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The State

Plump Political Pamphlet Is So, Well, San Francisco

Elections: City is the only one in California to include paid public arguments on the issues. And in the City by the Bay, there are opinions aplenty.

September 14, 2002|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — It's big, the size of a university course guide or a suburban telephone book. It's packed with sometimes off-the-wall convictions, diatribes and political rants, and it's soon to plop on doorsteps across town, just in time for Election Day.

That is, if the post office musters enough manpower to deliver it.

Officials in this politically crazed city call it the Voter Information Pamphlet and it went to the presses Thursday. Critics call it something else: an example of American free speech run amok.

At 350 pages and weighing a pound or more, the so-called VIP is one more way that special interests get their spin on issues into the hands of voters before Nov. 5.

For $200 plus $2 a word, just about anyone can weigh in with an opinion on any of the 19 local ballot measures--from new policies on the homeless to whether the city should grow its own marijuana.

The list of issues for voters to ponder includes seven state propositions, three local bond measures, seven charter amendments, eight ordinances, one declaration of policy and one regional rapid transit system bond measure.

San Francisco is one of a handful of communities nationwide--and the only in one California--to allow paid public arguments to accompany local candidate statements and official ballot instructions.

But 27 years after launching the practice, San Francisco faces a democratic conundrum. Many say the VIP and its paid ads have grown too expensive to produce. But in a city where politics is a municipal obsession, others defend the ads as a way for all political groups, rich and poor, to get their messages to voters.

This year, however, the VIP is nearly three times as large as the previous edition's 125 pages and will be sent to each of the city's 438,000 registered voters at a cost of more than $1 million for compilation and mailing. The fees for arguments help offset some of the cost.

Most city voter information guides are less than 100 pages, officials say. The Los Angeles County registrar of voters in March sent out sample ballot pamphlets ranging from 32 to 56 pages, depending on local initiatives, but the county does not allow paid arguments.

In San Francisco, the paid argument has risen to political art form.

"This one is a monster," John Arnst, acting director of the city's Department of Elections, acknowledged of the fall 2002 edition of the VIP, 80% of which is paid arguments. "I don't know how many people take these things seriously, but we sure do get a lot of them."

The guide is so big that it may not fit in most mail slots. The U.S. Postal Service may have to use extra staff to get them all delivered. Carriers on walking routes are limited to 35 pounds in their satchels, so many might have to shorten their delivery loops to accommodate the weighty tomes, said a postal spokesman, Dan De Miglio.

"But we're ready," he said. "This is what we do."

Lobbyists say the VIP provides those with political opinions some bang for their buck.

"We think it's a really cost-effective way to get our message out to voters," said Jennifer Webber, campaign manager for a measure to help fund a multibillion-dollar repair of the city's water delivery system. "It's an invaluable tool that reaches every voter."

But will people actually read the thing? Not banker Joe Iwanicki.

"I don't have time to read 350 pages," he said. "Fifty would be just fine with me."

A Canadian-born Bay Area resident, Judy Luck, who became an American citizen several years ago, said she used to take the voter guide seriously and spend weeks reading every page. "But now the thing has gotten so big, I'm afraid of it," she said. "At some point, you want to tell these people to just stop."

Added a letter-to-the-editor writer in a local newspaper: "So the city is going to spend a ton of money so it can send voter guides weighing tons for the November election. Perhaps you could provide the phone number of the chief of elections so I can remove my name from the mailing list."

Even some special interests agree that this year's VIP may be too much of a good thing.

Sarah Diefendorf, co-president of the San Francisco League of Women Voters, said her group had skipped the VIP because it feared its message would get lost in the din.

"We thought that if we could get on the first or second page, it would be worth it, but not buried back with all the legions of other arguments," she said.

Diefendorf's group wants to study whether the VIP should be limited. "There's certainly this fear that the thing has gotten so big that people are turning their heads around and saying, 'I'm not gonna read any of this. It's information overload and I just don't want to deal with it.' "

Some say the paid arguments demonstrate San Francisco's passion for the political process. "This is a politically vibrant town, probably the nation's most highly charged," said Rich DeLeon, a political science professor at San Francisco State University.

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