I love walking into City Hall. My spirit lifts as I approach that sparkling dome, gleaming with promise, making every other building in its shadow seem half-asleep. Striding up the broad-shouldered Polk Street steps, I think about how they have been host to thousands of protests, celebrations, announcements, civic gatherings over the years, with one sometimes underway as I pass by.
Moving through the heavy, gold-trimmed City Hall doors, I now remember with a smile the day just over a year ago when I stood and watched couple after happy couple burst through those doors to announce to the outside world that they were finally, legally, married, period. Finally, I step into the well of the City Hall rotunda. I always remind myself to turn my eyes upwards to catch a glimpse of that gorgeous Beaux-Arts ceiling hanging in space, captured in place for our permanent viewing pleasure when it was rebuilt from The City's ashes a century ago.
But then, after I head up the grand staircase and walk past the hopeful Harvey Milk sculpture to the second floor — where the real business of City Hall gets done — that's where the bright glow of “The People's House” slowly, but inexorably, starts to fade away these days. Because now, more than ever, City Hall seriously needs some fresh air.
Just look at the way the current mayoral administration and most supervisors react to independent policy critiques or outside, objective proposals for change: as attacks on their turf that they automatically reject. A prime example was the dog-and-pony show of a public hearing before the Board of Supervisors Government Audit and Oversight Committee this month about the civil grand jury's report on the trials and tribulations of San Francisco's waterfront titled “The Port of San Francisco: Caught Between Public Trust and Private Dollars.”
The independent civil grand jury is a healthy part of San Francisco's often-dysfunctional democracy, comprised of 19 volunteers from all walks of life who selflessly devote hundreds of hours over the course of each year to scrutinize the conduct of public business in The City. This year's civil grand jury recognized the things the Port has done well, such as steadily expanding the parks, walkways and open space that allow more public access to the waterfront than ever before, such as the newly opened Pier 27 public park.
But the civil grand jury also examined the deep dysfunctions with the current Port Commission's approach to managing the waterfront that resulted in two overwhelming votes by the people over the last year roundly rejecting the Port's drive to rewrite waterfront height-limit rules for tall luxury condos and high-rises. The civil grand jury's offered recommendations to guide the Port out of its political morass and reconnect it with its mission of stewarding the waterfront, not dividing it up amongst the highest bidders.
Key recommendations from the civil grand jury report include: 1) Strengthening enforcement of the Waterfront Land Use Plan to break the pattern of rewriting existing rules for politically-juiced developments; 2) Expanding public outreach and citizen engagement in Port operations and decisions to reduce the disconnect between the people and the Port; and 3) Putting a ballot measure before voters in November 2015 that would begin the process of restructuring the Port Commission to ensure a balance of perspectives rather than continuing to allow only the mayor to appoint all five Port commissioners.
But instead of even attempting to follow the civil grand jury's carefully designed road map, the current regime at City Hall simply crumpled it up and tossed it out. Mayor Ed Lee dashed off a letter rejecting the civil grand jury's key recommendations. In response to the grand jury's No. 1 recommendation that the Port Commission be balanced with people who have perspectives other than the mayor's, Lee scoffed: “This recommendation is unnecessary and there appears to be no perceivable benefit.”
Similarly, the Audit and Oversight Committee failed to engage in any real oversight at all at the public hearing on the civil grand jury's report. Committee Chairwoman London Breed simply read from prepared remarks that went down the line discarding nearly all of the civil grand jury's recommendations as either redundant or unnecessary.
I still love walking into City Hall. But we need a fresh breeze to blow through and cut the stale air that makes it all too easy for public officials to dismiss independent voices like the civil grand jury and continue with the business-as-usual that is turning San Francisco into such an unaffordable and inhospitable city.
City Hall needs to again live up to the promise of the place, captured in words by former Mayor Edward Robeson Taylor and carved into stone high in the rotunda, calling out to all who look up: “San Francisco, O glorious city of our hearts that hast been tried and not found wanting, go thou with like spirit to make the future thine.”
Jon Golinger is an environmental attorney who lives in North Beach.