San Francisco City Attorneys unlimited reign flies in the face of democracy. Federal, state, and municipal political positions are typically limited by strict terms defining the maximum length of an individual’s service. A City Attorney serves as the legal representation for a municipal government, including the mayor, supervisory boards and commissions, and other elected officials who have limited terms. All major California cities have limits for a City Attorney’s length of service – except San Francisco, where the City Attorney has had an unlimited reign.
A state or municipality can set one of two kinds of term limits. An absolute term limit restricts a person over their lifetime – for example, the President of the United States is only allowed to serve two four-year terms. There are also consecutive term limits, where only back-to-back terms are restricted.
Setting political term limits is an essential act of democracy. In 1990, California enacted 12-year term limits for state legislators in both the House and Senate. By doing so, the state recognized the constant state of change and subsequent importance of voting in new representation. The New York People’s Convention described the reason for California’s marked success in setting limits:
“no term limits ….has resulted in a small group of people staying in the same positions for years with total power over state policy and actions… The result is a stultifying, corrupt and undemocratic mess.”
The current San Francisco City Attorney, Dennis Herrera, has been in office since 2002 (currently 17 years), when he won with only 52% of votes.
Unlike San Francisco, all other major California cities have set terms for the City Attorney, like Los Angeles and Oakland.
Cities outside of California also limit this position. The New York People’s Convention stresses the importance of term limits in any political office. The organization cites a 2015 New York Post article that deems a lack of term limits “legislative careerism… This, combined with the power of legislative leaders, gives rise to an insular culture that makes individual lawmakers overly reluctant to advance new ideas, challenge entrenched special interests or demand higher ethical standards.”
This is an eerily lifelike portrait of the San Francisco City Attorney. All other public positions in San Francisco have an 8-year term limit, including the Mayor and Supervisors – yet, somehow, this does not apply to the City Attorney, despite the fact that he has been so contentious that black leadership petitioned for his removal. As we speak, the City Attorney is involved in three fights with black businesses, one of which has resulted in willing displacement of tenants to spite a minority businesswoman.
Why is San Francisco the only city in California without a set term limit for the City Attorney, especially when his tenure harms the community ? Imagine a City Attorney that would sacrifice tenants being evicted for glory? Well, seven tenants in Hayes Valley are the first of more tenants to be displaced to pay for a judgment that was unfairly won. San Francisco should follow the example of other cities – or even of its other public officers – and set firm limits to protect and give voice to its citizens. Government officials should all be held to the same standards, and an 8-year limit of service like other elected San Francisco officials (with a maximum of two consecutive terms) is only logical and fair. San Franciscans have the right to be heard and the right to choose a new City Attorney and the vote should be on the November ballot.
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