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Useless Resolve 

The Board of Supes likes to tell the world what to do. The world could care less.

Wednesday, Aug 2 2006
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Since last November, the Board of Supervisors has agitated for George Bush's impeachment, federal lawmakers to end the Iraq war, and Bill O'Reilly's firing. Each time, the media frothed. Each time, headlines aside, nothing much happened.

Bush? Still in office, except now he's groping foreign leaders. Iraq? Still the new Vietnam. O'Reilly? Still allergic to logic five nights a week.

The pattern of cause and no effect could repeat this month, if the board adopts a proposed resolution urging a ballot recount in Mexico's presidential election. Amid charges of voter fraud, officials there so far have resisted demands from within the country to sift through the 41 million ballots cast July 2. The idea that some board in some U.S. city can suddenly induce the Mexican government to act seems like a case of supes gone loco.

In baseball terms, that would make them 0-for-4 in exerting influence beyond the city's borders, at least on those matters. In practical terms, the futility raises a question about why they insist on telling the world what to do. Especially when the world so often appears oblivious to their opinions, akin to a rhino unaware of the flies on its rump.

Indeed, despite their lack of impact on U.S. and global affairs, supervisors yodel from atop their soapbox, afflicted with a political malady known as ORD — obsessive resolution disorder. The symptoms include a chronic need to avow the obvious, as occurred this spring when the board condemned the genocide in Darfur. Few would doubt the virtue of such a resolution. But even fewer would deem it useful in altering events on — let's try to find the right phrase here — another continent.

In that respect, there's reason to wonder if advocating for the president's ouster or criticizing the Vatican — a recent resolution that triggered a lawsuit against the city — would be time better spent on messes closer to home.

"Congress isn't waiting with bated breath to find out if we're in favor of impeachment hearings," says Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who opposed the board's resolution. "Impeaching Bush is an issue completely outside our purview. I have more important things to worry about."

Likewise, the board tends to echo previously voiced sentiments, only to inspire the same degree of change: none. In 2004, San Francisco voters approved a measure calling on the U.S. to halt the Iraq war. Earlier this year, supervisors passed a resolution in support of a House bill to ... halt the Iraq war.

"Do you have to go through the legislative process of an elected board to make that point?" asks Elsbernd, who voted against the measure, drafted by Chris Daly. "Write an op-ed piece. Hold a press conference."

Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica, among other California cities, share San Francisco's resolution addiction. (In June the Berkeley City Council voted to place a measure to impeach Bush on the November ballot.) The habit, far less common in other large U.S. cities, cultivates public awareness or, depending on your politics, magnifies San Francisco's image as a lefty nut farm. Either way, it also reveals a provincial mindset that belies our urbane cachet.

Consider the board's resolution in April that implored Congress to foster political stability in Ethiopia. One could argue that, as elected officials of a self-appointed "international city," supervisors bear a duty to lobby for Third World causes. Their belief that anyone outside San Francisco will heed them, however, suggests the naivete of a township council promoting a squirrel hunt.

Or maybe the board is simply bored.

"What goes on at the national and international level is a lot more interesting to discuss than talking about filling potholes," says political scientist Bruce Cain, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "There's a desire to be part of the dialogue, even on issues they can't control."

Board members stoked coast-to-coast chatter last winter after O'Reilly, belittling the city's short-lived handgun ban, invited al-Qaeda to blow up Coit Tower. Supervisors retorted by inviting his TV and radio employers to sack him. Cain, while lauding the resolution written by Daly, views its failure to sway O'Reilly's bosses as typical of the board's impotent rhetoric.

"Most of these declarations don't actually accomplish anything other than making people feel good," he says. "It's a collective catharsis."

Yet that placebo effect alone justifies the board's efforts, according to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi. When ignored by federal and state officials, supporters of a cause can turn to supervisors, known to pass the broadest range of resolutions this side of the United Nations. In the past year, the board drew attention to Nigeria's social unrest, the African diaspora in the Americas, and the world's dwindling oil supply.

"At the very minimum, [a resolution] provides a visceral way to express people's emotions on an issue," says Mirkarimi, author of the measures on the Darfuri holocaust and the global oil shortage. "Even though we know we can't always achieve the outcome people want, they still look to us to try to do something."

The board's progressive flank, anchored by Mirkarimi, Daly, Tom Ammiano, and Gerardo Sandoval, has shown a flair for provocation. In January, Daly's attempt to chastise China for persecuting Falun Gong followers elicited a sharp riposte from Chinese officials; the country outlawed the religious sect in 1999. The uproar compelled Daly to gut the resolution. In the end, it meekly reiterated the rights of sect members to practice in the city.

Even so, Daly regards the episode as proof of the board's capacity to reach a wider audience — that what happens in San Francisco doesn't stay in San Francisco. He alludes to the resolution he drafted to boot Bush from the White House, a measure that, by itself, carries slight influence. But the board's vote sent up a flare of discontent glimpsed by the nation, he contends, and since then, dozens of other cities have adopted similar resolutions.

"The idea is about gathering voices of dissent, and so it's important for people to know where San Francisco stands," Daly says. "It's about getting Democrats to be more aggressive in standing up to the Republicans in Washington."

Yet board members themselves may be the only people who think their powers of persuasion transcend the city limits. A spokesman for Senator Dianne Feinstein, when asked whether the former supervisor and mayor takes the board's cue on national affairs, parried tactfully: "There's a broad range of issues facing San Francisco's local government that should be its top priority." Translation: Nope.

In fairness, supervisors devote the lion's share of their week to handling city business, and the majority of the hundreds of resolutions they approve each year concern local matters. As for the other measures, board members dispute the charge that they fritter away time flogging global causes. "I can pound out a two-page resolution in 20 minutes over a cup of coffee," Mirkarimi says. "We don't spend hours on these things."

News coverage of their more peculiar declarations, however, shades perception of the board as squatters on the lunatic fringe. Earlier this year, Sandoval proposed that the city adopt the Seattle Seahawks as its "home" team for the Super Bowl. Before the measure died in committee, Sandoval, who claimed he only wanted to help local bars attract fans, found himself tarred in the press.

"The people and the media here sometimes end up focusing on the unusual things," says Sandoval, who in recent months has authored several measures endorsing immigrant rights. "Most of the items have a serious message."

Critics counter that supervisors exploit the resolution process to pander to voters, scoring easy headlines while the city's homicide rate climbs and the infrastructure crumbles. Arthur Bruzzone, host of a political talk show on KNTV, asserts that beneath the quixotic pledges to change the world lies a selfish desire.

"They were voted into office to get a bike lane on Polk Street," he says. "But instead they're passing these useless resolutions, trying to enhance their political profile. They're representing their own point of view, not the people's."

Meanwhile, their symbolic gestures sometimes yield tangible results different from those they sought. In March, supervisors rebuked the Catholic Church for a new edict barring its adoption agencies from placing children with same-sex couples; the resolution, drafted by Ammiano, urged the church to repeal the policy.

Days later, a Catholic advocacy group and two San Francisco residents sued the city in federal court, alleging the measure violates the separation of church and state. Beyond the cost of its legal defense, the city could face a monetary judgment if it loses the case.

Sandoval, who voted for the resolution, remains unrepentant. "Just because somebody's going to sue doesn't mean you should stand down," he says. "You have to stand up for the right thing."

In turn, targets of the board's ire appear unmoved by its resolutions. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Francisco says church teachings will dictate its adoption policy. A Fox News spokesman crows that O'Reilly "remains the most popular cable news host in the country."

Only a White House spokesman offers a less defiant response. Told of the board's impeachment resolution, he says, "I'm not sure we've heard about that."

About The Author

Martin Kuz

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