Proposition H: Creating a ‘Public Advocate’ Watchdog

This Charter amendment would create an elective office and a city agency tasked with holding other agencies and officials accountable to citizens.

The Board of Supervisors voted 6-5 to put this initiative on the ballot. Voting for: John Avalos, David Campos, Jane Kim, Eric Mar, Aaron Peskin and Norman Yee. Voting against: President London Breed, Malia Cohen, Mark Farrell, Katy Tang, Scott Wiener.

Proposition H is linked to Proposition G, also a Charter amendment, which would rename the Office of Citizen Complaints the Department of Police Accountability, which would review use of force and claims of misconduct every two years. The public advocate would appoint the head of the Police Accountability Department, if voters approve that measure.

Why is this on the ballot?

Some San Franciscans believe that City Hall’s accountability has hit bottom. One solution, they say, would be an agency to represent citizens who complain of being slighted or ignored by the bureaucracy.

Former San Francisco Supervisor and California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, who penned the official ballot argument in support of the measure, wrote in a recent op-ed that other major cities already have similar offices, including New York, Seattle, Detroit and “every major city in Canada.”

Critics of the proposition’s author, Supervisor David Campos, who is termed out this year, say that this is little more than his attempt to make another job opportunity for himself to expand his political base and power.

Opponents argue that an elected public advocate could disrupt the city’s operations. They say the new office would weaken the power of the mayor, possibly duplicating his and the Board of Supervisors’ function of advocating for the public. They say a public advocate could also interfere with the city’s whistleblower program, eroding “the public trust in a currently non-politicized, anonymous reporting program.”

What would it do and at what cost?

If passed, Proposition H would create the Office of the Public Advocate, a potentially powerful agency that could review all city records, programs and agencies, including the mayor’s office. Voters would elect the office’s top position, the public advocate, to a four-year term. The advocate would be limited to two consecutive terms.

The office would have mandated minimum staffing of four executive positions. The measure recommends an additional 22 paid staff — two per supervisorial district to carry out investigations and provide other services.

The office would primarily try to resolve complaints from city residents and whistleblowers regarding malfunctions in other sectors of City Hall. The office would be able to subpoena public records and call witnesses, but would not have access to criminal investigations and prosecutions or other confidential records.

The public advocate could hold public hearings and introduce legislation to the Board of Supervisors to resolve problems it had identified. The advocate would issue an annual report about its activities.

The public advocate would also appoint the director of the Office of Citizen Complaints, which is responsible for investigating claims of police misconduct. The mayor currently has this power.

If voters also approve Proposition G, the public advocate would appoint the head of the new Department of Police Accountability, which would replace the Office of Citizen Complaints.

The San Francisco controller projects a “moderate to significant increase” in costs to the city. Estimates for the Office of the Public Advocate’s annual staffing costs range from $3.4 million to $4.3 million: $600,000 to $800,000 in salaries for the four mandatory executive staff positions, and $2.8 million to $3.5 million for the recommended district positions. This money would be set aside from the city’s general fund budget.

The Civil Service Commission would set the public advocate’s salary. Other additional costs would come from benefits and pensions. The controller’s analysis did not provide any estimates.

Ammiano has said that the office could save taxpayers money in the course of carrying out its duties. He cited a recent instance when New York City’s public advocate caused the cancellation of a $170 million contract between the Department of Education and a suspicious outside firm. According to a 2015 progress report from the advocate’s office, “it became clear that the firm in question was previously involved in corruption and payoff scandals.”

Is there a catch?

The controller says Proposition H “is not in compliance with a non-binding, voter-adopted city policy regarding mandatory expenditures” that restrict the mayor and Board of Supervisors during the budget process.

The controller also notes that the initiative would change the duties of his office, though no specifics were given.

Who officially proposed it?

Supervisors David Campos, John Avalos, Jane Kim and Eric Mar.

Who officially opposes it?

U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former San Francisco mayor.

She and former mayors Frank Jordan, Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom argue that the creation of the public advocate would undermine the effectiveness of the mayor’s office.

Vote threshold to pass

Simple majority — 50 percent plus one

Effective date if passed

Voters would elect the public advocate in the first citywide general or special election after Jan. 1, 2017, and after that, in the general elections of 2020 and every four years thereafter.

Follow the money

One committee is spending money in support of Proposition H: “San Francisco Reform Coalition, Yes on H.”

Two committees sympathetic to Lee are spending money to oppose H and three other propositions: “No Recall on Mayor Lee, No on D, H, L, and M,” and “San Franciscans Against Wasteful Spending, No on Propositions D, H, L & M.”

Follow the money at the San Francisco Ethics Commission: all Proposition H filings.

Endorsements: our methodology

The Public Press chose to count endorsements from organizations that backed multiple candidates or ballot measures, and that made those endorsements available online. We did not count endorsements from individuals.

If you think we missed an important organization, please tell us. We’d love to hear from you.

Tracked endorsements by organization


Written by: Noah Arroyo

Published: Sept. 30, 2016