Cutting Through the Red Tape

Connecting the Dots

October 09, 2014

By Pai Ferreira, 2014 SF Fellow

Energy is part of our everyday lives yet in the developed world many of us take it for granted. When I was placed in the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) Power Enterprise my first reaction was a feeling of uncertainty because I thought I had no power industry background. In a sense, this feeling is not necessarily true because everyone has some level of power knowledge. My perspective started to shift as I begin to learn more about the Power business and its important contribution towards the city’s goal of green development and energy reliability.

As a branch of the SFPUC, the Power Enterprise’s major role is to provide municipal power to the various city facilities like the MTA, San Francisco Public Library, City Hall, General Hospitals, etc. This makes one think that keeping the lights on is an effort to support economic development. To have a vibrant working city there needs to be good energy resources. Most of the power the SFPUC receives is from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir via hydropower. The process of converting that power into energy and have it delivered to a facility’s socket is quite amazing.

Learning about how the Power Enterprise functions made me reflect on the things I have learned in school in relation to the energy industry; in particular, a chapter on structuralism and privatization of public goods.  One of the documentaries we watched was on the privatization of power in Nigeria. It highlighted an underserved, impoverished, and economically challenged neighborhood and followed their struggle with skyrocketing electrical prices which ultimately led to electricity not being affordable for the residents. When the Nigerian government approved privatization of the electrical industry, the decision was accompanied with minimally regulations. The bottom line came down to those who could not pay will not get power. This business principle of cutthroat profit seeking caused a lot of negative externalities.  For example, during the summer months many of the locals could not afford electricity to power their fans, which disproportionately affected the elderly, sick, and children. Additionally, work cannot efficiently get done after the sun went down. It was humbling to watch a young school girl describe her challenges of doing homework by candle light because her family’s electricity was shut off.

The documentary helped to reinforce the idea that power is an essential element for economic development. The people in the developed world often miss this connection and take having “easily-accessible” power for granted. My placement and past studies helped me to make this meaningful connection.

Libraries, an essential community resource

October 07, 2014

By Cody Zeger, 2015 SF Fellow

Coming out of college, I never expected to spend more time in a library after graduation than I did while I was actually in school. What did people that weren’t in school use libraries for anyway? If I wanted to learn something outside of class all I needed to do was turn on my computer and I could find almost anything from the comfort of my couch at home. During my month of working at the San Francisco Public Library, I’ve learned just how privileged that view was. Each day at the Main Library people from all over the city line up outside all three entrances, waiting for the doors to open. The effect is especially poignant on Fridays, when the Main doesn’t open until noon and crowds of people have time to accrue. Standing on the second floor landing at opening time is like being in a whirlpool. Patrons speed toward the security gate—the one and only entrance to the library’s resources—swirling down the staircase onto the first floor, through the book detectors, and then scattering like buckshot; each one awaiting their chance to use a computer, read the newspaper, or just have a space to be. It’s beautiful and a bit overwhelming at the same time.

Working in the Facilities Division, I help oversee all of the custodial, engineering, and security work that happens in libraries across San Francisco. Despite working in the Main Library my office is closed off from the general public and I pretty much only hear about patrons when they have broken one of our codes of conduct and are removed for the day or suspended. It’s a biased view that removes anyone who does follow our rules from my daily experience, even though they are the majority. Out of 6.7 million patrons that visited the library in the last fiscal year, only 0.04% of those resulted in violations of our code of conduct. What’s more, that number is going down each year, even as the number of visitors increases.

What I’ve come to learn over my time here is just how many people depend upon a resource I thought I might no longer need only four months ago. How do you find and apply for a job if you do not have a computer? Where do you spend time if you don’t have a home and aren’t comfortable spending all of your time on the streets each day? How do you study for the MCATs if you are living at home and need a quiet place to focus? For an extraordinary number of people in San Francisco, the library provides the answer to many of these questions. There are no requirements for entry, you are welcome no matter what you look like or what experiences you’ve had—you no longer even need an address to get a library card. It is a space for any person and, as a public service agency, must respond to the needs of its people. That is why there are constant programs going on to engage families and teens, book clubs, and a social worker who helps patrons when police action would be ineffective or inappropriate. The library is truly a reflection of its patrons, each branch with its own personality based on the people who populate it, and I hope to continue learning exactly how integral it is in helping our city thrive.

The Perpetual Journey: Finding Authentic Understanding in Governance

September 23, 2014

by Edward-Michael Muna, 2014 SF City Hall Fellow

“You know you are probably the only Chamorro working for San Francisco”, he said gruffly as we picked up our family’s roasted pig. I was proud hearing his interest in my work especially since my grandfather was often quiet. He’s a truck driver who hauls gravel to pave roads, before that he was working for Guam Power Authority back on my home island. I value his opinion as a father figure and as a leader, yet my life is so divergent from his: I graduated from college, grew up in the Bay Area and haven’t started my own family. I desire a deeper connection with him as a government employee in utilities but my grandfather’s time as a laborer is undeniable as the meeting of sweat and pain is carved across his body. I could never know what it’s like to feel what he feels and much like my estrangement from his life, policy and governance are often removed from people’s lived experiences.

This dynamic became clear to me when I was sent to Moccasin to assist with Rim Fire recovery last year. Many workers there have old ties with the SFPUC and the local area was so ingrained with San Francisco that historically its development has ebbed and flowed with it. When discussing the differences between Moccasin and San Francisco I gathered a common response from people there. “We love the SFPUC but no one in San Francisco knows what it’s like out here and what it means to do the work we do.” This was unfortunate for me to hear because many of these people were men and women doing vital and often dangerous work supporting San Francisco.

The divide was also evident in communication gaps between Moccasin and San Francisco. One instance that stood out was getting field crews to fill out FEMA paperwork as they responded to the fire. Early in the process our finance department realized that many crews were incorrectly filling out FEMA forms or returning them dirty and illegible. We would try communicating our issue to work crews but it became difficult if not patronizing to do so, as many crews lumbered into our command center covered in ash after 12 or more hours of work. It became a balancing act of trying to communicate challenges facing workers to a management located miles away.

I bring up these ideas because I have been struggling with my role working with the city and my personal value for engaging those most affected by its policies. Reflecting on my recent experience I wonder what effective and compassionate leadership looks like and how one crafts policy connected to people’s lives and those doing groundwork. This conundrum was with me as I witnessed the Moccasin microcosm and interpersonally as I worked to further understand those around me, like my grandfather. Authentic engagement is an issue plaguing local, state, and national governments for years and I hope that as I continue my work with the SFPUC that I can better understand where the chasms of understanding are and how to bridge them as a young policy advocate.

Connecting through Service

December 30, 2013

by Lucy Liu, 2013 Fellow

Like a typical senior, the last few months prior to my graduation were spent in a frenzied job hunt. I had skimmed through a number of job descriptions and fellowship programs, but nothing really struck me…until I discovered the City Hall Fellows program. Within a few minutes of picking up the informational brochure at a UC Berkeley Career Fair, I knew that this program was the one. It was exactly what I was looking for – an opportunity to serve in local government.

I had been interested in public service and government affairs since high school, when I had my first leadership position as Commissioner of Performing Arts. Through my college years, I carried on that passion for public service and looked for opportunities to instill it in my extracurricular activities. For two years, I had the pleasure of working in the Department of Labor in San Francisco on behalf of the Secretary of Labor’s regional representative as well as the Human Resources division. While this experience helped me better understand the functions of the federal government and confirmed my deep interest in public service, I found myself reminiscent of the leadership role I had in high school, where I was able to work closely with the student community I was serving. As I searched for that first post-graduate job, I kept that intimacy in mind as a priority. I was looking to feel a strong connection between the work I was doing and its effects on the public, and I found it in the City Hall Fellows program with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).

While I have only been at the SFMTA for a few months, I have found my time here to be fulfilling and rewarding every day. I have discovered that the local level of government is where that intimacy I was craving really thrives. Because it provides the most crucial services to its people, municipalities touch the public in almost every way on a daily basis. In particular, transportation is visible in just about every place one looks: on the Muni light rail vehicles, in the bus-only lanes, with the Bike Share program, even on the streets and sidewalks. All around me, I am able to see the tangible impacts and services the SFMTA provides to its people and know that I took part in that in some way. In addition, SFMTA engages with the public directly on a number of transportation projects through an active process of outreach to ensure that public feedback and suggestions are a part of the iterative policy process. Initiatives like the Geary Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to improve Muni reliability and Polk Street Improvement to increase safety measures all include a large volume of community meetings and discussions with the agency. My role in the Government Affairs division has brought me even closer to the public. On a daily basis, I help process, document, and respond to constituent requests and concerns that are forwarded by the Mayor, Board of Supervisors, or constituents themselves. Working with SFMTA staff to answer concerns and comments about neighborhood speeding, transit improvements, and bike safety has given me the opportunity to personally connect with San Francisco residents. My love of public service has always been rooted in serving the community, and here at SFMTA, I am able to see that deeply satisfying connection day in and day out.

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