City meetings should be held at the convenience of the people who are being governed. (Courtesy photo)

Why does San Francisco make it so hard to attend city meetings?

Why should we have to pay exorbitant prices just because we want to participate in city government?

Last month, I attended a meeting of the San Francisco Animal Control and Welfare Commission at City Hall. The commission advises the Board of Supervisors on animal issues and meets on the third Thursday of the month at 5:30 pm.

As is often the case, I was running late. I arrived at 5:15, later than I prefer but with plenty of time to park in the City Hall parking garage and still make the meeting. I drove because I knew I’d be there long after it was dark and, to be honest, I don’t feel particularly safe walking alone – and without a crowd to blend into – at night from City Hall to the Muni stations on Market.

I was shocked to be told as I entered the garage that “Special Event Parking” rates were in effect and anyone entering the garage would have to pay $25, no matter how long they stayed or why they were there.

I don’t mind people who use city-owned parking garages while attending special events having to pay more for that privilege. But what about those of us who were there to attend the commission meeting? Why should we have to pay exorbitant prices just because we want to participate in city government?

I hadn’t seen any street parking as I drove into the garage, and I worried that I was about to miss the beginning of the meeting. So, I sucked it up and paid the $25.

It got me thinking about how difficult San Francisco makes it to participate in city government. Most commission meetings and all Board of Supervisor meetings take place during the day. If you feel strongly about an issue under discussion, you have to take time off work to go to City Hall and speak. That’s not a problem for those of us who are retired. But it means people who can’t get time off work cannot fully participate in policy decisions and discussions.

I know some meetings, like those of the full Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission, can last for hours. Starting those meetings late in the day is really not an option, unless you want to be at City Hall long after midnight.

But other meetings could easily start later in the afternoon and still be over in time for everyone to get dinner. The full Recreation and Park Commission, for example, starts its meetings at 10 am. That means if you work and you want to attend, you have to take the entire day off, since you can’t guarantee you’ll be done by noon. If they started at 3 or 4 pm, however, you’d only have to miss an afternoon’s work.

After all, city meetings should be held at the convenience of the people who are being governed – and who want to participate – not at times that are convenient for the politicians or commissioners.

Then there’s the parking issue. I don’t understand how a city-owned parking garage can justify charging a special event parking rate to people who just want to attend an official commission meeting. At the very least, they should wait until after all such meetings have started – that is, after 5:30 or 6 pm – before charging the special event rate.

But then the question arises how do you distinguish between those who are there on city business and the event goers? Other parking garages in San Francisco, like the one underneath the Kaiser Permanente doctors’ office building on Geary, validate parking for people patronizing the business. Anyone without validation pays a higher rate.

So why doesn’t The City set up a system of parking validation for commission and supervisors’ meetings? You could, for example, get your parking ticket stamped by the commission secretary. Then, you would either pay the usual hourly parking rate even if there was a special event going on, or, perhaps, pay a flat parking fee of $5 or $10.

San Francisco should do everything it can to encourage people to participate in city government. If that means starting meetings later in the day or not gouging meeting attendees with exorbitant parking fees, then that’s what The City should do.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.

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