Penny for Your Votes: Supervisors Lend Funds to Curious Causes

"Streamlining" and "pandering" are both terms that raise red flags when applied to local government. So it warrants mentioning that San Francisco has streamlined pandering.

Under the city's budgetary process, the mayor sets the city's budget and the Board of Supervisors fight for "add-backs." In this vindictive give-and-take, the mayor can play hardball and slash funding for items near and dear to the supervisors, only to replenish it in return for other concessions. Everyone gets what they want — and the supes very publicly go to the mat for their politically well-connected constituents.

Since last summer, however, the supes have cut out the middleman when it comes to distributing funds within their districts. The board in July allocated $1 million for the supes to play Santa Claus and spend $100,000 apiece. This move was undertaken with little fanfare; if you didn't see an Examiner article that ran on Christmas Day, you pretty much missed it.

A February public records request detailing how the money has been spent revealed any number of worthy projects being bankrolled by the beneficent supes — but some head-scratchers as well. Supervisor Mark Farrell put $300 toward the Aquatic Park Neighbors Treasure Hunt. Former Supervisor Christina Olague bequeathed $3,000 for "Reusable Bag Ordinance Education Workshops." Supervisor Carmen Chu opted to not hire a third legislative aide, landing her an extra $107,000 on top of her $100,000 to disseminate within District 4. She was generous: $100,000 went toward rebuilding the Larsen Playground, and $70,000 went to "Taraval Street business corridor improvements."

While it's hard to argue against improving Taraval Street businesses or playgrounds — someone thought of the children — the notion of supervisors forking out wads of cash like freehanded ward bosses rubs some badly.

"It is the most preposterous piece of public policy. As a former member of the board, I am embarrassed," says erstwhile supe Aaron Peskin. "Giving themselves $100,000 to hand out in little tidbits to buy political support? It's like a TV game show."

Former supervisor and state Sen. Quentin Kopp sees it similarly. "It's flabbergasting they could each appropriate $100,000 to spread the money to suit their fancy — and their fancy includes, unalterably, a desire to be re-elected or elected to higher office."

In perhaps the cleverest bit of fiscal gymnastics, former Supervisor Sean Elsbernd was allocated extra for refusing to hire a third aide — a move he opposed as an extravagance. He then sent $133,585 toward playgrounds, and routed $66,000 to his successor, Norman Yee, so Yee could hire a third aide. One of Yee's aides turned out to be Elsbernd's own, Olivia Scanlon.

"That," says Kopp with a laugh, "was very cute."

 
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