay Area who puts a premium on communication can take a class anytime: Go to to learn more. Your relationships will thank you.

Posted by Guest daniele erville on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

Conflict is encouraged in this society so long as it is expressed in Harvard or Stanford speak, in which case there are no limits on how brutal one can be.

It is just when the de-classe do or say the same things without the upper class varnish that the hackles of the elites get raised.

This is a rhetorical device designed to exclude and marginalize certain voices. Reliance on sex scandals to "naturally select" amongst elected officials who do not toe the line is another marginalizing device.

Those progressives who have drunk the Kool-Ade of nonconfrontationalism have disarmed progressives and liberals in the face of a coordinated and well resourced onslaught.

Posted by marcos on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 2:04 pm


I get the 'captcha' thingee whenever I post. Not a big deal but annoying. Back on topic, this Board has no stomach left to fight. Chiu took it out of em when he and Willie and Pak made Lee the mayor. Now he runs the Board like an automaton and they regularly vote 11-0 for most of the votes.

For example, they voted 11-0 to issue junk bonds (called, 'Certificates of Participation') that will cost the City over a quarter billion to finance another theater and restaurant (like at the Zoo) for the rich. 170 million principle and it's projected to not return anything on the investment. It will cost the general fund a million dollars a month for the next 26 years says Harvey Rose.

And? And, the voters turned down the project (the spread of the Swells through the remainder of the Veterans Building (Vet posts are stuffed 2 and 3 posts to tiny rooms) ... voters turned down this project in 2002 I believe it was. But, these junk bond 'C.O.P.s' don't have to go before the voters. Without voter approval they've saddled the taxpayers with over a billion and a half in this kind of debt (principle only, with interest it's double that) without voter approval within the last half dozen years or so.

On up side the Giants won 4th in a row.


Posted by h. brown on Sep. 14, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

@h, me too, but I've been assured that it's a general glitch.
Dare we dream...wild card?

Posted by Pat Monk.RN. on Sep. 19, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

Related articles

  • The selling of Ed Lee

    How a career bureaucrat became interim mayor and blossomed into a full-blown politician

  • The billionaire's mayor

    Mayor Ed Lee calls himself a progressive — but rich, powerful conservatives are funding his campaign

  • Why does the mayor appoint supervisors?