The report focused on "only" the 86 bodies required by the city's charter or administrative codes. Interestingly, just 68 of these bothered to respond to a survey. With that in mind, the budget analyst's cost estimates are on the conservative side: Administering to the city's commissions required 56,000 hours of city employees' time. Talk may be cheap — but tasking staffers to write down everything commission members say, or answer their legal and procedural questions, is not. Overall estimated yearly costs for the city's committees are just shy of $6.5 million.

The secretaries devoted to many commissions, meanwhile, are earning serious money — the MTA board secretary is compensated $192,000 in salary and benefits (secretaries' median total compensation is $127,000). Members of 40 commissions are entitled to city-funded health care — an only-in-San Francisco perk. Oddly, this privilege is haphazardly extended to members of the Police Commission (weekly meetings), the Golden Gate Park Concourse Authority (hasn't met since November 2010 with no next meeting scheduled), and the Fine Arts Museum Board of Trustees (do philanthropists such as Dede Wilsey require city health care?). There is no systemic reason health care is offered to these various commission members — but, in this town, who could expect one?

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." But what are we getting for those millions? It's difficult to say. The analyst's report reveals that more than 40 percent of responding commissions aren't meeting as often as they're required to. Many boards don't seem to be taking attendance, either. Determining a committee's usefulness could be gleaned by reading its annual report. Scores of these bodies are required to submit such reports to both the mayor and the clerk of the board — but neither keeps track of who is required to do so, let alone who does. The clerk of the board's office suggested this information could be gathered by scouring the communications memos at the end of every meeting agenda. In 2010, per those memos, of the dozens and dozens of departments, committees, and commissions required to submit reports, only 17 did so. There are, of course, no repercussions for failing to submit the reports no one is keeping track of. After all, no one appears to be reading the reports that quite possibly no one is bothering to write.

If the city so desired, it could actually monitor what the committees are doing, whether they're performing productive work, and if they're fulfilling their mandated requirements. Sunset clauses could be required for any new task forces, and commissioners who don't attend meetings could be eased out. All of this supposes that the system isn't already serving its intended purpose. At $6.5 million a year, committees remain a cost-effective way for politicians to reward supporters, appease activists, and do it all without being held accountable as decisionmakers. The supervisors care so much about commission attendance that Julius Turman — who missed more than half of the Human Rights Commission's meetings in 2010 — was recently awarded a promotion to the politically plum Police Commission.

Kim says she plans to look into whether we have more commissions than we really need. Good luck with that. "Need" means different things to different people.


For the city's powers that be, the cost of redundancy and inefficiency is marginal, and more than balanced by the political amenities it buys. But costs must be paid. Just not by our government.

The burdens are borne by the property owners or businesspeople who must spend years and fortunes shepherding even minor plans through half a dozen or more city committees, with a setback at any stage curtailing the process. The price is paid by transit-dependent San Franciscans who are waiting for buses or trains that aren't coming. If the MTA board wasn't a mayoral rubber stamp, perhaps the money it allowed to be siphoned off by other departments would have been invested in improving service or repairing vehicles and infrastructure. It's hard to put a dollar figure on human misery, but Muni is undoubtedly running a surplus of it.

The costs are paid by the groups of "concerned citizens," some of whom even sit on citizens' advisory committees and attend hundreds of public meetings hashing out projects for neighborhoods. Following years of this "community input," the plans are stonewalled, jettisoned, or morphed beyond recognition because of internecine conflicts among the city's balkanized, fiefdom-building departments. After more than a decade, the Market Octavia Plan for sane, transit-friendly development of the neighborhood is still just a plan. A five-year process to add bike lanes to eastern Cesar Chavez was nixed just days before the paint was scheduled to hit the pavement after trucking companies lobbied the port and the mayor. These bitter marathons of so-called public input drive many reasonable people out of civic involvement. The field is then left to the self-interested, those with axes to grind, and, of course, the professional activists.

The price is paid by the families unable to suffer the city's bureaucratic slings and arrows. Young parents are fleeing San Francisco. As a result, it's a mild shock in this city to see an actual baby — and not a small dog — in a baby carriage.

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17 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 . ..

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.

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.

 
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