Dollars Without Sense

For 25 years, Harvey Ross has rooted out the waste and lies of politicians and bureaucrats. But some say he's too lost in the line items to see the big picture

This year, Rose revealed that a criminal justice program targeting repeat juvenile offenders was stuffed with goodies -- computers, cellular phones and new office furniture -- that had little to do with fighting crime.

And just this month, he revealed that two new rows of 800 seats built by the city at Candlestick Park at a cost of $1 million were flawed because the field couldn't be seen from the new back row.

Naturally, Rose's fiscal truffle hunt has earned him citywide respect.
Herb Caen once suggested Rose be appointed mayor and reporters frequently flatter him by calling him the 12th super-visor.

"He's very good at schmoozing that constituency," a former Rose staffer says of the press.

"Without him, the mayor and the departments would walk all over us," says T.J. Anthony, an aide to Supervisor Barbara Kaufman. Sam Yockey, Agnos' deputy mayor, confirms the board's vulnerability to mayoral smoke and mirrors.

"I learned a long time ago that I could say anything I wanted to the board," Yockey says. "I could even make up numbers, and if I said it with enough conviction, they'd swallow it."

Rose basks in the praise: The mayor can make the budget, but he can break it. Even so, Rose insists on telling the story of how he was taken down a peg a few years ago when his father visited.

"I told my father, 'I'm a pretty important guy here.'"
Rose Senior replied: "If I were to ask 1,000 people in the city if they knew you, not only would they not know who you were, they wouldn't know what the budget analyst does."

To drive the point home with a 10-pound sledgehammer -- a trait Harvey Rose has inherited -- Rose's father asked a clerk in the Taraval Safeway if she knew who his son was. Not surprisingly, she proved the old man's point for him.

Months later, Rose related the story to Examiner reporter Jane Ganahl, who included it in a piece on Rose. A week later, a postcard from Cole Valley arrived in Rose's mail. It was from a woman who asked Rose to forward the note to his father. It read: "Mr. Rose. You have it all wrong. Your son is a local hero."

Rose's audits provide great fodder for newspapers. A computer search of Chronicle stories back to 1988 produced more than 200 stories naming the budget analyst. Editorial writers frequently crib Rose's reports to bolster their arguments, and reporters love him because he provides the juicy and outrageous nuggets about bad government that sell papers. (Rose distributes his reports to the entire City Hall press corps; he also collects every news clip that mentions him.)

The mayor's department heads are not so enamored of the budget analyst. Rose became unhinged at a recent meeting of the board's budget committee when arguing a minor point with a department rep. Sitting in the audience waiting for her agenda item to come up was Mayor Jordan's criminal justice czarina, Katherine Feinstein.

Feinstein leaned over to a reporter.
"Who's right?" she asked, somewhat bemused.
"I don't know, but I sure know who's loudest," the reporter replied, to Feinstein's laughter.

Rose is intense and defensive about his work. He once offered to eat one of his audits (with ketchup) if he were proved wrong, and claims to have been born obsessive -- "I used to get to school so early I'd beat the janitors to work."

"I don't sleep very well because I'm constantly getting up and taking notes on the budget," adds Rose. "My wife hates it."

But the budget king's perfectionist ways sometimes lead him into petty squabbles. In 1992, at a board budget committee meeting, Rose acted hastily when he thought that the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency was resurrecting an economic development plan for the Mission District. Rose had recommended the blueprint be temporarily shelved and thought the agency was proposing it just to insult him.

His idea of retaliation was to instruct one of his analysts to interrupt an agency staffer in the midst of his presentation to the supes, and whisper into his ear.

"Harvey wants you to know that he thinks you're a snake," the analyst said.
Rose is such a niggler he can't even take an insult without conducting an investigation. At an early-'80s meeting of the Board of Supervisors, public utilities chief Dick Sklar called Rose a nasty, 11-letter name in the heat of an argument. Rose didn't know what the 11-letter word meant, so he jotted it down and looked the word up when he returned to his office.

Today, Rose can't remember what the word was, but he remembers this thing for sure: Sklar had insulted him.

The fiscal trophies collected by San Francisco's budget sleuth are easy to arrange on the mantel. But on closer scrutiny, the plaudits are tarnished by the institutional failure of the Board of Supervisors and Harvey Rose to tackle the thorny issues of public policy.

Rose's critics, some of whom retreat behind a screen of anonymity, call him an "anachronism" and a "micromanager," ill-suited to help supervisors navigate the big-picture issues that lie at the heart of governance.

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