Do-nothing city

Posted: May 15, 2003 12:00 AM

San Francisco is doomed.

While leaders of New York and other big cities have demonstrated the resolve to do something about their homeless population, San Francisco pols have decided it's better to look as if you care about the homeless than to do something about the homeless.

Woe to the civic figure who goes for results.

In 1994, then-San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan sponsored an initiative to require homeless recipients of General Assistance to accept housing vouchers and smaller cash grants instead of a cash stipend only.

San Francisco voters approved the measure, but the supes never implemented it. City voters never made the supes pay for their betrayal; to the contrary, city voters chose not to re-elect Jordan.

In 2002, Supervisor Gavin Newsom introduced a similar measure to replace most of General Assistance cash grants with city-supplied food, shelter and treatment. Voters approved the measure by 60 percent.

On this go-round, the supes didn't get a chance to gut the homeless reform. Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay beat them to it. Quidachay issued a ruling May 8 that overturned the measure on the grounds that voters aren't allowed to determine homeless policies; only the supes can do that.

Yes, this is America. Yet, this judge felt free to rule that voters should be powerless with their own government. I guess only judges have power.

Now what?

Newsom's opponents in the city's mayoral race have been quick to jump on him for not having foreseen the glaring legal flaw that virtually invited the Quidachay decision. Attorney Angela Alioto, for example, dismissed her opponent Newsom as incompetent. "It couldn't be clearer that the welfare code clearly states that it is up to the legislative branch of government," she noted.

Funny, if Quidachay's ruling was so easily foreseen, you'd think someone would have mentioned that shortcoming in the five pages of arguments against Proposition N printed in the city ballot. Also, if Quidachay's ruling was so predictable, why did Supervisor Tom Ammiano push a rival measure when that, too, would have had voters choosing the city's homeless policy?

City Attorney Dennis Herrera is right to appeal the judge's ruling. As spokesman Matt Dorsey put it, "The voters' right to self-governance is guaranteed in the constitution of the state" and the city charter. What's more, as the San Francisco Daily Journal reported in 2001, Quidachay has a high reversal rate. The appeal court overturned nine out of 11 of his rulings over two years.

Golden Gate Law School Dean Peter Keane, who personally opposed Prop. N, figures there's a 60 percent chance the decision will be reversed. When authority is in doubt, Keane explained, "the default is always with the people. "

In San Francisco, the default is almost always with inertia.

Critics now suggest that Newsom compromise with the very city pols who want to grind any substance from Proposition N.

Newsom (three cheers) says no. Imagine if there are amendments and compromises, Newsom argues, "and we magnanimously don't go along with the will of the voters so we (the supes) can all get along" -- and then the courts uphold Prop. N. If the board cares what voters think, Newsom argued, it should save the city anguish and legal bills by voting to approve Proposition N as is.

When Frank Jordan lost re-election, the rap was that he couldn't get things done. I hope Newsom has learned this much (and I think he has): In San Francisco, when you try to work with people who don't want change, they sabotage you, then dismiss you as the guy who can't get anything done.

They're Olympians at inertia, but you're the fall guy, the bumbler. And city voters will forgive deliberate inertia, but oddly, they don't tolerate failure.