Take the Politics Out of Civic Participation
By Kevin Frazier
You shouldn’t have to pander to a politician for a chance to get involved in civic affairs. Yet, a plurality of seats on San Francisco boards, commissions, committees and task forces require that applicants receive their nomination or appointment from their Supervisor. So, if you’re like me and have ruffled a few feathers of local politicians, then your odds of serving on a board are significantly diminished. Each district should instead have its own nominating committee to vet and then recommend applicants to the Board of Supervisors.
No one questions that applicants should be evaluated for their ability to contribute to a board as well as to represent their slice of San Francisco. After all, boards have significant authority over decisions that shape daily life. Consider that Section 4.102 of the San Francisco Charter allows some boards to recommend changes in rates, fees, and other charges, remove department heads, and hold hearings. But the current system adds another invisible factor to the review process: whether you’ve curried the favor of your Supervisor.
What should be a non-partisan, non-political selection process is skewed by whether your Supervisor views you as friend or foe. Surely no Supervisor would admit to letting their own political goals inform their review of applications, but it’s hard to imagine that Supervisors shed their political perspective when a board application comes across their desk. In my case, I have actively supported a recall effort of my Supervisor, Sandra Lee Fewer. So I am not optimistic that my applications to several boards will move forward. My likely rejection will come despite having demonstrated a passion for the City in addition to previously serving on similar boards in Portland, as well as at the statewide level in Oregon.
The current Supervisor-selected seats are out of sync with the City’s goals of encouraging transparency and fostering greater diversity of applicants. Supervisors have no specific criteria for how they are supposed to review applications nor any obligation to explain their rationale for ignoring or rejecting an application. It follows that applicants are effectively throwing their application into a black box, unless they have an “in” with the Supervisor and know that their materials will make it to the top of the pile. This is the sort of back-door, smoke-filled-room politicking that has given San Francisco a reputation for still being controlled by political machines, robbing “outsiders” of the due process to which they are entitled.
A district nominating committee would promote more participation by providing applicants with an opportunity to make their case before an impartial panel. These committees could host annual nominating sessions during which applicants for all vacancies could present oral or written testimony and answer questions from committee members. Members of the nominating committee could be elected by the community or appointed by the clerk of the Board of Supervisors. It’s true that these district nominating committees would add another layer to a bureaucracy that rivals Cholla bread for thickness, but the additional layer would be worth the added benefits of transparency and increased community participation.
A new decade brings new hope for a City that has seen inequality, homelessness and crime worsen in the last 10 years. Realizing that hope will be much easier if more San Franciscans have a stake in their community and local government. By designing our city government to facilitate participation rather than political pandering, more residents will have a chance to add their unique and diverse perspectives to how our City governs, acts and plans.
Kevin Frazier is a law school student at UC Berkeley and a Richmond District resident.