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Monday, August 11, 2008

SF Government InAction: If Anyone at City Hall was Paying Attention to the Civil Grand Jury Report, They'd be Furious. Fortunately, That Never Happens!

Posted By on Mon, Aug 11, 2008 at 12:07 AM


By Benjamin Wachs

Monday, August 11

10 a.m. - A Very Special Meeting of the Government Audit & Oversight Committee

It’s easy to understand why so many bad laws get passed in San Francisco.

One reason is that this is a very small area with an extreme disparity of wealth. So when a gazillionaire like Don Fisher wants to tear down the Presidio in order to build an orphanage that he can demolish to make room for the World’s Least Thought Out Museum, there are very few things the “community” can do to stop him.

Another reason is that the “community” is actually made up of a diverse group of people who hate each other. Sure they COULD band together to stop Don Fisher from developing expensive condominiums out of virgin forests clear cut by pedophiles, but they’d rather cut each others’ throats in a contest for city funds that they can use to expose how their throats were once cut by other groups using city funds.

And part of the reason is that the politicians who are in a position to do some good would rather save the world. Yes, the Supes COULD come up with a comprehensive plan for reducing homicides, but they’d rather make sure George Bush really, really, really knows that we don’t like him. Yes they COULD try to support San Francisco’s remaining industrial base, but they’d rather end racism. They’re THIS CLOSE.

So OK, no mystery there. But what’s less clear is the opposite side of the equation: Why do so few GOOD ideas ever get implemented?

Today’s very special episode of the Government Audit & Oversight Committee finally explains that mystery.

Cue music and opening credits. This production is a Spike Lee Joint, written by Franz Kafka.

Our story starts with a group of noble San Francisco citizens (gay, straight, black, white, yellow, and brown) who have spent the last year on a Civil Grand Jury trying to understand why the homeless problem isn’t getting any better.

This is a serious issue and these citizens want to make the world a better place, so they labor over their investigation night after night, day after day.

Their friends say “Hey, we’re going out dancing at that new club where the DJs spin new age affirmations over the noise of animals being treated humanely. Wanna come?”

But they say “No, we’re still working on this homelessness report. It’s very important.”

“I hate the homeless!” their friends say, and go off to a party at the Center for Sex and Smugness where funds will be raised to chastise Midwestern churchgoers.

Then there’s a commercial break in which celebrities tell you what’s on their iPods.

But the noble citizens of San Francisco keep working, and finally...finally, they think they understand the issue and come up with, hypothetically, the world’s best solution to the problem of homelessness.

Forget what it is – it doesn’t matter what it is – let’s just grant that the solution they come up with (for purposes of argument) is the very greatest solution to the problem of homelessness that the world has ever seen. It will end homelessness in six months. It will also reduce greenhouse gases by converting despair into oxygen.

They submit the report to the city, with the title “The Homeless Have Homes, But They Are Still On The Street,” and finally today – at this very meeting of the Government Audit and Oversight Committee! – the Board of Supervisors receives the very best solution to the problem of homelessness ever.

This is all real, by the way: everything I’ve described here is really happening (although the actual recommendations of the report might not actually be as good as I’ve suggested).

So now what happens? The Supervisors accept the report. And that’s it. The world’s very best solution to the problem of homelessness gets implemented and the problem of homelessness is solved. Right?


Wrong. Because, according to a second Civil Grand Jury report due to be received at today’s meeting, the city rarely implements the ideas recommended by civil grand juries. That report, entitled "Fits and Starts: The Response of San Francisco Government to Past Civil Grand Jury Recommendations," details how in the cases it examined the Civil Grand Jury recommendations were only incompletely followed – when they were followed at all.

The reason is that the departments who are being told to improve are also the departments put in charge of implementing the recommendations … and they just aren’t interested.

So the world’s greatest solution to the problem of homelessness may be accepted, but nothing’s going to happen because Gavin Newsom’s Best Friend’s Wife’s Sister’s Roommate, who is in charge of the Mayor’s Office of the Mayor’s Office of Improving the Lives of Homeless People Who Don’t have Homes In the Mayor’s Office, decides that rearranging her program will be a bummer. It could force her to stay in the office late and miss a party at the Center for Sex and Smugness that’s raising money to cut the throat of the Center for Smugness and Sex.

This is awful. The world’s best solution to the problem of homelessness is floundering. But surely – surely – someone will take Gavin Newsom’s Best Friend’s Wife’s Sister’s Roommate to task, right? Someone will say “Hey! You guys are sitting on the world’s best solution to the problem of homelessness!” and demand an accounting. Right?


Wrong, because according to another Civil Grand Jury report to be presented to the Supes today, city departments are rarely held accountable for their actions. This report, titled “Accountability in San Francisco Government,” determined that neither the Mayor’s office, the Supes, nor the Controller’s office are minding the store: directives that they give usually fall through the cracks once nobody but the public is watching.

And there you have it. Even if somebody were to come up with a really good idea, and it were to reach the Board of Supervisors, it would never be implemented. And even if they were to force the city bureaucracy to implement it, no one would ever be held accountable for not doing it.

I grant you that this is bitter validation to cynics like me who have been complaining about a lack of accountability and follow-through in SF government for years, but who really wants to fiddle while Rome burns?

All we can do is hope that the very good recommendations of these reports will be implemented and someone held accountable for...oh, wait a minute...shit.

Roll end credits. Cue to commercial of politicians telling you what’s on their iPods.

10 a.m. - Public Safety Committee

Ross Mirkarimi’s Three-Ring Circus of Justice is always informative: look for high ranking Police and Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice officials to promise to implement very good ideas for which they will be held accountable.


1 p.m. - Land Use & Economic Development Committee

If this committee were to have a designated poet – which it doesn’t – it would be Robert Burns, who wrote “The best laid plans of mice and men go oft astray.” Which is so “San Francisco development,” except insofar as our plans are not that well laid.

Today, before yet another hearing on the Eastern Neighborhoods Plan, Ross Mirkarimi will propose a few small measures that he hopes will make the world a slightly better place. The first would extend the city’s ordinance encouraging (cough cough) developers to hire poor, local, minorities for any construction jobs covered under permits obtained through the new Market and Octavia plan. This is probably a fine idea, although sheer cussedness requires me to make the obligatory joke about whether you really want city buildings developed by people who have trouble keeping a job.

The second measure would require the city’s affordable housing programs to give preference to people holding certificates of preference.

I know, I know, it’s also probably a good idea, but I can’t stop chuckling about it. I mean, what good is a certificate of preference if you don’t get preference? Dammit, you’ve got a certificate!

Finally, and most headline-grabbingly, will be a hearing on the feasibility of retrofitting the Mirant power plant. You can attend that hearing of you want, but, just remember: even if any good ideas do come out of it they won’t be implemented, and even if they are implemented no one will be held accountable for them. And even if they are implemented, and someone is held accountable for them, they weren’t all that good in the first place because they came out of a public hearing instead of an engineer’s report.

Incompetence is like an onion: there’s always another layer. Robert Burns never said that, but he should have.

Tuesday, August 12

10 a.m. – A Very Special Rules Committee Meeting

This meeting is being held solely to determine whether Francesca Vietor should be appointed to the Public Utilities Commission. To decide this, she’ll have to guess the actual retail price of three public utilities to within $100 without going over.

2 p.m. – Full Board of Supervisors

After this meeting the Supes are going on a 3 week hiatus, and so there’s nothing really new here: just a bunch of old business getting tidied up. Aaron Peskin polishing off a few fine bottles of Scotch; Chris Daly updating his enemies list; Bevan Dufty looking in the mirror and saying “Mr. Mayor”; Jake McGoldrick biting the heads off pigeons (okay, I actually have no idea how Jake McGoldrick spends his free time) and Michela Alioto-Pier sitting in her mad castle outside of the city plotting, plotting to destroy us all.

I hope she doesn’t have a death ray.

See you in a few weeks.

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Benjamin Wachs


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