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Politics & Policy

Once ‘a joy to behold,’ public comment at San Francisco City Hall takes jarring turn

Meet the regular commenters at San Francisco Board of Supervisors meetings. | Source: Footage Courtesy of SFGovTV

Public comment at the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has long been known for having a carnival-like quality. 

In 2021, John Oliver of Last Week Tonight officially deemed public comment at the board “a joy to behold,” highlighting a cavalcade of mostly amiable and wholly eccentric characters giving the supervisors a piece of their minds on the day’s issues. 

Traditionally, that cavalcade included legendary commenters like crooner Walter Paulson, who got a commendation (and a duet) from then-Supervisor Chris Daly in 2010. Ace “Ace in Your Face” Washington, who until recently had been showing up at public comment regularly for well over two decades, routinely made his opinions known with a funky rhythm

Access to the mic expanded during the pandemic with remote public comment, and the Covid-era accommodation outlasted public health orders. But things took a dark turn last week when a trio of callers spewed racist and antisemitic hate speech, and Board President Aaron Peskin said he would move to eliminate remote comments, except for those people needing disability accommodations.   

“There were several schools of thought ranging from ‘eliminate remote public comment’ to ‘unlimited remote public comment,’ to in-between proposals of limiting the time for remote public comment,” Peskin told The Standard in a phone call. “I was a supporter of unlimited remote public comment until [Tuesday]. It’s sad that these hateful people have ruined it for everybody else, but that just is how it is.”

Supervisors listen to public comment during a Board of Supervisors meeting at San Francisco City Hall in San Francisco on Feb. 28, 2023. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Trolling, Zoom-bombing and anonymously called-in hate speech are on the rise in city councils around the country and the region, and San Francisco is no exception. Some also attribute that harder edge to the increase of more divisive discussions of race and class that came with Trump-era politics.  

Some of the more creative commenters like Washington are showing up less often, and some longtime board watchers say the most dedicated gadflies are bringing more of an edge to their commentary—even when they break into song, like one regular commenter who goes by the pen name of “Citizen22.” 

Jordan Davis is one the most recognized commenters, so much so that the catchphrase she uses to end her comments, “I yield my time, Fuck You!” is also her handle on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. A self-described trans, autistic, vegan, metalhead, animal rights, homeless/supportive housing tenant and mental health advocate, in no particular order, Davis routinely elicits mass wincing at the board with her acerbic speeches.

Jordan Davis, a regular commenter at Board of Supervisor meetings, uses their time to discuss SRO tenant advocacy on June 6, 2023. | Courtesy SFGovTV | Source: Courtesy SFGovTV

Nevertheless, Davis is no mere crank. She’s an activist who has made a real impact: In 2019, Davis went on a hunger strike to protest the rent policies at the single-room occupancy hotel where she lived. 

In response, then-District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney negotiated for funding rent relief for Davis and tenants like her and then sponsored an ordinance mandating a universal cap on supportive housing rents at 30% of the client’s income, which passed the following year. 

“I believe that oppressive language should not lead to oppressive policy, and I cannot support the ending of remote public comment,” Davis wrote in an email to The Standard regarding the recent hate speech incident and possible ending of remote public comment. “It would create hardship for the disability community, to which I belong, as well as working-class people and others who cannot easily access City Hall.”

Francisco Da Costa is yet another frequent public commenter whose invective, often using biblical references to impugn the integrity of city policies (one clip used by John Oliver has Da Costa accusing supervisors of “worshiping Lucifer”), belies their real-world activism. Da Costa has been speaking out about environmental justice issues in the Bayview since the 1960s, and has contributed to official reports on the matter

Screenshots of video from SFGovTV show people who make regular public comment at San Francisco City Supervisors meetings that include a person known as Mark, upper left, Citizen22, upper right, Jordan Davis, bottom right, and Thierry, bottom left. | Source: Courtesy SFGovTV

One regular commenter named Mark regularly uses his two minutes to subject supervisors and attendees to an involuntary Bible study that concludes with references to the 9/11 attacks. A man named Thierry, who describes himself as a puppeteer, is another frequent commenter at City Hall.

One of the more powerful aspects of public comment is not so much about content or sentiment as about time. The sheer number of people providing public comment at recent hearings on the city’s reparations plan shows that when you can count the public comment in hours, that becomes a testament to the public interest in an item in and of itself.

Various political factions can organize supporters to jam meetings with comments, extending them into the wee hours of the following morning in extreme cases. That happened repeatedly to the Redistricting Task Force last year, in an aggressive campaign one local commissioner compared to a distributed denial of service (DDoS) internet attack

Despite its reputation, public comment is not a free-for-all. The clerk of the board has set specific rules for public testimony above and beyond a predetermined time limit. You can’t address individual supervisors directly, and you can’t use discriminatory language. Cross that line, and somebody will cut your mic off—and you could even find yourself removed by a sheriff’s deputy. 

Ryen Motzek, president of Mission Merchants Association, gives public comment during a San Francisco Police Commission hearing at City Hall on July 12, 2023. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Members of the Board of Supervisors staff are universally protective of the institution, seeing public comment as a sacred, basic form of free speech that reflects the right to petition the government—California’s open government law, the Brown Act, backs that up. 

It can sometimes be easy to dismiss public comment as noise. Still, City Hall veterans agree it serves a valuable purpose, whether by keeping supervisors in touch with the public or beginning to solve a problem for the constituent. 

Mike Farrah, an aide to Supervisor Myrna Melgar who has worked for three other supervisors and as a senior advisor to former Mayor Gavin Newsom, keeps it in perspective. 

“Sometimes, what a constituent needs is to feel they’re being heard.”