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

Wednesday, Jul 27 2011

Page 4 of 4

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."

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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