Skip to main content
Politics & Policy

SF has way too many commissions, and these 15 must die, grand jury says

The image shows a domed building reflected in a large arched window with ornate, black street lamps on either side, set against a gray stone facade.
Members of the Civil Grand Jury found 115 commissions at City Hall, far more than peer cities and counties. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

It is no surprise to a casual observer of City Hall: San Francisco has amassed an eye-popping number of commissions over the years. 

In fact, officials can’t even tell you how many exist.

In an aptly named report titled “Commission Impossible,” released Thursday, the city’s Civil Grand Jury found City Hall has accumulated 115 such groups since San Francisco’s charter was established in 1898—a number that is far beyond its peer cities and counties like Los Angeles and Santa Clara.

During the course of its investigation, the Civil Grand Jury found that nobody at City Hall could provide a complete list of commissions, nor was anyone tracking their performance.

A group of people stands in a room with wooden paneling, attentively listening to a man speaking from a podium.
Attendees line up to speak at the Police Commission, one of well over 100 commissions in San Francisco. | Source: Jeremy Chen/The Standard

“They are really important,” said John Monson, one of the lead writers of the report, about the commissions themselves. “And they need to run effectively for citizens to have confidence in the government of San Francisco.”

The timing of the grand jury report comes as questions over City Hall’s effectiveness in tackling critical issues like homelessness, housing affordability and corruption have become a top issue in the November election. 

There’s also a simultaneous effort to nix some of the city’s commissions led by the moderate-leaning political group TogetherSF. The group, which receives funding from The Standard chairman Michael Moritz, is collecting signatures for what may ultimately become a ballot measure for voters in November.

Kanishka Cheng, who leads TogetherSF, said Thursday’s report “confirms the importance” of her group’s ballot measure.

“Commissions and systems of governance don’t always get the attention they deserve for the roles that they play in inhibiting progress, and we are glad to see the Grand Jury provide a necessary spotlight and overlapping solutions with our measure,” she wrote in a statement.

Board President Aaron Peskin, who is running for mayor this November, also has a commission reform effort underway that could consolidate some of the groups.

Jury members recommended that the city nix 15 commissions, including ones meant to oversee food security, sanitation and housing, claiming that other boards can take up their work. Whether a commission can be abolished depends on how it was set up, according to the report. Some require voter approval or a charter amendment, while others can more easily be eliminated.

There also appears to be a large number of commission seats sitting empty. Jurors found 15% of commission positions are currently unfilled. Many of the meetings are also canceled: Thursday’s report found a fifth of all commission gatherings in 2023 were canceled. That has led to some delays in decisions in finalizing contracts.

The report also pushes for a new body to track the commissions. The jurors admitted the “rich irony” of the recommendation, but claim it will do more good by helping clean up the “byzantine” system of oversight bodies.

Even with the reduction of over a dozen such groups, City Hall would still have considerably more commissions than Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, cities that all have larger populations than San Francisco’s roughly 800,000 residents.

With a population of over four million residents, Los Angeles has 48 commissions. San Diego has about 1.4 million residents with 49 commissions. San Jose, with around a million residents, has 27 such groups.

The jury also found that the city described its commissions in 25 different ways, an “astounding array” of descriptors that include terms such as board, committee, task force, council, working group, and others. 

While the financial burden the commissions impose is small—its members receive a stipend and healthcare benefits that few apparently take advantage of—the resources it takes City Hall to prepare for the meetings or respond to commissioner requests can be as much as 10% of staffers’ time.

“It’s sort of an interlocking system that contributes to a lot of the red tape and bureaucracy in the city,” said Niall Murphy, another writer on the jury, which has 19 members.

Civil grand juries are made up of San Francisco residents who are tasked with investigating and providing recommendations to officials about vexing city issues. A separate report about rising sea levels and the city’s lack of preparedness was also released this month.