Why S.F. seems impossible to govern, Part II — The seven citywide elected officials

The mayor, the Board of Supervisors, the six electeds and the slow churn of government

Read Part I of Lincoln Mitchell’s series on understanding San Francisco politics: The city attorney.

San Francisco’s current mayor, London Breed, like most of her predecessors, is very well known in The City. District Attorney Chesa Boudin — because of his progressive politics, efforts to reform the criminal justice system and the recall effort seeking to oust him — is also close to a household name in San Francisco. But the same cannot be said about the other five citywide elected officials.

How many San Franciscans know the name of the assessor-recorder or the treasurer and tax collector? The sheriff, public defender and city attorney all have very important jobs, but how many San Franciscans can remember the difference between these offices or who they voted for in the last election for these positions?

San Francisco’s seven citywide elected officials number more than twice as many as those in New York City, Los Angeles or Chicago, which each have three. This is partially because San Francisco is both a city and a county so the district attorney and sheriff positions that are elected at the county level elsewhere are also citywide elected officials.

Recently, when Dennis Herrera became the general manager of the Public Utilities Commission, Mayor Breed appointed David Chiu, who was then a California state assemblyman, to lead the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office. Most of the coverage of that development focused on speculation about who Breed would pick to succeed Herrera, and then who would succeed Chiu in the assembly. However, much less attention was paid to reminding those San Franciscans who are not lawyers and do not follow politics closely what exactly the city attorney does.

Turns out the city attorney, which is an elected position in most California cities, but generally not in the rest of the country, has a great deal of power.

The city attorney acts as the legal representative for the city of San Francisco — and in that capacity not only defends the city in lawsuits, but also can bring lawsuits or charges on issues ranging from climate change to gun reform to tenants’ rights. The public defender, which is also not an elected office in most big cities, has the important job of providing legal counsel to defendants who could not otherwise afford representation. In most cities, these essential services are coordinated by a public defender who is appointed by the county legislature, as in Chicago and Los Angeles, or by a semi-governmental agency like the Legal Aid Society in New York City.

All cities wrestle with the balance between elected and appointed offices doing important government functions, while some elected offices have no real purpose at all.

In New York City, the city attorney’s functions are performed by the corporation counsel who is appointed by the mayor. This concentrates more power in the mayor’s office, while creating fewer checks on mayoral power. Additionally, New York elects a citywide public advocate and five borough presidents. These officeholders have virtually no responsibilities or power and spend much of their time running for higher office. The current mayor of New York City and attorney general of the state of New York are former public advocates. Mayor-elect Eric Adams is currently Brooklyn borough president and, well, you get the point.

San Francisco does not have New York City’s problem of elected officials with no meaningful job to do. But because there are so many citywide elected officials in San Francisco compared to most other cities, executive power is dispersed and the power of the legislature is weakened.

In many cities, the work that in San Francisco is done by the city attorney, assessor-recorder and tax collector is done by people who are not elected, but appointed by the mayor, so executive power in a city like New York or Chicago is much more highly concentrated in the mayor. She or he is ultimately responsible for decisions about who the city should sue and how well the taxes are collected. San Francisco mayors do not have that kind of power.

On the one hand, there is something intuitively appealing about limiting how much power any one person has. Yet this approach can make it more difficult for any mayor to implement his or her plans or vision, while at the same time voters who don’t know the name of the tax collector or city attorney will hold the mayor responsible for conditions in the city.

Because the mayor is the chief executive, it is natural for voters to think the buck stops there — and to hold her accountable for what happens in city government. But in San Francisco the buck might stop at the independently elected city attorney’s or tax collector’s desk. For example, it was the city attorney, not the mayor, who sued the school board earlier this year in an effort to reopen the schools for in-person learning. Mayor Breed supported the idea, but it was not her office that did it.

As with the city administrator, dispersing executive power leads to a tradeoff between possibly reducing the opportunity for corruption on the one hand, while creating a government that is a bit more unwieldy and nontransparent on the other. It also means that crafting solutions to San Francisco’s problems requires leaping interlocking political hurdles: The mayor and the Board of Supervisors must come to some kind of agreement; and the mayor must coordinate and convince other citywide elected officials, who have their own ambitions and have no particular reason to be loyal to her, to support the policies.

The net effect of this is that The City’s governing structures, which weaken the power of the mayor and the Board of Supervisors in favor of appointed positions like the city administrator and other citywide elected officials, slow down the government while making it more complicated for voters to understand.

The chattering classes in San Francisco, as well as nationally, have agreed that the problem of governance in San Francisco is that The City’s leadership has veered too far left. However, a more accurate, albeit less exciting explanation, may be that unwieldy political structures and dispersed power contribute to making this very politically competitive city difficult to govern.

Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles about The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.

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