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Where the Inmates Run the Asylum

San Francisco's Board of Supervisors shows what democracy is all about.

11:00 PM, Jan 31, 2005 • By BILL WHALEN
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I HAVE A THEORY as to why the city of Irvine, deep in the heart of Orange County, was chosen as the California site for Iraqi expatriates participating in Sunday's election. And it doesn't have to do with the obvious swords-to-plowshares symbolism of the voting locale: a former Marine Corps air base converted to a university branch campus.

Hold the same vote 500 miles to the north, closer to the Bay Area, and the same electorate that yearns for free rule would have been exposed to a prime example of direct representation run amok: San Francisco's Board of Supervisors. Talk about a buzz kill for an emerging democracy.

Granted, most discussions of San Francisco politics begin with the understanding that the region runs countercurrent to middle-of-the-road America. In a year in which voters said no to same-sex marriage, San Francisco handed out marriage licenses--a PR maneuver that was good for local tourism and tremendous for the young mayor's metrosexual persona, but otherwise tragic for national Democrats. President Bush was reelected by more than a 3 million vote margin; in San Francisco, he received barely one in every seven votes (15.7 percent).

Still, it's the city's Board of Supervisors--the 11-member legislative branch of the city and county of San Francisco that's charged with establishing city policies and adopting ordinances and resolutions--that gives the erstwhile "Babylon by the Bay" its special brand of zaniness. And in recent weeks, the "supes," who are elected district by district, thus giving the board a diverse "neighborhood" feel, have taken their flamboyance to a new level.

Consider these developments:

* Don't Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em. Last week, the Supervisors voted to outlaw smoking in all recreational areas in the city except for golf courses (if you have to smoke, but don't have time to shoot 18 holes, you can also light up at the Presidio, which is federal land). San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom is expected to sign the ordinance, which would go into effect on July 1. San Francisco isn't the first California city to go this route (such tony communities as Beverly Hills and Santa Monica have similar bans), but it does have the toughest penalties: $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second violation and $500 for each additional violation. Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier drafted the law out of her belief that "secondhand smoke outdoors is just as dangerous" as indoors. Or maybe it had something to do with her bloodlines: her aunt, former Supervisor Angela Alioto, wrote the city's 1993 ordinance prohibiting smoking in workplaces, restaurants, and public arenas.

* Going to the Dogs. In Wall Street, Gordon Gekko says of privileged WASPS: "They love animals, can't stand people." In San Francisco, the same could be said of the supes' feelings towards the city's 100,000-or-so pooches. Recently, the board passed a new law requiring dog "companions" (you'd call them "owners") to provide: (1) clean, dry shelter with a floor, a dog roof, and three sides, with room for the dog to turn around; (2) adequate food and daily fresh water in a tip-proof container; (3) tethers that must be a minimum of 10 feet with a non-choke collar or body harness or a pulley-like system. Punishment if found in violation of the "backyard dog" ordinance: fines starting at $50, leading up to a misdemeanor charge worthy $1,000 and jail time (thus presumably giving local police one more law to enforce when they're not on butt patrol).

* All Wet. In a rare episode where common sense prevailed, the board rejected a $100,000 aid package for tsunami victims--after an initial proposal of $1 million in city aid. These gestures of charity came at a time when San Francisco faces a budget shortfall just shy of $100 million. All of which prompted a comical exchange between two supervisors sitting two chairs apart--Chris Daly (author of the relief proposal) and Jake McGoldrick (who voted against it, prompting Daly to claim he was double-crossed)--whose juvenile tone sounded more like Beevis and Butthead than two city leaders butting heads.

McGoldrick: How come you gotta act like a baby?

Daly: How come you're two-faced? I'm a baby because you're two-faced!

McGoldrick: You know where you can kiss, don't you, Chris?

Daly: Yeah, I'll kiss your ass. Right after I kick it.

There's no word as to whether the supervisors settled their differences at recess, or agreed to a pay-per-view bout to help whittle down the city's deficit.

* Lunatic and Left. Joshua Abraham Norton lost a fortune during California's Gold Rush, then lost his marbles and wandered the streets of San Francisco for more than two decades handing out phony money while proclaiming himself "Emperor of the United States" and "Protector of Mexico." As a reward for his efforts, the Board of Supervisors recently voted to rename the new eastern span of the Oakland-to-S.F. Bay Bridge the "Emperor Norton Bridge" in honor of the man who wore a dress uniform and was known to locals as "Norton I." The supervisors cited history: in 1872, Norton ordered "a bridge be built from Oakland Point to Goat (Yerba Buena) Island and then to Telegraph Hill." The resolution is anything but a given: Newsom has to sign off on it, as do both the Oakland City Council and the California state legislature. But it does set an interesting precedent. Next up: the Colonel Kurtz War Memorial and Performing Arts Center?

The list of the board's meddling and all-around silliness goes on. It just passed a resolution calling for a new trial for Pennsylvania cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal--a darling of the left. Soon, it will debate whether to charge city grocery shoppers an extra 17 cent-fee for every paper or plastic bag. And there's the matter of how to solve that pesky budget shortfall--not an easy task in a town that doesn't like to take the axe to social health programs, but can't afford to scare away tourists and business through higher taxes and surcharges.

All of which serves as a good reminder to the new government in Iraq: freedom is worth the wait. But as San Francisco's Board of Supervisors shows, even democracy can be taken to an extreme.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.