The SF Civics Lesson You Never Knew You Needed

by Jordan Davis

I recently hate-watched “Why San Francisco Is Broken And How To Fix It,” the cringe Jeopardy-style game show. It was produced by Together SF Action, a right-wing group that wants to give the mayor even more power than she has right now, and wants the city to work only for the well-heeled and privileged. It was extremely difficult to sit through all the misinformation about our governmental structure, but one category concerning “countless commissions” got my blood boiling. The clue was, “This notable city department is overseen by four separate commissions/committees.” The response was, “What is the Department of Homelessness?” Of all the errors throughout the program, not referring to the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) by its entire name was especially laughable.

The show claimed that four separate bodies oversee the department: the Shelter Grievance Advisory Committee, the Our CIty Our Home Oversight Committee, the Local Homeless Coordinating Board and the Homelessness Oversight Commission. Only the last one actually oversees HSH. 

The show also claimed that there are 130 boards and commissions making big decisions about the city without accountability to voters, like some appointed shadow government that can counter the Board of Supervisors and the mayor, and cited Together SF Action’s efforts to place a ballot measure reducing the number of commissions to 65

In fact, commissions—especially oversight and advisory commissions—play a vital role in increasing transparency, bringing equity and fostering civic engagement in this city. I speak as a person who has served on an advisory commission, passed recommendations at the advisory body that became ordinances, and saw the problems of the commission and called for its disbandment.

In San Francisco, we elect 11 supervisors as a legislative branch, and a mayor as an executive branch. While the supervisors and mayor deal with municipal affairs and have plenty of aides to deal with the various issues facing the city, they can only do so much, so we have commissions to zoom in on a specific department or issue that may be important but not ready for prime time. However, one important fact is that commissions cannot veto legislation or mayoral directives.

I know that many of these appointed bodies use various names like “commission,” “board,” “committee” or “task force,” but I will use the term “commission” as a catch-all. I will also focus on two main types of commissions: oversight and advisory.

The oversight commission is the “power commission,” which is distinct from the others in that it has some power over a department or may be an adjudicative body that makes decisions on one’s legal interests, and requires its members to file a statement of economic interest called a Form 700 to avoid conflicts of interest. The sole commission of this type related to homelessness is the Homelessness Oversight Commission—its powers include, but are not limited to, approving budgets, formulating annual long term goals, establishing performance standards and conducting performance audits of service delivery. Oversight commissions in other departments have similar mandates, and may include policy setting and advisement on legislation. However, if a commission has policy-making power, it may never countermand existing federal, state or local laws, nor veto legislation passed by the Board of Supervisors. If somebody is dissatisfied with decisions made at any commission, they may always lobby the supervisors to pass a law. 

On the other hand, the advisory commission has no power at all, except recommending  personnel to their appointing bodies, who in turn have final say on whether these recommendations move forward. There are four bodies dealing with HSH issues: the Local Homeless Coordinating Board, which deals with matters that are federally mandated or funded; the Our City Our Home Oversight Commission, which provides recommendations on spending tax revenues from the homelessness gross receipts tax, passed as Proposition C in November 2018; and the Shelter Monitoring Committee and Shelter Grievance Advisory Committee, both of which make recommendations on various issues within the shelter system. As I have covered in a previous article, there is no advisory commission that deals with permanent supportive housing, and which is sorely needed.

I served on the city’s SRO Task Force, which was an advisory commission dealing with issues around single-resident occupancy hotels, both private and nonprofit. I successfully introduced and passed two recommendations: one around gender neutral common bathrooms at SROs, and the other calling for PSH tenants to pay only 30% of their income towards rent. Both became city ordinances. However, the commission had many efficacy issues that I had addressed in a previous article, and I called for its disbandment. The commission sunsetted at the end of 2021, after two years of dormancy.

It should be noted that the Board of Supervisors creates many advisory commissions, and that according to Section 2.21 of the board’s Rules of Order, all advisory bodies must sunset within three years unless renewed. But, renewal of advisory commissions has become a mere formality rather than an opportunity to provide meaningful oversight and to judge whether or not the commission is truly providing recommendations and addressing emerging issues within its subject matter jurisdiction.

Both oversight commissions and advisory commissions are bound by the state Brown Act and the City’s Sunshine Ordinance, which require that meetings be open to the public and that public comment be taken. It is important that there be ways to take a deeper dive into policy areas, and that civic engagement be enhanced.

So, what do we do? I believe that, except for those with adjudicative commissions, each department should have only one oversight commission, and that advisory commissions should be required to submit annual reports detailing recommendations considered and passed, and that the Board of Supervisors should create a culture of scrutiny for these advisory bodies. These are not just “moderate” or “progressive” issues—it’s a good government issue and it’s a civic engagement issue.

Jordan Davis (she/they) is a permanent supportive housing tenant advocate who fought successfully to get rents down to 30% of income, and continues to fight for our rights. She can be reached at