Skip to main content
The Lash

The city needs to toss its pointless, do-nothing commissions. Start with this one first

San Francisco bureaucrats dumped in the dumpster
Source: AI illustration by Clark Miller

By Adam Lashinsky

This is The Lash, a new column about the city and its discontents, by Adam Lashinsky, editor-at-large at The San Francisco Standard.

A couple Fridays ago at City Hall, I got to witness, in all of its banal absurdity, the reality of San Francisco-style citizen democracy. 

I attended a meeting of the Sanitation and Streets Commission, a five-person commission appointed by a combination of the mayor, the Board of Supervisors and the controller. This is a commission that oversees a city department, which—I kid you not—no longer exists. 

The vibe was that of a school board or town council meeting in a tiny hamlet with an uninvolved citizenry. The hearing room itself, on the fourth floor of San Francisco’s ornate Beaux Arts municipal building, had a certain grandeur to it. The raised dais, the theater seating, the virtual hookup for the viewing public to watch the proceedings—all stood in stark contrast to the humdrum affairs at hand. 

Other than myself, there were three members of the public present—a headcount that matched the number of Sanitation and Streets commissioners perched above us. These did not include the chairwoman, Kimberlee Hartwig-Schulman, an office manager for a community benefit district in SoMa, whose absence wasn’t explained. The secretary informed the trio of commissioners who did show up that if any of them needed to use the toilet, they would have to pause the proceedings because they’d lose their quorum.

The agenda was befitting an oversight body, which, in spite of its tough-sounding name, is responsible for little and wields even less power. Besides an update on washing the sidewalks after the Chinese New Year parade, there were discussions on citywide tree pruning and progress in race-based hiring at the Department of Public Works.

For my money, the most exciting moment followed a comment by a citizen-tree lover named Lance Carnes. He used his allotted three minutes to advocate for a comprehensive database of the city’s trees. When he sat down, Nicholas Crawford, the acting superintendent of the Bureau of Urban Forestry and the city employee who had just debriefed the commissioners at length about tree maintenance, whispered to Carnes, “We do need a better tree database”—and promptly left the room.

I followed Crawford out the same door a bit later, having learned a little about streets and sanitation and a lot about why the city works the way it does.

I felt like I’d just watched a tree fall in the urban forest—and heard nary a sound.

The making of a do-nothing commission

Good-governance types love to lament how San Francisco has too many citizen-run commissions, advisory committees, councils and the like. Numbering some 130 in all—the precise number is elusive—this smallish city has three separate assessment appeals boards, four that consider themselves stewards of its trees, five entities overseeing homelessness efforts and no fewer than seven oversight bodies focused on children, youth and families. 

But the pinnacle of San Francisco’s Kafkaesque swamp of unnecessary, duplicative bureaucracy must be its Sanitation and Streets Commission. That’s because this august body has the unique distinction of overseeing a department that was summarily eliminated by voters two years ago. 

As is typically the case with the sausage-making of San Francisco government, the details of how this Commission to Nowhere came to be are at once tedious and rage-inducing. 

In 2020, stung by a corruption scandal in the Department of Public Works, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors asked voters to carve out a new city department just to cater to street and sidewalk cleaning, costing taxpayers as much as $6 million annually. 

The move also created two new commissions, one for the Sanitation and Streets Department and one for Public Works. When it quickly became apparent that the city hadn’t accomplished anything by cleaving the tainted Public Works in two—well, beyond piling on administrative costs—the supervisors asked voters two years later to undo the move, sending the fledgling department back where it came from.

But in their infinite wisdom, the supervisors had a funny trick up their sleeves: They kept both commissions.

It was a classic San Francisco move. In the name of providing oversight, the city ginned up a handful of do-little featherbedding commissioner positions that would be gifted, like steak knives, to loyal members of the vaunted “city family.” 

Though in theory the Sanitation and Streets Commission oversees the operations division of Public Works, in practice, it has no oversight at all and instead “sets policies for … sanitation standards,” according to the revised statute that eliminated its powers. The Public Works Commission is the body that officially approves the department budget; officials present its budget to the sanitation commission “as a courtesy,” according to a spokeswoman for Public Works. 

The cost for all this excessive commission-ing adds up. How much, nobody apparently knows, as the city couldn’t provide a full accounting. “There is not a filter or report at this time we can run to conduct this analysis,” the City Controller’s Office informed me when I asked for an estimate of the costs accrued by commissions and other oversight bodies. 

Make no mistake, the cost is real: The controller lists almost 40 commissions—one, the Asian Art Commission, with a gaudy 27 members—that offer health care benefits to its committee members. Some commissioners receive modest stipends as well. But the even bigger cost may come from all the bureaucratic obligations and distractions this rats’ nest of commissions creates for harried department staffers, who’ve got plenty on their hands simply trying to administer the city. 

They don’t just have to answer to their bosses and the citizenry of San Francisco–they have to answer to commissioners, sometimes dozens of them.

Too much democracy

None of this is a secret, especially as it pertains to the obsolete—but still cranking away!—Sanitation and Streets Commission. Yet the 2022 mandate to ditch the department while keeping the commission came amid a flurry of alphabet-soup ballot initiatives most voters could barely be bothered to register, let alone seriously consider.

It’s easy to tut-tut all this. Where’s the harm, after all, in having a few extra eyes on our government? And isn’t it a good idea to get citizens involved? Isn’t our commission, oversight board and advisory council apparatus a valuable civics lesson for those who haven’t been elected to public office? 

Well, sure. Those arguments would be good and fine if things were going swimmingly in San Francisco, if city departments were operating efficiently, or if the city weren’t facing a billion-dollar budget shortfall

But running this parallel bureaucracy is more expensive than it looks. For example, when the city created a new homelessness commission in 2022, the Controller’s Office estimated it would cost $350,000 a year to operate. To paraphrase the late parliamentarian Everett Dirksen, a few hundred thousand here and a few hundred thousand there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money. 

Maybe there was a time when San Francisco could afford these excess riches—today, it can’t.

There are a couple efforts under way to rein in our out-of-control commission addiction. The advocacy group TogetherSF is collecting signatures for a ballot initiative that promises to take an ax to the commission structure. Its proposal would protect 45 commissions, many of which are required by state or federal law, but cap the total number at 65 and empower a streamlining task force to decide which entities to kill. It also would eliminate stipends and health benefits for commissioners. (TogetherSF has received funding from Michael Moritz, the chairman of The San Francisco Standard.)

Supervisor Rafael Mandelman has a similar if less draconian initiative in the works. He, too, wants to reduce the number of oversight bodies at work in the city, but isn’t necessarily prejudging the total number. Instead, he plans to propose a change that would make it easier for the Board of Supervisors to eliminate certain entities without needing voter approval. “Any person who is sentient and paying attention knows we set up an oversight body any time we think there’s a problem,” Mandelman told me. “I think it’s worth asking, ‘What’s the point?’”

The point, as I see it: There is such a thing as too much democracy. We should send more of our commissions to the same place the Streets and Sanitation Commission ought to be: the city dump.

Correction: This piece was updated with the proper spelling of Streets and Sanitation Commission chairwoman Kimberlee Hartwig-Schulman's name.

We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our opinion articles. You can email us at Interested in submitting an opinion piece of your own? Review our submission guidelines.