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The Horror 

Darkness descends at City Hall as supervisors argue ceaselessly over dogs and apartment size

Wednesday, Oct 2 2002
Outside ChevronTexaco's regional offices in Malongo, Angola, "egrets strut in the grass among parked helicopters, and clusters of screeching bats hang like coconuts from trees," Associated Press correspondent Bruce Stanley wrote in a September dispatch. From this tranquil heart of darkness, San Francisco-based ChevronTexaco and a corporate predecessor ran drilling operations that provided the Soviet-backed Angolan government with its main source of hard currency during a 27-year civil war against U.S.-sponsored UNITA guerrillas. The war formally ended two months ago, allowing Stanley to finagle a reporting trip from his London office to the corrupt, starvation-wracked Marxist republic. Stanley encountered an ideological backwards-land where one of America's largest corporations had indirectly financed Marxist troops in a war that killed an estimated 500,000 people. With the war over, American oil revenues now allow Marxist apparatchiks to steal an estimated $1 billion a year. In place of social order, Angola has chaos.

"Here we were, an American company protected by Cuban troops and sanctioned by our home government. It was a bit of an absurd situation," Stanley quoted ChevronTexaco manager Daniel Rocha as saying. "At the same time, we were the only money-making source for the Angolan government, so they took very good care of us."

In San Francisco, where politics is a contest of who can most loudly defend a peculiar, local brand of leftism, Stanley's dispatch comes as important political news: No San Francisco leftist -- not feel-the-love Chris Daly, not Green Socialist Matt Gonzalez, not doddering Jake McGoldrick nor marijuana-sanctuary advocate Mark Leno -- has managed to be so S.F.-left as to spend a quarter-century funding Marxist soldiers in a Third-World guerrilla war. Viva Chevron! Héroe de la revolución San Franciscana!

This is an exciting week in the Matt Smith household, as my old school chum Bruce and his lovely wife Lan arrive for a weekend visit from London. I haven't yet prepared our itinerary. But I'll make sure Bruce sees the recently remodeled S.F. City Hall, where chandeliers hang like clusters of African bats, and marble pillars strut through the rotunda like egret legs.

Here, just as Bruce reported in Malongo, hypocrisy and absurdity have become such powerful forces that nobody, least of all denizens of our local government, can reasonably resist. As in Angola, ideals, leftist and otherwise, have disintegrated here into a tawdry exercise in preserving elite privilege. And in place of government, we have dysfunction and chaos.

Pencil-thin, sharp-suited Supervisor Mark Leno is best known outside San Francisco for turning the city into a marijuana sanctuary and for making city health benefits available to fund sex-change operations for government employees and their partners. Inside San Francisco, he's known for his unusually earnest and carefully measured demeanor, a quality that at last Monday's Board of Supervisors hearing he seemed about to lose.

The Board was entering the seventh hour (spread over the course of two meetings) of arguing and hearing testimony about an application to turn a former embalming school in Noe Valley into a 13-unit apartment building. It had come down to a question of whether or not Leno could make the builder shave the equivalent of two bedrooms from the project. Leno wasn't getting his way, and this exasperated him.

"I might want to see ... I want to make sure ... I don't want this to ..." he said, before successfully launching his sentence: "I don't want the message this board communicates to this audience or the city at large [to be] that we are completely unreasonable," he said, and then proceeded to ask for another of numerous re-votes on the matter. After losing, he requested the vote be rescinded yet again, and that the debate be extended to a third board hearing, under agreement that the matter be rolled over to a fourth.

The Board of Supervisors, which oversees a complicated city budget of $5 billion, which is putatively charged with battling homelessness, infrastructure decay, graft, and waste, didn't used to spend hours and months wrangling over whether small apartment buildings should be diminished by two bedrooms. The City Charter, after all, provides a Planning Department and a Planning Commission to perform this job. But that was before the Board of Supervisors incrementally condemned itself to darkness and dysfunction.

During the past two years, the Board of Supervisors has waged a quiet power war with the mayor, using its legislative powers to take on duties once performed by mayoral commissions and city staff. Consequently, San Francisco government is about to enter an era of unprecedented ineptitude, in which the Board of Supervisors will spend hours arguing over the floor plans of individual apartments and the advisability of particular dog runs in particular parks. Meanwhile, hugely important citywide policy matters are given short shrift.

The problem started in 1999, when, for the first time in years, supervisors were chosen in district-by-district votes, rather than by the previous method of citywide polling.

At first the attendant changes seemed subtle; supervisors simply spent increasingly greater time reviewing building permit appeals.

Then, last year, Aaron Peskin, a supervisor elected after achieving fame for opposing building projects in his North Beach neighborhood, got a new law passed that lets any group of four supervisors bring Planning Commission decisions before the full board. In practice, this meant a single constituent could make the board debate a building permit.

Supervisors next backed a successful ballot proposition that effectively put control of the Planning Commission itself into the board's hands.

By the summer of 2002, the board had rejected the mayor's Planning Commission choices; the mayor refused to name new ones; the city was left sans Planning Commission.

Now, the board seems to do little besides Planning Commission work. November's ballot is thick with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of referendum legislation on issues that the board has neglected -- multimillion-dollar housing bonds, a billion-dollar overhaul of the city-owned Hetch Hetchy water system, and homelessness, to name a few. Voters will be forced to decide wildly complicated and expensive matters best suited for a deliberative body because supervisors leave legislating to the people and instead spend hours arguing about two individual bedrooms in Noe Valley.

Which seems to suit the supervisors just fine.

"I'm not complaining," Leno told me a couple of days after last Monday's board meeting, "because I think that's part of my job as much as it is to deal with deals of a multibillion-dollar budget. It's important to hear neighbors on issues about the quality of life in their neighborhoods."

Dysfunction, chaos, and moral bankruptcy are evil things, to be sure, but they're the stuff of literary entertainment. And so I found myself back in the board chambers last Thursday afternoon, watching a committee hearing go to the dogs. Supervisor Leland Yee had proposed legislation which, if successful, could cause the Board of Supervisors to routinely debate how city gardeners tend the city's hundreds of acres of parklands. The measure has the potential to bring Board of Supervisors meetings to a permanent standstill, all in the name of expanding the privilege of yet another vocal interest group.

Next to homeowners, dog fanciers are San Francisco's loudest-barking special interest. It's estimated that one in eight San Franciscans owns one of these creatures, and during the past year a small number of owners became infuriated when the mayor's Recreation and Park Department drafted a plan requiring dog owners to keep their pets on a leash in about half of the city's vast parklands. The plan would call for the creation of numerous off-leash dog runs, while restricting dogs in sensitive plant and wildlife habitat areas, sports fields, and other such areas historically considered inappropriate for loose dogs.

The policy outraged dog owners, who had become accustomed to letting their dogs roam free everywhere. Some of these zealots boasted of not even owning a leash -- even though they lived in the West's densest city.

Supervisor Leland Yee, a candidate for state assembly and a craven panderer, heard the dog fancier cry and drafted legislation that would essentially allow dogs to roam unfettered everywhere. Leash laws would be enforced only in cases where a group of citizens united to lobby for a leash area in a specific neighborhood park.

In drafting his legislation, Yee flipped through the new Recreation and Parks Department policy, created after months of hearings, and crossed out environmental-sounding terms such as "sensitive habitat areas," as well as the names of groups who were to help the committee oversee park dog policy, such as Coleman Advocates for Youth, a children's rights group, and the Audubon Society, the Sierra Club, the Neighborhood Parks Council, and the Native Plant Society. Instead, groups such as Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) and SFDOG should dominate parks oversight, Yee proposed.

Our wealth of parks, in other words, would no longer be the patrimony of the city at large; they would be run at the whim of dog owners.

But the Yee legislation's greatest effect lay in the act of seizing parks policy from the mayor. By creating specific, Board of Supervisors-drafted land-use policies within city parks, it would remove these types of decisions from the city's Recreation and Parks Commission, part of the city's executive branch.

As a result, City Parks Director Elizabeth Goldstein said, "Each land-use decision would require a concurrent city ordinance. It would create a direct conflict between the Recreation and Parks Commission and the Board of Supervisors. This conflict might be resolved by having this committee take over all land-use decisions within the parks."

San Francisco's legislative branch could become consumed with picayune pandering, abandoning all meaningful efforts at governance.

And supervisors might be quite happy to do this.

"I'm astounded at the amount of time we spend on this issue," Leno said during Thursday's dog hearing. "But it's one that affects all of our lives."

There's a moral view of social organization, sometimes called liberalism, leftism, or progressivism, that goes something like this: Society should be judged by how it treats the least fortunate of its members, such as the poor, elderly, children, the infirm; a wise society protects its natural environment, so that future generations might enjoy it; above all, political representatives, fairly elected, should defend the commonweal.

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors consists of self-described "progressives," often taunted, outside the city, as extreme leftists. Yet, in its current state of political dysfunction, San Francisco is like an East Texas county that's been Democratic so long that even the most right-wing of notions is described as liberal, or like a West African republic where public officials individually enrich themselves on oil money and call it Marxism.

During coming years, our Board of Supervisors will spend hours and weeks and months defending the property rights of millionaire homeowners and the bloated privilege of vociferous dog owners. This will come at the expense of the rest of us, who entertain liberal-minded desires such as hoping to raise families in apartments with more than one bedroom, or wishing our children could play safely in the park.

In Joseph Conrad's Belgian Congo and Bruce Stanley's Angola, the lack of a coherent moral universe resulted in darkness. In San Francisco, district-based elections have created such a place. As I listened to Thursday's dog debate, and envisioned the hours of testimony, argument, and misspent energy that now dominates politics here, I closed my eyes and heard the words of Joseph Conrad's Marlow. I saw a river running into darkness: "The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once -- somewhere -- far away -- in another existence perhaps."

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Matt Smith


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