By Bruce B. Brugmann
And so the Anti-Sunshine Gang in City Hall, which for two years has been conducting a nasty vendetta against the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, capitulated quietly at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting without a fight or even a whimper.
The capitulation came in a two line phrase buried in item 28 in the middle of the board’s agenda. It was a report from the rules committee recommending the Board of Supervisors approve a motion for unnamed nominees to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. “Question: Shall this Motion be approved.”
Board Chair David Chiu asked for approval in his usual board meeting monotone. And the approval came unanimously, with no dissent and no roll call vote and not a word spoken by anybody. He banged the gavel and that was that. And only a few veteran board watchers knew that this was the astonishing end to a crucial battle that pitted the powerfuf Anti-Sunshine Gangs against the sunshine forces and the citizens of San Francisco. It was a battle that would decide whether the task force would remain an independent people’s court that would hear and rule on public access complaints. Sunshine won.
It was ironic and fitting that Chiu presided over the capitulation. For it was Chiu as board president who orchestrated the deal to demolish Park Merced and then orchestrated the infamous 6-5 board vote in September 2010 approving a monstrous redevelopment project that would evict lots of tenants, and destroy most of the affordable housing. This was a big deal because the housing crisis was heating up and Park Merced was the largest affordable community in the city and one of the largest In the nation. This is where tens of thousands of young people, young married couples, students and faculty at nearby San Francisco State, older people, and middle class people had come for generations with their families to live in affordable housing in an “urban park,” as Park Merced promo once put it.
And it was Chiu as board president who was charged by the Sunshine Task Force, along with Supervisors Scott Wiener, Malia Cohen, and Eric Mar with violating the Sunshine Ordinance and the state’s open meeting law (Brown Act) when they approved the project with blazing speed..
Wiener, Cohen, and Mar were on the board’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee when they voted on the contract. Literally minutes before the committee vote, Chiu introduced 14 pages of amendments to the contract. The deputy city attorney at the meeting blessed the amendments by saying, gosh, golly, gee, no problem, the amendments do not substantially alter the contract and therefore the description of the item on the agenda was still apt and the committee could act on it. Bombs away! The full board approved the contract the same day by one vote.
This sleight of hand and pellmell approval process meant that Park Merced was going,going, gone and in its place would be a project that “has no hindsight, no insight, or foresight,” as Planning Commissioner Kathryn Moore was quoted as saying in a scathing Westside Observer column by landscape architect Glenn Rogers. “It is not a project of the 21st century. It is the agenda of a self-serving developer.”
The Observer, to its immense credit, was the only media in town to blast away at the project. (Read its coverage and weep, starting with a June piece by Pastor Lynn Gavin who wrote that the Park Merced owners did not disclose to her or her family that they “were going to demolish the garden apartment that was our home.”) Gavin and her neighbors took the formal complaint to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force and got a unanimous 8-0 ruling condemning Chiu, Wiener, Cohen, and Mar for open government violations.
It was a historic ruling by the task force and demonstrated once again in 96 point tempo bold the irreplaceable value of the people’s court. The ruling also had impact because it amounted to a stinging expose of how government often works in San Francisco with big money and big development and how one vote can add gallons of high octane petrol to the housing crisis. It angered the hell out of the six supervisors who voted for the project.
And in effect, it gave rise to what I call the Anti-Sunshine Gang in City Hall whose response to the ruling was, not to apologize and change their illegal ways, but to start a vicious vendetta against the task force for doing the right thing at the right time. The six votes were David Chiu, Scott Wiener, Malia Cohen, Mark Farrell, Sean Elsbernd, and Carmen Chu. Elsbernd has gone on to Sen. Diane Feinstein’s office in San Francisco and Chu to becoming assessor. But the gang picked up other allies along the way, notably the city attorney’s office.
Two years ago, when the task force members came to the board for reappointment, the Anti-Sunshine Gang retaliated and swung into action by “launching a smear campaign aimed at purging the eight task force members who had unanimously voted to find the violations,” according to Richard Knee, a 12 year veteran of the task force, in a June column in the Observer. Knee, who represents the local chapter of the Society of Professonal Journalists, also wrote that “the mayor and the Board of Supervisors…made sure that the panel gets minimal funding, staffing and resources, and the board has refused to fill two long standing vacancies, making It difficult at times to muster a quorum since task force members are volunteers with outside responsibilities such as family and work.
“Two year ago, the board’s failure to appoint a physically disabled member forced the task force to take a five month hiatus, exacerbating a backlog of complaints filed by members of the public.This year, Knee wrote, the start of the appointment process was “farcical and ominous.” He explained that, at the May 15 meeting of the board’s rules committee, which vets applicants for city bodies, the two supervisors present chair Norman Yee and Katy Tang (David Campos had an excused absence) “complained that there weren’t enough racial/ethnic diversity among the 13 candidates. “That didn’t deter them from recommending the reappointments of Todd David, Louise Fischer, and David Pilpel, all Anglos.”
Before the full board five days later, Yee complained again, “this time that lack of a regular schedule and frequent switching of meeting dates were making attendance difficult for task force members. Either Yee had no clue of the facts or he was lying.” Knee explained that the task force normally meets the first Wednesday of each month and its subcommittees usually meet during the third week of the month.
“Meeting postponements and cancellations are the result, not the cause, of difficulties in mustering a quorum, due to the vacancies—which now number three.
“In gushing over David, Fischer, and Pilpel, at the board’s May 20 meeting, Wiener offered no evidence or detail of their alleged accomplishments and ignored the fact that David has missed six task force meetings since March 2013, including those of last February and April. Until the board fills the other seats, the five remaining incumbents—Chris Hyland, Bruce Oka, David Sims, Allyson Washburn, and yours truly—stay on as ‘holdover’ members.”
Meanwhile, by the next session of the Rules Committee on June 5, the sunshine advocates had rallied and put together an impressive mass of sunshine power. Testifying at the hearing were representatives from SPJ and the journalism community, the League of Women Voters, the ACLU, the sunshine posse, the Library Users Association, the Bay Area News Group, the Inter-American Press Asociation, the Center for Investigative Reporting, the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, the First Amendment Coalition, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Observer and neighborhood activists, and other sunshine allies and FOI groupies. It was quite a show of force.
SPJ placed a pointed, timely op ed in the Chronicle (“SF Supervisors block Sunshine Ordinance Task Force,” good of the Chron/Hearst to run it but better if the paper didn’t black out local sunshine issues.) Members of the posse peppered the gang with public record requests aimed at tracking skullduggery and they found it. Reps from the groups lobbied the supervisors by email, phone, and personal office visits. And the word that the Anti-Sunshine Gang was back and on the gallop shot through the neighborhoods and around town and into election campaigns and among constituents of the gang.
SPJ and its vigorous Freedom of Information Committee under co-chairs Journalist Thomas Peele, of Chauncey Bailey fame, and Attorney Geoff King were particularly effective. Peele is an investigative reporter with the Bay Area Newspaper Group, a lecturer on public records at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and author of a respected book on Chauncey Bailey, a black journalist murdered on his way to work.
The word got around that the supervisors were blocking strong pro-sunshine candidates for the task force and that their first three nominees were the weakest of the lot. Campos, a stellar sunshine advocate, was back at the committee meeting, making the right calls and shepherding the strong nominees along through the committee and the Board of Supervisors. Great job.
The cumulative weight and force of the presentations of the nominees and the sunshine advocates made the proper political point: any supervisor who voted with the Anti-Sunshine Gang was going to face their constituents and voters with the brand of being anti-sunshine and anti- government accountability. More: they would have to answer some embarrassing questions: Who lost Park Merced? Who voted to turbo charge evictions and middle class flight from the city for years to come? Who tried to cover up the outrage and who did it? And who led the retaliatory vendetta against the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force for doing the right thing on behalf of sunshine in San Francisco?
And so the Board of Supervisors was dragged kicking and screaming into the sunshine of June 2014 and beyond. The supervisors ended up nominating what looks to be one of the strongest pro-sunshine task forces: Attorney Mark Rumold and journalist Ali Winston from SPJ, Allyson Washburn from the League of Women Voters, Attorney Lee Hepner, Journalist Josh Wolf, and holdover Chris Hyland. Plus Bruce Oka who looks to be a late holdover in the disabled seat. Congratulations for hanging in and winning, hurray for the power of sunshine, on guard, B3
P.S. l: PG&E institutionalizes City Hall secrecy and corruption: The pernicious influence of the Anti-Sunshine gang hung heavy over the rules committee. Tang tried to force every candidate to take a pledge of allegiance to the city attorney. Tang is the kind of neighborhood supervisor (Sunset) who has a 100 per cent Chamber of Commerce voting record. Her city attorney pledge demand was laughable on its face, given the fact that the city attorney refuses to move on the PG&E/Raker Act scandal and thus has helped institutionalize secrecy and corruption in City Hall on a multi-million dollar scale for decades. Which is reason enough for the city to always maintain a strong, enduring Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, to help keep tabs on how PG&E keeps City Hall safe for PG&E and its allies. (See Guardian stories and editorials since 1969.)
Tang and Yee continued the gang’s hammering on Bruce Wolfe, a worthy candidate for the disabled seat whose main sin was that he was one of the Honorable Eight who voted condemnation. The gang knocked out Wolfe as a holdover candidate the first time around and they were at it again at the committee meeting. Oka says he wants to resign from the task force but only when the board finds a good replacement. Wolfe, who was an effective and knowledgeable sunshine task force member, is the obvious replacement but he is still on the purge list. Stay tuned on this one. .
There are three things that no one can do to the entire satisfaction of anyone else: make love, poke the fire, and run a newspaper. William Allen White, 1917, line atop the editorial page of the Durango Herald, Durango, Colorado.