A measure on the November ballot will ask voters whether they want San Francisco to study restoring Hetch Hetchy Valley.
The same measure will ask people whether they want to study draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
Opponents in this upcoming ballot fight are hunkering down in their trenches about the language that will be used to describe the measure to voters. And to an extent, both sides are right.
Voters won’t have to commit themselves to either restoration or drainage when they vote in November. According to the language submitted by the City Attorney’s Office, the proposed ordinance would merely “require The City to prepare a two-phase process that would identify alternative water sources and evaluate how to end using Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.”
The description submitted for the ballot talks about ending the use of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, but never once does it use the word “drain.” But when the initiative emerged from the approval process that finalizes such language, “drain” appeared four times. A letter to that committee from Restore Hetch Hetchy, the initiative’s supporters, to the Ballot Simplification Committee, which approves the language, asked for the word “drain” to be eliminated. But it is in the language that was approved, and now Restore Hetch Hetchy has threatened to sue, saying the committee’s description stacks the deck against the measure.
The descriptions of ballot measures that appear in voter packets are important because most voters never get around to reading the full language of such proposals. Such blurbs are supposed to be neutral, apolitical and factual descriptions designed to fairly help voters decide how to cast their ballots.
In this case, both sides have a point about the language used to describe this measure. And if their dispute is not resolved, it will poorly serve the voters who ultimately must decide how to vote on the ordinance.
As the ballot explanation is currently worded, “drain” is the first word used to describe the initiative’s goal. Yet that is not an accurate way to describe a measure so clearly motivated by a desire to restore the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park, which San Francisco dammed about a century ago in a quest to lock in a long-term source of water after the 1906 earthquake and fire. The concept of restoration must be prominently featured when this initiative is described to voters.
But it would be equally disingenuous to omit the word “drain” from that explanation. The true goal of this initiative is not merely to study an end to The City’s use of Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, but rather to study the feasibility of draining it, which any valley restoration would require.
The San Francisco water system serves 2.5 million users across the Bay Area, and voters should fully understand the consequences of what is at stake when they vote on the initiative. Both sides of the debate are free to say whatever they want when they are paying for the message. If opponents want to print “drain” in large red letters on their mailers, they are free to do so, and supporters can avoid the term entirely. But the neutral language that voters deserve should be sufficiently clear about both the initiative’s true purpose — restoring the Hetchy Hetchy Valley — and what must be done to accomplish that goal — draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.