Why S.F. seems impossible to govern, Part I — The city administrator

The city administrator, before and after Proposition E

San Franciscans constantly talk about the future of The City and the foibles, missteps and — every now and then — accomplishments of our local leaders. Whether you are a progressive who voted for Chesa Boudin and think London Breed is too conservative, a moderate who supports Breed but views the Board of Supervisors as a bit too far left, or a conservative who thinks The City has been misgoverned by left-wing radicals for at least a generation, it is essential to understand the basic structures that frame San Francisco politics.

It is also essential to understand that these political structures are often unique to The City.

Over the next few weeks, I will explore several of these structures, beginning this week with the city administrator. The city administrator is kind of a chief operating officer responsible for overseeing 25 city commissions, boards and departments, including the departments of real estate, public works and the Medical Examiner’s Office.

In 1995, the role of the city administrator changed dramatically when San Francisco voters approved Proposition E, a charter reform initiative that reduced the city administrator’s tenure from 10 to five years and strengthened the role of the mayor at the expense of the city administrator.

Additionally, per the new charter, the mayor and Board of Supervisors could remove the city administrator for any reason. Before Prop. E, the chief administrative officer, as the position was known then, could be removed only for misconduct. The new charter meant that the mayor had more power to make governance more politicized, but also that voters could hold someone directly accountable for the management of city government.

That 1995 charter reform reshaped San Francisco government in ways that are still felt today. The question of whether that was for the better or worse is worth exploring.

On balance, the current system seems to be the worst of both worlds. The city administrator role seems like an impractical arrangement: The bureaucrat has just enough independence to disperse mayoral power, but not enough independence to have any meaningful job security or political base separate from the mayor. In other words, it is easy for the mayor to blame the city administrator if San Francisco is being managed poorly, but the city administrator doesn’t have enough power to manage the city better.

Another important thing to know about the city administrator position is that not all cities have them.

The position arose as a reaction to corruption in many cities around the turn of the last century. The quixotic belief that we can have governance without politics has been around for a long time, but it is never simple. There is some evidence that anti-corruption roles worked during the last century, when cities like Chicago, New York and Boston (which did not have city managers) were probably more corrupt than California cities like San Francisco or San Diego (which had city managers).

Unlike California cities, most big cities on the East Coast and in the Midwest vest all executive power and control over the executive branch of government in the mayor. The closest thing to a chief administrator in a city like Chicago or New York is the first deputy mayor or the mayor’s chief of staff, but those are not independent offices and they serve entirely at the pleasure of the mayor.

The current city administrator, Carmen Chu, was appointed by Breed in January after the previous city administrator, Naomi Kelly, resigned due to a corruption scandal. Chu, in accordance with the current charter, was appointed to a five-year term and confirmed by the Board of Supervisors. That five-year term can be renewed, but Chu, like any San Francisco city administrator, can be removed by the mayor and Board of Supervisors.

This process gives the chief administrator some independence from the mayor, but because the term is only five years and subject to removal for any reason, any city administrator who differs too much with the mayor and the board risks losing the job.

Some more history is helpful here. This idea behind the city administrator was that much of city governance is simply management with no place for politics, and thus an appointed official with some independence could focus on management issues. The idea that a city administrator can avoid being caught in the never-ending maw of politics makes some intuitive sense. But the evidence is mixed.

Although corruption scandals seem to have plagued Breed throughout her term in office, it is not as if before 1996 there was no corruption in San Francisco. High profile cases such as the corruption around the construction of Candlestick Park in the late 1950s, the approval of Pier 39 in the 1970s and the scandals that erupted periodically before the charter reform of 1996 have long been part of political life in San Francisco.

On balance, the notion that the city administrator is above politics doesn’t pass the smell test.

Chu was a member of the Board of Supervisors before she became city administrator. Ed Lee, who served as mayor for almost eight years before his untimely death in 2017, had previously been city administrator. One of the last chief administrative officers was Roger Boas, who was appointed by George Moscone in 1977 and ran for mayor in 1987. Boas went on to be caught in a prostitution ring that led to his conviction for statutory rape. Rudy Nothenberg, who succeeded Boas, had a very strong understanding of budgets and governance, but also had deep political ties to both Willie Brown and Moscone.

Chu, like all other post-1996 city administrators, lacks the independence or power to stand up to the mayor and genuinely put governance above politics. But the existence of the position gives the mayor an excuse if The City is not well run, while also taking some responsibilities away from elected officials who voters could choose to throw out of office.

There was something undemocratic about the old city adminstrator system that gave an unelected bureaucrat an enormous amount of power. Still, San Francisco’s hybrid is the worst of both worlds. Rather than improve governance, the current city administrator role has just made The City’s politics and management more byzantine.

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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