My Report on the "SF Listens" Mayoral Forum (long, but worth reading if you want more insight into local politics!)

Well, I just got back from this event at SF State. First of all, I am very glad I went!

   Second, I cannot stress strongly enough that if you get an opportunity to go to one of these, please go!
  I should have asked at the event, but I'm going to try to find out from Laszlo (or via him, from the person who contacted him), if and when there are any more of these forums scheduled, and how one would go about getting invited.

  They did not ask me for any ID or proof of address or anything when I got there, so it appears one could even attend more than once if someone wanted to be sneaky and use a different name the second time, though I suspect I might be too easily recognizable myself by the organizers or others to get away with it. One of the participants in my morning session small group also told me that he'd been reading my stuff in the ballot handbooks for a long time and was glad to meet me in person!

  The format of was small group discussion from 10am-noon, lunch from noon-1230pm, and large group voting and prioritizing from 1-3pm, and things pretty much went according to schedule.

  Mayor Gavin Newsom was of course on hand, and made a few short comments at the start of the large group session. His comments were relatively informative and spin-free, outlining the parameters of the budget and stressing the fiscal constraints and how little discretion elected officials actually have over spending.

  Some of the highlights of his presentation:

-Out of a $5.3 billion city budget only $1.1 billion is discretionary, he said, and any new revenue growth over 5% triggers money going into a rainy day fund, so that at that point 91 cents out of every dollar goes into locked funds.

-A prior ballot measure mandates police staffing levels at a minimum 1,971 officers

-(commenting on how impressed he was with how informed participants are) "In politics you're supposed to say that, but I hear politicians say all the time in private, 'Boy those people are dumb.' But those politicians are from other towns."

-(on the normal budgeting process) "The same 150 people show up. I saw them for 8 years. I know them by name, I know where they live. They decide where the money goes. They really run the city."

-(qualifying the above comment) "When the mayor submits a budget, it's 98% set. We play on the margins with just a couple percent."

  But to backtrack to the beginning of the morning, when I got there just at the start, I found a room full of people sitting around assigned tables. There were eight in my group, plus a facilitator (a guy named Sheldon Gen who teaches government at SFSU), a person taking notes on a laptop, and a student observer. Our group seemed quite ethnically and geographically diverse. There was a young black guy, a young Asian woman, an older caucasian guy, a middle-aged caucasian woman, an older caucasian woman, a young caucasian guy, a middle-aged caucasian guy, and myself, apparently from all over town, although I did discover that the middle-aged woman (who thought I looked familiar) actually lives a couple blocks from me).

  The packets we'd been given listed nine issues, of which each small group was assigned three to talk about. (I'll bring my packet to the next meeting for those who want to see more details). The nine issues were:

• Homelessness & Human Services
• Housing
• Public safety
• Economic & Community Development
• Education & Youth
• Quality of Life & City Greening
• Transportation & Public Works
• Healthcare
• Government Reform & Customer Service

  The three issues assigned to my group were Homelessness/Human Services, Economic & Community Development, and Transportation & Public Works. But before the facilitator told us this, we were asked to brainstorm additional issues that we thought ought to be on the list. Six additional issues were put forward by group members (four of them, marked with asterisks*, by myself):

• Civil Liberties*
• Arts
• Treasure Island/Hunters Point Development
• Taxes/Fees*
• City Sovereignty/Home Rule Issues*
• Pensions*

  We were then asked to choose one topic from among these additional issues to talk about. To my delight, the group voted to discuss Taxes and Fees. The group also turned out to be much more financially libertarian than I would have suspected. Not everyone spoke negatively about taxes and fees, but several did, and no one in the group seemed like a committed advocate of big government. Someone else beat me to making the point that punitive actions such as parking fees have been turned into fundraising techniques.

  Moving on to the official topics, for each topic we were read an official policy statement and shown a list of current strategies from the packets, then asked to comment on those strategies, identify challenges, and bring forward further ideas for addressing the topics.

  On homelessness, there seemed to be a strong sentiment in favor of cracking down and not keeping people perpetually on the public services dole, but also a willingness to spend money on new solutions to make the homeless problem go away. I talked about Jim Reid's 12' by 12' houses that could be built for $6000 each, and how we should divide the annual budget of homeless-related spending by the number of estimated homeless in the city and then figure out how we could use that money to help people directly instead of perpetuating a bunch of programs that primarily help the middle management people working for them.

  The topic of economic & community development seemed very unfocused. People talked about stuff all over the map, from the lack of parking, to support for public libraries, to the city's general unaffordability for those living on minimum wage compared to a generation ago. I challenged the premise which seemed to be that government needed to engage in economic and development planning, which (as Hayek said) meant the superceding of other peoples' plans, and proposed scaling back the number of things government is involved in.

  Most of my comments elicited some favorable reaction and little opposition, but when it came to transportation, a couple people did actively speak in favor of a government-subsidized MUNI after I said the city should get out of the transit business and allow private competition. On the other hand, everyone seemed to love my idea for publicizing a street maintenance schedule on the Internet, and committing money to repair streets and infrastructure on a regular scheduled basis instead of neglecting them and then relying on big bond issues to fix the problems.

  We broke for lunch, which consisted of free box lunches. The food was decent, and they had vegetarian lunches including some very good pasta, but the organizers had apparently put no thought into recycling the cardboard boxes or the various plastic bottles and containers, something that I was not the only one to notice and comment on. I did find some SFSU recycling bins for the bottles not too far away, but there was nothing for the cardboard, which had to go in the trash. I suspect many participants just threw everything in the trash.

  After a half hour or so, we were urged to head over to the McKenna theater for the large group session. There were apparently 211 people total. On entering, everyone was given a small electronic voting device. After Gavin's comments, we were given some priorities and strategies to choose among for each of the 9 official topics listed above. These priorities were said to be based on the results of the morning sessions, but I'm not sure how true this was. The methodology for picking the top small group recommendations was not revealed and I would suspect that the electronic voting survey reflected to at least some degree the preconceived priorities of the Newsom administration.

  Four additional topics were also listed which came up -- no hints on any policy direction, just as general issues -- but we were not asked to vote on these issues (part of this presumably because they would not have had time to prepare slides with questions on them):

• Increased Tolerance/Civil Society
• Parking
• Public Restrooms
• New Residents/Immigration

  For each topic, we were asked to choose among several priorities and vote for our top priority. In some cases we were asked again to choose our second priority from the same list. They asked that people not vote for the same priority in the second round that they voted for the first time, but there was apparently no way to control for this.

  In some cases the priorities listed for a topic seemed to correspond to those listed in the packets, but for other topics the lists seemed to be different, although there was generally at least some similarity. Where the priorities we were asked to vote on match those listed for a given topic in the packets, I have copied the titles from the packet and added a bit further description in parenthesis based on the info in the packets. On topics for which the priorities we were asked to select from do not seem to match the priorities listed in the packets, I've put down in brackets my best guess as to what we voted on, based on my hastily scrawled notes.

  Unfortunately the voting went very quickly, and trying to take notes slowed me down. Consequently I did not have time to read the descriptions in my packet as we went along, and voted based on the few brief words describing each priority that were put on screen. Looking back at the descriptions of the priorities in the packets, I realize that I would have voted differently in at least a couple cases if I'd understood the choices better.

  For topics in which each priority is followed by two different percentages, the second set of numbers reflect people's second-priority choices for that topic. The priorities I voted for are marked by asterisks (*), and the priorities I wish I had voted for are marked by (>):

HOMELESSNESS (I failed to record some of the percentages for the first round of this vote):

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No problem -- thanks for the ride this morning!

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