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With motivation, even California can clean up its cities – Pacific Research Institute

With motivation, even California can clean up its cities

RedTapeMan SF

The wheels of government grind slow – unless a politician needs something done quickly. Then things can move remarkably fast.

Earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom said he pushed San Francisco Mayor London Breed for an emergency cleanup of San Francisco, as China President Xi Jinping was coming to visit. Xi was in town for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit.

The makeover included cleaning trash and graffiti, sweeping homeless encampments, shutting down unpermitted street food vendors and restaurants in Chinatown with health code violations, as well as murals and decorative crosswalks, according to SF Gate.

Why can’t it be like this all the time?

The efforts were criticized because so much of San Francisco has fallen into a state of disrepair, with pervasive homelessness, drug abuse, petty crime and even human feces (so much so that a map was created to document the location of poop) plaguing many of the city’s neighborhoods.

But Newsom defended the cleanup as common sense – something anyone would do when guests are coming over. “I know folks say, ‘Oh, they’re just cleaning up this place because all those fancy leaders are coming into town.’ That’s true because it’s true,” Newsom said.

Read Pacific Research Institute economist Wayne Winegarden’s new “Free Cities Index.”

Watch this Free Cities Center video about Sacramento’s new project to deal with homelessness.

Just a few months earlier, city officials were criticized for the same thing when great lengths were taken to beautify the city for Dreamforce, a massive annual event hosted by Salesforce.

“San Francisco has been incredibly clean, beautiful, and safe for the last 3 days of Dreamforce, and it is great that the city is able to put its best foot forward for this major event that brings in 40K people from around the world, and $80M to the economy. It is important to ask why the city cannot be this clean and safe every single day?” tweeted Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.

No, really. Why?

There might not be one easy answer for why it can’t be like this all the time. But one obvious common thread in both cleanups – APEC and Dreamforce – is ego.

Xi is one of the most important political figures in the world and his arrival to San Francisco came on the heels of a trip to China by Newsom, where the governor tried to entice Xi to join in California’s efforts to curb climate change. And little Newsom does can be viewed as anything but naked political ambition as he continues to appear to look presidential for a run either now or in the future.

In the case of Dreamforce, Benioff, who is a towering figure in San Francisco, had threatened to take his conference elsewhere if the city couldn’t get its act together. “If this Dreamforce is impacted by the current situation with homelessness and drug use it may be the last Dreamforce’ in the city,” Benioff told the San Francisco Chronicle prior to the event.

Things move quick when motivated

To be fair to San Francisco, it suffers many of the same problems other big cities face. And cleaning up the city for a few days is substantially easier than permanently fixing homelessness or crime. But it is remarkable how fast things can move when politicians are motivated.

It can take decades in California to get a building project through the CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review/approval process. It’s arguably the primary reason why California has a housing crisis. It’s not a secret the law needs reform – former Gov. Jerry Brown called it the “Lord’s work” – but substantial reform remains elusive.

However, politicians find a way to temporarily reform CEQA when they really want something to happen, like Golden One Center in Sacramento or SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles.

Water supply is another persistent problem in California, though increasing it has been challenging – building dams in particular. The last dam in the state was built more than two decades ago, but somehow Newsom found a way to fast-track (by curtailing CEQA) the long-stalled Sites project.

More than a little government dysfunction

These quick fixes are the exception, though. In recent years, California has been mired in ineptitude. Homelessness, public education, housing, cost of living, wildfires and water supply are just a few of the massive issues for which the state has been unable to improve.

And if these issue areas are bad, government programs and projects are not much better. California’s Employment Development Department taught a master class in mismanagement during COVID, when its system melted down leaving unemployed residents unable to get benefits processed amid a government-imposed shutdown of places of work. Eventually, stopgap measures were taken to speed up claims processing that provided little in terms of safeguards and led to billions of dollars paid in fraudulent claims.

California’s high-speed rail project stands in stark contrast to the Sites reservoir. The latter has been held up for decades in bureaucratic nonsense when the former keeps getting billions of dollars pumped into it despite the fact that it’s billions of dollars over budget, years behind schedule and there is no viable plan to deliver on its central promise to connect the Bay Area to Los Angeles.

The list could go on but the point remains that Californians rarely get adequate return for their tax dollars. Maybe Xi should come for a visit more often.

Matt Fleming is an opinion columnist for The Orange County Register.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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