How to really fix San Francisco’s government

This November, Proposition C will give San Francisco voters the opportunity to approve the creation of a new oversight commission for the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. This body would join the more than 100 commissions, committees, councils and working groups — supplemented by a city services auditor, a budget and legislative analyst, a city attorney, a district attorney, an ethics commission and a civil grand jury — already tasked with overseeing the delivery of municipal services.

Under the watchful eye of this impressive edifice, San Francisco ought to have the cleanest, most efficient government in the world. Instead, over the last 20 years, multiple city officials have been indicted on federal corruption charges, the mayor’s annual budget has ballooned from $5 billion to $14 billion, and the government’s performance on several key metrics has only gotten worse or remained stagnant. According to one ranking, San Francisco is the second worst-run city in America.

We think there’s a better way: municipal services oversight should be centralized in a unified agency that reports to a board of auditors, which would be elected every four years and empowered to summon witnesses, subpoena documents, impound wasteful spending and levy civil penalties.

Leading audit standards bodies, whether in the public or the private sector, agree that auditor independence is the sine qua non of effective oversight. But, in San Francisco, the entities charged with ensuring that taxpayers get what they pay for are instead beholden to the very departments and agencies they’re supposed to oversee. For example, the city services auditor is hired by the city controller, who is appointed by the mayor, while commissioners are appointed by varying combinations of the mayor, the supervisors and other interested parties. The city attorney and district attorney are elected by the voters, but, as political offices, they have other priorities beyond investigating corruption and waste.

San Franciscans deserve the option to vote for oversight officials who answer directly to them, and who are politically incentivized to focus exclusively on cleaning up city hall. Creating the agency we propose would align San Francisco with other California counties and U.S. states whose auditors (or controllers with audit powers) are elected, rather than appointed. It would also professionalize the city’s audit function by entrusting it to full-time, qualified civil servants, rather than a patronage network of politically connected activists moonlighting as commissioners. Our current system is the one that put Jon Jacobo, a legislative aide, on the Building Inspection Commission, and Victor Makras, a real estate developer, on the Police Commission. Jacobo resigned last year after being accused of sexual assault; Makras was found guilty last month of bank fraud. 

Variations of this proposal have been put before the voters and the Board of Supervisors before, in 2016 and 2020, but were rejected due to cost, politicization and implementation concerns. Our proposal is responsive to those concerns. First, this new agency would supplant, not supplement, the existing oversight commissions in the city, and would be funded by the resultant savings. Is this feasible? Certainly. The budgets of San Francisco’s city services auditor, Ethics Commission and Department of Police Accountability alone combine to equal the entire budget of the California state auditor, or the audits division of the state controller. To be clear, this isn’t about eliminating funds for oversight programs; it’s about entrusting them to a body that has the proper expertise and incentives to conduct them effectively. Second, electing a board, each member of which is equally authorized to deploy resources, rather than a single official to lead this agency, alleviates concerns that it would spend four years investigating that one official’s political enemies and no one else. Finally, to ensure continuity of oversight, existing commissions could temporarily operate under the authority of the board of auditors during a phase-in period until the new agency is fully provisioned. 

Many government employees are competent, conscientious and committed. But, over time, even the most well-meaning public servant can’t fight waste and corruption in a system that holds no one accountable. The result is a city that spends $60,000 on a tent and $20,000 on a trash can. The Board of Supervisors is empowered to put a charter amendment on the ballot to create the agency we propose and put an end to this kind of irresponsible spending. Our system is broken — let’s live up to our reputation as the City That Knows How and fix it.

Jay Donde and Bill Jackson are co-founders of the San Francisco Briones Society, a center-right club that develops and advocates for consensus solutions to urgent local issues. 

https://www.sfgate.com/politics-op-eds/article/how-to-fix-sf-government-17430726.php