Inefficient by Design: San Francisco's Commissions Are Uncountable — and Unaccountable

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Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen.

It can take a San Francisco politician years of toil to render the city ridiculous in the eyes of the world. The Commission of Animal Control and Welfare managed it overnight.

Last month, the volunteer body appointed by the Board of Supervisors advocated curtailing all pet sales in the city — including guppies, goldfish, and live rodents meant as snake food. Coming on the heels of a proposed criminalization of circumcision, San Francisco was, once again, reduced to an international punchline — many were left to wonder whether a ban on circumcising goldfish is our logical next step. Disbelieving articles poured in from around the globe. Perhaps none was as caustic as a piece in London's Telegraph titled "San Francisco goldfish ban exposes the pathology of America's bourgeois liberal nutjobs."

In retrospect, commission chairwoman Sally Stephens describes a prohibition on goldfish as "a step too far." What outside observers don't understand, she continues, is that her board can't create laws. It can't even submit potential laws for a vote. It's solely an advisory body.

That volunteers with no binding authority can induce all the world to view San Francisco as a clown refuge could be a phenomenon of the Internet age. But it's also indicative of the way the city structures its government. Citizen commissions are hardly a San Francisco exclusive. But this city has more of them than it knows what to do with — literally.

Like John McCain's houses, San Francisco doesn't know how many commissions, committees, task forces, or working groups it has. The clerk of the board monitors 96. The mayor's office keeps tabs on 97. A database lists 116 citizen bodies — a total well over double that found in other large cities in California and nationwide.

"It's too big a job for one person to track all the boards and commissions," says Nicole Wheaton, the mayor's director of appointments. "That's probably thousands of people. Oftentimes bodies are created organically. And [no one is] required to notify us when they've been created."

Not only is the city not counting its commissions, it's not accounting for them. This has led to duplication and inefficiency. San Francisco prides itself on allowing everyone to talk (and talk and talk). But listening is not necessarily part of the equation. Both the Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force, which suggested converting the city's golf courses to farms and allowing residents to keep barnyard animals in their homes, and the Voting Systems Task Force, which revealed potential election-altering vulnerabilities, were given the same cursory thank-you before their work was consigned to the recycling bin of history.

This city "measures public engagement by the number of meetings or [commissions] it has," says transit activist Tom Radulovich, a veteran of numerous committees. "Quantity is not a guarantee of quality."

But it does guarantee a price tag. A recent analysis revealed that servicing San Francisco's battalion of commissions requires scores of thousands of hours of city employees' working time, with some commission secretaries being compensated nearly $200,000 a year. Mass public input is costing millions of dollars — and, in many cases, actually resulting in an entrenchment of the bureaucratic status quo.

Of course, that may be the point.


"When a problem comes along, you must whip it," will never be San Francisco's mantra. It's hard to conceive of a societal ill or point of contention this city hasn't addressed by forming a commission. Ideally, these groups do their homework and produce a report, the city adopts it, and then the committee disbands — problem solved. "But that never happens," says Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. That doesn't mean the system isn't working — for someone. Residents love talking about their pet subjects, and politicians love being "responsive" to issue constituencies — without accountability for the results or being forced to make tough decisions. A common San Francisco approach to a difficult situation is the following mantra repeated to SF Weekly by a former government official: "What do we do? Fuck, do a fucking task force about it. Go away and bring back a paper."

A number of patterns emerge after sifting through the city's rich history of task forces. Ill-conceived commissions tend to look like one of the following:

• Leader of the Pack: Forming committees always offers the opportunity to pander to interest groups and appear proactive by getting in front of a topical issue — but, for the truly deft politician, it can present so much more. A decade ago, then-Supervisor Leland Yee formed a task force to cater to the most fervent off-leash dog crusaders. In doing so, he positioned himself as alpha dog of a potent pack. Dog people formed a political action committee to finance Yee's campaigns and walked precincts for him — with four-legged friends in tow, one would expect.

• Gimme Shelter: There's nothing like the backing of a task force to give elected officials political cover to do what they wanted to do anyway. In 2009, a $368 million bond for street repair proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor David Chiu was deemed politically unfeasible and yanked from the ballot. In 2010, Chiu and Newsom put together the Street Resurfacing Financing Working Group, composed largely of people sympathetic to the bond measure. And, lo, in a subsequent report the group tabbed bond financing as the most feasible option. Mayor Ed Lee this year introduced a "Road Repair & Street Safety" bond measure for November's election. In a baseball-related bit of political parlance, this is known as "rounding the bases."

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16 comments
garrettman
garrettman

This shows how much San Francisco is messed up, yes I understand the need of citizen input, but really they are stumbling over each other.    I think when businesses first open it is fine, but then after a few years of being in the city, they run for the door.

Most cities overseas like London have different cities with one big oversight, councils and boards.  London had 8 million people with a central government.    San Francisco has close to 800,000 people, one city and country, the B of S and only runs 49 square miles.   They are 7 million leaving in the greater bay area, with 9 counties and last time I heard over 100 cities.

Count all the Police, Fire, School Districts, county governments, college boards, welfare offices, jails, hospitals, transits systems, planning depts and etc.

Time for a change folks.

starchild
starchild

Joe Eskenazi's cover story on city commissions was one of the best descriptions I've read of how San Francisco city government actually works -- or, rather, doesn't work -- at the nuts and bolts level.

It's outrageous that mayors and supervisors are allowed to get away with wasting our money creating dozens of do-nothing committees just so they can appease certain constituencies or avoid hearing from or being accountable to the public.

How can any of them claim with a straight face to be acting responsibly, when no one at City Hall can even say how many commissions there are, or how much they're costing taxpayers?

We'd do better just eliminating all 96, 97, 113, or whatever the number is, and then letting the ones that can publicly justify their existence, by explaining what they've been doing and how it's benefited the city, be repopulated from scratch. Preferably with all costs including health care benefits and commission secretary salaries deducted from the operating budgets of whichever authority appoints them. A rule like that would do wonders to keep the number of committees under control in the future.

Elizabeth Frantes
Elizabeth Frantes

Just thought I'd let you know that I've been writing you in for the races where I can't stand anyone running, and it's getting to be a lot of votes . ..

George Davis
George Davis

What is a committee? A group of the unwilling, picked from the unfit,to do the unnecessary. -- Richard Harkness, The New York Times, 1960

B.f. Caffrey
B.f. Caffrey

Yup. This really describes San Francisco. It's broken. As Ron White says, "You can't fix stupid." It's no wonder businesses are looking for the exits. I feel so bad for the small business families who work so hard to support themselves, only to see the city throw their tax money away on damn foolishness. The city has been anti-capitalism since Moscone. It got worse under DiFi and has gone downhill since. The city attempts to act as if State laws don't matter and it's constitution merely suggestions. Repeatedly sued for attempting to contravene state laws, enact legislation in contravention of the State or Federal constitutions, the city nevertheless lurches along with it's collective (literally "collective") head up it's rear end. Lawyer friends of the administration get rich writing court briefs and the city pays for the losing side's lawyer fees. They'll rush to the courts with multiple lawyers defend gay marriage, providing medical benefits to (gay)domestic partners, trash police ignoring the 4th Amendment but there's never funding for streets, Muni, police, fire or services for homeless. Now it seems one group or another wants to stop discrimination against ex-felons by forcing buisnesses to hire them. Do you really want to be the woman alone in a botique and waited on by some hard looking, ex-gangbanger with MS-13 tattoos all over his face? San Francisco used to be a lovely town up into the 60's. Now it's simply a circus of "progressive" liberals each trying to get one more step to the left of the others.

Fibdiddler
Fibdiddler

We need a Commission on the Status of Commissions.

Seej
Seej

Of course - we now need to pay a pothole tax to help fund all the waste- vote no.

bk
bk

I've lived in 3 different cities in 3 different countries (London, Cork, SF) and I can honestly say that San Francisco government, while not perfect, stands up pretty well in comparison. I find it refreshing that so many citizens are involved and have a voice on Commissions. And sorry but banning the sale of live animals in SF is not 'crazy' but compassionate.

starchild
starchild

Your comment that San Francisco's city government actually compares pretty well to others is both true, imho, and a stunning indictment of the failure of government as an institution in general.

Fred
Fred

Democracy only works when you have a well informed, self controlled, grounded electorate. Currently about one percent of the population fits these criteria. They know to stay away from committees, task forces, advisory boards etc.

wakan
wakan

This is liberal Democrats. NOT republican's. How many of you would have voted to have things function the way they do? The big pensions, the treatment of illegals as compared to a US citizen? You did it to yourselves and many lib dem's don't have enough character to admit the problem let alone fix it. Blame Bush, the repub's, anyone but yourself.

GuestG
GuestG

This is a fantastic article, but it really makes me wonder why I live here, this city is plain nuts...

manDude
manDude

Wow! Great article. Definitely an accurate description of SF Politics.

smb5
smb5

A fantastic waste of money, the SF Commission scene is a great place to burnish your political cred without actually being elected. But when it comes to the stupidity of something like a goldfish ban, you begin to wonder where your property taxes go. As one commenter here said, this city elevates process over decisions. Everyone gets a voice, no matter how stupid, inconsequential, trivial or impractical.

smb5
smb5

actually the real importance of this post is to demonstrate why City government has become unworkable for users of city services...the system works for city administrators but not so much for anyone else.

Maria
Maria

""It's discrepancies like these that Kim hopes to iron out. The total of $6.5 million, she notes, "is not a huge dollar amount.""

All one has to do is repeat that to themselves 3 times a day per year, and voila! A $7 billion dollar annual city boondoggle budget to nowhere.

And the city foregoes tree care to save $600k. And forgoes street repair. And forgoes its parks. And on and on.

 
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