The Horror

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

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.

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