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Signs of Progress 

San Francisco politics were dysfunctional in the 2000s,but recent changes suggest there's reason for hope.

Wednesday, Dec 30 2009

Three months ago, over coffee at the cafe in City Hall's basement, Supervisor David Campos explained how he was trying to figure out whether a private contractor doing work for the city was "bid splitting," the practice of dividing a purchase into smaller chunks to skirt city rules. Campos insisted that this type of public integrity issue would be a focus of his tenure, which began a year ago.

I found this odd: boring, good-government exercises don't win points for San Francisco politicians. Here, they make their bones denouncing developers in neighborhood protests.

A couple of weeks ago, the San Francisco I thought I knew seemed to get odder still.

In a third-floor conference room, Public Utilities Commission general manager Ed Harrington held court at a three-hour meeting of people I'd assumed to be giant-killers.

The meeting was called to allow leaders of the Coalition of San Francisco Neighborhoods — long an influential advocate for the parochial interests of the city's western half — to gripe about a contract Harrington had just signed for a huge water-sharing agreement with Bay Area water agencies. Activists in the room had helped kill a 2000 project to build subsidized housing for teachers and spent the 1990s and 2000s stopping, modifying, or derailing myriad city projects and plans.

Yet Harrington had the aplomb of a schoolteacher in firm control of his class. Weeks earlier, he'd succeeded in completing the water agreement despite opposition from neighborhood groups, who believe it might lead to rate increases. The new contract smooths the way for the city to proceed with a $4.6 billion waterworks upgrade.

"I think it's hard for her to be happy," Harrington later said of Joan Girardot, the coalition's former president who now heads its water task force and had asked for the meeting. "She always wants something to be wrong."

Were we in an alternative-universe San Francisco, where bureaucrats can speak critically about neighborhood activists?

These vignettes suggested to me that neighborhood-focused politics, which 10 years ago were the most prominent and problematic feature of San Francisco's public life, might have faded along with the decade.

How did this felicitous turn of events occur? San Francisco's experiment in hyperlocalized politics began as voters reacted to what was seen as Mayor Willie Brown's corruption, cronyism, and largesse toward developers.

In 1998, a ballot initiative backed by homeowners in western San Francisco froze water and sewer rates. The vote was seen as a protest against government mismanagement. But its real effect was to contribute to the disrepair of the Hetch Hetchy water and power system.

That nibble of proactive dysfunction was just an hors d'oeuvre for a city that was about to gorge on government hypersensitive to individual citizens' wants, and suspicious of the very idea of citywide needs.

In 2000, San Francisco supercharged its already notorious system of microminded democracy by switching to a system where the members of the Board of Supervisors were elected by district rather than by a citywide vote. Neighborhood activist supervisors such as Jake McGoldrick and Aaron Peskin were new to government service. Mission District antidevelopment shouter Chris Daly seemed relatively new even to full-time paid work.

During a time of fervent anger toward consummate government insider Brown, this was seen as an asset.

The new-to-government supervisors went furiously to work, holding cursing and shouting matches with each other, debating until 5 a.m. whether to grant building permits, and giving inspiring speeches about the sanctity of keeping dogs off-leash. They also passed measure after measure taking away the mayor's powers by yanking his ability to appoint commissioners, in a city whose charter requires input from citizen commissions in order for it to function.

So it came to pass that a newly formed citizen-complaint–friendly Police Commission became so backlogged with discipline cases that more than 100 highly paid officers were taken off street duty and given desk jobs, sometimes for years. New rules allowing neighborhood groups to bypass the Planning Commission and take permit appeals to the full Board of Supervisors meant that the city's main legislative body sometimes spent hours debating a single minor permit issue. Meanwhile, the board would often pass without argument measures allocating hundreds of millions of dollars.

It's not as though there were no life-or-death issues to deal with. San Francisco was famous as a city where it was possible to get away with murder, because police didn't solve crimes. The lack of affordable apartments was driving families out of the city and the working poor onto the street. Public housing was in such disrepair that the federal government threatened to take it over. Last week, Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi noted in their SF Weekly cover story ("The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.") that, despite a $6.6 billion budget, "San Francisco can't point to progress on many of the social issues it spends liberally to tackle."

Even when the 2000 supervisors addressed serious city problems, they did it in a disjointed, ineffective way, thanks to the perverse logic of neighborhood politics.

The mores of neighborhood politics — which say residents of each block get to dictate policies affecting their immediate area, despite larger ramifications — came to rule an entire city. So San Francisco became a city of fiefdoms. Chris Daly became the city's top broker of development deals, because his South of Market district was where all the new construction was happening. In one Daly deal, millions of dollars slated for Rincon Hill public amenities such as landscaping were diverted to nonprofits that supported him politically.

Plans to redevelop land held by the Port of San Francisco along the Embarcadero foundered — even though developer fees were desperately needed to rebuild rotting city piers. It turned out the plans threatened Bay Bridge views from Aaron Peskin's Telegraph Hill district.

Even after years in office, these pols never seemed to grasp that San Francisco had problems more complex than old neighborhood development battles.

Happily, a series of scandals toward the end of the decade served to further erase the sheen from neighborhood-by-neighborhood politics. In 2008, Sunset political queenpin Julie Lee was sentenced to prison on charges she had illegally funneled government grant money into a political campaign. A month later, Sunset District Supervisor Ed Jew, formerly a neighborhood activist and flower shop owner, pleaded guilty to federal mail fraud and extortion charges.

That fall, a miracle seemed to occur. City voters elected supervisors who seemed, at least in terms of experience in actually providing government services, the exact opposite of some of their predecessors.

Instead of the inexperienced Dalys and McGoldricks of the world, we now have longtime players such as former S.F. government financial officer Carmen Chu, who has a public policy master's from Berkeley; and former attorney Eric Mar, who was a Board of Education commissioner. The president of the Board of Supervisors, Harvard Law graduate David Chiu, was a U.S. Senate staffer. And his fellow alum, David Campos, was counsel to the San Francisco Unified School District, where 10 years ago he was among the first public officials to bring attention to a consultant's scam to skim $850,000 from facilities contracts.

Among that scam's first telltale signs: bid splitting.

Some local wags have griped that San Francisco's end-of-the-decade politics seem to lack vision, and that all politicians seem to be able to do is chip away at a budget cruelly out of whack. I prefer the mundane toil of this new crop of technocrats to the madcap vision of a decade ago.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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