Year in Review: What Did We Learn in 2009? Part 3


It's been a fascinating year in San Francisco, full of such deep revelations. I think we've all learned a lot, and at this time of year, when we reflect on how our lives went so horribly wrong, I think it's good to take stock of the wisdom we've gained from the story of our fair city.

Lesson 3: on the job training doesn't make for good governing.

 I criticize the government a lot, so it behooves me to admit at least once a year: I know this stuff ain't easy. Governing is hard.

Even in the best of circumstances, elected officials are trying to balance interests that won't balance on the basis of incomplete information in order to run a civic body with a lot of moving parts. In the world we actually live in, it's hard to pay much attention to governing when your paycheck depends on politics.

This doesn't mean we should keep our standards for government low, but it does mean that we need to understand that even for smart, capable, people the learning curve is steep: rare is the person who can just step into government and be good at it.

That was proven again this year when the Progressive faction, which controls the Board of Supervisors, appointed freshman legislators to the two most powerful positions on the board: President, and Chairman of the Budget Committee.

They appointed two good people. There's a growing political consensus that Board President David Chiu has no soul - but no one doubts that he's a very capable individual. Likewise, much of the San Francisco chattering class is coming to the conclusion that Budget Committee Chairman John Avalos is kind of a pushover - but everyone agrees that he knows his budgets backwards and forwards.

Chiu, then, has the potential to be a very good board president, and Avalos has the stuff of greatness in him as a Budget Committee Chair - but their inexperience as elected officials dulled their virtues and blunted their effectiveness. Their need for on the job training hurt their agenda.

What, after all, did the progressives really accomplish this year on a practical level? Certainly they had the deck stacked against them ... with a hostile mayor, a wafer thin majority, and a fiscal crisis the size of the San Andreas fault: but the answer is still "nothing." Perhaps they kept certain things from happening, and other things from getting worse, but they didn't lay a single footprint down towards their ambitious agenda.

That's not their fault per se: like I said, governing is tough and the deck was stacked against them. But during crucial moments, they stumbled: David Chiu was never able to hold together a coalition of progressives and moderates to make important practical decisions (such as on MUNI's budget), and Avalos got rolled by the Mayor's office when he tried to put progressive priorities into the budget: Avalos knew the budget perfectly, but the Mayor's staff have been doing this for years.

These were not stumbles due to a lack of capacity - they were rookie mistakes ... the kind rookies usually make however good they are. The loss of institutional experience on the board - especially Tom Ammiano and Aaron Peskin - hurt the progressives more than they thought it would.

 This is Part 3 of a multi-part rant. Read the next installment tomorrow.

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