Prop L: Political Maneuvering on Community Justice Center

By Bernice Yeung, Public Press

The Truthiness Report: No. 8 in a series on election advertising.

Proposition L, which would guarantee funding to San Francisco’s new Community Justice Center, is supposedly an initiative that would “stop efforts to play politics with community justice,” according to advertising paid for by proponents.

However, given the heated debate among city officials — rooted in a longstanding feud between Supervisor Chris Daly and Mayor Gavin Newsom — that surrounds the creation of the court, the measure appears to serve a political purpose itself.

Modeled after successful programs in New York City, the CJC is a “problem solving” criminal court that would provide social services instead of incarceration for defendants who commit misdemeanors or nonviolent felonies. It is slated to begin operating in early 2009.

The Numbers

Newsom placed Proposition L on the ballot before the Board of Supervisors approved $1,973,000 for the CJC in July. The funds that have been approved for the CJC consist of about $1 million in unspent city money from the 2007-2008 budget, and $984,000 in federal grants. All of these funds must be spent by June 30, 2009, the end of the fiscal year.

Proposition L, however, calls for a guaranteed total allocation of $2,754,000 for the CJC, which means that if it were to pass, the CJC would be authorized to access an additional $771,855 in city funds this fiscal year.

(The Controller’s statement in the city’s voter information pamphlet states that the initiative’s potential cost to the city would be $129,177, and this figure is based on calculations using the mayor’s proposed budget and not the city’s final, approved budget. The Controller’s office did not respond to requests for additional clarification.)

If the initiative passes, it is unknown whether the additional $771,855 in city funds would actually be spent on the center, since the release of the money would be determined by a process involving a number of city officials, including the city’s budget director, the city controller and others.

Starr Terrell, the fiscal and policy analyst for Mayor Newsom, says that although Proposition L would authorize the city to tap into additional city funds for CJC operations, city agencies are already moving forward using existing funds.

“The CJC is operating within the amount that it has been funded,” Terrell said. “What this ballot initiative would do is provide funding that the Board of Supervisors would not have the authority to reduce.”

Political Infighting

Indeed, the Community Justice Court Coalition, which supports Proposition L, claims that supporting the measure is crucial to the CJC’s existence, arguing on its Web site that Proposition L will “ensure the continued existence of the ongoing initiative, despite the desire by some members of the Board of Supervisors to terminate the project.”

In fact, political infighting appears to be the sole reason Proposition L is on November’s ballot. The court was first proposed by Newsom in 2007, and it met with resistance from some members of the Board of Supervisors.

Most notably, Supervisor Daly, who is often at odds with Newsom, said at a Board of Supervisors meeting in July, just after the CJC received funding, that the center “makes no sense to me. I can’t wait until we have a new Board of Supervisors that can eliminate the Community Justice Center from next year’s budget.”

He has been critical of the CJC because, he says, he believes it will encourage the police department and the district attorney’s office to effectively criminalize poor people by pursuing minor cases such as public intoxication or shoplifting.

Although there has been no stated intent to do so, the supervisors could choose to cancel the funds for the CJC; in his statements, Daly has threatened next year’s budget, not the 2008-2009 funds.

Proposition L is an attempt to prevent this from happening; however, it will have no effect beyond the 2008-2009 fiscal year, because an ordinance such as this one cannot guarantee or mandate future financial support of a program. That must be determined by the city’s annual budget process.

“Show of Support”

Perhaps the more notable effect of Proposition L would be political.

If it passes, the initiative could serve as a kind of public referendum that could be used to bolster support for the CJC in case of future funding challenges from opponents on the Board of Supervisors.

“It could demonstrate a public show of support,” said Terrell, the fiscal and policy analyst for the mayor.

Because the CJC has already been funded through June 2009, six members of the Board of Supervisors — some of whom supported allocating city funds for the CJC — oppose Proposition L, which they have called an “unnecessary measure” in the city’s ballot guide.

They are Jake McGoldrick, Aaron Peskin, Tom Ammiano, Chris Daly, Sophie Maxwell and Ross Mirkarimi. (No additional citizen or community political committee has been formed to oppose Proposition L.)

The Community Justice Court Coalition’s largest donors are an entity listed simply as “Voice” in public documents (the coalition did not respond to requests for clarification), and Seven Hills Properties, a San Francisco real estate development company.

A former staff writer for SF Weekly who has also worked as an editor at California Lawyer magazine, Bernice Yeung has written for a variety of publications, including the Village Voice, The International Herald Tribune, The New York Times, Dwell, Wired and Glamour.

The San Francisco 2008 Election Truthiness Report is co-produced by and The Public Press, and funded through small donations using the Spot.Us “crowdfunding” Web site.

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