• 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.)

Along similar lines, in the mid-1990s, the Central Freeway Task Force suggested not retrofitting the crumbling motorway but instead moving toward boulevards. A lengthy period of city inaction followed. Eventually, a ballot measure to retrofit the freeway passed. That was followed by a successful opposing measure. Finally, in a third election, dueling measures were submitted and retrofitting was defeated. After four measures and three elections, the city essentially went the route the task force originally suggested. "It was the most inefficient way we could have possibly done it," task force member Radulovich recalls.

I've Got Plenty of Nothing: Unable to wrest away sole mayoral appointing authority to a number of powerful commissions, the Board of Supervisors in recent years created "advisory committees" to, generally, look over the commissions' shoulders. That's why we have both commissions and committees for Muni, the San Francisco Public Library, and others. "A lot of these should just be subcommittees of a big commission. These were created by the supervisors because we had no appointments to the mayoral commissions with real power," says former board president Matt Gonzalez. If you want to know why redundant bodies exist, he continues, look at who makes the appointments.

Happy Trails: Finally, it's no secret that a goodly number of these bodies are formed solely to keep the city's loudest speakers isolated from members of government. The Eastern Neighborhoods Infrastructure Financing Working Group was just such a body — and even its members knew it. "One of the bureaucratic games played in this town is if you want to diffuse community pressure, you form a task force," says Calvin Welch, a member of this board and close to a dozen others in his 40 years as a San Francisco growth-control advocate. "You hope they get all hot and bothered about being in the task force and lose sight of the bigger picture." Being shunted aside so as not to annoy members of the permanent government is "a pretty accurate" description of his latest service on a volunteer body, he says.

Actually, that's a workable description of many second- and third-tier commissions. Stephens of the Animal Control and Welfare Commission says that one of her group's major roles is as a whipping boy to keep single-issue-obsessed locals out of the supes' way. "People come and let off steam," she says. "The supervisors don't want to have 50 different people calling them up with 50 different animal issues every month. They don't always have a way to figure out, 'Is this important or is this crackpot crazy?'"

In San Francisco, it would seem, this justifies so many commissions' existence.


It'd be a stretch to claim San Francisco's major commissions are merely doing busywork or serving as rubber rooms for the city's activist class. The city has 34 charter-mandated commissions — the port, police, planning — that oversee large departments, approve policy, and ratify budgets dwarfing those of entire smaller cities. These bodies are populated by a diverse cross-section of people: Former Mayor Art Agnos says international visitors "are astonished, truly astonished when I say that, as mayor, I appointed poor people, gay people, or women to run" major departments. That being said, San Francisco's commissioners, like those elsewhere, rarely break the first rule of commission appointments: Thou shalt not displease the appointing authority.

Former Mayor Willie Brown was known to opine that mayoral appointees should share his view of the city — he shouldn't have to lean on them. He did anyway. Newsom representatives crashed MTA board meetings to tell commissioners how to vote. Perhaps not surprisingly, Muni's so-called independent board systematically approves budgets allowing other departments to pillage the transit agency.

Commissioners with an independent streak soon become ex-commissioners. When Joe Alioto Veronese bucked the mayor by casting the deciding vote against Newsom's choice for Police Commission president, his fate was sealed. "The decision came down that the mayor did not like and I was removed for it," Veronese now says. "I don't hold anything against Gavin. He had the authority to do what he did. I just wish there had been a conversation."

These kind of heavy-handed interventions aren't the norm, however. Most appointees have the common sense (and survivor instinct) to know what's expected of them. They don't need to be told what to do. A plum commission assignment can be a political reward and stepping-stone.

This is politics as usual in most any large city. Unique to San Francisco are whole commissions that exist solely to appease elements of the city's political scene. The Local Agency Formation Commission hasn't formed any local agencies of late. Rather it exists, unabashedly, as a means to oust PG&E and cram public power through San Francisco's back door — thus satiating the bloc of progressives for whom this is a raison d'être. Similarly, it's tough to gauge the last time the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force actually enforced the sunshine ordinance, as its findings have been systematically rejected by the Ethics Commission (which itself is not even attempting to uphold campaign finance laws).

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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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