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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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Page 5 of 5

Gavin Newsom truly is the mayor San Francisco was destined to have.

There are ways San Francisco can maintain its rampant democracy while establishing a system that abhors waste and incompetence:

Return much of the day-to-day control of city operations to an unelected, long-term city manager — who would also be responsible for negotiating union contracts.

Institute detailed citywide planning to avoid waste and duplication of services, while ensuring essential city functions are provided for.

Emphasize best practices in each individual city department, and let go of workers who aren't needed because of productivity gains.

Eliminate all budget set-asides and mandatory staffing levels, and let the city develop budgets that meet the needs of today and tomorrow, not yesterday.

Fire people who are incompetent — and that includes those at the top-heavy manage-ment level.

Instead of telling us how much money has been spent on a problem, focus on whether the problems are getting solved.

Yet it would take a seismic event to spur the city to shake off caked-on layers of status quo — a literal earthquake, or a figurative one. (Perhaps a meteor vaporizing City Hall in 2012.)

The far more likely scenario is that nothing will happen. The city will continue its orgy of waste and incompetence. San Francisco can afford plenty of both: We're rich — and getting richer all the time. According to the controller's office, San Franciscans' per-capita income jumped from an already-generous $58,244 in 2004 to $74,515 last year.

Of course, for many San Franciscans, those numbers represent another failure. They point to an exodus. The city's middle class is melting away faster than polar ice. With them, economists and demographers say, goes any realistic hope that voters will demand serious change in search of long-term reform.

Research by professor Bill Watkins of California Lutheran University over the past decade reveals that San Francisco is shedding its middle-class population at double the state rate. The city, however, is not losing low-income people at nearly the state's pace — and is gaining wealthy residents at far more than California's overall rate. In short, we are replacing our middle class with a rich elite and a burgeoning underclass. Watkins' research also reveals that San Francisco is going gray. The number of city residents between ages 45 and 64 has climbed, while the count of those aged 20 to 44 has dropped. The city, it seems, has become a target destination for the wealthy and retirees. These are not the people who want to make sacrifices now to shore up the city's future.

"Wealthier people are consuming," Watkins says. "They don't want to build a future. They don't have a reason to invest in the community." For that matter, neither do young people — because their futures likely involve moving out of San Francisco. According to Joel Kotkin, "San Francisco is Disneyland for adults, or a place people go until they grow up."

The stage is set for San Francisco to run on inertia. The city's poor are unable to effect a sea change; the young, nomadic population is uninterested; and the wealthy and older are unwilling.

As long as San Francisco is an alluring destination where residents will tolerate lunacy as a tradeoff for living the city lifestyle, and tourists flood the downtown, the city will lumber along, inefficiently and without accountability. "San Francisco is like the really good-looking coed who can get away with being a jerk, while a less good-looking one couldn't," Kotkin says.

When everybody is politicking but nobody is accountable for the results, waste happens; unevaluated programs happen; Yomi Agunbiade happens — and nothing is done about it. After he resigned in disgrace, the Board of Supervisors, astonishingly, passed a resolution commending him for his years of service. He was offered the job of manager of San Francisco's wastewater improvement program. San Francisco tried to keep Agunbiade on the payroll, even after years of mismanagement, damning allegations of sexual and religious harassment, and potentially exposing the city to a massive lawsuit. The only reason he isn't working for the city today is that he apparently chose not to. He works at a private engineering firm, and did not return messages regarding this story.

Rose Dennis, the target of Agunbiade's years of alleged torment, put the situation — and, when you think about it, many of San Francisco's problems — into perspective.

"The only thing I ever wanted was for this to stop and for me to be left alone to do my job," she says. "This all could have been avoided. This was all . avoidable."

Read San Francisco’s Annals of Incompetence

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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