Preservation + Direct Democracy = San Francisco's Prop J

Posted on: October 1st, 2008 by National Trust for Historic Preservation

No doubt some of you live in states that still embrace old-fashioned notions of representative democracy: you know, that’s where citizens elect officials to represent their interests when making public policy decisions. Then there are the rest of us. We live in states, mostly in the West, where we figure, hey, why not cut out the middleman and legislate ourselves?

Before I venture too far afield (I feel a rant coming on), allow me to state for the record, loud and clear: “People of San Francisco, vote ‘Yes’ on J!” More on that below.

Funny thing: direct democracy turns out to be pretty hard work. Take San Francisco, where I live. In 2004 -- we tend to get especially animated about propositions in presidential election years -- California voters were asked to consider 17 measures. The California Official Voter Information Guide ran 168 pages (so much for our carbon emission goals). As if that wasn’t enough paper to chew through, that year there was also a Supplemental Voter Information Guide for two measures that were placed on the ballot too late for the regular Voter Information Guide (that was pretty slim volume -- just 24 pages).

That’s just the state. San Franciscans voted on an additional 28 measures. The City of San Francisco’s Official VoterPamphlet,” weighed in at 196 pages (pity the postal person). Nothing like tucking into 388 pages of electoral prose before pulling the metaphorical lever.

Don’t get me wrong -- occasionally, we’re asked to vote on pressing issues best resolved directly by the people. But these are far outnumbered by competing initiatives that are poorly written, contradict one another, saturate the airwaves and stuff the mailboxes with a gazillion dollars of advertising (usually featuring a fireman -- apparently everyone trusts a fireman) only to be found unconstitutional after the fact.

It almost comes as a relief to weigh in on relatively straight-forward propositions, no matter how inconsequential. My personal favorite was San Francisco’s Proposition BB in 1993: the “Police Puppet” proposition, which simply asked “Shall it be the policy of the people of San Francisco to allow Police Officer Bob Geary to decide when he may use his puppet Brendan O’Smarty while on duty.” That one was a squeaker, but O’Smarty won the day with 51% of the vote. Lest you thing I’m playing loose with the facts, the story is available here.

So you’d think I might be a bit tired of being asked my opinion all the time. But every year, just as I’m thinking “can’t the people I elected to office get anything done without my say-so?” I manage to get wrapped up in the fate of a few key questions. Sometimes these are hot-button issues like this year’s Proposition 8 (now there’s one I would have been happy leaving to the courts to decide), others are one’s important to my inner planner-geek (go high speed rail bond!) and sometimes, yes, sometimes they relate to historic preservation (thank you, 2002's Prop 40 parks bond!).

Which brings me back to Prop J. This fall, San Franciscans are being asked: “Shall the City establish a seven-member Historic Preservation Commission and give it authority over historic preservation-related decisions in the City?”

Currently, the City of San Francisco has a Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, which advises the Planning Commission and Planning Department on issues related to historic preservation, but has no final decision-making authority. As the official ballot argument (which was co-authored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation Western Office) states:

As one of the world’s most-beloved historic cities, it’s time for San Franciscans to adopt world-class best practices that have protected the history and vitality of other great American cities. – that’s why we need Proposition J.

The argument goes on to underscore that Proposition J was drafted collaboratively with the City’s Planning Department, Mayor’s Office, Landmarks Board, and the California Office of Historic Preservation. The result is a good-government measure that provides clear guidance to homeowners, architects, and builders, and gives city staff the best tools available to make sound decisions about our historic buildings and neighborhoods.

In addition to co-authoring the official argument, the National Trust also authored a paid argument which focuses on preservation’s green credentials:

San Francisco is one of America's most historic and environmentally aware cities. The city's recent adoption of a ground-breaking green building ordinance has made us national leaders in sustainability. Meanwhile, our efforts to protect our city's unique historic character are guided by an outmoded historic preservation program more than 40 years old. Historic preservation is inherently "green," and should be an important part of our efforts to promote sustainable development and combat climate change. Reusing and rehabbing our historic buildings and neighborhoods instead of demolishing them reduces consumption of scarce resources and assures that our history doesn't end up in a landfill. Vote Yes on J!

Prop J was sponsored by Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, and placed on the ballot by a unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors. As a charter amendment, the creation of a historic preservation commission requires a vote of the people. The proposition enjoys solid community support and little organized opposition, but voter propositions often have a way of becoming proxy battles for unrelated issues. Here in San Francisco, politics can be a blood sport, so it’s critical to get the word out regarding the benefits of Prop J to as many San Franciscans as possible as quickly as possible (voter ballots go out October 6.)

To learn more about Prop J, or to make a contribution to the Yes on Prop J campaign, visit Whatever Churchill said about the price of democracy, here in San Francisco it’s more expensive.

-- Anthony Veerkamp

Anthony Veerkamp is the senior program officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation Western Office.

Updated: to add links to additional propositions cited, and to note that the prop 40 parks bond passed in 2002.

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National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.