Plucky billionaire-funded outfit TogetherSF released a report this week about what’s ailing San Francisco government. And in only 76 pages, it managed — amazingly! somehow! — to say the very same things that TogetherSF’s billionaire backer Michael Moritz said in his curious February New York Times op-ed.
That is: San Francisco’s mayor, the beneficiary of perhaps the strongest strong-mayor system in America, is actually weak. As Moritz put it in The Gray Lady: “mayors have been stripped of much authority while remaining convenient heat shields for the [Board of Supervisors].”
Or, in the academic language you get when a wealthy individual can have a think-tank convert his ideological fixations into a position paper: “San Francisco’s 1996 Charter was designed to invest power in the Mayor, but subsequent Charter amendments have reduced the Mayor’s capacity to govern.”
There’s a lot to unpack in this report, even in this one sentence. For the mayor of San Francisco remains clothed in immense power. In the most recent budget, the amount of discretionary money allocated at the whim of the mayor was more than 57 times higher than the grand total shuffled about by the 11 supes in the add-back process. That frantic add-back process was, as usual, the only part of the budgeting cycle that garnered much in the way of media or public attention.
We wrote as much back in February. We also wrote that the claim that the mayor has been “stripped of much authority” to the point that she cannot effectively govern this city is “akin to the former editor of the Chronicle claiming that they simply had to retain Willie Brown’s column because Willie Brown is an everyman.” That is, you’d have trouble making a less accurate statement — in one page or 76.
And this, incidentally, is more mention of Willie Brown than you’ll find in the totality of the TogetherSF report penned by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government of Claremont McKenna College. (Of note, while mayoral chief of staff Sean Elsbernd is a board member of the Rose Institute at his alma mater, he made a point of not participating in this report. “Big bright line,” he said.)
While the report enlightens us by noting the composition of the Board of Supervisors going back to the Millard Fillmore administration, at no point does it note just who was the first mayor to rule under the 1996 charter. Or why voters — and, yes, every subsequent alteration to the charter has been voter-approved, and many of them wildly so — might want to deviate from a top-down system both wielded like a cudgel and played like a Stradivarius by Mayor Willie Lewis Brown, Jr. (yes, from 1996 to 2004).
This report drew on “in-depth interviews of approximately 30 San Francisco leaders” — current and former elected and appointed officials and others. These sources are kept anonymous to ensure candor.
But it’s not hard to figure out who many of them are. It’s also not hard to figure out who they aren’t. Former Assemblyman and supervisor Tom Ammiano says nobody reached out to him.
You’d think he’d be relevant: Ammiano was the top vote-getter as a citywide-elected supervisor — and this report spends a great deal of time analyzing the possibility of adding some citywide supes — and served a stunning 14 years as both a citywide and district supe. “Maybe they thought I was dead,” he joked. Or, more seriously, “maybe they knew what I’d say.”
Or maybe they knew what they’d say. The issues touched in this report are not only Moritz’s hobby horses, but all the matters tub-thumped in the past by TogetherSF: a weakened mayor and empowered Board; problems induced by district elections; problems with San Francisco’s unwieldy constellation of committees and commissions; and problems induced by San Francisco’s Norse saga-length ballot. The preordained nature of this report is hard to miss; it’s the Pepsi Challenge of academics.
But are there some valid issues here? Hell yes there are. San Francisco is governed poorly, both on an individual and systemic basis. Are there policy suggestions worth looking into here — and, considering the vast wealth backing TogetherSF, are we likely to eventually be voting on all this? Hell yes to that, too.
But the central thesis here, that the mayor’s very “capacity to govern” has been compromised, remains a desperate apologia. And don’t take my word for it: I called up a handful of this report’s sources, and none of them felt that way, either — even if they supported many of the policy suggestions here.
“You’re dealing with the personality and ability of a particular mayor,” said one.
Specifically, Mayor London Breed has been in charge since 2018. The warranty has long since lapsed. And, despite attempts to blame the state of the city on the Board or city commissioners or DA or federal judges or this city’s feckless voters, the buck stops with her. Period.
“The problem is not the Board or the commissions. They are not in the way,” said another source for the TogetherSF report. “They may make it more difficult, but if you’re a strong mayor, you make it work, and if you’re a weak mayor, you don’t. … Absent being a king or a dictator, sometimes you have to deal with people.”
San Francisco’s problem, the government veteran continues, is “a lack of overall management in the city.”
Print that out and frame it.
Reading through this report, one might be overcome with disturbing memories of Cher straddling the big guns on the U.S.S. Missouri: “If I could turn back time,” she sang. “If I could find a way … ”
This report glances back through a rose-colored mist at the 1996 charter, which enhanced the power of the mayor; San Francisco previously had far more departments running under the aegis of an unelected city administrator, as is the case in many other counties.
But that charter was not carried down from Mount Sinai; it was crafted by city officials, and then ratified by city voters. And all the subsequent departures from it have also been ratified by voters. The ’96 charter is not some manner of Platonic ideal.
Its creators would tell you the same. And they’re not hard to find; 1996 is not the Middle Ages. They’d tell you a lot, in fact. For starters, says one of the charter’s co-creators, it was originally envisioned not as a document meant to install the mayor as an elected Sun King but, rather, to more fully merge city management under “a professional city manager who worked with the mayor.”
But the framers didn’t get the mayor they were expecting. “We were designing this with a weak mayor in mind, Frank Jordan. Not a dominating mayor, Willie Brown. Willie didn’t need someone to help him with government.”
No, he did not. Nor did he want someone. The city administrator job was fobbed off on the first of a series of affable and unassuming bureaucrats, and Brown grabbed the reins. Unlike the present day, few accused the former mayor of governing poorly or not putting in the hours; Brown’s problem wasn’t that he governed poorly or passively.
The ’96 charter, then, didn’t exactly do what this report’s authors seem to think it did. But, to be fair, the ’96 charter apparently didn’t do what its own authors thought it would, either.
One of the major (voter-approved) departures the city has taken from the ’96 charter is to give the Board of Supervisors a minority of the appointments on some city commissions. The report notes that this city has far more commissions than most any other city, which gums up government.
You know what? That’s a fair argument. TogetherSF has, in fact, cited my work in making that argument. That’s gratifying, but I wish they’d noted the unsubtle message of that story’s headline: “Inefficient by Design.” (emphasis mine).
San Francisco’s uncountable number of commissions did not proliferate, unseen, like mold in a closet. Rather, in many cases, they were deliberately created and nurtured by politicians looking to deflect the attention of loud and monomaniacal people — by providing them with somewhere to go blow off steam as either a public commenter or even a member of a commission.
This was a tool wielded by even the strongest of mayors. Brown was well known for creating “blue ribbon advisory committees” often enough that his government contemporaries simply refer to them by the acronym “BRAC.” The purpose of these groups was to stow nettlesome activists safely away in a room where they’d spend their time crafting a report the mayor could then thank them for, put in a desk drawer, and ignore.
If TogetherSF, or anyone else, wants to move the ball forward on eliminating some of this city’s redundant or unnecessary commissions, more power to them. Even more power if they take on the mayoral allies handed sinecures overseeing some of these commissions.
This report makes the claim that, even though the mayor has the majority of appointments on virtually every commission, it’s actually the Board of Supervisors that has the advantage. That’s because either six supes — or, in the vast majority of cases, only four of them — must agree to a mayoral nominee while the mayor receives no such commensurate veto.
And this makes sense, until you remember the mayor gets more picks. To claim the Board controls these commissions would be akin to stating that the U.S. Senate controls the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s an argument that immediately draws into question the seriousness of those who’d make it.
You could say the same about this report writ large, because its overarching hook is that San Francisco’s immensely strong mayor isn’t strong enough — and, apparently, that any form of vetting or check on her powers is inherently problematic (it was only in February that the mayor tapped a nominee for a homeless oversight commission who had bilked the federal government out of $20,000 and inflated his resume).
That’s too bad. Because San Francisco does have too many commissions. The benefits of adding citywide members of the Board are worth analyzing. The barrier for both elected officials and the general public to place items on the ballot is too low. These are all worthwhile discussions to have. One has to wonder, however, to what end TogetherSF is advancing them.
All of their proffered solutions, it seems, would do little to alter the outsize role of a coterie of wealthy political players. On the contrary, they would enhance it.
As quoted in the Chronicle, Breed said she hadn’t yet read the report, but she agreed with it.
And then she pointed to the situation with the Police Commission. Because — really — it’s all about the Police Commission.
It’s all about the mayor’s ire that, through her uniquely spectacular own goal, she antagonized and alienated her own appointee and lost control of the commission. This is what the mayor is talking about when she claims that her powers are circumscribed because she can’t hire and fire department heads. But the mayor, again, is clothed in immense power. She controls every commission and can move department heads around as she sees fit. Other mayors did.
If Breed wanted to fire the police chief, it’d be, perhaps, the final dramatic, time-buying act she could undertake as the public grows ever wearier of crime, filth and lunacy on city streets and her options to deflect blame — the Board, the liberal DA, unwieldy commissions, federal judges, voters who deviated from the ’96 charter — grow thinner.
Make no mistake; the mayor can still fire the chief unilaterally. But without lockstep control of the Police Commission, she can’t ensure they’ll enable her to hire a preferred successor. But, you know what? That could still get done. It just requires having some conversations. It requires doing some work.
Absent being a king or a dictator, sometimes you have to deal with people. But you’re dealing with the personality and ability of a particular mayor.