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Monday, January 4, 2010

Guardian's 'Proof' S.F. Isn't Horribly Run Seems to Show S.F. Is Horribly Run

Posted By on Mon, Jan 4, 2010 at 8:30 AM

Last month, my colleague Benjamin Wachs and I penned an SF Weekly cover story titled "The Worst-Run Big City in the U.S." Now, according to a letter we received in late December, the Guardian believes it has found the loose thread in our sweater it hopes to pull in a forthcoming article, unraveling our thesis that this is an awesomely misgoverned city, burdened by waste, incompetence, and an entrenched culture of unaccountability.

After going through our 5,000-word story with a fine-toothed comb, it appears the Guardian has found ... an erroneous total in an accompanying chart.

So, yes, the correct budget for the city and county of Philadelphia is actually $7.1 billion. We got that wrong, period. And that is regrettable (They claim we got Denver's budget wrong, too, but we dispute that). But -- not to minimize the error -- if this is what the Guardian hopes to use to nail us to the wall, then that's bizarre and even desperate. Because, unwittingly, the Guardian has helped us prove our point even more thoroughly.

As demonstrated below, even when you plug in the new, higher budget numbers for Philly and Denver, it becomes even more apparent that San Francisco is still spending vastly more per-capita than other city-county systems in the United States -- to achieve the unsatisfactory results highlighted in our article (If San Francisco was getting more bang from the many bucks it spends, that'd be different. But every index we've seen indicates the city is coming up short on results -- and, as we noted in our article, it's shocking how little the city even attempts to validate the worth of its spending).

In any event, the pat excuse for San Francisco's astronomical spending -- that we are a both a city and county -- has been lamely offered by the mayor's office, city officials, and, naturally, the Guardian. Now no one ought to take it seriously again:


Going by the gist of the Guardian's letter to us, the other major point they'll be making against our article is that executing apples-to-apples comparisons of how cities are run is difficult. In essence, they appear to be ignoring the actual content of our story and focusing on our headline of "worst-run big city." It would seem the Guardian is attempting to turn this into an argument about semantics.

As the Guardian noted in its letter to us, city-counties like Denver and Philly aren't stuck with the total bill for their transit service, and only San Francisco has deigned to pay every cent for its airports or ports. Fair enough. The assertion that across-the-board comparisons of cities' expenditures is tenuous is a valid one -- but it would have been more valid if this spending chart hadn't been accompanied by a lengthy article detailing specifically how and why San Francisco's government is failing.

It also warrants mentioning that not every difference in how cities spend money and what they spend it on serves to excuse San Francisco's unenviable status quo -- as the Guardian appears to feel it does. Yes, our city pays for things others don't -- but, then, other cities have to maintain aging infrastructure weakened by extreme heat and cold. Other cities have to keep up municipal vehicles ravaged by salt. Other cities have to shovel snow. Other cities have miles and miles more pothole-filled streets to look after. Other cities' Sheriff's Departments have many more responsibilities than San Francisco's. Other cities have police forces larger than several European nations' standing armies and security costs that dwarf this city's.

In any event, we find it odd that, after reading our story, the Guardian has ostensibly set out to bust us by making this into a semantic argument about what it means to be "worst." San Francisco's governmental problems are not going to be fixed with word games.

We appreciate that the Guardian was kind enough to send us its letter prior to running its article, likely this week. Communications from the paper's reporter have been thoughtful and professional -- so we hold out hope that this may be an article that could do more than simply obscure San Francisco's gaping weaknesses with analytical smokescreens. On the other hand, it may yet be a hit piece written for the benefit of the city political bodies the Guardian openly aligns itself with and shills for -- and who are responsible for some of the misgovernment highlighted in our story. Several instances of recent online raving by Guardian city editor Steven T. Jones make us dread the latter will be the case -- and that a fair Guardian article would never have been tolerated or even conceivable.

We'll know soon enough.

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About The Author

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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