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San Francisco's Ballot Process

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Because of concerns over a number of inaccurate published accounts about San Francisco's public, participatory ballot process, City Attorney's Office Communications Director Matt Dorsey drafted and sent a detailed response to 2011 ballot measure proponent Jeff Adachi, which was also sent to the office's news media and community contact list (which anyone can join by using the links in the blue box on the right).

Matt Dorsey's cover email to community and media

April 13, 2011

In case it's something you may be covering as a journalist, or interested in as a resident, I am including you on an email I just sent to ballot measure proponent Jeff Adachi about a number of recently published misrepresentations pertaining to San Francisco's ballot process. I hope you find it an informative and helpful resource.

Should you have any questions, please don't hesitate to contact me directly. Moreover, I would request that I be given an opportunity, as the City Attorney's Office's communications director, to respond to allegations about this office before they are published as fact, as some may be inaccurate.



San Francisco City Hall, Room 234
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place
San Francisco, California 94102-4682

(415) 554-4662 Direct
(415) 554-4700 Reception
(415) 554-4715 Facsimile
(415) 554-6770 TTY



Matt Dorsey's email to Jeff Adachi

April 13, 2011

Mr. Jeff Adachi
P.O. Box 77313
San Francisco, CA 94107

Transmitted by email: sfsmartreform@yahoo.com

Re: Refuting misrepresentations about the preparation of ballot materials in San Francisco

Mr. Adachi:

Several factually inaccurate news reports about San Francisco's public and participatory process for preparing ballot materials have come to my attention in recent days, one of which is an interview you gave to the online publication, Fog City Journal, on April 11, 2011. Your direct quote, which is misleading in several respects, was published as follows:

"Dennis Herrera, as City Attorney, is in a precarious position because he is the City Attorney and is in charge of reviewing ballot measures. For the last pension reform measure, the City Attorney's office drafted a convoluted ballot question which was written in a way that sounded as if the City was going to pay more for pensions. His office also left out any mention of the word 'pension' in his official description of the measure, which has happened this time as well, even though it appears 59 times in the measure."

I am attaching for your reference a link to this office's complete response of April 6 to another of your similarly baseless complaints: http://www.sfcityattorney.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=777

I can only assume that you neglected to read the material that the Deputy City Attorney prepared and sent to you last week -- and that you failed to recall, too, our substantially identical correspondence from last fall. Otherwise, you would certainly have been disabused of the mistaken notions you expressed to Fog City Journal and, apparently, to several other local journalists.

For your convenience -- and as a helpful reference for those I am cc'ing on this correspondence -- I have prepared the following Q&As to highlight key points from our previous correspondence.

Whose job is it to prepare summaries of ballot measures in San Francisco?

* It is the Ballot Simplification Committee's job, in accordance with the San Francisco Municipal Elections Code. It is not the job of the City Attorney's Office.

What is the Ballot Simplification Committee?

* It is an independent body comprised of five members -- 2 appointed by the Mayor, and 3 appointed by the Board of Supervisors -- who are nominated the League of Women Voters and organizations representing journalists and educators.

Does the City Attorney have a vote on the Ballot Simplification Committee?

* No. A deputy city attorney serves as an ex officio committee member, but has no vote.

What are the benefits of having a Ballot Simplification Committee?

* The Ballot Simplification Committee conducts a public hearing process, benefiting from extensive input by City residents and other interested parties, and transparent deliberation among committee members.

Who prepares the official digests printed in San Francisco's Voter Information Pamphlet?

* The Ballot Simplification Committee prepares official digests printed in the Voter Information Pamphlet mailed to all City voters. The City Attorney's Office does not.

Who prepares other material in the Voter Information Pamphlet?

* The Ballot Simplification Committee assists the Department of Elections in preparing other informational material for the Voter Information Pamphlet, like the glossary of the terms that appear at the end the guide. The City Attorney's Office may be consulted for legal advice in that process.

Who determines the title of the propositions on the ballot?

* The Director of Elections determines the titles of propositions. The City Attorney's Office does not.

So, what does the City Attorney's Office prepare?

* The City Attorney's Office drafts only: (1) the title and summary for petitions, which is what prospective signers see; and (2) the ballot question itself -- both of which rely on language, whenever possible, chosen through the Ballot Simplification Committee's public process.

Why does the City Attorney usually adopt Ballot Simplification Committee usage?

* Because the Ballot Simplification Committee has had the benefit of extensive public input and citizen participation, and because the committee's legal mandate requires the use of simple language understandable to all voters.

What is City Attorney Dennis Herrera's role in this?

* City Attorney Dennis Herrera plays no role in preparing or providing legal advice about ballot materials in 2011. Upon becoming a candidate for municipal office in the same election, he instituted a policy that screens him from such participation during the campaign period. That policy is available online here: http://www.sfcityattorney.org/Modules/ShowDocument.aspx?documentid=669

So, who decided to use the term "retirement benefits" instead of "pensions"?

* San Francisco voters did, ultimately, by adopting "retirement" terminology as their primary usage in the City Charter. Also, the Ballot Simplification Committee devoted significant consideration to its precise word choice in public hearings about Proposition B, a very similar measure, last August. After careful deliberation and public scrutiny, the committee chose the term "retirement benefits," and not "pensions."

Is that why the City Attorney's Office used "retirement benefits" in the current title and summary?

* Exactly. As mentioned earlier, the City Attorney's Office relies on the usage employed by Ballot Simplification Committee for the title and summary for petitions, and that was the case here.

Is there a place to argue for "pensions" instead of "retirement benefits" on the ballot?

* Yes, to the Ballot Simplification Committee. If a measure qualifies for the ballot, proponents, opponents and citizens can raise concerns through the public process about how the digest for the measure should read in the ballot and whether the committee should revisit the word usage it adopted last year.

Can the Ballot Simplification Committee's determination be appealed?

* Yes, parties can petition the Ballot Simplification Committee for reconsideration of its determinations after they are reached.

Can the Ballot Simplification Committee's decision be appealed after reconsideration?

* Yes. There is a 10-day period after the Ballot Simplification Committee process concludes to allow for parties to seek an order from the San Francisco Superior Court to change ballot materials.

I hope this email summarizing our previous correspondence has been helpful, and that it serves to remind you about your own extensive participation in the Ballot Simplification Committee process last year. I trust that no responsible City official or officer of the Court would ever willfully misrepresent the important right of every San Francisco citizen to take part in a process by which ballot materials are prepared for the consideration of fellow voters. It would be gravely unfortunate if San Franciscans -- reasonably believing such falsehoods -- concluded that they have no voice in the process, which in truth invites civic engagement, and benefits enormously from it.

The political sphere affords ample latitude to vigorously debate public policy issues without employing unethical rhetoric. Given the risks of depressing citizenship, undermining our democracy's integrity, or delegitimizing its outcomes, these inaccuracies warrant repudiation and clarification wherever possible. I appreciate your consideration.

Communications Director

San Francisco City Hall, Room 234
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place
San Francisco, California 94102-4682

(415) 554-4662 Direct
(415) 554-4700 Reception
(415) 554-4715 Facsimile
(415) 554-6770 TTY


Office of the City Attorney

Last updated: 5/23/2011 2:07:57 PM