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San Francisco - Inside City Hall

With Nicholas Olczak

Nicholas Olczak
Photos by Luke Thomas

By Nicholas Olczak

February 13, 2008

I feel a sense of transgression as I’m led into the press box, like an outsider snuck into a secret sect. The room has a staged grandeur about it. The high ceiling, ornately plastered, painted in different pastel shades. Polished wood stretches down the wall behind the clerk and president’s long desk, reaching out into the fitting of the room. It’s like a church, but with that newness, that cleanness which is distinctly American.

This setting gives grandness to the supervisors. Yet rather than the mighty, wizened gods I imagined, they are almost ordinary. Some are surprisingly human, surprisingly young, to be holding the city in their hands. They really do seem to represent the ordinary people of the districts which elect them. As the clerk checks attendance, I glance round, letting their different characters sweep into me.

There’s Ross Mirikami, who reminds me of a vampire with a small goatee accentuating the length of his tanned face. His greased hair is swept back with a slickness which sheens his whole body. Gerardo Sandoval stares surlily forwards - chubby Latino face and serious eyes, neat silver hair the same colour as his tidy suit. Sophie Maxwell’s hair and eyes fizzle with energy and willpower. She is a tall, commanding African woman, watching the world cynically through nose perched glassed.

Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi

Supervisor Sophie Maxwell

Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval

A few seats along is Carmen Chu. Straight glossy hair falls tidily around an attentive, business-like Asian expression. Chris Daly contrasts with this neatness, and with the slickness of the others. His suit is thrown over a tieless white shirt, crumpled a little like he’s just been in a fight. This reflects his reputation as a political scrapper. His cropped hair and glasses are those of a tired computer programmer. A heavy shadow of stubble covers his rounded jaw and his eyes scowl.

Supervisor Chris Daly

Supervisor Carmen Chu

This scowl is particular for the sturdy Sean Elsbernd. He sits opposite, physically and politically, looking like an overgrown schoolboy in his loose blue suit. Hand’s stuffed in his pockets, he gets up to shuffle around restlessly, a hint of playfulness, of cheekiness, still hiding in his youthful face.

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd

The bulk of Jake McGoldrick comes and slumps in the chair next to him, golden strands of hair stretched across his bald patch. Like an oil prospector in his sandy colored suit. Nearby, Amiano leans back comfortably, used to the politician’s role now. His body exudes casualness. His dark blue blazer makes him look like an aging partygoer. An earring twinkles his more exuberant side.

Supervisor Jake McGoldrick

Supervisor Tom Ammiano

People are still shuffling in, still greeting each other loudly, but the huge animal of democracy is already leaping forwards. I have to lean in closer to hear as the clerk’s murmured voice races through the first items. Numbers 1 to 16 are dispatched in a single clack of the hammer. The next item is read quickly and voted on: Supervisor Sandoval? “Ay” Supervisor Maxwell? “Nay” Supervisor Chu? “Ay” etc…Everything moves so fast. Each of these points is something real being debated, some law that can impact hundreds of people’s lives. I worry that it is too fast. There is so much to decide though. If you want a democracy that embraces everything, perhaps this speed is necessary?

Like the clack-clack of a train, the meeting surges on with this insistent rhythm. Then suddenly things stop as one of the supervisors chooses to speak on an issue. This is perhaps the real magic of democracy – the potential for human feelings to influence things by arguing passionately for their beliefs. Sandoval stands and makes a clipped objection to CCTV funding. Mirikarimi rises in response, standing powerfully straight, his crisp, persuasive words like a solo in the meeting's symphony.

After this brief interlude, the rhythm resumes again. As points are raised, Supervisors get up and pace around, talking to each other, leaning over to greet people in the press, leaving the room for a while and then returning later. I watch as some tourists come into the public gallery and pose for photos. There is a sense of great comfort in the functioning of democracy here. I wonder if there is perhaps too much complacency at times, standing in the way of effective decision making.

In the middle of the meeting, the supervisors hear an account of the investigation into a recent oil spill. A short stocky man comes to the microphone, adopting a tone of frankness as he twists and euphemizes mistakes. His words rush out in a long, smooth flow, relaying every detail of the report. This is a culture of accountability, where every detail must be dwelled upon, everybody’s roles questioned, all the mistakes ringed in heavy red for everybody to see. Yet I sense that few of the supervisors are really listening. The speech keeps going as eyelids slide down, chins drop into palms, and people get up to stretch stiffened limbs.

Finally it’s time for the lobbyists – that powerful part of democratic process that gives a voice directly to the people. An Indian man - a regular here – stands to speak, staring forward at the supervisors with intent white eyes. His speech starts slow, but builds into an impassioned plea, its polished rhetorical phrases carefully practiced. He begins a series of stepped phrases to the climax, but then the buzzer sounds, slicing the head off his rearing argument. This is the contradiction of this great democratic ideal. If everyone is allowed to speak, then each person will have too little time to say anything.

Next is a Middle Eastern man whose curled grey hair is pulled tightly back accentuating his fierce expression. Eyes stare out from sagging skin that’s overgrown with a ragged grey beard. Leaning forward, he growls at the supervisors, his rough tone and accent making it hard to understand what he means. He is speaking about a church where he helps the homeless. Suddenly he pulls a tattered blanket out, light pushing through its many holes. This is all the government gives to help him, he shouts accusingly, and I feel a wave of pity. But I see that the supervisors are hardly listening now. It is late in the afternoon and the ‘serious’ agenda is complete.

There feels something wrong in this; that these leaders of the people are too tired by bigger business to hear the plight of these people. That because the issue comes in such antic form, instead of a written memo, it no longer has weight as political business.

Overall, my visit to City Hall has shown me the great energy that democracy has in practice, but also the ways in which practicality and casualness might damage its ideals.







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