Friday, October 31, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The San Francisco experience: 5 lessons on districts for Seattle

Seattle Times staff reporter

SAN FRANCISCO — When it comes to the debate over whether to elect City Council members by district, the Golden Gate City has heard it all before.

In 1996, San Francisco voters decided to replace citywide, or "at large," elections for the 11-member Board of Supervisors with a district system similar to the one offered by Seattle Charter Amendment 5 on Tuesday's ballot.

The new system went into effect with the 2000 elections. Since then, its impact has been hotly debated. Strands of that debate have reached north, where backers and opponents of Seattle's district proposal offer wildly different stories about what has occurred.

Supporters say it has reduced the influence of money on local politics and made City Hall pay attention to neighborhoods. Critics say it has led to parochialism and stunted progress on fixing big problems.

Both are telling part of the story. While Seattle's experience could be different, here are five lessons drawn from San Francisco.

1: District campaigns are cheaper, and more people run.

In a fairly logical consequence of districts, candidates are able to win with less money.

Per-candidate spending is down in San Francisco since the switch to districts, according to an analysis by the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit California political-reform group.

The median expenditure by winning candidates in San Francisco's 1998 citywide races for the Board of Supervisors exceeded $250,000. By contrast, the median expenditure by winning candidates in the 2000 district elections was less than $120,000. Several spent less than $80,000. District elections also have attracted more competition. In 1998 citywide races, 17 candidates ran for five Board of Supervisors seats. In the 2000 district elections, 85 candidates ran for 11 seats. Last year, 28 competed for five seats.

2: Drawing boundary lines is at least half the battle.

Unlike Seattle, San Francisco voters knew what their districts would look like when they approved districts in 1996.

Experts in California were amazed to learn that Seattle will vote on districts without knowing what they will look like. "Holy mackerel!" said Rich DeLeon, a professor of political science at San Francisco State University. "I'm amazed that you would go forward with this and not show voters a map."

DeLeon was part of a commission that spent two years and countless public meetings drawing up districts before the public vote on the proposal in 1996. He said the group "must have drawn up a hundred versions" before settling on a map to send to the ballot.

Neighborhood activists argued passionately about who they were grouped with as the districts were drawn. "People got very emotional, they got very angry with each other," said David Binder, a California pollster.

In the end, some of the San Francisco districts included some odd spurs and notches to group certain communities. For example, District 5, in the middle of the city, was described in a San Francisco Chronicle article as "a discarded lamb bone." It was created by stitching together several neighborhoods regarded as liberal to moderate in their voting patterns.

In Seattle, district supporters are asking voters for a leap of faith. Districts would be drawn up after the election by a five-member commission, with two members appointed by the mayor, two by the City Council and the fifth by the other four commission members.

Jay Sauceda, campaign manager for Seattle Districts Now, said local-districts backers thought it would be better to wait until after the election because people would pay more attention.

3: Districts are no guarantee of diversity.

San Francisco saw the diversity of the Board of Supervisors drop after the switch to districts.

Observers caution not much can be read into that since several supervisors at the time of the 2000 elections had been appointed to fill vacancies by Mayor Willie Brown. A major backlash against the mayor led to the defeat of his choices when they ran for election in districts. "To blame that on district elections is to ignore the history of what was going on at the time," said DeLeon.

San Francisco's earlier dalliance with districts — the city also had a district system from 1977 to 1980 — brought about the elections of the first black woman, first openly gay and first Asian-American supervisors.

(Voters overturned the earlier district system after the 1978 assassinations of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, both killed by former Supervisor Dan White. Many argued that White, a conservative elected with just 4,296 votes, would never have been elected citywide to the same board as Milk, the first openly gay supervisor.)

There is a sense of disappointment among some in San Francisco who thought they'd see greater minority representation with districts.

"Many advocates in the community were led to believe districts would produce greater representation," said David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, who supported district elections.

Lee said large Asian-American populations in several districts — including the city's famous Chinatown and Nob Hill neighborhoods — led some to hope for up to five or six Asian-American representatives on the Board of Supervisors.

The city is more than 30 percent Asian American, but today there is just one Asian American on the board.

Lee said many Asian-American candidates had traditionally run on citywide platforms that emphasized civil rights. Those did not translate well to neighborhood-level elections, where people wanted to know which candidate would fight hardest to fill potholes or keep Starbucks out of the neighborhood, he said. "For a district election, you've got to completely change your message."

4: For good or ill, neighborhood complaints get a louder voice at City Hall.

After districts passed in San Francisco, observers said, bureaucrats in City Hall immediately started putting 11 columns in their budget spreadsheets. They knew the 11 supervisors would demand to know how much money their districts were getting.

The Board of Supervisors also reacted to neighborhood complaints about rampant development by intervening more frequently in land-use disputes that used to be settled by a planning commission.

"It's a fiefdom mentality, which results from districts," said Quentin Kopp, a former supervisor and state senator who is now a San Mateo County Superior Court judge.

Some land-use attorneys and developers said the board has stepped in to alter projects at the last minute.

"It really destroys the certainty in the process," said a San Francisco land-use attorney who asked not to be named because he has business before the city.

And some argued that giving neighborhoods more control doesn't solve big issues facing the city, such as housing prices and transportation.

"All of the big problems, they require citywide, even regional, solutions," said Gabriel Metcalf, deputy director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, a public-policy think tank.

Metcalf likened the push for districts to popular, anger-driven campaigns in California that have slashed property taxes and, more recently, recalled Gov. Gray Davis.

"In the face of more and more democracy, things seem to be getting worse and worse," he said.

But Metcalf said districts remain enormously popular with most voters in the city.

Tom Ammiano, supervisor of the district that includes the city's Mission District, dismissed criticism of the district system as "sniveling attacks from downtown interests."

"The only people who are unhappy are corporate interests like the (San Francisco) Chronicle and lobbyists," said Ammiano, a longtime districts supporter who is running for mayor.

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, who represents the long-neglected southeastern part of the city, said district representation has made City Hall take notice of her neighborhood's concerns. "It's been direct attention to our issues and problems and put them on the table," Maxwell said.

Her district, which rarely had representation at City Hall under the at-large system, includes the city's two diesel-burning power plants, a sewage plant and an asphalt plant. Maxwell said the city is moving forward to shut down one of the power plants and address other environmental concerns.

5: Districts don't necessarily give the mayor more clout.

Note to Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels: Be careful what you wish for.

A subtext of the Seattle debate over districts has centered on Nickels, who supports the proposal. Opponents have cited the mayor's support with suspicion, saying he could use a district system to his advantage and reduce the power of the council.

But in San Francisco, the opposite has happened. Districts have resulted in the election of more neighborhood activists who have clashed with the mayor. Last year, Brown called voters "ass-backward" for electing a pack of district supervisors opposed to his pro-growth agenda, according to an account in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Last week, Supervisor Chris Daly, a controversial figure some observers contend could never have been elected in a citywide race, touched off a brouhaha at City Hall.

Daly had been appointed acting mayor while Brown was traveling in China — usually a ceremonial role with little significance. But Daly used his temporary powers to appoint two environmentalists to the city's Public Utilities Commission, infuriating Brown, who had lined up his own choices. So far, Daly has refused to rescind his nominees.

Brown's travails may have more to do with resentment of an administration that has been criticized for cronyism. Another mayor might have a different experience, said DeLeon, the political-science professor. "If he's got real smarts and knows the rules of the game have changed, he could make it work to his advantage," DeLeon said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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