Once a month on a Friday morning, a small commission gathers in a chamber at City Hall.
It’s not a glamorous meeting; journalists seldom tune in, there are no long lines of public commenters, and the pews often remain empty. But the Local Agency Formation Commission — better known by its acronym LAFCo — offers vital oversight in San Francisco, from the Public Utility Commission’s clean power program to labor standards of the local gig economy.
It’s also the only commission where members of the public have the same amount of power as supervisors. Currently, Supervisors Sandra Lee Fewer, Matt Haney, and Gordon Mar sit on the commission. Cynthia Crews-Pollock is the commission’s vice chair, and represents the public. Bryan Goebel, a former transportation journalist, was made executive officer in 2018.
“It’s probably the nerdiest commission in the city,” says Crews-Pollock, who was first appointed to LAFCo in 2014. “We provide watchdog and oversight to areas where there is no oversight, and bring some sunlight.”
Created by the government in 1963, these commissions were designed to prevent a disorganized sprawl of development and resources in a post-World War II housing boom. Every county in California got a LAFCo in order to review and approve municipal districts. Want to add two blocks to your county’s fire district, change the borders of a water district, or reduce the size of the airport district? You need a LAFCo for that.
But San Francisco’s LAFCo is different — mostly because we’re a consolidated city and county, with no unincorporated areas. Changes to jurisdictional boundaries are handled by the Board of Supervisors. So it wasn’t until 2000 — when then-Supervisor Tom Ammiano and other advocates proposed a municipal utility district to replace PG&E — that the need for a LAFCo arose in San Francisco.
PG&E dominated headlines in the past few years for its role in the deadly wildfires that have rocked California, but in the early 2000s, concern was rising over a series of blackouts that left hundreds of thousands of San Franciscans without power for hours at a time. Ammiano proposed the city launch its own municipal utility district, founded San Francisco’s first LAFCo to oversee it, and even got a measure to create such a program on the ballot. It failed, but the city’s LAFCo has been around ever since.
Its responsibilities have evolved with the city’s needs. In 2007, the Board of Supervisors assigned LAFCo the task of overseeing CleanPowerSF, a program run by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission that brings renewable energy to San Franciscans through PG&E’s poles and wires. It launched in 2016 and is widely considered a success: more than 400,000 customers are signed on.
But, now that interest among power customers has been proven, the plan could be expanded. At the moment all our renewable energy is coming from elsewhere, like wind farms in central California. With pressure from LAFCo, the PUC could move toward building its own, independent renewable energy.
Many of the ideas for doing so have been in the works for years. Goebel says he’s digging up old proposals that fell to the wayside, and searching for a renewable energy expert to review them.
“At one point there was a study on getting tidal energy from under the Golden Gate Bridge, or installing solar on Hetch Hetchy property,” he says. “I want a baseline review of all the projects that have been considered, and to study their feasibility today.”
Goebel was hired less than a year after then-Supervisors Malia Cohen, Katy Tang, and Jeff Sheehy tried to disband the commission (long story short, they couldn’t). Its future was secure, but its mission less so. While LAFCo is still working to build an independent renewable energy grid in S.F., its other special studies have run the gamut, from open-source voting to running utility lines underground. So when Goebel proposed taking on a highly ambitious project — to run the biggest labor study in the nation on gig workers who engage in the emerging mobility economy — no one blinked.
The study is supported through LAFCo’s discretion to conduct “special studies” — the main requirement of which is that it has to be relevant to municipal agencies. Focusing on a dozen companies that employ gig workers — from Uber and Lyft to Caviar and Postmates — Goebel is working on garnering enough data to generate a comprehensive report, which could then inform the Board of Supervisors, the PUC, and even the companies themselves.
“The city has not been able to get much data from these companies,” he says. “How many private cars are on the streets doing food deliveries? Are people making a fair wage? Are the labor policies fair? We suspect not, but we don’t have the data to show that.”
Two labor researchers from UC Santa Cruz are leading the study. Currently, they’re running focus groups with gig workers to help define a series of survey questions. In the next couple months those questions will be distributed either through social media, or through paying students $15 an hour to ask delivery people who arrive on their doorstep if they’d take a 20-minute survey in exchange for a gift card.
Either way, Goebel says, the goal is to get thousands of results from San Francisco workers. If all goes according to plan (he still needs to raise around $200,000 in funding) the surveys would take place this fall, and the report would come out early next year.
While progress on the study is coming along, Goebel says the work itself hasn’t been the only challenge.
“I’ve had to work on building credibility for LAFCo, because people don’t know what it is,” he says. “You would think people would want to fund this.”
But credibility is hard-won in this city, and for a little commission that only meets once a month on Fridays, it’s an uphill battle. Still, Goebel is optimistic about LAFCo’s future, and believes the upcoming labor study will put it on the map.
“I’m hoping that by next year we’ll be the little commission everyone’s heard of,” he says.
For Crews-Pollock, fame is less important than community engagement.
“Because LAFCo is a watchdog commission we encourage members of the public to become involved and advocate for the items we’re working on,” she says. “We love when people come and talk to us. Their insight is really important.”