Op-ed: Fair Pay for SF Supervisors

(Submitted to the San Francisco Examiner, 18 August 2002; published with minor changes 23 August 2002 as "Who needs high-paid supes?".)

A measure on this November's ballot, Proposition J, will ask voters to raise the pay of San Francisco supervisors to the area average. Many of the supervisors point out that the job takes well over forty hours per week, sometimes double that or more, and that $37,585 is a very small salary for what is essentially the board of directors of a very large organization.

The advocates for the pay raise are correct: the pay is far too small for the amount of work that the supervisors do. Or, to put it another way: the amount of work that the supervisors do is far too much for the amount of pay they receive.

And that brings into focus an argument that has been entirely missing from the debate. Being a supervisor should be a part-time job. The current supervisors have only themselves and their forebears to blame for their predicament, as city government has expanded into every nook and cranny of day-to-day life, from what to call the human companion of a household pet to the newly-proposed late-night entertainment licensing commission.

Perhaps if the City reduced its intrusion into the daily lives of its residents, the supervisors would find themselves with only $30,000 worth of work to do, or even less. This would enable them to get real jobs in their spare time, giving some of them a much-needed contact with reality. It might even give them the opportunity to exercise some fiscal restraint when their own wallets are involved, and take even a symbolic pay cut while the city faces a deficit and many of the citizens they represent are facing pay cuts or even lost jobs.

Giving the supervisors the requested pay raise would be counterproductive. Right now, they have an incentive to reduce their work load; giving them a full-time salary would formalize their status as full-time legislators, like our "protectors" in Sacramento and Washington. When an office worker gets bored, what does she do? After surfing the Web and reorganizing her desk, she looks for something that needs to be done. The last thing we need are legislators looking around for more laws to pass.

Let's have less political maneuvering to gain more power than the too-powerful mayor's office and fewer resolutions declaring Barry Bonds Day from full-time politicians, and more focus on an effective police force and courts from a part-time Board of Citizen Supervisors. There's no reason why our city's sprawling bureacracy of a government shouldn't fit entirely within our majestic City Hall, a half-time work week - and a reasonable budget.