Towards a Radical, Inclusive, Democratic San Francisco
By Harry S. Pariser
Save for those who benefit and are in control, every long-term resident must be taken aback by the transformation of a once friendly, once affordable small city, one filled with quirky characters and small businesses into a cold, metal-and-glass-and concrete theme park for techies and tourists. Unaffordable entry fees, scooters on the sidewalks and advertising everywhere have become the status quo, while the voices of ordinary citizens are disenfranchised and even belittled by politicians.
As ground zero for global capital, much of this, in retrospect, comes as no surprise. The forces of gentrification, of displacement and of endless profit are international. Rusting steel “street furniture” is merchandized by a Dutch company. Gentrification chop shop SPUR, having helped make mincemeat of San Francisco’s economic and ethnic diversity for decades, has moved to expand in other cities — its former head having moved to Sydney, Australia to further pillage that urban environment. Swedish implant Vision Zero commands astonishing continental reach.
Against this, ordinary people stand virtually defenseless, Only a few small organizations that fight for ordinary people. We have little ability to fight for policies that truly represent us. However, it is not only the corporate right who can use Covid-19 as an opportunity: citizens can as well.
Here are some suggestions that might greatly improve citizen input in San Francisco:
Weaken the “Strong Mayor”
The “strong mayor” policy has been a disaster for our urban polity. We need to preen the office of its bloated budget while creating more avenues for diverse opinions.
Expand the Board of Supervisors
Population has soared, whereas representation has not. More district supervisors would mean more citizen input, a greater diversity of viewpoints, and less ability for real estate and other special interests to influence elections. While more legislators are expensive, bad decisions and white elephants are more costly to the collective purse.
Improve Citizen Communications and Input
Supervisors must hold a mandate to conduct regular community meetings in which forthcoming legislation will be discussed, as well as the content of recent discussions of every lobbyists. Representatives may also use their email newsletters to solicit opinions. The current system, where only members of a committee have the chance to hear public comment, needs to be changed to one where, if a minimum of three supervisors concur, the entire Board will hear public comments before it votes on select legislation, despite a committee having already heard public comment. This affords the entire Board to hear what San Franciscans are thinking and feeling, so that they have to carefully consider their vote. Additionally, hearings on important issues should be held, rather than have these solely debated in meetings.
Improve Department Outreach
Departments and Agencies need to be strictly directed to publicize community meetings about projects, which must be held on a regular schedule. Meetings must be publicized at least a month in advance. Citizen input should be welcomed and notes taken. We need to stop employing biased surveys and have projects discussed from the genesis of the concept, so that residents can critique projects and prevent future white elephants.
Any nonprofit doing business with the city needs to have Trustee Notes regularly available, access to trustee meetings and, in most instances, regular community meetings. This is especially true in the case of “public private partnerships” and our cultural institutions.
The Police Commission, Planning Commission and Recreation, SFMTA Commission and Park Commission need to be elected. We also need a public advocate (to whom citizens can voice their concerns and will present those concerns before the full Commission in question) for each commission. Websites need to be updated, and publicity needs to be substantially increased. Session minutes need to be posted regularly.
Sunshine and Government Transparency
The Ethics Commission needs to be strengthened, with members appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The Sunshine Act needs to be strengthened.
In a city where entrenched interests will do anything they need to in order to have their way, any type of change is difficult. Although the odds of success are slim, as we can not reasonably expect the cat to bell itself, we need to remember that San Francisco is ground zero for global capital, so any positive reforms will be shots to the bow of neoliberalism, ones which will reverberate loudly around the world.
Harry S. Parisewr is a longtime resident of the Inner Sunset District, an artist, writer and photographer.