Among large commissions frequently stocked by the usual gang of apparatchiks, dysfunctional bodies that exist solely as window dressing, and a galaxy of oft-ornamental citizens' committees, whether we're reaping the real benefits of public input is arguable.

We're certainly stuck with the detriments.


If God's task force were to decree that San Francisco build an ark, the city would have this much going for it: We've already got two of everything. In a city that doesn't know how many commissions it has, it's to be expected that duplicate boards, plans, and studies will overlap. More troublesome, however, are major commissions and even departments treading the same ground.

Take the city's programs regarding early childhood education. This area is overseen by not one but three separate entities: The Department of Children, Youth, and their Families (DCYF); the Human Services Agency (HSA); and the Children and Families First Commission (CFC).

A 2010 audit noted that there is no central, accountable policymaking body for early childhood education. As a result, it's not uncommon for care providers to be awarded contracts by all three agencies to undertake essentially the same services. In doing so, providers are given three different answers to the same question; are gauged by three performance evaluations (sometimes with varying results); and must enter data into three separate systems. Making matters more complicated, the city also has a Childcare Planning and Advisory Council and Childrens' Fund Citizens' Advisory Committee.

The funding structure for the three major agencies has become such a Gordian knot that they each administer programs that are largely financed by the other two. This is how early childhood education must have been handled back in Byzantium. Not surprisingly, the audit found "better program coordination" would have kept the agencies from underspending their mandates by at least $1 million — at a time when demand for early childhood education far outstrips the city's supply.

It warrants mentioning that other counties avoid this problem largely because they put less money into early childhood education. In addition to state and federal dollars, San Francisco has a Children's Fund and Proposition H set-asides. But while this city and its voters were generous enough to establish local funding, creating a streamlined system to effectively serve the children isn't happening. While the agencies couldn't argue with the audit's findings, they bristled at the notion of consolidation. To date, the audit has never received a public hearing.

Consolidating San Francisco's redundant jobs, committees, or even departments is a tough sell. Redundancies provide city politicians with patronage opportunities and union workers with jobs. A 2009 working group headed by then-City Administrator Ed Lee found numerous areas of overlap within city government. Among its myriad suggestions were combining the efforts of the Department on the Status of Women, the Immigrant Rights Commission, and the Human Rights Commission. Also, fold together the Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts. Neither of these proposals was touched. Erstwhile Mayor Newsom was running for statewide office — and eliminating redundant positions doesn't endear Big Labor. Queries of Mayor Lee's office regarding whether he'll follow his own advice have not been answered.

(Yes, you read that right: The city formed a committee to declare that San Francisco has too many committees.)

The call to merge the Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts was a familiar one for Newsom. His longtime former adviser, Eric Jaye, notes that Newsom "promised to make one of his campaign pledges to merge these two." Jaye grins. "That did not happen!"

You're not going to believe this, but wealthy, influential patrons of the arts know people to call when their favored bureaucracies' status quo is threatened. Those bureaucracies "have their own nonprofits they fund and, of course, these nonprofits dabble in politics," Jaye continues. "They have political networks they activate, they have people that show up to testify to protect themselves. That political activity protects their turf, even if the turf isn't particularly efficient."

The utter impossibility of joining even the Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts sends a clear message. It underscores the political suicide of asking whether we really need a Commission for the Status of Women when we already have a Human Rights Commission and Immigrant Rights Commission. It evaporates any possibility of pondering why we're the only California county to have both an adult and juvenile probation department. Is there no way to reduce overlap between the County Transportation Authority and Municipal Transportation Authority? Why do we have a police department and sheriff's department?

"Because the constituency for the status quo is always so much more powerful than the constituency for change," Jaye says. "San Francisco is a giant bureaucracy that almost constitutionally rejects innovation. For all its progressive rhetoric, we're one of the most conservative governments in terms of attitude."


Famed baseball pitcher Satchel Paige once quipped, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." San Francisco has evinced the same attitude regarding its uncountable commissions. When you don't know how many you have, you don't know how much they cost. Until now. A recent Budget and Legislative Analyst report commissioned by Supervisor Jane Kim pegged the yearly price tag of the city's "boards, commissions, committees, task forces, authorities, and councils." Depending upon your point of view, the multimillion-dollar outlay could be expensive or cheap.

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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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