SFBG Wrap, April 16-23

BART FINED FOR WORKERS’ DEATHS

The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Bay Area Rapid Transit for three “willful/serious” safety violations in connection with the death of two transit workers last October, saying BART is at fault due to a lack of safety measures.

“Safety standards are designed to save lives,” acting Cal/OSHA chief Juliann Sum said in a statement, “and they were not followed.”

The transit workers were killed in the final days of the BART strike. The accident claimed the lives of Christopher Sheppard, a BART manager and member of the AFSCME union, and Larry Daniels, a contractor, who had been inspecting a “dip in the rail” before they were hit by an oncoming train.

The workers were required to go through what’s called a Simple Approval process to get permission to work on the track, but the OSHA citation seized on that process as a dangerous underlying factor in the fatal accident.

“Employer’s control method, namely the ‘Simple Approval’ procedure, does not safeguard personnel working on tracks during railcar movement,” the citation reads. “The employer allowed workers to conduct work on the railway tracks where trains were traveling. The employees had no warning that a train moving at more than 65 miles-per-hour was … approaching the location where they were working.”

BART General Manager Grace Crunican quickly issued a statement. “Passenger and employee safety is our top priority at BART,” Crunican said. “BART has fundamentally upgraded its safety procedures with the implementation of an enhanced wayside safety program and a proposed budget investment of over $5 million.” She added that Cal/OSHA considered the safety violations to be “abated” in light of these changes, “meaning that none … pose continuing safety hazards.”

Simple Approval has since been terminated, BART spokesperson Alicia Trost told the Guardian. “BART permanently eliminated Simple Approval immediately following the tragic deaths,” she said. “We are also implementing the extra layers of protection for track workers.”

Notably, the two workers were killed during BART management’s attempt to train managers to operate trains during the strike, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which continues to investigate the incident. (Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez)

SORRY STATE OF PUBLIC HOUSING

Sup. London Breed has proposed setting aside city funding to renovate vacant and dilapidated public housing units, in an effort to quickly make housing available for homeless families in the face of a dire shortage.

At the April 15 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, Breed cited an anticipated budget surplus and called for the Controller and City Attorney to begin drafting a supplemental budgetary appropriation of $2.6 million, for renovating 172 San Francisco Housing Authority units sitting vacant.

“There are over 40 public housing developments in San Francisco, and given the decades of mismanagement and financial neglect that public housing has endured, many units are currently not available for San Franciscans to live in,” Breed said. “As we grapple with an unprecedented affordability crisis and an acute shortage of housing, particularly affordable housing, these fallow public housing units represent one of our best and cheapest opportunities to make housing available now.” Breed, who represents District 5, previously lived in San Francisco public housing.

The Housing Authority receives its funding through the federal government, but spokesperson Rose Marie Dennis said those federal dollars don’t stretch far enough for the agency to perform routine restoration of vacant units. “We have to work with the resources that we have,” she said.

According to an analysis by Budget & Legislative Analyst Harvey Rose, the city has lost $6.3 million in rent that could have been collected had its empty public housing units been occupied.

The day after Breed floated her proposal for a budgetary supplemental, tragedy struck at Sunnydale, the Housing Authority’s largest housing development, when a deadly fire claimed the lives of a 32-year-old resident and her 3-year-old son. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but a San Francisco Chronicle report noted that the Housing Authority had planned to rebuild Sunnydale for years due to its poor condition.

The following day, April 17, Mayor Ed Lee announced that emergency funding of $5.4 million had been identified through the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, to address serious deferred maintenance needs — such as busted elevators in apartment complexes where disabled seniors rely on wheelchairs and canes to get around. (Rebecca Bowe)

SUPES OUTFOX LANDLORDS

When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors gave final approval April 15 for legislation to substantially increase landlord payments to tenants in the case of Ellis Act evictions, it reflected a key change designed to counter a recent eviction push by landlords.

Winning approval on a 9-2 vote, with Sups. Mark Farrell and Katy Tang opposed, the legislation increases the current required relocation payments of $5,265 per person or $15,795 per unit (plus an additional $3,510 for those with disabilities or over age 62) up to the equivalent of two years’ rent for a comparable unit. That translates to tens of thousands of dollars.

For example, the Controller’s Office calculates that a family evicted from a two-bedroom apartment in the Mission District rented at $909 per month would be entitled to $44,833 in relocation payment.

The legislation was originally scheduled to go into effect 120 days after passage, in order to give city officials enough time to implement it. But when sponsoring Sup. David Campos heard landlords were rushing to evict tenants prior to the fee increase, he checked in with the City Attorney’s Office and other departments to see whether they could be ready sooner. After getting the green light, Campos amended the measure to go into effect 30 days after it’s enacted into law.

The question now is whether Mayor Ed Lee, who has not taken a position on the legislation, will act quickly to sign it. He was initially given 10 days to decide. Since a veto-proof majority approved the legislation, the mayor’s decision is to either grant approval or stall the inevitable, triggering more evictions at lower levels of relocation assistance. (Steven T. Jones)

POLICE TAPES BROUGHT TO LIGHT

Police radio dispatch records from March 21, the night 28-year-old Alejandro Nieto was gunned down in Bernal Heights Park by San Francisco Police Department officers, had been impossible to obtain despite requests from journalists, attorneys, and community members who had ties to Nieto.

Then, incredibly — thanks to a combination of tenacious reporting and the website Broadcastify.com — the radio dispatch audio popped up in a news report on KQED’s website.

Originally captured in real-time by a website works like an automatic police scanner and preserves all files, the recordings offer a rare, behind-the-scenes glimpse of what occurred in the moments leading up to the highly controversial officer-involved shooting.

The SFPD’s account of the incident is that officers opened fire in defense of their own lives because Nieto pointed a Taser at them, causing them to believe he was tracking them with a firearm.

But the audio files that have now surfaced reflect no mention of a suspect brandishing a weapon.

The first mention of a “221” — police code for person with a gun — is to relate a 911 caller’s description of a Latino male suspect, who has “got a gun on his hip, and is pacing back and forth on the north side of the park near a chain-linked fence.” Just before the shooting, a voice can be heard saying over the radio, “There’s a guy in a red shirt, way up the hill, walking toward you guys.” Several seconds later, another voice calmly states, “I got a guy right here.”

Twenty-six seconds after that, a person can be heard shouting, “Shots fired! Shots fired!”

“What’s very telling is that none of the people are saying, the guy had a gun, he pointed it at us,” said attorney Adante Pointer of the law office of John Burris, which is preparing to file a complaint on behalf of Nieto’s family against the SFPD. “It begs the question, did [Nieto] do what they said he did?”

“If this was a righteous shooting,” Pointer added, “then [SFPD] … shouldn’t have any fear of public scrutiny.”

Friends and supporters of Nieto have led marches to protest the shooting and set up a website for ongoing events, justice4alexnieto.org. (Rebecca Bowe)