Chesa Boudin’s recall isn’t going to fix San Francisco. Here’s what could

The recall of District Attorney Chesa Boudin should mark a turning point for San Francisco. Not progressive strategies to prison public safety strategies, but dyspeptic reminders to more productive engagement with the source of the city’s dysfunction: its charter.

Shortly before the recall, one of Boudin’s former colleagues in the Office of the Public Defender lamented that there was little policy coordination in San Francisco. By contrast, in cities that have successfully tackled drug addiction, “courts, police, defense attorneys, politicians, and business leaders have come together.”

Our leaders don’t coordinate because the political institutions we’ve created don’t reward them for it.

Mayor Breed didn’t want to be held responsible for the chaos and impoverishment on our streets, so she shot Boudin. Boudin blamed the police; the police returned the favor. As for the Board of Supervisors, they couldn’t even agree on a plan to make a city-wide plan to house the homeless. But the overseers had no trouble tearing down homeless housing in their neighborhoods.

The disarray culminated with our school board, which should have focused on preparing young people for peaceful participation in civic and economic life. But ours – in the midst of a pandemic! – is rather obsessed with symbols. A fresco. School names. Admissions to a former school that only serves 5% of the district’s students.

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In this environment, Boudin’s vision – his “rejection[ion] of the idea that to be free, we have to put others in a cage” – didn’t stand a chance. Boudin says social welfare programs are the backbone of public safety, but his office has no say in tax rates and spending priorities, no power to police service providers social programs, not the power to shut down ineffective social programs or fire incompetent administrators.

For Boudin’s vision or any other forward-looking vision to have a good shot in this city, two things are crucial:

First, all key administrators – the mayor, DA, chief of police and school management – ​​should be on the same team. Second, ordinary voters need to understand which team is in charge, so they can hold it accountable.

These rudimentary insights point to major reforms. The city charter should authorize the mayor, our most publicly visible local official, to appoint and remove the DA and school board, just as it selects the chief of police. This would ensure the collaboration of public security actors.

If the team stinks, voters will know who to blame: the mayor, who has taken the reins.

It is even more important to bring meaningful, visible, party-like competition to municipal elections. Almost all of us are Democrats in San Francisco, but local politicians vehemently disagree on issues ranging from policing to housing, homelessness and education.

Yet these disagreements are visible only to the most attentive local voters, because the poll does not identify the candidates with their team. Instead, the ballot provides an almost useless three-word description of each candidate’s profession. Knowing that a candidate is a teacher may trigger vaguely positive associations, but it doesn’t help voters determine whether the candidate will line up, for example, in land use fights with Mayor “YIMBY” Breed. or “NIMBY” supervisors like Dean Preton.

Labeling the candidates as Democrats or Republicans wouldn’t help much either, again, since every candidate who has a chance is a Democrat.

To make our governing teams more visible, the city charter could allow any local group that collects a certain number of voter signatures to become a “qualified endorser” – essentially a local political party that provides information by making endorsements . on the ballot. Local candidates could have one of these designations printed by name on the ballot, much like candidates for statewide office designate a party preference.

If competing local Democratic factions could make endorsements printed on ballots in their own name, we would be on the path to better politics. As voters see support groups and associated candidates year after year, they will gradually develop an idea of ​​what local endorsers stand for, just as voters know Democrats nationwide are the party. abortion rights and that Republicans want less immigration.

The final piece of the charter reform puzzle is to change the structure and remit of the board of supervisors. Supes make major political decisions, so they must devote their energy to gathering information about political alternatives and determining what the city could do differently and better. Instead, they waste time reviewing individual housing development applications and negotiating project agreements with neighborhood groups for community benefits that are significantly more marginal than could be achieved through thorough policy work. .

It is the inevitable by-product of the city charter which both requires the board of supervisors to be elected from single-member territorial districts and subjects every development proposal to discretionary review by the council.

The usual convention of governance in such schemes, here and elsewhere, is called “respect for members”. The supers defer to each other on projects in their neighborhoods, little housing is built, and no one but the mayor looks after the interests of the whole city.

The solution is to elect the board at large, with vote aggregation rules designed to represent local factions in proportion to their support in the electorate. Years ago, San Francisco abandoned a type of general election that allowed simple voting majorities to control every seat. This disproportionate system did not suit a city as diverse as ours. But it has become equally clear that a municipal legislature made up of eleven supposedly nonpartisan representatives, each governing a small territorial fiefdom, is no better. General proportional representation, alongside choice voting, is the way forward.

We need our political leaders to work together on behalf of a city-wide vision. That’s what they will do if we structure their elections and their responsibilities accordingly.

Enough with the reminders. Let’s fix our charter instead.

Chris Elmendorf is a law professor at UC Davis. He has lived in San Francisco since 2005.

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