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

Wednesday, Jul 27 2011

Page 2 of 4

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).

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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