Too Many Supervisorial Districts?

Juan Carlos Sanchez's picture

Having recently moved to San Francisco, I was blown away at the amount of supervisorial districts - eleven - in a city that is only seven by seven miles. By the latest figures, SF has a population of a bit over 800,000 people. So, each supervisor represents about 73,000 people. To put this number is perspective, members of the Los Angeles city council represent roughly 250,000 people per district.

Would city hall be more efficient with less supervisors? Supervisors that must be elected with broader appeal and, thus, are less likely to come from an ideological extreme? Worth a thought... 



Eric Jaye's picture

The right amount or even too few

That's the LA Board - but LA also has a council. Our Board is our city council and Board of Supervisors rolled into one. 

Personally, I think we have the right amount.  But if we were going to make a change, we should add more District Supervisors. I think the more local the Supervisors are the more they can represent what's happening in the neighborhoods and the more responsive the city government will become.

Lots of folks say we should have city-wide elections of Supervisors - but I think that's the opposite of what we need. We don't need 11 Mayors with a city-wide constituency - we need locally elected Supervisors with a mandate to respond better and faster to their own constituents. That's similar to the Chicago system, where there are 40 plus Aldermen who each have a very local mission, including local responsibility to oversee how the city is functioning in their own wards.

TheRealGCS's picture

Would more get done?

Would the Board be able to accomplish more if they weren't stuck debating all the time? And is it a bad thing to have a lot of debate and all views represented on the Board?

I'm not sure they would accomplish more or be more efficient. They would have more people to represent, and some of California's most dysfunctional local governments only consist of 5 councilmembers.

While I'd like to limit the extremist edges of the Board that consider petty squabbles high level debate, I have to lean towards more Supervisors with narrower constituencies. San Francisco should be a city where all people at least feel like they have a voice on the Board. Otherwise it leads to apathy and hopelessness, which does no one any good (even those who are given a voice on the Board).

gcotter's picture

Down with our current BOS numbers

SF needs to do two things:  Get rid of District elections and reduce the number of Supervisors.

I've lived here over 40 years and have seen SF go from general elections to district, back to general, and back to district.  District elections have a supposed value that each district Supe will act for the interests of his district.  Alas, it doesn't work that way.  Actually it just means that a small number of vocal people have the power to elect a turkey like Chris Daly who not only doesn't represent all of his district, but impacts the rest of the city as well.

I can see a compromise, however.  Divide the city into 4 quadrants: NW, NE, SE and SW.  Have one Supe per quadrant.  Then, have three (3) Supes elected at large.  That way you get both district representation and general representation and thus provide a balance between the two.

Yes, four (districts) plus three (at large) only adds up to seven Supes.  For a city the size of SF, seven supervisors are WAY more than enough.  This would also cut the cost of City government when you reduce the number of Supes plus their Aides, etc.  Currently we have so many supervisors that they have too much time on their hands so they meddle in everything and propagate nanny laws etc. They, of course, tell a different story about how busy they are.  They wouldn't be that busy if they just stuck to the basics.

By the way, I remember back when the Supes had zero aides and did their work themselves.  Back then there was a ballot measure to raise the Supes' salary to $37,000 per year with the expectation that a higher salary might encourage more highly qualified people to run for office.  Well, you can see how well that turned out! (sarcasm intended).

So:  Get rid of District elections and reduce the number of Supervisors and both I and the rest of the city will be ever so grateful!

Michael F Zelinsky's picture

Too may Supervisoral Districts?

Yes, there are too many districts.  11 too many, to be exact.  Electing Supervisors by district has turned San Francisco into a Feudal State, in which powerful Dukes control the State, leaving the King without power or influence.  District elections have turned our city into that Feudal State, pitting district against district, with Supervisors caught between their responsibilities of serving the special interests of their districts and the interests of the city as a whole.  It isn't working and hasn't worked for the benefit of San Francisco as a city. 

There are too many districts.  There should be no more than 7. The reason there are 11 is because  The  The districts have been artfully drawn as if by a master gerrymanderer. Take a look at District Two, for example.  It's a joke.  Every "wealthy" area is drawn into one district!  Is this really "representative" government?  Not according to the US Constitution, which calls for "one 'man', one vote."  I would suggest that these districts have been drawn without any consideration to population.  The population of, for example, The Castro, cannot in any way approximate the population in the "West of Twin Peaks" district.  Why no one has challenged this in the courts amazes me.

District elections have turned citizens of San Francisco into citizens of South of Market, The Castro, Bayview/Hunters Point, the Richmond, West of Twin Peaks, The "Rich" District, etc.  I suppose it was inevitable in a city where so many have come from somewhere else, and only stay here until they get enough capital to move to the suburbs (like Supervisor Daly), that the spirit of belonging to "The City" belongs only to those few of us who have been here for a long time and have no intention of being chased out. 

I don't mind change.  San Francisco is born of change.  When my great great grandma saw Sam Brannan's ship arrive here with a load of Mormons, practically doubling the size of little Yerba Buena, she probably said, "There goes the neighborhood!"  Or when the Bay Bridge was built, my grandpa probably said, "That damn bridge has ruined my view of Goat Island!"  But we're still here.  I wish more of our newcomers would stay and not just think of San Francisco as a way station.  Sure, the summers are a bit chilly.  Buy a sweater.

DonRoss's picture

Hybrid System

I think there are some good points all around. I do think the number is close to correct. It could be increased by one or two, but I think one way to balance some of the inevitable extremeness would be to have a few at large seats - possible 9 district and 2 or 3 at large.

This way, you have the Supervisors still beholden and focused on the needs of the neighborhoods and their part of town's constituencies, and then a few that are required to only take a citywide perspective. I have lived under both forms of government, and when there are no district representatives, there are parts of a city that are inevitably left out of the conversation.  A good example of that is the Excelsior - many people that live in San Francisco have never even been to this part of town, or better yet, it is not even shown on City maps. Imagine if it didnt have a representative?

But also, there have been many times that a narrow neighborhood perspective outweighs a citywide concern, and that is bad for us all - a good example of that is how the residents of Telegraph Hill continuously use their political clout to override some larger citywide desires and needs.

So lets balance it out and home a hybrid system.

Michael F Zelinsky's picture

Hybrid Supervisorial system?

I think that idea is worth investigation.  It could work for the benefit of all, but only if implementation of such a system was uniformly balanced - district vs. at large representation. 

I know what you are talking about when you say that many San Franciscans have never been to, or in some cases even know about the Excelsior district.  That's true.  It's also true that many San Franciscans have never been to Ocean Beach, or are aware that there are three vibrant "Chinatowns" here, and not just the Grant Avenue Chinatown.  Our city is a gem covered with thousands of facets, each one reflecting a unique shade of color which makes up our San Francisco. 

Born and raised here, I have many friends I went to school with who now live in the 'burbs.  They occasionally whine about how "San Francisco isn't the great place it was when we were kids.  What happened?" they ask me.  I always reply, "You moved!"  They moved and others came to take their place.  That's the way it's been since the Spanish came here in 1776, usually with less trauma.  As for me, I'm here for the duration.

audivotary's picture

Number of Supervisors

We have too many. The argument that SF is both a city and county is a canard This situation simply does not justify 11 supervisors. The main problem is that a supervisor can get elected with only 5 or 6,000 votes, or less. This allows fringe, unqualified, and out of touch people to get elected. A return to citywide elections would be good, but difficult to accomplish. A compromise would be to have perhaps 6 citywide and 5 district supervisors, or fewer. This would likely bring more qualified people to the board. This would reduce the petty politics and personal vendettas, yielding more efficient government.

Michael F Zelinsky's picture

Too may Supervisoral Districts?

Audivotary makes good points in his/her support of a "hybrid" system.  I agree this kind of system would be best for the city, but while we're just tossing the bull around, how about this?  How about a bicameral city legislature?  I haven't figured out the details on how it'd work, but, what the hell, anything's better than what we've got now.

gcotter's picture

Too Many Supes in the Pot

I continue to support a reduction in the number of Supervisors.  Having as many as we do means they don't have enough real business to keep them busy so they spend hours debating nanny-state ideas that are ridiculous.  Or how about the Maxwell Avalos push for a resolution condemning Israel's flotilla attack - my city tax dollars at work?  Hello?  

Let's go back to city wide elections or at least hybrid elections and let's reduce the number of Supes down to a reasonable number - maybe 7 or 9 total.  By the way, do you know that we had city wide supes once upon a time, went to district elections, discovered what a disaster that was and went back to citywide elections.  And, of course, decided to try district elections again.  Suspicions confirmed: district supes are bad for the city - it's time to change back again. 

As for having 11 supervisors, good grief - the city only has 49 square miles and only 800,000 residents.  We hardly need more than a few supervisors.  It wasn't that long ago that the job of supervisor was part time and they each had "real" jobs to support themselves.  Now they are welded to the public tit and adding aides.  The result is that they are trying to micro-manage every department in the city and are more of a hindrance than a help in running the city.

We need fewer Supes and we need them elected at large.

Michael F Zelinsky's picture

Too many Supes

We agree.  Yes, I do know that we used to elect Supervisors on a citywide basis, went to district elections, then went back to at-large elections, then back to this inane district election system.  I know this because I'm a born and bred San Franciscan, 68 years old, and I've been there, done that.  That's how I know that the current system doesn't work.

Interesting fact:  The reason we have 11 Supervisors for such a small (in area) city is that originally, San Francisco City and County's southern border was at San Francisquito Creek, now the southern border of San Mateo County.  Originally, there was no San Mateo County.  In the late 19th Century, the rural residents of San Francisco County got fed up with their lack of representation in city/county government, and petitioned to create a new county south of San Francisco.  Bureaucrats being as they are, the then city/county supervisors kept their 11 member board, and so it has remained 'til this day.

Thanks for your comments, Cotter, and, by the way, welcome back!

gcotter's picture

Too Many Supes

Hi Michael,

I'm 67 but have only lived here 40 years and had no idea why SF ended up with so many supes.  And it's a great story!  I can't believe that in all this time no one has said "Duh, do we really need so many?"

You probably also remember when Supervisor was a part time job with a small salary - under $20K a year.  Now it is full time, over paid, and they all have "aides".  Sigh.

I sure hope we can jump into the 21st century and have something that works better than what we currently have!

Thanks for sharing the history.

Michael F Zelinsky's picture

Too many Supes

40 years?  Did I buy you a drink on Union Street back in '70?  I know I bought myself a few.

NinerFan's picture

Yes! Hybrid system

I also think  we should have a hybrid system with some at-large seats and some district seats.  I'd make the district areas larger and make 4 at-large seats.  That way we ensure that at least somebody is taking into account the interests of the entire City as a whole, not just some small constituency that just happens to be more vocal than the majority.

Fog City Guide's picture

A mixed board

I believe in the district supervisor. I enjoy having local representation at that level and the politics of the neighborhoods ensures access. I disagree with Eric in that we don't need more supervisors, I believe we could survive with 7 districts with one four year term limit. What I'd like to see is an at-large component added to the Board with 4 supervisors elected at large with a limit two four year terms served in that position.

The benefit, as I see it, of having at-large representation is primarily more moderate and less dogmatic supervisors looking out for the City as a whole. I'd assume that in order to appeal to the entire City the candidate would need to move from any extreme to the center. It would also allow for long term planning and accomplishments. The supervisors that are able to serve the entire City would have experience and could show leadership to the new representatives.

gcotter's picture

Think so...

Think so - you had curly dark hair and kept asking "What's your sign?"  <grin>

Michael F Zelinsky's picture


No.  In those days, light brown hair in a Marine Corps buzz cut, and I kept asking, "Will you drive me to Treasure Island in the morning?" :)

gcotter's picture

District Representation Examples?

First - that last post of mine was directed to Michael Zelinsky....

District representation.  I would like to see some comments from posters of real life examples of when your district was actually helped by your district supervisor.  I had eight years of Ammiano who seemed to represent "the gay community" more than the "District Nine Community"  I can not recall one thing that Ammiano shepherded through the board that was a "for the benefit of his district" issue.  Now I have Campos and the same is still true.  The CONCEPT of District elections is fine.  The REALITY of District elections is not.  I just don't see how the totality of the city has been enhanced by district elections.  

Several years ago one might have been able to say: "When I can't get help elsewhere, I can always contact my district supervisor."  But even that is hardly true any more.  Now when I need to contact the city I can just call 311.  They handle over 225,000 calls a month - who needs to call a Supervisor?.  (For more info about 311 check their web site at

However, just because I don't feel my district supervisor represents my district, perhaps others have had a different experience; if so, please share.  Some real examples of how your district supervisor interacted with the city of the other supes to the advantage of your specific district would go a long way toward understanding the value of district elections.

gcotter's picture

Back to Michael

Oh, THAT guy!  Yeah, I remember the buzz cut.  <grin>  Maybe we can meet in person that the event on the 25th.

Michael F Zelinsky's picture

Bd of Stupidvisors

Don't think we'll be in town on the 25th, but we'll probably run into one another since you live in our neighborhood.  We live in Eureka Valley, on Eureka St., near 18th.  Eureka Valley is what "The Castro" was called before it became "The Castro."

Michael F Zelinsky's picture

What has my Supervisor done for me?

Like you, I can't remember anything specific that my Supervisor, either where I live now in Eureka Valley, or where I lived since 1973 - the Inner Sunset - has done for me or my district(s).  The "Feudalization" of San Francisco has caused the district supervisors to vote for things that effect other districts more than things that will effect our district, over fear of the other supervisors "ganging up" on my supervisor's district.  Happens all the time.

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