A big step for public services

Pub date April 8, 2008
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The battle against privatization of public resources took a big step forward this week when Sup. Ross Mirkarimi introduced a measure to create a Public Services Advisory Board to monitor what he calls the creeping takeover of city government by private outfits.

The new agency would monitor outsourcing of public services and advise the supervisors on whether it makes fiscal and policy sense to turn city programs over to businesses and nonprofits.

It’s also a chance to push forward on public power, the disaster at the zoo, the move to privatize the golf courses and some parks, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s efforts to hand the city’s information technology infrastructure over to private companies, and the Presidio sellout.

The legislation is the first public effort of a new coalition called San Francisco Commons. The group includes labor, public power, neighborhood groups, and environmental activists and was formed to address the growing problem of the loss of public sector services. It’s a crucial new addition to the city’s political scene: the first organization specifically established to protect public services and public property.

The case against privatization is clear. Private entities aren’t required to make their finances public (even if they’re doing public service work with public money). And companies doing work on city contracts are motivated by profits, sometimes at the expense of the public interest. Typically, when private operators take over public services, the prices go up, worker pay goes down, and the quality of the delivery tanks. Just look at the Presidio, a national park that’s been turned into a private real estate development, or the zoo, where privatization has led to misspent funds, poor conditions for animals, and a tragic tiger escape. Or look at Edison School, the failed experiment in education privatization in San Francisco.

San Francisco ought to be in the forefront of the antiprivatization battle nationwide, and this new group and legislation is a good first step. The agenda for the new advisory board is extensive: the panel needs to look at every large and small privatization move at City Hall. It needs to evaluate and report to the supervisors on the flaws in the mayor’s schemes. It also needs to look forward actively at ways the city can bring more essential services under public control. That includes moving forward on community choice aggregation and then developing a plan to create a full-scale, citywide public power system. Public broadband service ought to be on the agenda, too.

The supervisors should approve Mirkarimi’s bill, and the sooner the better, before Newsom finds some more of San Francisco to put on the block.