Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Question Time flop

Question Time is one of those city issues that never seems to go away. It's been on the ballot three times. But progressives are right that the way it works is not how it was conceived way back in 2006 when I first wrote about it. The Guardian's Tim Redmond provides a sanitized version of Question Time's origins:

The whole idea, when Sup. Chris Daly first brought this up, was to mandate that the chief executive interact with the board---and to provide an opportunity for the supervisors to engage in public discussion and debate with the occupant of an office that under Mayors Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom had become increasingly imperious.

The Examiner story yesterday has a more accurate account:

During the era of Mayor Gavin Newsom, the progressives fought hard for a forced exchange between the executive and legislative branches of government. The Q and A sessions were the brainchild of Newsom’s nemesis, Supervisor Chris Daly, and modeled after the prime minister’s weekly question time in the British Parliament. At the time critics said it was just an attempt to create political “gotcha” moments.

Exactly. It was conceived by then-Supervisor Daly as part of his unwholesome obsession with besting Mayor Newsom in what he hoped would be a boorish free-for-all like the question time in the British Parliament, which was described in a NY Times story:

During prime minister’s questions, the goal is to score points any other way you can, including witty one-liners, withering putdowns, low-blow ad hominem remarks, muttered asides and the enthusiastic verbal pummeling of anyone who falters...Like the feral schoolboys in “Lord of the Flies,” members of Parliament are quick to pounce on weakness. When in the heat of the moment Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once reverted to her humble roots and used the regional word “frit” in place of “frightened,” the Labor Party never let her forget it, shouting “Frit! Frit!” at delicate parliamentary moments for years afterward.

The authorizing ballot measure allowed the supervisors and the mayor to determine the tame procedure that now makes Question Time a disappointment to the city's left, which hoped for something like the above.

But the real reason Question Time is devoid of interest as theater, regardless of how it's done: There are few serious policy differences between the mayor and the supervisors. I can't even think of one offhand. 8 Washington? Big fucking deal.

Come to think of it, what significant policy differences did Supervisor Daly and Mayor Newsom have? The only one I can remember is on homelessness---about which Daly was completely wrong, by the way.

This is a one-party town ideologically, which has led to an unhealthy consensus on important planning and traffic issues. The important questions I listed here will never get asked at Question Time.

There are no longer any Green Party members on the board---Kim and Olague, recall, both dumped the Greens when being a Democrat became fashionable again---and even the "moderate" Supervisor Elsbernd is a Democrat.

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