San Francisco declared the Worst-Run Big City in the U.S.
Spend more. Get less. We’re the city that knows how.
by Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi
Despite its good intentions, San Francisco is not leading the country in gay marriage. Despite its good intentions, it is not stopping wars. Despite its spending more money per capita on homelessness than any comparable city, its homeless problem is worse than any comparable city’s. Despite its spending more money per capita, period, than almost any city in the nation, San Francisco has poorly managed, budget-busting capital projects, overlapping social programs no one is certain are working, and a transportation system where the only thing running ahead of schedule is the size of its deficit.
It’s time to face facts: San Francisco is spectacularly mismanaged and arguably the worst-run big city in America. This year’s city budget is an astonishing $6.6 billion — more than twice the budget for the entire state of Idaho — for roughly 800,000 residents. Yet despite that stratospheric amount, San Francisco can’t point to progress on many of the social issues it spends liberally to tackle — and no one is made to answer when the city comes up short.
The city’s ineptitude is no secret. “I have never heard anyone, even among liberals, say, ‘If only [our city] could be run like San Francisco,'” says urbanologist Joel Kotkin. “Even other liberal places wouldn’t put up with the degree of dysfunction they have in San Francisco. In Houston, the exact opposite of San Francisco, I assume you’d get shot.”
Who is to blame for this city’s wretched state of affairs? Yomi Agunbiade, that’s who. Metaphorically, that is.
An engineer by trade, Agunbiade was appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom to head the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department in 2004. Even before Agunbiade’s tenure, Rec and Park was the department other city departments pointed and laughed at — but under Agunbiade, it became Amy Poehler funny.
During his reign, an audit revealed, rec centers frequently didn’t open, because staff simply didn’t show up — and the department had no process to do anything about it. Good news: New rec centers were slated to open. Bad news: Agunbiade’s department had no plan for how to staff them. But that wasn’t enough to cost Agunbiade his job.
When the city controller’s office made the common-sense recommendation that groundskeepers ought to be where they were assigned to be when they’re supposed to be there, Agunbiade fought them on it for three years. Running a department where no one knows where anyone is — and no one even wants to know? Not a problem.
Then a report by the city’s budget analyst found massive fiscal mismanagement at the Marina Yacht Harbor, which is run by Rec and Park. Perhaps so much money wouldn’t have gone unaccounted for, the audit suggested, if the department had installed a cash register. Still, not a problem for Agunbiade. Other reports exposed one organizational or fiscal snafu after another, but his position was secure. In San Francisco, running a city department like a Franz Kafka nightmare doesn’t cost a decisionmaker his job.
Then, in July 2008, we apparently discovered what does. Rec and Park spokeswoman Rose Dennis claimed that Agunbiade had been sexually and religiously harassing her for years, and produced letters he’d sent to her home as evidence. She confirmed to SF Weekly that Agunbiade’s letters urged her to stop wearing revealing clothes so that she could get right with Jesus. Though she didn’t release the letters publicly, Dennis did bring them to the city attorney’s office — which determined that this could turn into a messy lawsuit.
Agunbiade was subsequently called in to chat with Newsom. The conversation between the mayor-who-slept-with-his-appointments-secretary and the department-head-accused-of-sexually-and-religiously-harassing-his-spokeswoman (in writing!) must have been one for the ages. Whatever was said, the outcome was this: Agunbiade resigned not long after, and Dennis this year received a $91,000 settlement from the city.
Minus the alleged harassment, city government is filled with Yomi Agunbiades — and they’re hardly ever disciplined, let alone fired. When asked, former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin couldn’t remember the last time a higher-up in city government was removed for incompetence. “There must have been somebody,” he said at last, vainly searching for a name.
Accordingly, millions of taxpayer dollars are wasted on good ideas that fail for stupid reasons, and stupid ideas that fail for good reasons, and hardly anyone is taken to task.
The intrusion of politics into government pushes the city to enter long-term labor contracts it obviously can’t afford, and no one is held accountable. A belief that good intentions matter more than results leads to inordinate amounts of government responsibility being shunted to nonprofits whose only documented achievement is to lobby the city for money. Meanwhile, piles of reports on how to remedy these problems go unread. There’s no outrage, and nobody is disciplined, so things don’t get fixed.
San Francisco is the city that simply will not hold itself accountable.
Here are a few examples of the best of San Francisco at its worst.
Finding books in the library is easy: There are logical, organized systems in place. Finding where the money to build libraries went — that’s hard. Last year, the Civil Grand Jury could not find — we reiterate, could not find — up-to-date budget numbers for the city’s Branch Library Improvement Program. The numbers that were available aren’t pretty: Voters approved a $106 million bond in 2000 to rebuild 19 libraries, and $28 million more was ponied up by the state and private donors. That money was spent without a coherent building plan being formulated between the Library Commission and Department of Public Works — leading to such large cost overruns and long delays that the commission abandoned five of the projects. In 2007, the city went back to the voters, asking for another $50 million for libraries — without publicizing that this would fund the five unfinished projects voters had already paid for. Voters approved it. After all, who doesn’t like libraries?
In 2002, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the city had, for decades, been siphoning nearly $700 million from its Hetch Hetchy water system into the San Francisco General Fund instead of maintaining the aging aqueduct. Several mayors and boards of supervisors used that money to fund pet causes, and the Public Utilities Commission didn’t say no. Unfortunately, spending maintenance money elsewhere doesn’t diminish the need for maintenance. By 2002, the water system was in such desperate condition that voters were asked to pass a $3.6 billion bond measure to make overdue fixes. Obligingly, they did — who doesn’t like water? Since then, the projected costs have swelled by $1 billion. So far.
Back in 1999, San Francisco voters were pitched a $299 million bond to “save” Laguna Honda Hospital as a 1,200-bed facility for the city’s frail, elderly population. Who doesn’t want to help the frail and elderly? A decade later, the Department of Public Works project is still incomplete, its price tag has swelled by nearly $200 million, and the hospital is slated to hold only 780 beds — so the city is going massively overbudget to construct a hospital only 65 percent as large as promised, which is four years behind schedule.
Amazingly, this gets worse. After securing the bond funding to save Laguna Honda as a hospital for the elderly, the Department of Public Health began transferring younger, often dangerous and mentally ill patients there and mixing them among the old people. This went about as well as you’d think: A 2006 state and federal licensing survey noted numerous instances of elder abuse, staff abuse, and patients toting drugs, alcohol, and even loaded weapons. One patient was assaulted four times in four months; to address this problem, staff erected signs reading “No Hitting.” (That didn’t work.) To cap it off, elder activists now worry that a 2009 Department of Public Health–commissioned report will pave the way for even more relatively young, mentally ill patients heading to Laguna Honda. The massively overbudget, behind-schedule hospital may not even end up primarily serving the elderly population that voters were promised it would.
These are dramatic examples of how the city wasted time and money and made people’s lives miserable — with no apparent repercussions for those responsible. But these are far from isolated incidents (see the “Annals of Incompetence” sidebar on page 12). And in each case, it comes back to the same basic problem of accountability: Plenty of public figures make promises, but no one is responsible for keeping them.
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