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Band of volunteers keeps an eye on SF bond projects

Since 2008, San Franciscans have signed off on more than two billion dollars worth of bonds. A bond is a loan taken out by the city to pay for big projects. But who keeps track of all that money?

In San Francisco, part of the answer to that question is the Citizens General Obligation Bond Oversight Committee (CGOBOC), a group of ordinary citizens who volunteer to spend their free time sifting through reports, trying to make sure that projects stay on track.

Zac Townsend is applying for one of three open seats on the committee.

“To me, it’s not just an abstraction,” Townsend says. “It’s real people’s lives. You’re making sure that the money that was supposed to go to playgrounds actually goes to playgrounds.”

Townsend says he sees the committee as a way to give back. Growing up, his family didn’t have a lot of money, but he says strong public institutions like free school lunch programs and magnet schools changed his life, and he’s been interested in public policy ever since.

CGOBOC holds public meetings every other month in a spacious hearing room on the fourth floor of City Hall. Though they can be dry, they're also a chance for committee members to hear directly from city employees, who step up to a podium one by one and update the committee on the status of various bond projects. Because each CGOBOC member focuses on a specific set of projects, these meetings are a way for the entire committee to stay on the same page – and when projects fall behind, to ask hard questions of the projects' managers.

It's important to note that CGOBOC is not our only line of defense around these bond projects. The City Controller’s office has a full-time staff to conduct audits of these same programs. But back in the 1990’s, there were many problems with the city’s bond projects – wasted money, construction delays, mismanagement – so voters went to the ballot in 2002 and created CGOBOC as an extra layer of protection.

"It is in no way the only set of eyes that look upon all of these various projects. There are many checks and balances, but one of them is the one you guys wanted, which was to have people just like you making sure that the city is delivering on their promises," says CGOBOC Chair Rebecca Rhine.

Though voters created CGOBOC, attendance at CGOBOC’s public meetings is low. In fact, few people even apply to be on the committee, and the city has been delaying its decision on whom to select for the committee’s vacant seats for months, hoping that more people will apply.

CGOBOC is just one of dozens of committees throughout the city that are staffed by volunteers, and right now there are about a hundred open seats across these committees.

Think you want to get involved in San Francisco city government? Find committees appointed by the Board of Supervisors here and committees appointed by the Mayor here.

This story originally aired in February 2014