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Urine a Bad Spot Because of Them 

Why do our supervisors pass over substance in favor of trivia like the public peeing bill?

Wednesday, Jul 10 2002
Last Tuesday was a beautiful evening to be running through Buena Vista Park and its verdant web of trails on the north slope of Twin Peaks. It was foggy, but only enough to infuse the air with a leafy, oceanic tang; the air was brisk, but not chilly. And the setting sun gave the park's cypress and eucalyptus trees such a magical glow that there seemed just one thing that could make my evening's sojourn complete and perfect: a good, long, public urination.

I've always believed that if God disadvantaged men by making them hairy, clumsy, unintuitive and drawn to explosions, he evened the score when he made it easy for men to pee outdoors. Acknowledging His wisdom and grace, I slowed to a trot, scanning the trailside for an appropriate shrub to stand beside, when I remembered that peeing in public is now illegal.

After weeks of debate, San Francisco's Board of Supervisors last week passed a measure to outlaw whizzing outdoors. The SF Chronicle followed the measure's passage with several opinion columns heralding the unanimous vote as the work of philosopher-kings; the Chronicle had preceded the vote with articles and opinion columns along the same lines.

"This city should not tolerate these assaults on public health and civility," was the Chronicle's final official word on piss.

On Tuesday evening, however, I had no patience for such platitudes; the view from behind the trees was gorgeous; I wanted to pee. And I very well may have; I'm not telling.

Which brings me to remind readers that America's National Civics Day was July 4, yet this city spent the preceding weeks demonstrating a type of civic culture America's Founding Fathers couldn't possibly have desired: In San Francisco, democracy seems to consist of elevating the picayune and ignoring the meaningful. The city is about to allocate $5.2 billion in next year's budget; the Board of Supervisors is supposed to have invested the past two months conducting an informed discussion on how that money should be spread among hundreds of city departments and programs. In San Francisco, a city run amok with patronage schemes and bureaucratic feuds, this task would, ideally, be accompanied by intense preparation and laserlike focus.

Instead the Board's been debating pee.

This was no aberration. Two months ago the board was consumed with arguing over a purely symbolic measure, promoted by Supervisor and would-be Assemblyman Leland Yee, that would have split the San Francisco school district in two, if the Board of Supervisors had the power to make such a split. It does not. Before that, city fathers and mothers spent hours arguing, and hours more hearing testimony, about whether they should pass another symbolic resolution supporting members of the Chinese Fulan Gong religious sect.

This attention to symbolism would be harmless were time left for the people's business. But a citizen need only attend an hour of just about any committee or general board meeting to realize that, after the inane and meaningless are debated, there's precious little intellectual energy remaining for real issues.

An example: Just before Independence Day, the Budget Committee sponsored a discussion on paying for a desperately needed comprehensive financial audit of our mismanaged San Francisco International Airport. The attendant five supervisors also considered whether to give $603,600 in tax money to a secretive, city-owned, for-profit corporation that manages the privatized airports of Honduras. According to the city attorney's office, approving the payment would expose San Francisco to massive liability. In the case of the audit, simple prudence dictated that airport officials not be allowed to control the audit, for obvious, fox-guarding-the-chicken-coop reasons.

Like so much city business, this little bit of policy-making called for careful study and serious deliberation.

Instead, San Francisco got the antics of Supervisor Jake McGoldrick. Each week, supervisors receive four-inch-thick packets of background information on agenda items they will consider in committee, or in full board meetings. They are given access to research from the City Attorney's Office and the city Budget Analyst. Presumably, supervisors also have the ability to look into policy proposals on their own. McGoldrick sometimes gives every indication of resolutely ignoring these resources; he often seems to try to hide his ignorance by indulging in interrogatory fishing expeditions during the actual hearings themselves.

Naturally, wily bureaucrats sense McGoldrick's lack of preparedness and make a fool of him on a regular basis. Unfazed, he presses loudly on, in the style of a seminar student who hasn't done the day's reading and believes he can obscure his lack of preparation with bluster.

In this particular case McGoldrick questioned an airport official, and the official quite predictably told the supervisors that it would be very clever of them to spend city money on a Honduras airport privatization scheme, and to let airport managers direct an audit of themselves. And Supervisor McGoldrick -- who up to that moment had been known as the sort of "progressive" who might oppose Third World privatizing and auditor conflicts of interest -- spoke out in favor of doing the airport official's bidding.

"I have nothing to listen to other than what [airport officials] say at the hearing," McGoldrick told me later. "I had no other way to get in their heads and into their books. I had to take them at their word."

Which is exactly my point. He had to take them at their word because he hadn't done his homework.

Though troubling, McGoldrick's behavior is far from unusual. It's commonplace to call a city supervisor on a Friday with questions about an item to be considered at Monday's board meeting -- even an item involving tens of millions of dollars of city assets -- only to learn that the supervisor has no idea what that item is or means. Some supervisors openly volunteer that they read background information at the last minute -- that is to say, on the morning of the meeting at which the bills will be voted up or down.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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