Editor’s Note: Members of the Libertarian Party of San Francisco (LPSF) tried and failed to include an opposing argument to an extension and increase of a Community College parcel tax in the Voters Handbook. Here Party Chair Aubrey Freedman describes the process by which the San Francisco Department of Elections silenced not only the LPSF, but anyone opposed to the measure. CPC does not support political parties, but we believe this is an important story about how the deck is often stacked against groups opposing dubious new tax measures.
For the last year or so, CCSF (Community College of San Francisco) bureaucrats have been talking about extending the “temporary” parcel tax the voters approved in 2012. We were the official opponent of the measure back then, but we were overpowered by the “Save CCSF” movement. At least we warned the voters. Now 4 years later, not much has changed at the community college, except enrollment is about 25% lower, but they’re still in need of more “funding”. Hence the birth of Prop B, a 12-year extension of the tax to 2032 and an increase of $20 from $79 to $99 per parcel per year.
In a recent meeting of ours, one of our members offered to write an opposing argument to Prop B for submission to the DOE (Department of Elections) for the “free” lottery on August 18. About a week prior to the deadline, we called the DOE for clarification on the pre-empting process, whereby members of the Board of Supervisors get first dibs at being the official opponents of ballot measures. With all the free publicity and media attention they get just from being on the Board of Supervisors, which they can use for their political agendas, this pre-empting business is a travesty in itself since bona fide organizations and individuals only get the leftovers (paid arguments). The manager at the DOE told us all official “pre-empters” are listed on the DOE website under “Local Ballot Measure Status”. With limited resources (ballot measure argument writers), it didn’t make sense to waste time on writing arguments that would be rejected by the DOE on August 18. Much to our surprise, we noted that Supervisor Aaron Peskin (a left-leaning supervisor) had pre-empted the opposing argument to Prop B. One of our members joked that perhaps Peskin opposed the tax because it wasn’t high enough. At any rate, we decided not to submit our member’s solid argument (listed above) on August 18, and we would decide after the lottery what to submit as paid arguments the following Monday.
To our utter shock, when the DOE ran the lottery, DOE Director John Arntz announced that no argument was submitted against Prop B and moved on to the next one. What happened to Peskin’s opposing argument? We checked with the DOE the next day, and they confirmed that Peskin was the official opponent but had in fact submitted nothing.
The LPSF reassessed its position, and decided to pay the $764 necessary to submit a paid 282-word argument (which appears at the end of this article). We waited in line for three hours on August 22 with all the other individuals and groups submitting paid arguments (stations had been set up to streamline the process and handle the expected deluge of paid arguments for 25 local ballot measures, but in typical government fashion, the whole process was hopelessly bottlenecked due to the lack of checkers at the final step, despite an army of government workers sitting around on the taxpayers’ dime), submitted our paperwork, and paid our fee.
Afterwards we paid a visit to the SF Ethics Commission to lodge a formal complaint against Supervisor Peskin. We were hopeful that an agency with the word “Ethics” in its name might actually be interested in dealing with what looked like abuse of a privilege granted to a public official to silence the opposition. We were wrong. Though the bureaucrat we tried to file our complaint with was pleasant and seemed sympathetic, she informed us that the commission has no jurisdiction in a case like this. She recommended that we go back to the DOE and press them on the issue. There you have it: another useless club of bureaucrats on the taxpayers’ backs. When you really need them for something legitimate, they’ve already checked out.
The plot thickened. Three days later we received a call from the DOE. In reviewing all the documents received for the paid arguments, they discovered that Prop B is actually a “district” measure, not a regular ballot measure, and as such no paid argument can be accepted. They sent us a form to sign to request a refund of the $764 paid for the argument. Needless to say, we will not be signing any such form any time soon—if at all—as it would signify our agreement with the DOE that all is well, the matter is closed, and the voters will never get to hear the other side of the issue. The emails between the LPSF and John Arntz flew furiously back and forth for a week or two about the legality of no paid arguments being accepted for “district” measures. We checked both the state and county election codes regarding this issue and could find nothing forbidding the SF DOE from accepting our paid argument. In fact, Arntz confirmed, “There is no explicit statement in the state election code stating that paid arguments cannot be submitted”. Unfortunately, he still insists that they cannot accept our paid argument because the code doesn’t specifically mention paid arguments.
Yet another bombshell dropped about a week ago. We contacted the newspapers, a law firm, and various individuals in and out of government who might be able to help out. Only one individual (whose name will remain confidential because that person stepped out on a limb for us) persisted in getting to the bottom of things. The person found out that actually Peskin had wanted to submit an opposing argument, but he was not allowed to because CCSF is considered a state institution and the Board of Supervisors is not allowed to submit any arguments on state issues.
If that’s the case, why did the DOE list Peskin’s name on their website as the official opponent when he was not allowed to submit such an argument? Don’t they know their own rules? These rules are so vague that even the folks who pass one ordinance after another without blinking an eye seemed to have no clue at all as to when they can and can’t pre-empt a ballot measure, so how can the average citizen be expected to know the rules? This was a monumental blunder on the part of the DOE to have put Peskin’s name up as the opponent when they should have known better—and that blunder ended up discouraging us (and possibly others) from submitting an opposing argument for the lottery. We went back to Arntz with this latest bit of information; we would imagine this is an embarrassment to the DOE, so we suggested that this could be rectified by printing our paid argument so the voters hear the other side on this issue and making the rules clearer in the future to avoid such hassles. Not a word back from him.
The voters have a right to hear both sides of this and every ballot measure. As it appears right now, when the voters take a look at Prop B in the Voters Handbook—if indeed they do take a look in a year with 42 ballot measures—they will see the usual background information, the Controller’s statement, a ¾ page argument by the San Francisco Community College Board of Trustees touting all the wonderful things that CCSF does that warrant an extension and increase of the parcel tax, no rebuttal underneath, and then an almost blank adjoining page stating that no opposing arguments were submitted against this ballot measure. Even a diligent voter would be inclined to vote YES since no one bothered to speak up against the measure. If only they really knew!
Our blood is boiling over this issue, and we’re not throwing in the towel yet! We did submit an official letter to City Attorney Dennis Herrera this week requesting a ruling on this whole issue. We noted at the end of our letter that the City Attorney’s office protects tenant and consumer rights—and we hope that they will also protect voters’ rights. We’re not holding our breath.