San Francisco voters easily approved Proposition I last month, making it official city policy to have the Mayor appear at a monthly Board meeting to answer questions from the Supervisors. Prop I is modeled after “Question Time” in the British Parliament, where Prime Minister Tony Blair (unlike our chief executive in Washington) must appear once a week to answer unscripted questions from the legislative branch. But because Prop I is not a charter amendment, it is not legally binding – only a policy statement that says it is the “will of the voters.” In a vain attempt to pre-empt the Supervisors and begin his 2007 re-election campaign, Mayor Newsom has refused to attend a Board meeting – instead proposing to hold Town Hall forums in each district where he would answer questions from constituents. But Newsom’s plan defeats the entire purpose of Question Time, and the Mayor appears to be transforming Prop I into an excuse to hold re-election events in the neighborhoods.

At the December 7th Rules Committee meeting, Board President Aaron Peskin proposed legislation that would institutionalize Proposition I in the Board’s regular schedule. On the third Tuesday of every month, during the Board’s weekly meeting, Supervisors will have Question Time as the first item on its agenda. If the Mayor fails to attend after the first five minutes of a meeting, the Board will proceed to the next agenda item. “We are following the will of the voters,” said Peskin, “and the intent is that this practice will last well beyond the current Mayoral administration.”

But in a letter to the Supervisors, Newsom responded that public dialogue should instead occur in the community – and that he will hold his own Town Hall meetings on a monthly basis. “All Supervisors,” said Newsom, “will be asked to participate.” But Supervisor Sean Elsbernd pointed out that there are legal constraints from engaging the Supervisors that way. Under state law (the Brown Act), a majority of any elected body cannot legally meet and discuss policy matters outside of an official meeting. If a majority of the Supervisors were to attend one of Newsom’s Town Hall forums, it would have to be publicly noticed as a Board meeting because a quorum of Supervisors would be discussing City affairs. “What are the costs involved in making it an official Board meeting,” asked Elsbernd. “For example, what are the ADA Compliance issues?”

Holding Town Hall meetings is not mutually exclusive from the Board’s Question Time, said Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, and it must not be used as a substitute. In fact, Newsom himself has already held eight such Town Hall meetings since becoming Mayor – and according to his website, he was supposed to do it on a monthly basis. But the last one was held in August 2005, more than a year ago. “There hasn’t been an equitable number of meetings in all districts,” complained Mirkarimi. To date, the Mayor has not held a Town Hall meeting in District One (the Richmond), District Three (North Beach/Chinatown) or Chris Daly’s District Six (the Tenderloin/SOMA.)

Newsom complains that Question Time at the Board of Supervisors will descend into “political theater.” But when Newsom held his own Town Meetings, they were extremely politicized. For example, he chose to have his first Town Hall meeting in District 8 (Castro/Noe Valley) in February 2004 – when he was extremely popular in the LGBT community for issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. What could have turned into a serious accountability session with tough questions for the Mayor instead turned into a Newsom love fest. The Supervisors could see right through this latest effort, with the Mayor’s race coming up next November and Newsom wanting more opportunities to speak directly to the voters. “I’m suspicious of the timing,” said Mirkarimi, “because it’s happening right before his re-election.”

Beyond any political motivations, Newsom’s Town Meeting proposal is not a genuine substitute for Question Time. In his letter to the Supervisors, the Mayor explained that “each meeting will address a policy subject important to residents.” What this means is that the Town Meetings will be scripted in advance. The Mayor will know what subjects will be discussed, and could anticipate what questions will be asked. But the whole point of Question Time is that it is unscripted and spontaneous. As the city’s chief executive, the Mayor should be able to stand up in front of the Board of Supervisors, take the heat and answer whatever questions may come his way.

“I would very much like the Mayor to support [Question Time],” said Supervisor Tom Ammiano. “If your skills are there and you are engaging, it can actually be a win for him.” Question Time could make Newsom a better Mayor. With his approval ratings up in the stratosphere, Newsom has become disengaged from the day-to-day requirements of his job of Mayor as he eyes a future run for Governor, Senator or President. Requiring him to walk down to the other side of City Hall and answer questions from the legislative branch once a month could force him to engage his job – as the homicide rate climbs higher every year, the cost of housing continues to rise, and our Muni system breaks down. As a former member of the Board of Supervisors (who supported the concept of Question Time when Willie Brown was Mayor), it really should not be controversial.

There are ways for the Board to structure Question Time in ways that don’t descend, as Newsom warned, into “political theater.” At the Rules Committee, Supervisors suggested the option of placing a time limit on the session – or placing a limit on the number of questions that each Supervisor can ask. For example, Question Time in the British Parliament is limited to half-an-hour – but it is also held once a week, as opposed to once a month. Peskin was open to such amendments, and the matter was continued until next week’s Rules Committee meeting to make some proposed changes.

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