The tech-funded, self-described moderate community nonprofit TogetherSF, which is linked to political action group TogetherSF Action and, through its biggest funder, to the San Francisco Standard publication, has just commissioned a 76-page report that argues the reasons why SF's political system is broken.
We heard from tech billionaire Michael Moritz back in February when he published an opinion piece in the New York Times headlined "Even Democrats Like Me Are Fed Up With San Francisco." In it, Moritz laid out a number of now familiar talking points about how liberal politics have led directly to SF's homelessness and drug crises — talking points familiar to Fox News, and on this point he seems to agree with Republican pundits. And he blamed "a small coterie [in SF] who knows how to bend government to its will."
So now it shouldn't be a surprise that the nonprofit he has helped to fund, Together SF, has worked with the Rose Institute of State and Local Governments at Claremont McKenna College to produce a report that reaches his foregone conclusions about all that is wrong with SF City Hall. Namely, the mayor is too weak and the Board of Supervisors is too strong, the "city has too many commissions with too much independent authority," and SF's ballot-measure system is (kind of like the state's?) "overused" and creates obstacles to good governance.
While some may agree with points made in the report — especially about ballot measures! — the whole thing seems a bit too much like one man's agenda masquerading as an impartial nonprofit's academic ideas. And, case in point, the Chronicle has run a front-page piece with a headline blaring, "'City Hall is failing': New report says SF is broken, offers roadmap to fix it." And the Standard has run a piece — with a disclaimer buried at the bottom about the connection to Moritz and saying he has no editorial say at the publication — titled "Does San Francisco's Mayor Need More Power? This Group Says Yes."
Neither piece really acknowledges the history of animosity between corporate and "downtown" interests and the progressive wing of the Board of Supervisors, which goes back decades. And only the Chronicle's piece acknowledges that Together SF's CEO, Kanishka Cheng, might have some bias in all this — she previously served as Mayor London Breed's liaison to the Board of Supervisors — and that a Board of Governors member of the Rose Institute, which wrote the study, is Breed's chief of staff, Sean Elsbernd.
Cheng tells the Chronicle, "Most people working in the system have accepted this is the system. I think regular people are shocked. No wonder we can’t solve anything."
On the point of SF needing more of a "strong mayor" system, both Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin and former SF supervisor John Avalos — both progressives — tell the Chronicle this is nonsense.
"This notion there isn’t a strong mayor system is ignorant. It's not true," Peskin says. And Avalos says that the real problem is the mayor's office is too often at odds with the recommendations of its own city departments, and then at odds with supervisors when they try to implement those recommendations.
Another problem the report points to is that by having a board of supervisors voted on by district, each supervisor has less interest in pleasing city voters on a whole than they do their specific constituencies. The report suggests a solution would be to add some number of at-large supervisors to the board who are voted on by all city residents.
The report also points to the vast number of boards and commissions that are overseeing and giving recommendations to city leaders — 130 in total, with 55 that have decision-making authority. These should be reduced, the report concludes, though with many having been created by charter amendments, it doesn't offer any easy path toward doing that — just that the city should undertake an "exhaustive review" of the commission system.
The researchers note that the city and county of Denver also has 130 boards and commissions, though 44 of these are business improvement districts.
A few anonymous City Hall sources get in one good dig about the commission system that's noted in the report: "Several interviewees noted that the commission system does not always succeed in its oversight responsibilities, pointing to the recent corruption scandal in the Department of Building Inspection."
There are also recommendations about the ballot-measure system which include raising the number of signatures required to put a measure on the ballot, and removing both the mayor's and minority blocs of supervisors' power to put certain kinds of measures on the ballot.
It should be amusing to see what the Board of Supervisors says or does with the report, if anything. And we mustn't forget that the political action group Together SF Action, which Cheng also serves as executive director of, was responsible for that asinine and pointless, $300,000 ad campaign dubbed "That's Fentalife" that went up across town in May. Was that a worthwhile use of $300,000?
Together SF would like to see some of its recommended government reforms put into action by way of — what else?! — ballot measures put to the voters, and put on the ballot by the mayor or supervisors, they say.
Failing that, Cheng tells the Standard that it's "always a possibility" that they, or Together SF Action, will try to get something on the ballot themselves.
Photo: Gordon Mak