Today was the official unveiling of SF Connect, Gavin Newsom's expansion of the remarkably popular Homeless Connect program. The idea, very broadly, is to create a system that can encourage voluntarism and then coordinate volunteers to meet particular needs in the city of San Francisco. My thinking on this sort of micro policy is that it's a good way to get little things done at the margin, but doesn't stand much of a chance of creating the sort of sweeping changes Newsom implies it could.
But what really struck me was the controversy - not about the substance of the program, about which there appears to be little, or even about the apparent impropriety of Newsom setting up a non-profit organization to accept private donations essentially without limit. No, the controversial element I liked was this one:
Newsom's director of community development sits on the seven-member board of directors. And Newsom's picture is featured prominently on the SF Connect Web site, which also features a podcast by him.Funny line...but is there anything to the complaint? My initial reaction was "no" - Newsom's a big feature of the project because he's the mayor, right?
Kayhan, however, said SF Connect is "apolitical."
"Anytime an elected official tries to do anything innovative or that makes a big splash, it's looked upon as trying to be for his next campaign," he said. "I wouldn't have taken this job if it was driven by a campaign or politics."
One of Newsom's political rivals, Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, jokingly called the mayor's volunteer program "SF Re-election Connect."
But the whole thing reminded me of a similar controversy in Illinois recently, as Governor Blagojevich seemingly tried to take all of the credit for "open-road tolling" (i.e.: being able to pay tolls with an electronic box in your car instead of stopping at a booth).
Nobody in an oversight position at the Illinois tollway or the governor's office knew about plans to spend nearly a half-million dollars on the big blue signs that advertise Gov. Rod Blagojevich's name to thousands of motorists a day on Chicago-area toll roads, the toll authority's chairman says.Now, I know what you're thinking: "How do you pronounce 'Blagojevich'?" (Answer: blah-GOY-ah-vitch) Also, you might be thinking what my dad and I thought when we looked at the signs: "Ha! Look at that! Blagojevich is pretending he invented electronic tolling!" By the same token, though, Mayor Newsom didn't exactly invent volunteering. Newsom's maybe just a little more savvy about getting himself in the spotlight.
The signs, the first of which were erected last year, cost the tollway $15,000 apiece, $480,000 for the total order of 32 signs. They do not provide directions, information about how open-road tolling works or how motorists can subscribe to I-PASS. The signs say in large letters: "Open Road Tolling. Rod R. Blagojevich, Governor."
So are we supposed to get all in a tizzy about elected officials linking themselves to these sorts of public initiatives? Does it depend on how they do it? Or if they're taking credit for something in a dishonest way? It probably depends on a great many things, but after some hemming and hawing, I think my initial reaction to Newsom's grandstanding holds up pretty well.
Yes, there's something shameless about taking what is really a good idea in its own right and making it about yourself. I think it's important to remember, however, that these ideas we're talking about really are good ones, and it would seem a little perverse to deny our elected officials an incentive to implement good policies. Once Blagojevich gets his name plastered over the tollways in the Chicago area, you had better believe he's got a big incentive to make sure the whole enterprise works.
So I say give the politicians their photo-ops; if they like taking credit for good ideas and solid implementation, maybe we'll get more good ideas and solid implementation.