Inefficient by Design: San Francisco's Commissions Are Uncountable — and Unaccountable

Illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen.

It can take a San Francisco politician years of toil to render the city ridiculous in the eyes of the world. The Commission of Animal Control and Welfare managed it overnight.

Last month, the volunteer body appointed by the Board of Supervisors advocated curtailing all pet sales in the city — including guppies, goldfish, and live rodents meant as snake food. Coming on the heels of a proposed criminalization of circumcision, San Francisco was, once again, reduced to an international punchline — many were left to wonder whether a ban on circumcising goldfish is our logical next step. Disbelieving articles poured in from around the globe. Perhaps none was as caustic as a piece in London's Telegraph titled “San Francisco goldfish ban exposes the pathology of America's bourgeois liberal nutjobs.”

In retrospect, commission chairwoman Sally Stephens describes a prohibition on goldfish as “a step too far.” What outside observers don't understand, she continues, is that her board can't create laws. It can't even submit potential laws for a vote. It's solely an advisory body.

That volunteers with no binding authority can induce all the world to view San Francisco as a clown refuge could be a phenomenon of the Internet age. But it's also indicative of the way the city structures its government. Citizen commissions are hardly a San Francisco exclusive. But this city has more of them than it knows what to do with — literally.

Like John McCain's houses, San Francisco doesn't know how many commissions, committees, task forces, or working groups it has. The clerk of the board monitors 96. The mayor's office keeps tabs on 97. A database lists 116 citizen bodies — a total well over double that found in other large cities in California and nationwide.

“It's too big a job for one person to track all the boards and commissions,” says Nicole Wheaton, the mayor's director of appointments. “That's probably thousands of people. Oftentimes bodies are created organically. And [no one is] required to notify us when they've been created.”

Not only is the city not counting its commissions, it's not accounting for them. This has led to duplication and inefficiency. San Francisco prides itself on allowing everyone to talk (and talk and talk). But listening is not necessarily part of the equation. Both the Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force, which suggested converting the city's golf courses to farms and allowing residents to keep barnyard animals in their homes, and the Voting Systems Task Force, which revealed potential election-altering vulnerabilities, were given the same cursory thank-you before their work was consigned to the recycling bin of history.

This city “measures public engagement by the number of meetings or [commissions] it has,” says transit activist Tom Radulovich, a veteran of numerous committees. “Quantity is not a guarantee of quality.”

But it does guarantee a price tag. A recent analysis revealed that servicing San Francisco's battalion of commissions requires scores of thousands of hours of city employees' working time, with some commission secretaries being compensated nearly $200,000 a year. Mass public input is costing millions of dollars — and, in many cases, actually resulting in an entrenchment of the bureaucratic status quo.

Of course, that may be the point.

“When a problem comes along, you must whip it,” will never be San Francisco's mantra. It's hard to conceive of a societal ill or point of contention this city hasn't addressed by forming a commission. Ideally, these groups do their homework and produce a report, the city adopts it, and then the committee disbands — problem solved. “But that never happens,” says Supervisor Sean Elsbernd. That doesn't mean the system isn't working — for someone. Residents love talking about their pet subjects, and politicians love being “responsive” to issue constituencies — without accountability for the results or being forced to make tough decisions. A common San Francisco approach to a difficult situation is the following mantra repeated to SF Weekly by a former government official: “What do we do? Fuck, do a fucking task force about it. Go away and bring back a paper.”

A number of patterns emerge after sifting through the city's rich history of task forces. Ill-conceived commissions tend to look like one of the following:

• Leader of the Pack: Forming committees always offers the opportunity to pander to interest groups and appear proactive by getting in front of a topical issue — but, for the truly deft politician, it can present so much more. A decade ago, then-Supervisor Leland Yee formed a task force to cater to the most fervent off-leash dog crusaders. In doing so, he positioned himself as alpha dog of a potent pack. Dog people formed a political action committee to finance Yee's campaigns and walked precincts for him — with four-legged friends in tow, one would expect.

• Gimme Shelter: There's nothing like the backing of a task force to give elected officials political cover to do what they wanted to do anyway. In 2009, a $368 million bond for street repair proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Supervisor David Chiu was deemed politically unfeasible and yanked from the ballot. In 2010, Chiu and Newsom put together the Street Resurfacing Financing Working Group, composed largely of people sympathetic to the bond measure. And, lo, in a subsequent report the group tabbed bond financing as the most feasible option. Mayor Ed Lee this year introduced a “Road Repair & Street Safety” bond measure for November's election. In a baseball-related bit of political parlance, this is known as “rounding the bases.”

• 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).

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.

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.

There is a price for all of this. Some things cannot be measured in dollars and cents — but cost ever so dearly all the same.

Phillip Gerrie lives in Noe Valley with his spouse, two cats, and 100,000 bees. The respected beekeeper, like the rest of his colleagues on the Commission of Animal Control and Welfare, is an earnest, well-meaning man who really cares about animals. In fact, San Francisco's proposed goldfish ban was his idea. That's not how it started: He just wanted to do something about puppy mills. But the commission kept adding, and adding, and, voila! A goldfish ban.

Gerrie has defended the ban to other journalists, noting that it's a slippery slope from cheaply bought and disposed goldfish to human genocide (thank God there's a Human Rights Commission in this town). The beekeeper does not take this tack with SF Weekly, however. He's in negotiations with legislative aides for several supervisors who may introduce the proposal as a potential law — and Gerrie isn't married to the goldfish ban. If the supes want to scale back the scope, he's game.

When it comes to banning goldfish, he says, “To me, it also sounds sort of silly, to be honest with you.”

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