Ending the mayor’s commission monopoly

EDITORIAL Ten years ago, San Francisco voters took a huge step toward decentralizing control of city planning, approving a measure that splits the appointments to the powerful Planning Commission between the mayor and the Board of Supervisors. A year later, a similar change gave the supervisors a role in appointing Police Commission members.

By any rational account, it’s been a complete success. The commissions better reflect the diversity of opinion in the city, function well and are no longer complete rubber stamps for the mayor and his planning director and police chief.

The mayor still controls the majority on both panels; his ability to set the direction of city policy hasn’t been harmed. But there’s a least a chance for a dissenting voice or two.

Compare that to, say, the Recreation and Parks Commission.

Rec-Park is a disaster. The seven members are all appointed by the mayor. Some have little or no past experience in anything related to recreation or parks. One actually works as Mayor Ed Lee’s scheduler. Commission votes are nearly always unanimous and the panel supports the director more than 90 percent of the time.

The mayoral appointees have overseen the rampant privatization of public space and a change in direction that undermines the entire concept of urban parks. Rec-Park staff have been directed to find increased ways to turn the parks into cash machines, prioritizing revenue over public access.

The result: So many people are angry at the department that it’s possible San Francisco voters will reject a bond act in November aimed at providing badly needed money to fix up ailing parks and facilities.

The discontent with Rec-Park stems in significant part from the perception that the commission is inaccessible and uninterested in public input. Since all of the members typically line up in lockstep on every decision, there’s little discussion and less chance for opposing opinions to get heard.

There’s a pretty easy fix — the supervisors could put a charter amendment on the ballot giving the board three of the seven appointments. But that would leave a long list of other key commissions unchanged — and there’s no reason to address the problem piecemeal. It’s time for the supervisors to push a comprehensive reform package that redefines how every policy commission in the city is structured.

The reason district elections of supervisors has been such an unqualified success (and remains incredibly popular) is that it guarantees not only neighborhood input on issues but a diverse board. Fiscal conservatives have a voice; so do left-progressives. You won’t find that on most mayoral commissions; it’s very, very rare for a mayor to appoint someone who doesn’t share his or her policy perspectives.

The mayor of San Francisco — who needs to raise huge gobs of money to get elected, leaving him or her deeply in debt to powerful and wealthy individuals and interests — has too much power. That’s a basic problem in the City Charter. The supervisors should start holding hearings now on alternative approaches to a more equally shared governance. Splitting appointments to all commissions would be a great start.