The City and County of San Francisco maintains more than 60 commissions and boards, which’re overseen by individuals nominated either by the Mayor or the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (BoS), and confirmed by the BoS. Each of these bodies is responsible, in some fashion, for a different issue area.
For example, of the seven seats on the Police or Planning commissions, four are filled by the Mayor and three by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. All of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency commissioners are appointed by the Mayor, subject to BoS approval.
According to Wilson L. Ng, BoS records manager, many commissions impose four year terms, though “terms vary depending on the commission or board.” Wilson said “there is no average” tenure for commissioners; the amount of years served “widely varies depending on the body. Most Board-appointed bodies are unpaid. Appointees on less than a handful of Board-appointed may receive a stipend either per meeting or month. That stipend is $100 or less.”
Members of the Assessment Appeals Board and Local Agency Formation Commission receive $100 per meeting; Public Utilities Commission Revenue Bond Oversight Committee members garner $100 a month; and Golden Gate Bridge Highway & Transportation District members pocket $50 per meeting.
The City’s Department of Human Resources doesn’t maintain records of commissioner demographics, making it challenging to ascertain when a particular commissioner is first appointed. A small number of commissioners have served since the mid-1990s. The longest standing official is Dr. Edward A. Chow, now president of the San Francisco Health Commission, who was first appointed commissioner in 1989. Chow is a practicing internist and treasurer of the National Council of Asian Pacific Islander Physicians. His commission oversees more than $1 billion of annual public expenditures on health facilities and services, including Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital.
Professor Jay Gonzales, chairperson for the Department of Public Administration at Golden Gate University, served two separate four year terms on the Immigrant Commission, from 2001 to 2004 and 2007 to 2010. “The purpose of commissions and boards is to allow citizens to have direct involvement in the running of their government,” he explained.
According to District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen, San Franciscans can apply to be appointed to a commission or board at City Hall. Applicants are interviewed by the Rules Committee, a body which currently consists of Cohen, District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang, and District 1 Supervisor Eric Mar. If the would-be commissioner passes the interview, she or he is presented to the Board for possible appointment. If approved by a majority of the BoS, she or he stands by until the next induction ceremony; the Mayor swears in new commissioners every two to three months.
Cohen stated that the City will often leave seats on boards and commissions vacant until the BoS finds someone who is a good fit. Since commissions are supposed to provide “another layer of due diligence” and bring the public into the decision making process, there’s no rush to fill empty seats, as the Board needs to undertake “lots of thought and consideration” when making selections, she said. BoS votes on proposed commissioners are rarely unanimous. According to Cohen, “all appointments are controversial.” Once an application is presented to the BoS, lobbying often ensues, with recommendation letters and references sent to City Hall for consideration.
Cohen pushes for diversity, especially for women, but also people of color, LGBT, and with disabilities, which she believes leads to more insightful and balanced expertise and viewpoints.
According to Gonzales, some boards or commissions are particularly influential or prized to be on, especially “those that oversee government agencies with large budgets – e.g., Police – as well as the ones that influence zoning, planning, and parking.” The Planning, Port, Municipal Transportation Agency, and Police commissions are powerful bodies, according to Cohen, Tang, and Hilary Ronen, legislative aide to District 9 Supervisor David Campos, and a candidate to replace him when he’s termed out this November.
Roberta Boomer, secretary for the SFMTA Board of Directors/Parking Authority Commission, agreed that her board has particular influence in the City. “In 1999, San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure that gave the MTA Board of Directors broad powers with regard to setting policy for the SFMTA,” she explained. “The SFMTA has to prepare a two-year budget for submission to the Mayor and Board of Supervisors, which includes allocations from the City’s General Fund.” Meetings can last three hours or more; there’s currently one vacant seat on the board.
Past SFMTA board members have gone on to careers in politics. “Dennis Herrera, originally a member of the Public Transportation Commission” – the precursor agency to the MTA – “is San Francisco’s City Attorney,” said Boomer. “Jose Cisneros, original member of the MTA Board of Directors, is San Francisco’s Treasurer and other former members of the Board serve on CCSF boards and commissions.”
“Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom started his political career as a parking commissioner,” said Gonzales.
The Planning Commission, which is responsible for oversight of the Planning Department’s budget, approving land use permits, among other things, has seven seats and meets every Thursday at noon. Commissioners are paid $250 per meeting, higher than average because meetings can last as long as ten hours.
Rich Hollis has been a Planning Commissioner for four years. Before joining, he worked for fifteen years as a project manager on San Francisco land use projects, such as the freeway teardown on Octavia and remodeling Union Square. He described the Commission as being comprised of members with “mixed expertise; some architectural people, some land use experts, others neighborhood residents.”
Hollis’ colleague, Cindy Wu, has also served on the Planning Commission for four years. She’s one of two deputy directors at the Chinatown Community Development Center, and briefly served on the Citizens Advisory Committee Transit Authority.
“Many commissions must approve department budgets and could hold up the budget process if they didn’t agree with the department’s decisions,” said Ronen. Gonzales agreed that commissions can have a significant effect on City expenditures, “since some commissions oversee government agencies with large budgets, e.g., Airport or Parking.” Cohen asserted that boards and commissions “absolutely” influence City expenditures. Health and MTA commissions provide “fiduciary oversight and advice” in their respective areas, she said, which represent two of the largest budgets in the City.
City Hall gatherings of the San Francisco Police Commission, charged with overseeing the San Francisco Police Department, can be tense and energetic, marked by attendees voicing their alarm about police conduct and the potential use of Tasers. Suzy Loftus, commission president, manages this public outcry with assertive poise, often interrupting speakers for exceeding their allotted three minutes. Last month she called a two hour recess in the face of spirited protestors, who successfully called for the firing of Police Chief Greg Suhr.
Loftus, who is assistant director for the California Attorney General’s law division, responsible for managing evidence and witness protection programs, was nominated president of the Police Commission by Mayor Ed Lee in 2012. In addition to Loftus, the Commission consists of vice president L. Julius M. Turman, Thomas Mazzucco, Petra DeJesus, Dr. Joseph Marshall, Victor Hwang, and Sonia E. Malera. DeJesus, on the board since 2005, is a litigator for Kazan Law. Malera, appointed in 2014, is executive director of Rally Family Visitation Services of Saint Francis.
Turman, appointed by Lee in 2011, is a labor and employment practice leader for Reed Smith, and a former New Jersey assistant U.S. attorney. His nomination to the Commission was controversial. According to a May 2011 SFWeekly article, a former boyfriend accused Turman of beating him up. The accuser declined to press charges until two weeks after the incident. Though Turman maintained it was an incident of self-defense, and the charges were ultimately dropped by prosecutors, the accusation resulted in a civil court settlement. After the accusations became public Turman withdrew his application for a seat on the Ethics Commission, though he was confirmed for the Police Commission by the BoS.
Thomas “Tippy” Mazzucco, nominated by Gavin Newsom in 2012, is a former assistant U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, and former assistant District Attorney for San Francisco who specializes in commercial, corporate and general litigation, white collar criminal defense, grand jury representation, and internal corporate investigations. Marshall, who has been vocally disturbed by police procedures in regards to recent shootings, is a community activist, radio host, and author of 1996 Oprah-lauded bestseller Street Soldier: One Man’s Struggle to Save a Generation, One Life at a Time. He was first appointed in 2004.
Hwang, who is a San Francisco Superior Court candidate in this month’s election, is an attorney with twenty-plus years’ experience in civil rights, criminal, and family law. His 2014 unseating of former commissioner Angela Chan was controversial, occurring after an hour-long Board of Supervisors’ debate. The Board confirmed him on a seven to four vote, taken in what the SF Examiner termed “a backdrop of contentious politics.” The San Francisco Bay Guardian reported that Hwang’s “sudden candidacy took many off guard.” Norman Yee, David Campos, John Avalos, and Eric Mar voted against him.
Chan’s supporters claimed that she, an attorney for the Asian Law Caucus, may have been “too effective.” Her backers included The San Francisco Homeless Coalition and Public Defender Jeff Adachi. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Hwang began his “San Francisco career” working for the same civil rights nonprofit as Chan, and agreed with her “on most controversial issues.” Hwang’s backers included an ally of Lee, Rose Pak, a Chinatown leader associated with the Chinatown Community Center.
The Police Commission meets weekly on Wednesdays. Other commissions, including the Port, Public Utilities, and Environment, meet monthly or bimonthly. Commission meetings are open to the public and, though often well-attended, don’t typically draw standing-room-only crowds. Meeting minutes and agendas, as well as drafts of proposals and reports, are available online.
The San Francisco Port Commission, which meets at the Ferry Building, is governed by president Willie Adams, vice president Kimberly Brandon, Leslie Katz, and Doreen Woo Ho. It manages San Francisco’s waterfront, including historical landmarks and the roughly 550 enterprises located on port property, such as AT & T Park. The board has five seats, with the most recent member, Eleni Kounalakis, sworn in by the mayor in March. Previously the president of investment firm AKT Development Corporation, Kounalakis was appointed ambassador to Hungary by President Obama in 2010, serving in that position until 2013.
In contrast to the rough and tumble of Police Commission meetings, typical Port Commission attendees are dressed in business casual attire, often Port staff or business owners who rely on the Port for economic reasons.
Adams, who is the International Secretary-Treasurer of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU), was appointed by Lee in 2012. Brandon, chosen by Willie Brown in 1997, is senior vice president and wealth advisor for Morgan Stanley, and previously served in high net worth advisory positions for Private Bank at Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Katz, who served on the Board of Supervisors, and was appointed to the Commission by Lee in 2011, recently joined international law firm Greenberg Traurig as a shareholder. Woo Ho, selected by Lee in 2011, has an extensive banking background. Now retired, she was president, chief executive officer, and director of United Commercial Bank, and worked for Wells Fargo and Citibank before that. She’s currently on the board of directors for U.S. Bancorp.
Adams, Brandon, Katz, and Woo Ho have taken turns serving as president and/or vice president. Adams and Brandon are the first African-Americans who have occupied both the Commission’s president and vice president posts. According to Brandon, she typically spends two to four hours daily on her commission duties.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission is comprised of five members who are charged with providing operational oversight, particularly in the realms of service rates, contract approval, and policy. According to Tyrone Jue, SFPUC director of communications, “no salary is given to seated PUC Commissioners” aside from a small stipend to cover incidentals. The Commission includes two retired persons and three who are employed elsewhere. “Our longest standing commissioner has served since 1997,” said Jue.
President Francesca Vietor, described 15 years ago by the San Francisco Chronicle as a “socialite” who “was born into a world of silver and gold, not green,” has worked in the areas of social and environmental justice for more than two decades, and has been a SFPUC commissioner for eight years. Her term ends this August. Vice president Anson Moran, who owns a water resources development consulting firm and was SFPUC’s general manager from 1993 to 2014, was appointed by Gavin Newsom in 2009, and reappointed by Lee in 2014. The remaining commissioners are Ann Moller Caen, president of the consulting firm Moller & Associates, Vince Courtney, a former labor union representative, and Ike Kwon, the chief operating officer of the California Academy of Sciences.
The San Francisco Environment Commission has seven seats. The Commission, which is wholly composed of female members, helps create programs and policies in the areas of climate change, transportation, environmental justice, reduction of toxics, forestry, and recycling. One seat is currently vacant.
Jacquelyn “Jackie O” Omotalade is serving a term as president until 2019. Omotalade, who has an extensive background in leading nonprofits, directs the Blue Greenway for the San Francisco Parks Alliance. Vice president Elmy Bermejo is director of intergovernmental affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor. Commission member Heather Stephenson is the CEO of Lensfest, a company that tracks wellness. Johanna Wald is a senior attorney for the National Resources Defense Council. Lisa Hoyos is director of a national environmental organization, Climate Parents. Ching Ting Wan is executive director of the Community Youth Center.
Cohen asserted that San Franciscans typically don’t seek appointment for money, fame, or glory. She encourages those who have never considered serving on a commission or board, “those who don’t see themselves that way,” to apply for a seat, pointing to Marily Mondejar, a Filipina community leader who sits on the Commission on Community Investment and Infrastructure, and Breanna Zwart, promoter of internet access in emerging communities for Google, and a member of the Commission on the Status of Women.
Gonzales explained that he was inspired to serve immediately after 9/11. “There’s usually a triggering event that draws people in to serve,” he said. He no longer volunteers because being on the Immigrant Rights Commission was “exhausting.” Meetings would last past 11 p.m., a line of dozens of immigrants in attendance, each one requiring a translator in order to speak.
“The Planning Commission requires lot of time and attention to complicated issues, but promoting affordable housing and diversity of economic classes is the reason I do any of the work I do,” Wu added. “It’s about public service, whatever I can do for the Commission. That’s what drives me to work the long hours.”
“I am honored to serve on the Commission,” said Kathrin Moore, an architect/urban designer who has been a Planning Commissioner since 2006. “It is my third appointment. It requires a significant amount of focused time and commitment.”
Allegations of corruption or scandalous behavior by San Francisco commissioners have periodically obligated mayors to call for resignations. Last year, Port Commissioner Mel Murphy, a real estate developer, was targeted by City Attorney Dennis Herrera for building violations. After Herrera’s allegations Ed Lee requested that Murphy resign from his post, which he ultimately did.