The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.

Spend more. Get less. We're the city that knows how.

This is why it's so hard to "reform" anything in San Francisco: Pass a bill giving Muni a dedicated revenue stream, and you end up eviscerating its finances; try to hold Muni workers more accountable for their jobs, and you end up giving them a raise. Muni isn't getting fixed anytime soon, because these are the fixes.


San Francisco wasn't always this way. Take this quintessential story of old-style city politics that involves a shady land deal and copious quantities of booze.

San Francisco historian Charles Fracchia recalls Mayor George Christopher's ploy after his plan to lure the New York Giants to San Francisco hit a snag in the late 1950s. It all hinged on building Candlestick Park, and doing that hinged on buying land in Hunters Point from real estate magnate Charlie Harney for $65,000 an acre. The trouble was, the city had sold that same land to Harney only five years previously for a fraction of the price.

"There was opposition to this from high-minded people in San Francisco," Fracchia says. "So Christopher got his opponents as well as his proponents together, and had 10 cases of scotch delivered up to this meeting at the Pacific Union Club. The scotch was drunk, and everyone came to the conclusion — yes, keep Candlestick Park."

When it comes to mismanaging a city, San Francisco has pulled a 180 — in half a century, we've gone from "city fathers" (if you liked them) or "oligarchs" (if you didn't) operating with limited input from the people to a hyperdemocracy. Overpaying for a Candlesticklike bad land deal today wouldn't be settled during a drunken soirée, but via years of high-decibel public meetings, developers being made to bleed funds to nonprofits of city supervisors' choosing, and any number of bond measures or other trips to the ballot box — all of which, when put together, could conceivably cost as much as the bad land deal itself. Maybe more.

For all its scotch-soaked flaws, the city of yore did not suffer from these problems. While archaic and stridently antidemocratic by today's standards, the system of government cobbled together by a citizens' commission in 1931 largely did what our forebears wanted it to do — mind the store and eliminate rampant corruption.

From 1932 until 1996, much of city government was handled by a powerful chief administrative officer (CAO), appointed to a 10-year term and tasked with overseeing the city's largest departments. The job was to take politics out of city management. (Today's San Francisco is so intensely saturated with politics down to the minutiae that the supervisors' recent appointment of a transit expert to a transit board — and not a union plumber — was seen as a deeply political move and an affront to organized labor.) The CAO was charged with making the city's largest decisions in an apolitical manner; the major portion of the job was keeping the books on the most vital departments and making sure they were running smoothly. In a manner of speaking, the CAO was a living, breathing accountability measure. The city certainly made its share of lousy calls, but the sloth, waste, and dysfunction emblematic of today's city government would have been shocking.

Over time, however, the CAO's purview was replaced by that hyperdemocracy. The reasonable notion that the people of San Francisco should have input into how things are run has turned into the democratic equivalent of death by a thousand cuts; as everybody gets a voice, democracy votes accountability down. When everyone's in charge, no one is. "In the old days, they ran roughshod over opposing views," Fracchia says. "Today, all ya got is opposing views. Pick your poison."

San Franciscans' appetite for voting is voracious; ours may be the only city that has had to ponder what to name ballot propositions after all the letters of the alphabet have been used up. "It is extraordinary, the number of things we ask our voters to vote on," Harrington confirms. "And somebody must like it, because we keep doing it."

Voters have demonstrated a jarring mixture of selflessness and selfishness. We greenlight billions of dollars in bonds, even when the city's inability to deliver projects on time or within budget has been rendered painfully clear. Yet we also repeatedly enshrine the wishes of single-issue activists and labor unions into law, and that carries ominous long-term consequences. There's a reason in times like the present that organizations such as the Department of Public Health are always targeted for deep cuts, while the notion of downsizing librarians, cops, or firefighters is inconceivable. The latter have gone to the voters to enshrine their standing in the city charter. No one has done so for the DPH — yet.

Special interests "go to the voters and say, 'Do you like libraries? Do you like children?' Well, of course they do," Harrington says. And if voters don't care to think through the fiscal ramifications — well, neither do their elected representatives. "The board likes children, too — so does the mayor. Next year in the budget they'll say, 'Oh, shit! Children get $30 million more — what doesn't?'" If the city ran its finances this way 30 years ago, the former controller notes, the money to respond to the AIDS crisis would have been locked up and unavailable. If such a need arises in the future — well, what then? Today's city can't even pay for the things it wants to pay for.

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5 comments
finbar
finbar

Re: Accountability or the lack thereof.


"Nothing is easier than spending the public money. It does not appear to belong to anybody. The temptation is overwhelming to bestow it on somebody. "


-Calvin Coolidge

cjohn17
cjohn17

The SF homeless issue is horrific. How many cities would tolerate such a pitiful spectacle? SF may think it can stumble on because of its tourism allure but a day of reckoning is surely coming.

axelham
axelham

Great article. But where's the reader's call to action? If only the author had enunciated what to do as clearly as the problems at hand.. It's certainly good to be informed, but this does little to empower - I still feel helpless.

 
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