Post image for The Woody Allen Axiom: Are City Commissioners Showing Up?

The Woody Allen Axiom: Are City Commissioners Showing Up?

by Larry Bush on 06/13/2011

in Empty Chairs

San Francisco taxpayers are on the hook for millions of dollars in benefits for city commissioners but the mayor’s office doesn’t know if they are showing up for work.

In fact, taxpayers are committed to pony up nearly twice as much toward the health care benefits of city commissioners than it does for full-time city workers.,

While city commissioners are paid a small stipend – usually only $50 or $100 for each meeting – only if they show up, the health care cost obligation isn’t related to attendance.

In 2006, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom directed city boards and commissions to forward attendance records for each commissioner at the end of every fiscal year. In cases where a commissioner missed three or more meetings, the commission secretary was directed to contact the mayor’s office so that a conference could be arranged with the commissioner.

But when CitiReport submitted a Sunshine Act request to the mayor’s office on May 22 for the records submitted by commissions for 2008, 2009 and 2010, the mayor’s office responded “we do not have responsive documents to your request.”

Similar requests to some 40 city boards and commissions turned up only two that were able to produce the documents that had been submitted in response to the mayor’s 2006 directive.

According to the City Attorney, just over 400 city commissioners and board members are eligible to participate in the city’s health plan, which is a more generous plan than many private sector plans or the federal government’s employee plan.

Participants and the city each pay a share of the cost of plan membership, with the city committed to pay about $272.03 a month for each city fulltime worker who enrolls, whether it is a firefighter, police officer, member of Local 1021 or any other. For city commissions and board members, however, the city commits to pay $503.94 each month.

While figures are not available on how many of the more than 400 eligible commissioners and board members do participate, if all who were eligible enrolled the annual cost would be more than $2.5 million and over the typical four-year term of a commissioner, would come to about $10 million.

Attendance Policy

San Francisco’s charter does not include attendance requirements for city commissioners, but failure to attend meetings can be grounds to be removed from office for official misconduct.

In his Guide to Good Government for Public Officials, City Attorney Dennis Herrera spells it out:

“Attending meetings is a fundamental part of a commissioner’s duties. Repeated failure of for‐cause commissioners to attend meetings could constitute official misconduct, which could lead to removal from the commission. Further, failing to attend meetings over a period of time could result in a finding that a commissioner has abandoned the position, causing the removal of the commissioner. San Francisco Administrative Code § 16.89‐17 (hereafter “Admin. Code”).

Herrera further advises city commissioners in the Guide that “It is important that members of boards and commissions regularly attend meetings not only so that they may contribute to the work of the body but also to assure that a quorum is present so that meetings may be held. To address these concerns, the Office of the Mayor has issued standards for commissioner attendance and the Board of Supervisors has passed a resolution urging boards and commissions to adopt internal policies regarding members’ attendance at meetings. Both of these documents are included in the Appendix to this Guide.”

Records of commission attendance policies, required by the Board of Supervisors in a measure sponsored by Supervisor Sean Elsbernd and then-supervisor Tom Ammiano, were to be submitted by the end of 2006. In 2010, the Board clerk reported that the submitted records could not be located and instead recommended that the minutes of each Board meeting be reviewed under “communications” to determine if the reports had been submitted.

CitiReport Survey

CitiReport sought records under the Sunshine Act from 40 city commissions and boards for any information on attendance of members for 2008, 2009 and 2010.  Seven commissions never responded, including the Health Commission and the Commission on the Status of Women and the Historic Preservation Commission. Others, like the Ethics Commission and Rent Board, said they had no attendance records. The Health Service System Board suggested paging through their meeting minutes to find attendance. The Elections Commission said they are only required to report attendance on one commissioner – the mayor’s appointee – and no records are kept on the other commissioners.

In all, 25 board and commission attendance records could be pieced together from commission responses, reviews of minutes and other sources (see accompanying post “By The Numbers”).

Not all commissions face the same level of responsibilities and, in one case, meets only once a year. The Relocation Appeals Board meets only once a year, and one member was absent all three years. The Film Commission is one of the largest, and some members, like filmmaker Joan Chen, likely are chosen for their industry contacts and the prestige they bring.

The Treasure Island Development Authority attendance fell because city department heads appointed by the mayor don’t attend as regularly as the citizen members, which may in itself be a red flag since so much is at stake in coordinating the Treasure Island plan with other city agencies.

But even after the mayor’s and board’s policies were announced and supposedly put into effect, commissions were found to have cancelled meetings because a quorum could not be seated.

In a September 25, 2007 San Francisco Chronicle article (“Who’s In Charge Here”), the paper reported that the San Francisco Housing Authority had cancelled a third of its meetings “at a time when the agency is under sharp criticism  for failing to maintain apartments and faces serious financial problems and a looming takeover by a court-appointed receiver.”

The Housing Authority is one of the city boards that reported it currently has no attendance records.

Mayor Lee to Launch Public Disclosure Site

Mayor Lee’s office said last week that he will launch a central site that discloses attendance for all city commissions and commissioners, following on his earlier initiative to make upcoming commission vacancies transparent to the public. The new initiative comes following information provided to the mayor’s office from the CitiReport survey and documentation of the city’s administrative code regarding official misconduct.

The new initiative replaces Mayor Newsom’s 2006 directive, which the mayor’s office said was not a formal policy.

The transparent record will likely begin in the next quarter, which starts in July, and will be updated quarterly.

According to Christine Falvey, the mayor’s spokesperson, the mayor also will review attendance records as a factor when commissioners term concludes and a reappointment is possible or appointment to a different body. She had no comment on whether there is a minimal attendance standard that will be applied.

The Woody Allen Rule and City Commissioners

The Woody Allen dictum observes that “80 percent of success is showing up.”

By that measure, seven city boards and commissions have an average attendance that fails.

* Film Commission – 65%

* Housing Authority – 74%

* Human Rights Commission – 73%

* Public Utilities Commission – 78%

* Relocation Appeals Board – 60%

* Treasure Island Authority – 74%

Commissions that provided data generally noted whether a commissioner’s absence was excused. Especially for commissions that meet weekly or twice-monthly, it’s not always possible to attend every meeting. Business, family and health reasons could take precedence on occasion.

Still, when a commissioner misses half or more of all meetings on a regular basis, the question arises whether the public is being served or if the commissioner is just enjoying the title and prestige that goes with the appointment. (See related post on the Human Rights Commission attendance)

When City Attorney Dennis Herrera introduced his Good Government Guide for 2010-2011, he did so with a quote from Franklin Knight Lane, one of his predecessors as City Attorney:

“No man should have a political office because he wants a job. A public office is not a job. It is an opportunity to do something for the public. And once in office, it remains for him to prove that the opportunity was not wasted.”

Of all the ways to measure whether a public official is wasting the opportunity to serve the public, perhaps the most straightforward and simple is to determine whether he or she is showing up for work.

(Some information from this survey also appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle’s op-ed “Where’s The Beef” by Larry Bush on June 13, 2011.)


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