San Francisco’s city government has a plethora of active commissions, boards, task forces, and advisory committees of one kind or another. These range from relatively high-profile bodies such as the Police Commission to more obscure ones such as the Sugary Drinks Distributor Tax Advisory Committee. They serve a number of purposes, such as providing an appeal and oversight function for certain city departments, or providing advice to the Mayor and/or Board of Supervisors on specific issues.
According to a database maintained by SF311, the city currently has 100 active advisory bodies; 21 of those are mandated in the City Charter, which is the legal document outlining San Francisco’s governance. By comparison, San Jose has 26 such bodies, Los Angeles has 50, Boston has 63, and New York has 109. Some of these were spawned as the result of measures passed by voters; others were passed by legislation at the Board of Supervisors; others sprouted as a result of power struggles between the mayor and supervisors.
What Are the Most Important Commissions?
Bodies like the Police, Fire and Health Commissions have a high public profile and often deal with life-or-death decisions such as police use of force, or precautionary measures regarding Covid-19. Other commissions deal with more day-to-day matters that affect a broad swath of the public.
The city’s Planning Commission often has final say on important land use decisions, like housing. The Public Utilities Commission governs the cost and quality of the water coming out of your tap, among other things. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors governs the agency that runs Muni and is in charge of city streets.
The Entertainment Commission advises on preserving the city’s nightlife culture and, through its noise permit system, may well decide whether you get a good night’s sleep. The Small Business Commission advises on legislation affecting small businesses and business assistance programs.
“The most rewarding thing for me so far was being a key player on the team to make Mayor Breed's Shared Spaces permanent,” says Sharky Laguana, president of the Small Business Commission.
Other, lower-profile commissions deal with multimillion-dollar contracts or property portfolios–chief among these are those overseeing the Port of San Francisco and San Francisco International Airport, two of the city’s “enterprise departments.” Those refer to departments that function much like a business enterprise, earning their own revenues that largely fund their operations.
Are Commissioners Accountable to the Public?
Commissioners are required to follow similar ethics rules to elected officials, including disclosure of economic interests: “Avoiding conflicts is simple… just err way on the side of compliance,” says Entertainment Commission President Ben Bleiman.
But sometimes the structure of a commission creates opportunities for corruption. Recent controversies at the Building Inspection Commission, for example, included improper approvals of plans and the seeming impunity of a consultant and former commission president who was charged with embezzling from his clients. Those prompted Supervisor Myrna Melgar, herself a former Planning Commissioner, to place a measure on the June ballot to reform what she describes as “the regulated being the regulators.”
“Not all commissions are equal. Some are advisory, where the city stands to gain valuable knowledge, but others have serious power over department budget and decision making; for those I think we need more oversight,” says Melgar.
Are Commissioners Paid for Their Time?
Some are, but the amount they're paid often isn’t much better than what you’d get for jury duty. Planning Commissioners get around $10,000 a year for their work, and the associated workload makes it extremely difficult to balance with a full-time job. “For a (practically) unpaid job, it can take a huge amount of time,” says Bleiman.
“The time management aspect is tough. Not every commission is time-consuming though, and both Ben and I are the president of our commissions. Being president is pretty close to a full-time job if you care about doing a good job,” says Laguana.
How Representative of San Francisco are Our Commissioners?
A 2019 gender analysis by the Commission on the Status of Women found that 51% of commissioners were women (slightly above the city population) and that 50% of commissioners were persons of color (slightly below the city population). Latinx and Asian persons are markedly underrepresented. Meanwhile, 19% of Commissioners are LGBTQ, versus 15% of the city population.
A number of initiatives have been undertaken to increase diversity in commissions. In 2020, voters approved Proposition C, which removed U.S. citizenship as a requirement for serving as a commissioner. Advocacy groups work to groom people from communities of interest with programs such as the Urban Institute’s Boards and Commissions Leadership Institute. Some bodies must have members from communities of interest as part of their rules: a good example of this is the Shelter Monitoring Committee, which reserves seats for members who have experienced homelessness.
So How Does One Become a Commissioner?
On some commissions, members are appointed by the mayor and then confirmed by the Board of Supervisors; others have a combination of seats appointed by the mayor and the board. Other bodies have members that are nominated by a district supervisor and then approved by a board committee.
How commissioners get appointed to certain commissions sometimes becomes a flashpoint between members of the board and the mayor, and sometimes the results are ballot initiatives to try and change the rules. This year, Supervisor Connie Chan floated a measure to change a larger number of commissions to the hybrid appointment model, but failed to get the required support to put it on the ballot.
If you want to take the plunge, you might want to check out the list of vacancies, and then inquire with either your district supervisor or the Mayor’s Office of Appointments. Generally, applicants are expected to have a record of serious advocacy in the domain of the relevant commission. “I think (we) were chosen because we were outspoken about small business issues,” says Bleiman.
The rest is up to you–but be sure to have a thick skin.
“I learned in public service working with sometimes highly emotional people just to ’Keep Calm And Carry On,’” says Greg Chew, an advertising executive who’s served on the Arts, Film, and Immigrant Rights Commissions.
“Being able to make positive change to government is incredibly rewarding,” Sharky Laguana says. “You can improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in very meaningful ways, and it feels really good when you are successful.”
Mike Ege can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org