Volume 40 Number 40

July 5 – July 11, 2006

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No more taxicab cheating


EDITORIAL The embarrassing spectacle of the San Francisco Taxi Commission firing its executive director in a secret 2 a.m. session June 28 demonstrates how out of control the cab industry in this town is. And it shows that the cab companies need much tighter regulation and monitoring.
The commissioners — all but one of them appointees of former mayor Willie Brown, all of them serving despite expired terms — decided to fire Heidi Machen for the crime of actually doing her job: auditing (and often pissing off) the cab companies.
This all happened while the mayor, who had handpicked his former aide Machen for the job, was either not paying attention or not sufficiently engaged (a problem that’s becoming all too common these days). In the end, Newsom replaced two of the commissioners, and Machen is getting her job back — but the message that was sent here was atrocious.
The cab industry in this city operates under unique rules, established almost 20 years ago by then-supervisor Quentin Kopp. Nobody can drive a cab without a permit, called a medallion; that’s standard for most cities. But in San Francisco the scarce and prized medallions are only issued to active drivers, who have to wait as long as 15 years to qualify. They can use the permits only while they still drive a cab. The permits can’t be bought or sold, and revert to the city upon the death of the holder.
But even active drivers only work part of the time, and since cabs are on the streets 24-7, the holders can lease those permits to other drivers for the shifts they aren’t working. The lease fees alone are worth about $70,000 a year; it’s a nice juicy income for the holders.
The idea was to get the benefits of the medallions into the hands of working drivers. In practice, permit holders use all sorts of tricks to keep from actually having to drive a cab — why work when you can earn that much money without lifting a finger? And some companies, like Yellow Cab, manage to hold on, one way and another, to a huge number of medallions; Yellow alone controls one-third of all the permits in the city.
Past taxi commission directors have operated on a friendly basis with the companies and the permit holders, letting some amazing scams go on without any crackdown. Machen took the radical step of auditing the companies to make sure that the medallion holders were people who actually drove cabs. The industry was furious, and has been trying for some time to get her canned.
When the late Arthur Jackson was president of the commission, the companies got nowhere. A principled straight shooter, Jackson supported his staff and took no guff from the companies. After he died several months ago, Martin Smith, who manages Big Dog City Taxi Service, took over the top job, and Machen has been under pressure ever since.
But there were no grounds to fire her — she’s been doing her job, by the book. So the cab companies started getting personal.
Somebody — possibly a private investigator — pulled some old court records and found out that one of Machen’s aides was arrested 15 years ago and charged with burglary. It turns out his conviction was later expunged, and the guy’s had no further run-ins with the law, but no matter: Cab company representatives, including Jim Gillespie, who runs the San Francisco Taxi Association, hand-carried copies of the original charges (minus the later order dismissing them) to several supervisors to stir up trouble. (They showed the same stuff to Commissioner Jackson before he died; he checked the story out and sent them packing.)
Then company representatives showed up at the hearing to toss out vicious, wildly exaggerated allegations that went way beyond anything in the court records in an effort to smear Machen by association.
The mayor, to his credit, supported Machen in public (after the dismissal), and at press time was planning to reappoint her to the job. But he needs to go further: He should denounce the character assassination by the cab companies and publicly endorse a full and complete audit of every single company and medallion holder’s driving record. The penalty for willful and egregious violations of the law should be the permanent loss of taxi permits. And the district attorney ought to open an investigation into whether the cab companies and medallion holders have conspired to cheat ordinary drivers and the public out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. SFBG

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› tredmond@sfbg.com
Just about everybody in the “respectable” news media is going to call Sup. Chris Daly’s latest charter amendment a crackpot idea, so I might as well join the crackpots right now. I think it’s wonderful.
Daly wants to require the mayor of San Francisco to appear once a month at a Board of Supervisors meeting and answer questions. That’s it — no decisions get made, no policies change. The mayor just has to stand up in public, in front of the district-elected legislators, and explain himself.
It’s a longstanding tradition in England, where the prime minister has to show up at Parliament for “question time.” It makes for outstanding politics and great TV. It’s often pretty rough: The PM gets interrogated by the opposition and fires back. When the smoke clears, the public knows a little more about the government’s policies, and the nation’s chief executive is a little more accountable.
Imagine if G.W. Bush, who doesn’t like press conferences, embodies the imperial presidency, and hates having to answer in public to anything, had to endure question time before the House of Representatives. Imagine Maxine Waters or Barbara Lee or John Murtha asking him about the war. (For that matter, imagine Bill Clinton avoiding impeachment by hashing the questions out in front of a Republican Congress long before it ever got to that.)
There’s a lot to like about parliamentary democracies, and one of the best things is the relatively weak executive branch. Question time in England helps keep the prime minister under control.
And of course in San Francisco mayors are pretty powerful and tend to be pretty aloof. Willie Brown just ignored critics. Gavin Newsom talks to the press but doesn’t get into active debates that much. So it wouldn’t hurt the mayor — any mayor — to have to spend an hour a month in a public session responding to the supervisors’ questions; it wouldn’t hurt the city either. It would do wonders for fighting the inclination toward secrecy in the executive branch. And you know you’d want to watch.
Yeah, Chris Daly is not a fan of Gavin Newsom, and the political consultants working for the mayor will have all sorts of reasons to call this a personal attack and an assault on separation of powers (if not on the very nature of American democracy). But come on — if the prime minister of England can find time to handle this while leading one of the world’s great powers, the mayor of San Francisco can fit it into his tight schedule.
Onward: The deal that gives Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group control over most of the Bay Area dailies is now complete — and already there’s word that Singleton and the Hearst Corp., which owns the ostensibly competing San Francisco Chronicle, will be doing a joint web venture together.
From the June 29 Contra Costa Times:
“MediaNews executives revealed the company is discussing with Hearst Corp. a joint venture to begin a new Web site involving the Bay Area online products of the Times and Mercury News; of the MediaNews publications in the Bay Area; and of the Hearst-owned Chronicle.”
Monopoly marches on.
Funny: I didn’t see anything about this in the Chron. SFBG

After my son’s death


OPINION I am a mom who never wanted to have a gold star after my name.
Last month, after two years of requests, I finally received the Army’s report on how my son, Patrick, died. Some of the information I already knew, through some of Patrick’s brave soldier friends who were with or near him when he died. They told me much of what was in the report. They told the truth, and the government reprimanded them for doing so.
But having the information reported to me in detail on June 21 only increased the hurt — and my determination to stop other mothers from having gold stars after their names.
Patrick was a loving boy with a great sense of humor. He grew to be a strong man who was friendly to everyone, and he especially loved and cared for children. He raised his two children to be the same.
At 31, he was successful in business, earning a comfortable income. He was also a patriotic American who, after Sept. 11, wanted to serve his country. Against the advice of his Army veteran father and me, he joined the California National Guard Engineering Battalion out of Petaluma, being assured that he would serve stateside.
He was not trained as an infantryman. He was not trained to train Iraqi soldiers to be our soldiers.
Patrick was killed on June 22, 2004, outside of Fort Anaconda near Balud, Iraq. Iraqi soldiers he had been training killed him.
This government took my son, my most treasured gift, in a war we did not need to start. Now my life is dedicated to stopping mothers from losing sons, on both sides. You can help me with that.
I want to build centers for our veterans, who are having serious problems when they come home. I know our government should care for them, but that’s not happening. The returning soldiers have physical and psychological needs that are being ignored and that will come back to haunt them and us in years ahead.
I want to see good alternatives to military service that ordinary citizens can contribute to and benefit from.
That’s why I support the World Service Corps proposal sponsored by the People’s Lobby. If Congress adopted the plan, by the time the World Service Corps entered its seventh year, one million Americans could be voluntarily serving in the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Habitat for Humanity, Head Start, Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee, Oxfam, Mercy Corps, or state conservation corps.
Had this been in existence when Patrick wanted to serve his country, I believe he would have joined a nonmilitary organization, and he would be alive today.
Had this program been in existence for decades, there would not be as much hatred fired at our soldiers. There would not be as many soldiers coming home with serious needs.
Ask your congressperson to support the World Service Corps plan. Please help by visiting the Web sites listed below and giving whatever you can, to help make these lifesaving programs happen. SFBG
Nadia McCaffrey
Nadia McCaffrey lives in Tracy.

Presidio bust


› amanda@sfbg.com
Can the Presidio Trust afford to listen to its neighbors? If not, it may just find city officials willing to play hardball over a controversial housing project.
Look at a map of San Francisco. Look closely at the northwestern corner: there are 1,491 acres of federally owned and operated land occupying about 20 percent of the city’s space. The Presidio is a bounty of beauty — miles of hiking trails and bike paths, beaches, bluffs, and greenways maintained by the National Park Service and available for San Francisco and its guests to enjoy.
Unfortunately, the city doesn’t have much say about what happens within that acreage. The property is managed by the Presidio Trust, an independent entity formed in 1996, two years after the park service took control of the former Army base. The trust began with the lofty mission “to preserve and enhance the natural, cultural, scenic, and recreational resources of the Presidio for public use.” It also had a tough mandate: financial independence by 2013.
While the park service tends to the trees and the grass, the 768 buildings scattered throughout the property fall into the purview of the trust, which has rehabilitated and leased 350 of the historic structures in the last 10 years. More than 100 remain on the list for a makeover and one in particular has become a poster child for the strained relationship between the trust and the city in which it lives.
The trust’s Board of Directors has been presented with four development alternatives for the Presidio’s Public Health Service Hospital Complex — 400,000 square feet of dilapidated buildings high on a hill at the southern edge of the Presidio, just 100 yards from the single-family homes that line the quiet avenues north of Lake Street, in the city’s jurisdiction.
For three years, the people who live in those homes have been advocating for developing only 275,000 square feet of the PHSH for smaller units that would house about 438 people and, they say, create less traffic in the neighborhood and environmental impact on the park.
At the last public PHSH meeting on June 15, nearly 200 people representing interests as varied as the Sierra Club and the Mayor’s Office voiced opposition. There was almost universal advocacy of “Alternative 3” (see table, page 14) or some sort of smaller development more in character with the neighborhood. There are currently only five dwellings in the Richmond district with more than 50 units, and the largest has 85.
The trust staff has consistently recommended “Alternative 2,” a plan for 230 market-rate, multibedroom apartments. After three years of neighborhood input and agitation, spokesperson Dana Polk told the Guardian, “This represents a compromise.” The original plan called for 350 units but was still the same size.
To the neighbors it represents a doubling of profit for the trust and its partner in the deal, Forest City Enterprises. Claudia Lewis, president of the Richmond Presidio Neighbors, wrote in a 16-page letter addressed to the board, “The difference in revenue between Alternative 2 and 3 is only $540,000, less than 1 percent of the trust’s projected annual revenue for the year 2010. For this modest gain, the trust is willing to sacrifice the adjacent habitats and community.”
The developer’s projected revenue has leaped from $2.8 million to $6.5 million with the “downsizing,” and the trust’s cut from a 75-year lease has gone from $253 million to $685 million. Forest City, the Cleveland-based real estate developer with a net worth of $8 billion, is only willing to renovate all 400,000 square feet of the building. If another alternative were chosen by the board, trust officials say there would not be a developer interested in the project.
Development in a national park is a lot easier than in the city: There are no restrictive city codes, no process of appeal, and no profit lost in social subsidies. Developers don’t even have to build low-income housing, as the city requires of all projects through its inclusionary housing ordinance.
“They have nothing, zero, no affordable housing in there,” District 1 Sup. Jake McGoldrick told the Guardian. “It’s just more expensive, market-rate housing. I would think they would want to be in sync with what we do on the other side of the road,” he said. “They ought to really address affordable housing voluntarily, as a good neighbor gesture. There’s no reason they can’t rethink the whole thing. How much profit do you really need to turn?”
In the “Response to Comments” on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement of the project, published in May 2006, project proponents argue, “Alternative 3 is, at best, marginally feasible as a rental project because it would not generate a sufficient return to induce a developer to undertake the project.”
PHSH is one of the last remaining large-scale renovations for the Presidio, and in order for development to be financially sufficient, trust staff says, it must net the trust at least $1 million annually in base rent. “That’s why the Public Health Hospital is a key project,” said trust representative Dana Polk. “For us, this is one of the only options for that kind of revenue.”
From a strictly economic standpoint, the Presidio Trust is in the real estate business. Since its creation by Congress in 1996, it’s been fixing up property to lease for the profit necessary to operate the park. In addition to Grubb, the six other Bush-appointed members represent a wealth of experience in real estate, investment banking, law, and finance. They know how to make money but not necessarily how to build a Presidio that works well for San Francisco.
It cost $43 million to operate the Presidio in fiscal year 2004–2005 — and that’s just to keep the lights on and the doors open. In that same fiscal year, the trust received $56 million from residential and commercial rentals, with George Lucas cutting the largest rent check, for $5.6 million. After the additional revenue from PHSH, that $56 million isn’t expected to change much and, according to Presidio spokesperson Polk, certainly won’t double with the 40 percent of Presidio square footage that remains to be renovated.
Since its inception, the trust has received an annual financial allowance from the federal government as assistance while it attempts to achieve fiscal sovereignty. That amount, $19.2 million last year, will steadily decrease to zero by 2013, when the trust is scheduled to sever ties with the US Treasury. It has already exhausted the $50 million borrowing power it was also granted, so for the next seven years it only has what it can raise philanthropically or attract economically to rehabilitate the remainder of the park.
While the trust can occasionally handle retrofits and small-scale renovations, buildings like the PHSH and the cluster of barracks at Fort Scott aren’t entirely feasible as in-house projects. “If we had the capital, we’d do it ourselves,” said Polk, who explains that in most scenarios the lessee incurs the cost of renovations in lieu of rent, which also explains why that $56 million isn’t expected to grow much: Rent revenues are disappearing as favors for renovations.
None of the Presidio property can be sold. It must be leased, but if the trust isn’t raising enough revenue to finance its own public interest renovations, what kinds of development can be expected to continue? Who is willing to pony up cash for buildings they can never own? What kind of bank finances loans on property that can never be foreclosed? Only enormous real estate firms with very deep pockets such as Forest City can afford the Presidio scenario.
In the next couple weeks, McGoldrick is hoping to gather reps from the Mayor’s Office, Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office, the California Department of Transportation, and the local Transportation Authority’s office to try and reach a compromise between what the city needs and what the trust wants.
“One of the problems is they still have an objective to get as much money out of this project as possible,” said McGoldrick. “They should pause and consider trying to get 70 or 80 percent of that $1 million. They should find some way to find the other $300,000. They should find some way to be a good neighbor.”
Otherwise, the city may have to find some way to be a bad neighbor. There’s still a threat on the table to close portions of 14th and 15th Avenues — literally locking the Presidio’s gate to the city — which would severely cripple access to the PHSH. McGoldrick, whose district abuts the southern edge of the Presidio, put forward that resolution along with Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier two years ago.
Although McGoldrick still considers it a possibility, he told us, “Let’s hope we don’t have to go there.” SFBG