End the Strong Mayor System in SF

By Jordan Davis

In March, I was in a Rules Committee meeting watching and commenting on appointments from both the mayor and Board of Supervisors to the new Homelessness Oversight Commission (HOC), a body that is purported to provide meaningful direction and oversight to the troubled Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH). I voted “no” on the charter amendment last year that created the HOC, because—unlike the recently established Sheriff’s Oversight Body, Public Works Commission, and Streets and Sanitation Commission, and like so many other commissions in this city—the body would be made up mostly of mayoral appointees. That means it would be difficult to get any good policies passed, or for the committee to do its job of bringing oversight to HSH, if the mayor wanted things a certain way.

But this brings us to an even bigger problem. When Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who does not represent a significant number of homeless people in his district, introduced the charter amendment establishing the HOC, he justified the make-up of the commission saying that this is a “strong-mayor” city, in which the mayor has the power of the purse strings and near absolute control of City departments, leaving the Board of Supervisors with little power beyond inquiry. That is a problem in and of itself and is part of a longer conversation about municipal governance.

We’ve all heard about Care Not Cash, a program that was created as a vehicle for Gavin Newsom to become mayor and was implemented through his mayoralty without much Board  oversight, leading to disasters we see today. We have seen so many programs such as The Compassionate Alternative Response Team (CART) get the unanimous support of the Board of Supervisors, but have trouble with implementation. I personally learned while working on #30RightNow that the mayor has absolute control over the budget and that the legislation couldn’t be written to require that the 30% rent standard be implemented by the FY 2021-22 budget. Plus, a process called “add-back” leaves coalitions of homeless advocates and providers fighting for scraps when the mayor introduces their budget.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

No other California counties and few other California cities have strong executive systems. California’s 57 counties and every other city (except for San Francisco, Oakland, Fresno, Los Angeles and San Diego) have what is known as a council-manager system, where the elected council or board of supervisors is strong, the mayor (assuming there is one) sits as another vote on the council (and could be an at-large ex officio or elected among members of the council) and has a largely facilitative and diplomatic role, and the council or supervisors appoint a neutral professional manager to run the day-to-day operations of a city and/or county.

I have been following a Twitter account called @CM4SF that advocates for a council-manager system here in San Francisco. Under such a system, neighborhood voices would be strengthened, decision making would be more deliberative, and the Board of Supervisors, who each are elected by only one-eleventh of the city population, could exercise greater oversight over the operations of the city. 

This approach would also make budget advocacy easier. While the city manager can submit a draft budget in most council-manager cities, they cannot be an effective counter-weight to the council, which would be far better for advocacy for homeless services, housing, mental health and street cleaning, who would not have to constantly plead with the mayor to deliver equitable services and to get the supervisors to advocate to a mayor they may not even politically align with.

Some may say that San Francisco is too large for a council-manager system. However, San Jose is larger and operates under a council-manager system, as do six other cities with larger populations across the country: Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth and Charlotte. Why can’t we have a government that is both more efficient and more humane?

If progressives are serious about rebuilding after their losses last year, they should make the dissolution of the strong-mayor system and a switch to council manager a priority. This could be done by eliminating the independently elected mayor altogether and replacing the Board President position  with a mayor (with no extraordinary powers beyond facilitation of board meetings, intergovernmental relations, and being an ambassador to the city). The city administrator could then be repurposed into a city manager, serving at the pleasure of the Board of Supervisors. This is similar to a set-up in the City of Ventura, where a mayor is chosen from seven district council members.

Is a council-manager system perfect? Of course not, no system is. But I can see no better way to democratize power than to weaken the role of the mayor, which will translate to getting the best deal for homeless people in a cost-effective and humane manner.