That mythical land known as the San Francisco City Hall is a very sociable
place. On the first Friday of every month, the halls fill to the ignition
point with alcohol fumes emanating from a roisterous art opening in one of
the supervisor’s offices. But other events also enliven the space under
the Big Dome.
Last Friday morning, for example, there
was the Board of Supervisors City Planning Audit Select Committee
Tea-Party. Were you there? The Supervisor from District 12 dropped by and
filed this report:
I walked into Room 263, where a couple of Bosses were
turning cartwheels, flipping their way through an audit of the Planning
Department that the Budget Analyst compiled nearly two years ago. In June
2002, the news hadn’t been good. In May 2004, it still isn’t. But now
people are willing to talk about it.
What’s wrong? If you read the
report, it turns out that nothing is quite right. Not morale or
communication. Not finances. And certainly not results. In a nutshell,
there’s not much planning in Planning. Even Acting Planning Director
Terrence Goodenough agreed.
The two Bosses were sitting at the tea-table in the
front of the room, where they could keep their eyes on the guests. No. 3,
Rod Weston, played mother, pouring imaginary tea from a large watering-can
as he asked the others whether they preferred lemon or honey.
(Misunderstanding his East Bay accent, they usually said they’d like
money.) Next to him sat No. 6, Joe Weekly, his long legs stretched way out
under the table.. Obviously the intellectual in the room, Weekly chimed in
every so often with challenging riddles, such as why is a neighborhood
like a donkey? (I knew the answer to that one: Because its neighs — nays —
produce a lot of noise but little action.) Asking if anyone ultimately
bears the responsibility for interdepartmental coordination, he answered
the question himself, in a phrase worthy of Joseph Heller: The mayor may
or may not.
A small furry creature sat on the table between the
Bosses, dozing through most of the party. The Dormouse, for it was he,
occupied a miniature director’s chair, emblazoned on the back with the
initials “GG.” Once in a while he muttered something like “Delay today.
Deliver tomorrow. Or next Tuesday. Or a week after neverday.” When he did,
the Bosses and the guests all rushed forward and shoved him into a
sugar-bowl which had the word “Harvard” painted on its side.
As honored guest, Terry Goodenough got to do most of
the talking. I thought for a while he was going to act out the old joke,
you know the one, where the marriage counselor says, “You’re right, Mr.
Dumpling… You’re right, Mrs. Dumpling… They can’t both be right, Ms.
Meñudo? Oh, you are so right!” He nodded in acquiescence at every
accusation, only begging for a little time to get the department’s
internal affairs in order before tackling its behavioral problems in
dealing with the outside world. But even though he swayed back and forth
in apparent accommodation to every passing breeze, I can attest that the
man has a backbone. He dug in his heels & reared up on his hind legs to
defend his own when Squire Weston suggested trimming the top echelon of
departmental managers and replacing them with two or three senior staffers
who would serve at the will of the director. (I don’t know if you read the
report of the Society to Prevent Urban Disasters, but this was exactly
what SPUD recommended as well.) No, Goodenough said firmly, that idea is
“not overly acceptable.” I don’t recall if he wanted lemon or honey.
The party went on for quite a while. Some of the
guests got into a food fight, throwing hot-buttered opinions and cold
comments at each other. The Dormouse climbed out of the sugar-bowl and
wandered up and down the table, sucking the seriousness from every
suggestion. No one seemed to know how to get him out of there.
In other words, it was just your usual
run-of-the-mill City Hall tea-party.
Except for one of the guests.
The first speaker who approached the microphone stood
there looking slightly out of place, a Don Quixote in the world of Lewis
Carroll. No, he wasn’t a planning expert. No, he wasn’t even a Big Dome
denizen. Marco Pignetti was there to tell the Bosses how to hunt the
elusive snark called “Communication,” and how, once captured, it could be
used to lure other critters into making genuine changes in the way a
Joe Weekly pricked up his long ears. In the 1990s,
Weekly said, one of the big problems was a “clear disconnect between
Planning decision-makers and the neighborhoods.” Beginning in 2000,
district-elected supervisors had occasionally managed to grab hold of a
few snark’s feathers, but the creature itself would never let them near.
Were there better ways to pursue it, he asked.
Of course, replied Don Marco. But you have to be
willing to leave the Big Dome to find them. It’s a matter of opening up
the tea-party and inviting more guests. Even more, it’s a matter of
sitting down beforehand and figuring out who all the guests should be.
He actually said “stakeholder,” a word that for me
always conjures up images of a vampire slayer. But I think he meant that a
party is pretty same-old same-old unless there’s a good mix of guests.
Pignetti talked about a couple of specific programs
that had worked elsewhere —
Future Search and the
World Cafe. Ikea had used Future Search, he said, and the FAA called
the program “a minor miracle.” Joe Weekly’s pink fuzzy ears began to
twitch with excitement, and I saw Terrence Goodenough furiously scribble
down a note to himself. Inside the sugar-bowl, the Dormouse squirmed, as
though he was having a bad dream.
In the end, I guess this was one of those parties
where nothing really happened. No one actually poured any tea. No one
punched anyone out; no one hugged anyone. It was all pretty much of a
But I left thinking that all this madness might have
a method after all.
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San Franciscans will have a chance to put World
Café principles into practice in conjunction with the Biotechnology
Industry Organization’s annual international meeting in early June:
Between June 3 and 9 international biotech industry leaders will
hold their annual “BIO” meeting at Moscone Center, while thousands of
activists stage “Reclaim the Commons,” a series of events promoting the
vision of a world driven by public good rather than private profit.
In the midst of this divide, hundreds of ordinary San Franciscans
from highly diverse perspectives, including notable city officials,
will engage as equals in genuine conversation. They will consider the
biotech industry’s potential presence in S.F. neighborhoods such as
Bayview/Hunters Point, Potrero Hill, Dogpatch, Mission Bay, and South of
Market. Using World Café, a large-group dialogue process, this popular
assembly will have a unique opportunity to frame the discussion themselves
and make a holistic inquiry:
What are the potential impacts — good or bad — on the economy, local
jobs, the environment, housing, public safety, traffic, cultural
diversity, healthcare, social justice, neighborhood feel, public
perception, community bonds, and city politics? How do we avoid the
worst-case scenarios and help create the best? What questions, concerns,
and hopes are foremost in the community’s mind?
Space is limited. Early advance sign-up is
No expert knowledge required. The event is free.
For more information, or to sign up, please contact Karen Heisler or Marc
Tognotti at (415) 643-3434 or