Downtown's "Hail Mary" lawsuit

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EDITORIAL This one is way over the top: The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the Committee on Jobs filed suit last week against the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, alleging that the supes won't implement Proposition I, the 2004 ballot measure that was aimed at derailing progressive legislation. The suit makes little legal sense: The downtown crew is demanding that the city do something that it's already doing, for the most part. But it shows an aggressive new strategy on the part of Mayor Gavin Newsom's allies, who are out to scuttle three important bills that will probably win board approval.

Prop. I was designed to do two things: Delay anything that downtown might consider "antibusiness" and promote the political fortunes of Michela Alioto-Pier, who authored the ballot measure. The idea: Create an Office of Economic Analysis, under the city controller, with the responsibility to do an "economic impact analysis" of any legislation that comes before the board. Of course, that economic impact analysis will by definition be fairly narrowly focused; it won't consider the social impacts or consequences of decisions.

That was always the flaw in Prop. I, and that was the reason we opposed the measure. Economic impact studies that show only how much a proposal would cost or how it might harm the "business climate" ignore the fact that a lot of government regulation improves things that aren’t quantifiable. And even when they can be measured, certain effects are ignored: Clean air has a tremendous value but typical studies of antipollution measures focus only on the costs of compliance. Safe streets, nice parks, and good schools are worth a fortune but a study that examines the tax burden required to pay for them won't account for that.

Downtown spent a fortune promoting the measure (and sending out colorful flyers with Alioto-Pier's face on them, which didn't hurt her reelection efforts). It narrowly passed but since Alioto-Pier never put in a request for the additional money the plan would cost, it took an entire city budget cycle to fund and hire the two staff economists who will do the work.

Now, for better or for worse, they're on board, and the analyses are beginning but downtown isn't satisfied. Chamber spokesperson Carol Piasente told us the group wants to eliminate any board discretion in deciding what needs analysis and what doesn't; right now, the board president can waive the analysis on relatively trivial things like resolutions and appointments.

But what's really going on, according to Sup. Chris Daly, is that downtown is gearing up for a full-scale attack on three bills: Sup. Tom Ammiano's proposal to require employers to pay for health care; Sup. Sophie Maxwell's plan to better enforce the minimum wage laws; and Daly's proposal to require additional affordable housing in all market-rate developments. "Downtown's hail mary pass involves using the economic analysis to kill these socially critical proposals," Daly wrote in his blog.

Oh, and while the chamber is always worried about city spending, the group's lawyer, Jim Sutton, is asking for attorney's fees (likely to be a big, fat chunk of taxpayer change) if the suit prevails.

This is ridiculous. City Attorney Dennis Herrera needs to defend this aggressively, but that's only the legal side. The mayor, who has become ever more closely allied with these downtown forces (see page 11), ought to join the supervisors in publicly denouncing the suit. SFBG