The Horror

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

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 owninga 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.

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