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

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

An apolitical CAO, incidentally, probably wouldn't have pandered to public safety unions with exorbitant raises in an election year, as Newsom did in 2007.

The mayor also talks a good game on accountability. He has an Accountability Matrix and an Accountability Index, and even an Accountability Report. But, sadly, a recent audit noted that these lists were largely redundant and overlapping, and were tabulated independently of one another, a clear waste of effort. Actually reading Newsom's Matrix/Index/Report is like a trip through the looking glass (only pathologically dull): Where is this city the mayor reports upon, where everything seems to be getting done with such marvelous efficiency? Sadly, it appears to exist only within the Matrix/Index/Report.

There are many words to read here, but they say very little. What does the Matrix/Index/Report convey regarding debacles like the Branch Library Improvement Plan or Laguna Honda Hospital rebuild? Well, the former is listed as "Done/Ongoing," while the latter is "In Progress." There's no mention of vast cost overruns, service cutbacks, or years of delays. But it's not just that the Matrix/Index/Report leaves out critical information; it often doesn't say anything worth knowing. In many cases, Newsom notes that he has "called for a report" on an issue, or will "lobby" about it — and presents that as solving a problem. Perhaps fittingly, messages regarding the mayor's accountability left with his press office were not returned.

Even when Newsom actually does something, there's no way of telling whether it was a good use of time and money. For example, the Matrix notes that the mayor promised to improve security at homeless shelters, which is listed as "Done," because metal detectors were installed. Super — but did that actually improve security? Did violent incidents drop? Do staff and residents feel safer? Information that proves the problem was actually solved or the situation improved is almost never included across thousands of entries and hundreds of pages. The mayor's Accountability Matrix is completely unaccountable for the information you most want to know.

Gavin Newsom truly is the mayor San Francisco was destined to have.


There are ways San Francisco can maintain its rampant democracy while establishing a system that abhors waste and incompetence:

Return much of the day-to-day control of city operations to an unelected, long-term city manager — who would also be responsible for negotiating union contracts.

Institute detailed citywide planning to avoid waste and duplication of services, while ensuring essential city functions are provided for.

Emphasize best practices in each individual city department, and let go of workers who aren't needed because of productivity gains.

Eliminate all budget set-asides and mandatory staffing levels, and let the city develop budgets that meet the needs of today and tomorrow, not yesterday.

Fire people who are incompetent — and that includes those at the top-heavy manage-ment level.

Instead of telling us how much money has been spent on a problem, focus on whether the problems are getting solved.

Yet it would take a seismic event to spur the city to shake off caked-on layers of status quo — a literal earthquake, or a figurative one. (Perhaps a meteor vaporizing City Hall in 2012.)

The far more likely scenario is that nothing will happen. The city will continue its orgy of waste and incompetence. San Francisco can afford plenty of both: We're rich — and getting richer all the time. According to the controller's office, San Franciscans' per-capita income jumped from an already-generous $58,244 in 2004 to $74,515 last year.

Of course, for many San Franciscans, those numbers represent another failure. They point to an exodus. The city's middle class is melting away faster than polar ice. With them, economists and demographers say, goes any realistic hope that voters will demand serious change in search of long-term reform.

Research by professor Bill Watkins of California Lutheran University over the past decade reveals that San Francisco is shedding its middle-class population at double the state rate. The city, however, is not losing low-income people at nearly the state's pace — and is gaining wealthy residents at far more than California's overall rate. In short, we are replacing our middle class with a rich elite and a burgeoning underclass. Watkins' research also reveals that San Francisco is going gray. The number of city residents between ages 45 and 64 has climbed, while the count of those aged 20 to 44 has dropped. The city, it seems, has become a target destination for the wealthy and retirees. These are not the people who want to make sacrifices now to shore up the city's future.

"Wealthier people are consuming," Watkins says. "They don't want to build a future. They don't have a reason to invest in the community." For that matter, neither do young people — because their futures likely involve moving out of San Francisco. According to Joel Kotkin, "San Francisco is Disneyland for adults, or a place people go until they grow up."

The stage is set for San Francisco to run on inertia. The city's poor are unable to effect a sea change; the young, nomadic population is uninterested; and the wealthy and older are unwilling.

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3 comments
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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