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

Wednesday, Jul 27 2011
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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.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
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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