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Politics & Policy

Only 1 person at SF City Hall knows the answer to this simple question

San Francisco City Hall is lit up red, white and blue on election night on Nov. 8, 2022. | Mike Kuba/The Standard

In the process of reporting a long story about Mayor London Breed, one seemingly routine question proved to be exceptionally difficult to answer: How many departments, commissions and advisory boards are there in San Francisco?

This seems like a straightforward question. Hardly.

Dozens of calls, emails and texts were sent asking the same question, but no one at City Hall was willing or able to give a definitive answer. Staff at the Mayor’s Office said they once knew the numbers—an intern apparently had been assigned the unenviable task of counting—but the report couldn’t be located. 

Instead, the mayor’s team, a majority of supervisors and multiple city departments sent along a string of incomplete or regional reports and suggested I give so-and-so a call, only to have that person send me the same reports and refer me back to the places from which I came. 

Weeks went by without a single person at City Hall willing to offer hard numbers. For anyone who pays taxes in San Francisco, this may be a bit troubling considering it’s the equivalent of asking a parent how many children they have. 

“Who, him? I think that’s Gary, number eight. Or is it nine?”

Commissioner Jim Byrne, right, and Paul Henderson, left, attend a Police Commission meeting at San Francisco City Hall on March 1, 2023. | Benjamin Fanjoy for The Standard

It wasn’t until I circled back to the City Attorney’s Office that a knight in shining armor emerged. Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for the office, hand-counted city departments—based on statements of economic interest filed by department heads—to come to the conclusion that San Francisco has 53 departments, 56 boards and commissions, and 74 more advisory bodies, bringing the grand total to 183 different entities. And that doesn’t even include other informal groups created by the mayor and city agencies.

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If that seems like a lot, that’s because it is a lot compared with other cities. So much so that San Francisco currently has more than 180 vacancies for members of the public to serve across an array of boards, commissions and advisory bodies.

“San Francisco has so many commissions the number is almost farcical,” Joel Engardio, a first-year supervisor for the Sunset District, said in a text message. “There are probably 60 or 70 commissions the public has never heard of. Many of these commissions have vacancies or large numbers of absences, which means even the people who know about them don’t care enough to fill the seats or show up. We have to ask, ‘What’s the point of all these commissions if they’re only catering to a small group of political insiders talking to each other?’”

Supervisor Joel Engardio speaks during a board meeting at San Francisco City Hall on May 16, 2023. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard.

Engardio isn’t alone in admitting that San Francisco’s unique brand of participatory democracy has become unwieldy and expensive. Even though most of the commission and advisory board positions are unpaid, there is a cost to hunting down appointees and staffing them.

Of course, many commissions are established by the City Charter and make good sense. San Franciscans want citizen oversight for obvious things like police and historic preservation. Getting rid of these or altering them would require voter sign-off to update the City Charter.

But critics of the vast number of advisory boards and oversight commissions say that, ironically, they lead to opacity instead of the transparency they’re meant to provide. Many groups have been created as the result of ballot measures being passed, which package taxes and updates to the law with task forces. 

One City Hall insider suggested the work of a group like the Sugary Drinks Distributor Tax Advisory Committee could be overseen by the Health Commission, but a 2016 ballot measure that slapped a tax on sweet drinks—San Francisco’s attempt to take on Big Soda—created the committee.

Aaron Peskin sits contemplatively in the San Francisco Board of Supervisors chambers with a hand on his chin. A woman, also absorbed, is partially visible in the foreground.
President Aaron Peskin oversees the Board of Supervisors meeting at San Francisco City Hall on Feb. 28, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

“Some commissions are value-added, and some are a waste of time,” said Aaron Peskin, president of the Board of Supervisors. “If you have good commissioners who support city department heads and their staff and ask good questions and help optimize things, it’s value-added. When you have a bunch of bloated, self-important people who want to run around and say they’re a commissioner, it can be value-subtracted.

“As to advisory boards, it’s a constant process of winnowing them down when they are no longer of utility,” Peskin continued. “Yeah, it’s probably time for another round that eliminates superfluous advisory bodies.”

During my first coffee meeting last year with Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, I floated the idea of a “clean slate” initiative. The concept was simply to look at City Hall with fresh eyes. If we started with a clean slate and didn’t have any commitments to ordinances passed in the 1800s or the prevailing dogmas of more recent decades, would we create a city government that operates the way San Francisco currently does? Or would we maybe redirect our priorities and put the city’s $14.6 billion budget to better use?

“The clean slate initiative would take a very close look at these commissions and either restructure or eliminate many of them,” Mandelman half-jokingly said in a recent phone interview. “I think there are certainly administrative costs associated with them. The way they’ve developed over the last couple of decades with charter reform, they do play into the difficulty of governing San Francisco.”

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, left, speaks at a press conference outside of San Francisco City Hall as Supervisor Catherine Stefani looks on. | Chris Victorio for The SF Standard

Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, said the issue of weeding out city commissions and boards to make San Francisco more efficient is a priority for Breed. But charter reform would be a beast to take on when most people in San Francisco are focused on public safety and Downtown recovery.

An enormous overhaul of the city’s governmental structure could be on the table if Breed wins a second term and secures a majority of allies on the Board of Supervisors. Because the status quo—and the city’s ridiculous roster of commissions and advisory boards—clearly isn’t working.

“It just creates a system where accountability is not the primary objective,” Cretan said. “It dilutes authority, it dilutes accountability and it is confusing for residents, because they don’t know those seven members that are sitting in a commission meeting on Wednesday afternoon. And it’s too much to ask them to know that. They’re living their lives. They just want to know that someone’s working to deliver service.”