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."
• Is That All There Is?: Sometimes, a task force can be formed to not accomplish a task. As a supervisor, Newsom championed Proposition E, which stated that Muni "diligently seek" new sources of revenue. As mayor, however, he shot down every last revenue-generating proposal: Sunday meters, residential parking permit fees, development assessments — you name it. Shockingly, after two years of meetings, Newsom's Municipal Transportation Agency Revenue Panel in 2009 didn't make any significant revenue-generating suggestions — other than, of course, raising fares. (The panel thought so much of its work it never even bothered to publish a final report.)