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The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S. 

Spend more. Get less. We're the city that knows how.

Wednesday, Dec 16 2009
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When it comes to mismanaging a city, San Francisco has pulled a 180 — in half a century, we've gone from "city fathers" (if you liked them) or "oligarchs" (if you didn't) operating with limited input from the people to a hyperdemocracy. Overpaying for a Candlesticklike bad land deal today wouldn't be settled during a drunken soirée, but via years of high-decibel public meetings, developers being made to bleed funds to nonprofits of city supervisors' choosing, and any number of bond measures or other trips to the ballot box — all of which, when put together, could conceivably cost as much as the bad land deal itself. Maybe more.

For all its scotch-soaked flaws, the city of yore did not suffer from these problems. While archaic and stridently antidemocratic by today's standards, the system of government cobbled together by a citizens' commission in 1931 largely did what our forebears wanted it to do — mind the store and eliminate rampant corruption.

From 1932 until 1996, much of city government was handled by a powerful chief administrative officer (CAO), appointed to a 10-year term and tasked with overseeing the city's largest departments. The job was to take politics out of city management. (Today's San Francisco is so intensely saturated with politics down to the minutiae that the supervisors' recent appointment of a transit expert to a transit board — and not a union plumber — was seen as a deeply political move and an affront to organized labor.) The CAO was charged with making the city's largest decisions in an apolitical manner; the major portion of the job was keeping the books on the most vital departments and making sure they were running smoothly. In a manner of speaking, the CAO was a living, breathing accountability measure. The city certainly made its share of lousy calls, but the sloth, waste, and dysfunction emblematic of today's city government would have been shocking.

Over time, however, the CAO's purview was replaced by that hyperdemocracy. The reasonable notion that the people of San Francisco should have input into how things are run has turned into the democratic equivalent of death by a thousand cuts; as everybody gets a voice, democracy votes accountability down. When everyone's in charge, no one is. "In the old days, they ran roughshod over opposing views," Fracchia says. "Today, all ya got is opposing views. Pick your poison."

San Franciscans' appetite for voting is voracious; ours may be the only city that has had to ponder what to name ballot propositions after all the letters of the alphabet have been used up. "It is extraordinary, the number of things we ask our voters to vote on," Harrington confirms. "And somebody must like it, because we keep doing it."

Voters have demonstrated a jarring mixture of selflessness and selfishness. We greenlight billions of dollars in bonds, even when the city's inability to deliver projects on time or within budget has been rendered painfully clear. Yet we also repeatedly enshrine the wishes of single-issue activists and labor unions into law, and that carries ominous long-term consequences. There's a reason in times like the present that organizations such as the Department of Public Health are always targeted for deep cuts, while the notion of downsizing librarians, cops, or firefighters is inconceivable. The latter have gone to the voters to enshrine their standing in the city charter. No one has done so for the DPH — yet.

Special interests "go to the voters and say, 'Do you like libraries? Do you like children?' Well, of course they do," Harrington says. And if voters don't care to think through the fiscal ramifications — well, neither do their elected representatives. "The board likes children, too — so does the mayor. Next year in the budget they'll say, 'Oh, shit! Children get $30 million more — what doesn't?'" If the city ran its finances this way 30 years ago, the former controller notes, the money to respond to the AIDS crisis would have been locked up and unavailable. If such a need arises in the future — well, what then? Today's city can't even pay for the things it wants to pay for.

An apolitical CAO, incidentally, probably wouldn't have pandered to public safety unions with exorbitant raises in an election year, as Newsom did in 2007.

The mayor also talks a good game on accountability. He has an Accountability Matrix and an Accountability Index, and even an Accountability Report. But, sadly, a recent audit noted that these lists were largely redundant and overlapping, and were tabulated independently of one another, a clear waste of effort. Actually reading Newsom's Matrix/Index/Report is like a trip through the looking glass (only pathologically dull): Where is this city the mayor reports upon, where everything seems to be getting done with such marvelous efficiency? Sadly, it appears to exist only within the Matrix/Index/Report.

There are many words to read here, but they say very little. What does the Matrix/Index/Report convey regarding debacles like the Branch Library Improvement Plan or Laguna Honda Hospital rebuild? Well, the former is listed as "Done/Ongoing," while the latter is "In Progress." There's no mention of vast cost overruns, service cutbacks, or years of delays. But it's not just that the Matrix/Index/Report leaves out critical information; it often doesn't say anything worth knowing. In many cases, Newsom notes that he has "called for a report" on an issue, or will "lobby" about it — and presents that as solving a problem. Perhaps fittingly, messages regarding the mayor's accountability left with his press office were not returned.

Even when Newsom actually does something, there's no way of telling whether it was a good use of time and money. For example, the Matrix notes that the mayor promised to improve security at homeless shelters, which is listed as "Done," because metal detectors were installed. Super — but did that actually improve security? Did violent incidents drop? Do staff and residents feel safer? Information that proves the problem was actually solved or the situation improved is almost never included across thousands of entries and hundreds of pages. The mayor's Accountability Matrix is completely unaccountable for the information you most want to know.

About The Authors

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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