In a special election Tuesday, Voters here in effect recalled all 11 members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and said they must stand for citywide election in November.
It was the second time in four years that voters have changed their minds about whether supervisors should be elected by districts or at-large. The result has been to disrupt the political life of the city, because San Francisco -- unlike any other city in California -- is both a city and a county and the supervisors run it all.
"The situation has changed so often that no one has served a full [four-year] term here in years," said Arthur Morris, a supervisor's aide."More and more, San Francisco is beginning to resemble a banana republic."
Even so, the issue refuses to be buried. Supervisor Carol Ruth Silver, who was elected under the district system, announced today that she would move to put the issue before the voters again in November.
"It was not a definitive election," she said of Tuesday's outcome because only 35 percent of the voters went to the polls, and the question was decided to 1,500 votes. "It was summertime and people simply stayed home," she said.
So, the issue will probably be joined once again. On one side are the nine (out of 11) supervisors elected under the district system. With them and Mayor Dianne Feinstein and a coalition of labor people, homosexuals and mainstream Democrats. This group likes district elections.
On the other side are Republicans, former officeholders, the Chamber of Commerce and some neighborhood and ethnic groups. They favor the at-large system.
"I think the people of San Francisco are fed up with the irresponsible and parochial attitude of the board and want the members recalled," said Bob Guichard, the author of Tuesday's proposition on at-large voting.
The attacks and counterattacks in the war over the election system began in earnest in 1976, when neighborhood groups became outraged because four of the supervisors lived within a few blocks of one another in a neighborhood where homes even then were valued between $250,000 and $500,000. Four more supervisors lived in other tony areas.
Since the first supervisors elected district by district took office in 1978, the board's composition has changed noticeably. A gay supervisor was elected, and more women and blacks became supervisors than ever before in the city's history. Less affluent citizens came to power.
"For the first time, more than the downtown financial and real estate interests were served," said David Looman, a neighborhood activist who headed the drive to uphold the district election system.
But opponents pointed out that the city's Latin and oriental supervisors, representing the city's largest minorities, were defeated under district elections. And Terry Francois, a former supervisor who is black, said he considers district elections "demeaning to blacks. It's a throwback to days when blacks could run only in black districts." Francois, who is one of the leaders of the anti-district movement repeated a common complaint that district supervisors don't work together for the city's common good.
Detractors say the board focuses on tiny problems, such as stop sign placement, and devotes hours to discussions of how the U.S. State Department should deal with El Salvador and Nicaragua.
"They debated the pros and cons of sugar-coated cereals while not supporting a policy that would have helped ease the city's housing shortage," said Guichard.
During the campaign, district system opponents ridiculed the supervisors' many resolutions on global issues. They belittled the board's solemn stands disapproving nonunion lettuce and the sale of Krugerrand coins.
Elmer Humphrey, 63, a coffee processor and longtime San Francisco resident, gave a typical remark as he went to vote against district elections Tuesday. "We've just gotten overliberalized here."
His stated dismay at the emerging power of new special interest groups in the city, such as gays and women, was precisely the target of some anti-district literature. The at-large campaign relied heavily on direct mail appeal to conservative homeowners in a few areas of the city.
The immediate result of this week's voting will be that supervisors, who have spent the last two months taking stands on the district vs. at-large issue, will now be scrambling to line up money and support for another election campaign. No terms were due to expire until the fall of 1981 and half the board members had three years of their four-year terms remaining.