The perils of unaccountable power

The Redevelopment and Treasure Island commissions wield the power of multimillion dollar contracts and the ability to destroy a community near you


By Saul Bloom

OPINION San Francisco has two redevelopment commissions that together have broad, sweeping authority over land use and development in the city. The Redevelopment Agency Commission and the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) have more power in some respects than the Board of Supervisors — people you actually vote for.

There is no way to overstate the importance of the power of these commissions. The Candlestick Shipyard and Treasure Island projects by themselves account for an area the size of the Presidio. Over the next decade, the commissions will oversee the outcome of the Schlage Lock parcel in Visitacion Valley, the Bayview-Hunters Point Project Area, the Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point, India Basin, Mission Bay, South of Market, and Treasure and Yerba Buena islands.

Two important questions these commissions raise are: 1) Is It healthy for our city and county to vest so much authority into two essentially unaccountable authorities; and 2) Would it be better to vest this responsibility in the Board of Supervisors — considering that it's the norm around the state for these local legislatures to also act as redevelopment commissions?

In San Francisco, redevelopment commissioners are appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the Board of Supervisors. The board cannot select its own representatives. The commissions wield the power of independent financial authority, multimillion dollar agency contracts, and the ability to destroy a community near you. This is a substantial amount of authority for an unelected body.

The mayor and six members of the Board of Supervisors are all that is required to allow a commissioner to serve for life. There are no term limits for commissioners. There are no meaningful criteria to judge a commissioner's appointment. There is no yard stick by which to measure a panel member's worthiness for reappointment every four years. The board's confirmation and reappointment process is more a popularity party than a Supreme Court nominee review.

Other than the courts, there is no recourse to a commission decision. During the recent Candlestick Point-Hunters Point Shipyard debate members of the Board of Supervisors learned they actually has to seek the approval of these political appointees to modify an environmental impact report.

As a consequence, the appointment of commissioners is highly political. The power of the two commissions makes appointments prime objectives for influential sectors of the city's political establishment. Those commissioners who disagree with the Mayor's Office over important issues are not reappointed.

There's no need to abolish the redevelopment authorities, which have unique legal benefits, particularly in project financing. But we can modify the way the city oversees the agencies.

In most counties in California the Board of Supervisors also serves as the Redevelopment Commission. While that could be a bit unnerving in a city as complicated as San Francisco, it is difficult to see how the process could become more politicized, less accountable, and less democratic.

Having the board oversee redevelopment would at least ensure that agency plans reflect the needs and interests of all 11 districts — and an elected body could be held accountable for those plans.

San Francisco deserves a dialogue about whether this is the best way to chart our course into a very foggy future. 

Saul Bloom is executive director of Arc Ecology.

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