Riddle: Can LAFCo Be Saved If It Can't Be Killed?

Categories: Politics
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San Francisco's Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) is the appendix of the city's municipal body -- an unnecessary entity serving no obvious or useful purpose. Considering the city is looking at a half-billion-dollar deficit, cutting this useless civic appendage and its $1 million budget would seem like an obvious and sensible move. But this is San Francisco, so there's no room for common sense if it gets in the way of ideological purity.

Last week those foes of common sense at the Bay Guardian wrote an editorial addressed to new Board of Supervisors President David Chiu urging him to "save LAFCo," evidently fearing the commission is a likely target for cuts in these lean times. Why is this so crucial to the Guardian? Because LAFCo "is the only board committee that has public power and energy policy as its primary agenda."

That is true, but it raises the question (for policy geeks, at least): Why the hell is LAFCo screwing around with public power and energy policy in the first place? It's a total perversion of the state law that created these local commissions as a check on urban sprawl. Also, why must we save LAFCo if, like Michael Myers, it can't be killed?

There are 58 Local Agency Formation Commissions in the state, one for each county. The "primary agenda" of 57 of those LAFCos is regulating urban growth issues, typically keeping an eye on cities trying to annex unincorporated county land. San Francisco's is the only one dedicated to energy policy.

So why is San Francisco's version so radically different?

For decades, San Francisco was the only county in the state without a LAFCo, presumably because there were no city-versus-county boundary issues to resolve. Then, about 10 years ago, public-power advocates put forward a ballot initiative to create a Municipal Utility District in the city. Then-City Attorney Louise Renne opined that in order for the MUD measure to move forward, the city needed to create a LAFCo to review the proposed creation of a new special district. So that's what state legislators did back in 2000.

Although lefties like Guardian publisher Bruce Brugmann initially considered LAFCo a bureaucratic roadblock, they quickly saw the value of the commission after it was stacked with supporters of public power. So even though voters rejected the MUD proposal in November 2001 -- thus eliminating the original rationale for creating a LAFCo in the city -- progressives kept LAFCo going as a taxpayer-subsidized venue to contemplate public power. These days, LAFCo's main role is monitoring the city's Community Choice Aggregation plan (see Peter Jamison's dissection of the green energy program here).

The most maddening aspect is that the city already has an agency better equipped to deal with energy issues: the Public Utilities Commission. But the Guardian and its ilk don't trust the PUC, which they see as a tool of PG&E and the mayor. So they insist on maintaining LAFCo, a Shadow PUC that answers to the leftist majority on the Board of Supes and not the mayor. This, ahem, power-sharing arrangement wastes money and creates redundancies (for instance, the PUC and LAFCo share responsibility for overseeing the Community Choice Aggregation program).

There have been attempts in the past to dismantle LAFCo. A few years ago, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd looked into eliminating the commission, but quickly discovered how difficult a proposition that was. One obstacle: The state Legislature, which initially created the commission (albeit at the city's behest), would have to kill LAFCo. Elsbernd says that's very unlikely to happen. Currently, three city lawmakers - Senator Mark Leno, and Assembly members Fiona Ma and Tom Ammiano -- support public power.

"We've created this monster we can't get rid of," Elsbernd says.

Making matters worse, Elsbernd says that state law requires LAFCos to retain, at a minimum, the same budget they had the previous year. In other words, cutting LAFCo's budget is not an option. "LAFCo has more protection [from budget cuts] than firehouses," he says.

Actually, there is some wiggle room to make cuts, according to William Chiat, the executive director of the California Association of Local Agency Formation Commissions. He says state law allows for the LAFCo commission itself -- i.e., not the mayor or the Board of Supes -- to cut its own budget if commissioners determine they can do their job with less money and staff. For some reason, I don't see San Francisco's leftist LAFCo commissioners being so bold as to acknowledge the uselessness of their existence.

Given all the obstacles to tinkering with LAFCo, it's hard to figure why the Guardian is so worried about the commission's fate. But it wouldn't be the first time our rivals saw conspiracies where there were none.

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