Volume 41 Number 23

March 7 – March 13, 2007

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Currant affairs


The backs and bin bottoms of refrigerators are known hazmat zones: difficult-to-reach, easy-to-ignore regions where spontaneous composting occurs. Most of us, I suspect, have at one time or another fished a plastic bag from these sepulchral depths and wondered what once fresh but long neglected foodstuff could have produced the black-green goo inside.

The far reaches of kitchen cabinetry don’t generally host this sort of putrefaction, but they are venues for the forgotten bottle of this and overlooked box of that all the same. A few weeks ago, while urgently trolling my clutter of bottles for some mild vinegar — a key ingredient in Mark Bittman’s excellent recipe for vindaloo (see his indispensable volume The Best Recipes in the World for details) — I came across a dusty bottle of Vilux vinaigre de cassis, which I’d bought on sale years ago because … it was on sale.

"Cassis" means "black currant" in French — ergo, we are dealing with black currant vinegar, which is a lovely pale purple color (like that of weak pinot noir) and has a rich, fruity flavor. I’d occasionally made vinaigrettes with the Vilux, but over time the fullish bottle drifted toward the back of the shelf, supplanted by flashier or easier-to-reach newcomers, including a series of bottles of rice wine vinegar. Usually I use rice wine vinegar when making Bittman’s vindaloo (I also use chicken instead of pork; please don’t tell him), but I had managed to run out of it and further managed not to get more in time for dinner. So: a wing, a prayer, and vindaloo with black currant vinegar.

The result was surprisingly satisfying — even better, I thought, than the usual version. Emboldened (and still without rice wine vinegar), I used the Vilux to make a sweet chile sauce for the dunking of lumpia. (A good recipe for this simple condiment can be found in Taste of Laos by Daovone Xayavong.) Again, the result was notably better, with the vinegar’s fruit adding some richness and helping to take the harsh, hot edge from the cayenne.

Naturally this small success set me to searching the nether reaches of the pantry for unsung treasures. Among the archaeological finds: A jar of Harry and David’s muffaletta, doubtless a gift from someone years ago. Strange little cans filled with herb and spice blends, with directions in Italian or perhaps Armenian. No vindaloo mix; that’s still a DIY.

Paul Reidinger

› paulr@sfbg.com

Axis power


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

It has been noted in the mostly laudatory press surrounding their collection of 10-inch EPs, Transparent Things (Tirk/Word and Sound), that Fujiya & Miyagi aren’t Japanese. Nor are they a duo. They are in fact three white friends from Brighton, England, whose openly acknowledged obsession with Neu’s motornik pulse and Can’s subdued funk has resulted in some very infectious, kraut-tinged electronic pop songs as well as gentle speculation about whether Fujiya & Miyagi are simply derivative or being cheekily open about their influences.

Anticipating their critics, the band even declare at one point as a chorus, "We’re only pretending to be Japanese!" But Fujiya & Miyagi seem too polite to be doing all this as a piss-take, yet too self-conscious to claim sui generis innocence by way of a strange musical synchronicity. After all, I don’t think I am the only person who thought they were Japanese when I first heard them.

To some extent, all bands wear their record collections on their sleeves early on. Some simply loathe admitting it. Initial Stereolab singles were basically remakes of Neu’s "Hallo Gallo" (although so were Neu’s subsequent albums) with vocal window dressing snatched from ’60s French yé-yé pop. It was the unexpected synthesis of the two that made them sound so fresh. By now Fujiya & Miyagi’s warm-cold instrumentation — guitars compressed into brittle chirps, warm analog synth washes, percoutf8g drum machines — is a familiar palette (again, think Stereolab or some DFA productions), but David Best’s vocal style fogs up the transparency of the homage.

Best’s clipped, affectless approach works well to underscore his distanced lyrics, whether he’s detachedly recounting the scuffs incurred while falling in and out of love ("Collarbone" and "Sucking Punch," respectively) or cataloging the commodities around him ("Transparent Things"). His rolled r‘s and staccato delivery also uncannily invoke the quieter Damo Suzuki of Can’s 1972 album, Ege Bamyasi, or the 1973 disc Future Days (both Mute).

Granted, James Murphy stands accused of swagger-jacking Mark E. Smith’s extra syllables (Smith, appropriately enough, donned Suzuki vocal drag for the Fall’s "I Am Damo Suzuki" — perhaps Fujiya & Miyagi’s chief precedent). And Beck’s skinny-white-boy take on Prince circa Midnite Vultures (Interscope, 1999) is no more or less suspect than Justin Timberlake’s Off the Wall falsetto.

Appropriation is an old and often circular debate in music, one inflected by racial politics as much as the vagaries and entitlements enabled by whatever strength so-called postmodernism still holds as a position. The earnest love of kraut Fujiya & Miyagi see reflected in their music may come off as a studied imitation to some, but when "Collarbone" hits its breakdown, and Best breathily beatboxes the old "knee bone connected to the shin bone" nursery rhyme like he wants to rock your body, Fujiya & Miyagi momentarily sidestep the anxiety of influence and become simply a great pop group. *

Pop goes Panther


Prince may have his devoted popites canonizing those purple-clad jewels once again after his recent Super Bowl halftime performance, but in Portland, Ore., there’s an equally crude one-man dance-aster who could soon take the crown from His Royal Badass. This beat blaster and master, however, comes in the form of a scrawny gyrator whose elasticlike body rapidly contorts, recoils, and slams against walls during his pop-flushed freak-outs.

Since 2002, Panther, a.k.a. Charlie Salas-Humara, has administered a hip-spasming dose of what his press literature describes as "damaged soul," fusing pulsating drum machines and bassy hooks with disheveled synths and glass-cracking falsettos. MTV2 has even taken a liking to the 32-year-old, nominating "You Don’t Want Your Nails Done," the single from his debut, Secret Lawns (Fryk Beat), for Video of the Year. During the video a brown-suited Salas-Humara rocks the microphone in a room cluttered with cardboard furniture, cell phones, and iPods. The fidgety performer busts into the Robot like a Tourette’s-afflicted Michael Jackson and beatboxes, "When you’re making these fists / You don’t want your hair / When you’re making these fists / You don’t want your nails done." Watching the video makes you want to grab the sweat-drenched vocalist by his shoulders and yell, "Go, white boy, go!"

But according to Salas-Humara, Panther’s intoxicating bite hasn’t taken that much effort. "It’s a great project because I don’t have to think about it, and there’s no concept besides whatever shit I pull together in my basement," he says on the phone from Portland. "It’s just me, and I don’t have to be a Gang of Four cover band or try and be some pop thing."

And Salas-Humara doesn’t always sound like he’s in pursuit of pop. Songs such as "Rely on Scent" and "Take Us Out" evoke a free jazz and R&B artiness and rely heavily on organ to keep them afloat. Others, such as "How Does It Feel?" and "Tennis Lesson," recall the mechanized keyboard bluster of early-’80s Herbie Hancock and the Art of Noise while integrating densely arranged hip-hop beats as their driving force.

Born in Florida but raised in Chicago’s suburbs, Salas-Humara moved to Portland in 1995 with his band, the Planet The. The trio stuck it out for 11 years, though Panther had already sprung to life before the group’s demise.

"I started doing Panther because somebody asked me to do one of those solo performance nights where people from different bands get together and play acoustic songs," he says with a laugh. "I thought it would be funny to terrorize it with prerecorded drum machines."

Salas-Humara claims that he thought he would never perform as Panther again, but he continued producing new music because his friends kept egging him on.

"It was really fun to try and fill up a lot of space on a stage with one person, so I started experimenting with dancing and doing different things with the stuff I would choreograph," Salas-Humara explains. "Basically, I just get weird."

In addition to the MTV2 nomination, 2006 saw Panther embark on tours with the Gossip and Ratatat, and Fryk Beat released the lauded 12-inch Yourself.

Gearing up for his first national tour, Salas-Humara confirms he’s a bit nervous about the jaunt.

"You never really know where your fans are," he says. "I’m sure it’ll be pretty awesome in some places and dismal in others. I guess that’s the way that it goes." (Chris Sabbath)


With Yip Yip, Lemonade, and Like Nurse

Thurs/8, 9:30 p.m., $7

Hemlock Tavern

1131 Polk, SF

(415) 923-0923



Frosty love


By Johnny Ray Huston

› johnny@sfbg.com

First things first: even if there’s been a Michael Mann remake of Miami Vice between the day that Pusha T and Malice first rhymed about Tubbs and Crockett and now, Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury (Re Up Gang/Star Trak, 2006) also hath no shortage of extraordinary future-sounds. It never lets up, from the three tracks before the cold Clipse calypso of the new-money anthem "Wamp Wamp" through the seven tracks after the harp strum, extended and echoed for maximum shimmer, on "Ride Around Shining" — a startling use of the instrument that ain’t Alice Coltrane and sure as hell ain’t Joanna Newsom. On "Keys Open Doors," ah harmonies that wouldn’t be out of place on Philip Glass’s project-haunting Candyman soundtrack back up a title chorus that turns passage metaphors inside out.

Then there’s "Chinese New Year," on which Clipse’s Malice and Pusha T are joined by the hilariously named Roscoe P. Goldchain for a drive-by in which the ammo is punch-line rap: "Mask on face / Glock in hand," Malice is "in and out of houses like the Orkin Man," while Pusha T has a vixen who’ll "eat your face like Ms. Pac-Man." Speaking of white lines and dots and those who gobble and snort them, the Neptunes’ production backs these boasts with keyboard squiggles that aren’t far from the noises vintage video game monsters make when they’re turned into ghosts.

The trademark Neptunes sound has never been better than on Hell Hath, but their touch is a curse as well as a blessing for Clipse. It’s a curse because of Pharrell Williams’s overexposure and because the long-delayed Hell Hath finally dropped at the exact time that Williams and fellow Neptune Chad Hugo unveiled their worst overdecorated cake of a pop production — the yodeling monstrosity known as "Wind It Up," Gwen Stefani’s leadoff single from The Sweet Escape. Some East Coast bloggers have given themselves a hand for helping boost Hell Hath ‘s sales numbers, but commercially speaking, the album has underperformed like, well, a Pharrell solo effort.

But I’d much rather blast Hell Hath than Pharrell’s In My Mind (Interscope, 2006), not to mention all but a handful of other albums released last year. The reasons why are too many to be named in full. But one is that Pharrell takes a backseat, doing less MCing and fewer pint-size Curtis Mayfield impressions than on 2002’s Lord Willin‘. In fact, his misleading front-and-center presence on the first single, "Mr. Me Too," probably didn’t do Pusha T and Malice any sales favors. On Hell Hath, the track signals the arrival of a bottom end after two lean and mean cuts — the organ-based church of coke testifying of "We Got It for Cheap" and the polka minimalism of the accordion-laced "Momma I’m So Sorry." That bottom end goes Jules Verne deep, whereas Pharrell’s version of boasting — all Diddy parties and skateboard contracts — comes off cartoony and corny next to Pusha T and Malice’s dealing drama. The only category in which he’s fresher is a stale one, bling: he mentions "Lorraine" (Schwartz), and Clipse refers to the oft-cited Jacob the Jeweler on another track. On Hell Hath‘s closer, "Nightmares," it’s Bilal rather than Pharrell who does the Mayfield impression, just one reason why as a paranoid anthem — that rap paradox with Robert Johnson roots, an affirmation of sketchy solitude — it’s closer to the Geto Boys’ classic "Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me" than it is to Rockwell’s "Somebody’s Watchin’ Me."

"No hotta / Flow droppa / Since Poppa," Pusha T asserts at the kickoff of "Wamp Wamp." Though he follows that up with a truly terrific double-edged pun ("You penny ante niggaz see I know copper" — and also "no Copper"), it’s a bit of a stretch to claim he and Malice are in the Biggie leagues. Take Life after Death‘s "What’s Beef?" (Bad Boy, 1997), on which Biggie begins with a vainglorious "ha ha ha ha ha," declares himself the "rap Alfred Hitchcock," and rhymes "I see you" and ICU. On that track he also serves up the couplet "Think good thoughts, die while your skin starts to glisten / Pale blue hands get cold, your soul’s risen." In comparison, on "Chinese New Year," Clipse threaten they’ll turn you "Cookie Monster blue." Scary cute but no don’s cigar.

But they’re closer to Biggie than most anyone else these days, save maybe their rival, Bush-bashing Lil’ Wayne. Hell Hath is packed with almost as many cleverly phrased disguises for cocaine as it is amazing noises, yet Pusha T and Malice’s brand of brotherly love and hate is at its best when it surrounds the drug with an image-laden story, as on "Dirty Money." There, one track after his big bro demonstrates how to cook drugs like a "black Martha Stewart," Pusha T gets so high on his ability to transform substances and words that Benjamin Franklin’s face starts to look 3-D and silly on some "new crisp billies." By the time he and Malice are dealing with the inevitable comedown on "Nightmares," the substance of their words could turn the warmest smile upside down. *


With Low B of Hollertronix

Wed/14, 9 p.m., $20


444 Jessie, SF



Blood money


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Most Americans are fairly sure they are being screwed where it hurts most: in the wallet. But if they think they know why, it’s usually a red herring, while the actual primary causes of shrinking financial stability remain obscured by propaganda, media inattention, and institutional stonewalling. By timely coincidence, three worthwhile documentaries opening this week shine some light on the matter. One profiles a longtime champion of consumer protection, while the others examine two realms in which lack of regulation is letting our dollars dance off a cliff of corporate profiteering and dubious ethics.

An Unreasonable Man is Henriette Mantel and Stephen Skrovan’s admiring yet critical portrait of Ralph Nader. The previous century’s most famous consumer advocate racked up a roster of triumphs that protected citizens against corporations — that is, until Ronald Reagan commenced ongoing deregulation trends. Famously starting with auto design safety in the early ’60s, then encompassing pollution, food and drug guidelines, nuclear power, the insurance industry, and workplace risk-protection, Nader did enough public good during his career — with worldwide legislative ripple effects — to merit secular sainthood. Then he decided to run for president, in 2000, as a Green. He won just enough votes for many Democrats to blame him for the catastrophic ascent of George W. Bush. Needless to say, the latter is no friend of Nader’s consumerist lobbying, which suffered a defection of support from nearly all quarters.

Lengthy but engrossing, An Unreasonable Man wants to reclaim Nader’s legacy, even as it admits that his black-or-white morality can be both admirable and mulishly exasperating. After all, in the end he didn’t rob Al Gore of the Oval Office: with familial help from the Sunshine State, Bush stole it.

If the current climate had allowed Nader’s Raiders as much clout as they had under the Jimmy Carter administration, could Americans possibly have been led into the shithole examined by Maxed Out? James Scurlock’s survey of the out-of-control credit and debt industry begins by informing viewers that this year "more Americans will go bankrupt than will divorce, graduate college, or get cancer."

Of course, thanks to our current president, they won’t be able to declare bankruptcy anymore — the lazy sods! Instead they can enjoy a lifetime of astronomical interest rates, threats, and continued solicitations to sign up for yet more loans and plastic.

Maxed Out includes personal stories of housewives driven to suicide, longtime homeowners tricked into foreclosure, and even underpaid soldiers targeted for exploitation by creditors after Iraq tours. The movie’s institutional focus spotlights the deliberate holding of customer checks until late fees can be charged (an executive from one company guilty of such tactics was Bush’s pick for financial-industries czar), spinelessness on the part of government investigative committees, and flat-out collusion by many politicos. Meanwhile, the national debt goes up and up, in good part owing to Iraq, making it unlikely that Social Security or basic social services will be around in the future.

Speaking of Iraq and bottomless money pits, for the first time in any major conflict, a great share of US military expenditure now goes to private security contractors. In less linguistically evasive times we called them mercenaries, or soldiers of fortune. Who are these people, and who are they accountable to? Nick Bicanic and Jason Bourque’s Shadow Company is a well-crafted grasp at answers, though that latter question is a hard one. Some of the people interviewed in the movie sound conscientious enough, and as some grisly footage attests, the risks they run are no joke. More private contractees have been killed in Iraq than all non-US military personnel put together. But the booming $1 billion-a-year industry of private military companies (PMCs) doesn’t operate under any strict guidelines.

We’ve already outsourced the running of many prisons and schools to private concerns. When war itself is a for-hire endeavor — and a hot job market, since PMC employees’ salaries dwarf those of actual soldiers — is there any doubt left that we’re fighting for venture capitalism, not democracy? *







All three films open Fri/9 at Bay Area theaters

Quite an interview: a talk with Judy Stone


"There’s no craft. I’m just curious." To which I respond, "Are you sure?" as if this respected journalist could be putting me on. I’ve just read Judy Stone’s new book of interviews, Not Quite a Memoir: Of Films, Books, the World (Silman-James Press). "How do you prepare your questions?" I ask. "I don’t," she replies as I stare down at my list of prepared questions. "But don’t let that intimidate you."

Because Stone was born into a family that "couldn’t resist a joke," her confessed lack of organization seems unconvincing. This is the woman who, during a colossal televised press conference for Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot, asked Hitch what he’d like on his gravestone. Later, Pauline Kael confronted Stone about her question, to which she responded, "Pauline, the whole movie was about that."

"I don’t include myself in my interviews because that’s not the point," Stone insists. Regardless, her priorities and ethics are clear in her writing. Take the subject of Israel: "I have always felt that I have ethical obligations," she says. "I’m not a Zionist. I’d like to see equal justice for Palestinians. My oldest brother [I.F. Stone] wrote a book called Underground to Palestine. He went with people right out of the concentration camps on the first ship to Palestine. In his articles he came out for a binational state." As if to suppress emotion, she fidgets with her copy of Not Quite a Memoir and reads a quote from her interview with Amos Oz: "Israel was a land for two people, not just one…. This particular national movement is the most stupid and cruel in modern history but we ought to do business with it…. You can’t make peace with nice neighbors." This quote, Stone says, is relevant today, not simply because the conflict in Palestine persists but because "it also applies to the question of negotiating with Iran. Their president is an imbecile and dangerous; so is Bush. So now we have two imbeciles making policy, and it’s a very, very dangerous situation. However, I hope that my interviews with Iranian directors show more of the human side of Iran."

Stone’s new book and her previous collection, Eye on the World: Conversations with International Filmmakers, should be regular fare in college film classes. But although her first book, The Mystery of B. Traven (about the enigmatic author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), has recently been republished, Eye on the World is currently out of print. And Not Quite a Memoir, boasting more than 120 interview portraits, including ones of Jean Genet, Leroi Jones, Donald Ritchie, Kathy Acker, Anne-Marie Melville, and Juan Goytisolo, has been publicized little and reviewed less. "It hasn’t even been reviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle, where I worked for 30 years."

Partly guided by an interest in "how each person’s homeland has affected him," Stone’s interviews with writers and filmmakers have taken her all over the world. Although Bernardo Bertolucci didn’t like Stone’s review of his film Luna, he told her a critic is supposed to be "a bridge between the filmmaker and the audience," to which she replied, "I try, I try." Proof positive: her interview with novelist Orhan Pamuk helped American critics better understand his complex work The Black Book.

Today she feels as she did while writing "Encounter in Montenegro." The previously unpublished piece, written in 1959, concludes Not Quite a Memoir and is the only one in which she reveals the way she responds to people. In it she’s a young reporter riding a bus through the black mountains of Yugoslavia. She engages in a discussion with a student from Ghana who makes clear his contempt for Stone, a stranger, and worse, an American. "I still feel that way," she says now. "Feel what way?" I ask. "Feel what way?" she repeats, pausing to help me understand. "This man despised me because I was an American." "So you felt despised?" To which she replies, "Don’t you?" (Sara Schieron)

Super Modelo


› superego@sfbg.com

SUPER EGO The sun-bleached suede pump lay abandoned in a tattered jumble of grasses, beneath a grove of swaying palms, next to a ruined hacienda. Vermillion nasturtiums burst through the hacienda’s broken crimson bricks. Embossed on the pump’s inner sole, one word: predictions. Suddenly, a pair of untethered horses flashed into view — one black, the other sweet caramel, weaving their way to a freshwater lagoon at the tip of the white sand beach just beyond us. The grove lit up like a David Lynch interior. Both horses froze to inspect me and Hunky Beau, their glittering eyes four obsidian orbs, the clang-clanging cowbells roped to their well-muscled necks all echoing ancient disco and shit.

Ah, Mexico. Pass the lip balm.

Fearful of my sustained pallor — nightclub, laptop, nightclub, laptop, head shave, rehab — Hunky Beau had whisked me away for a week on the beaches of sunny Baja, to the tiny Pacific outpost of Pescadero, brimming with surfers who’d congregated for wave season. (Two words: Mexican surfers. Delicioso.) "But you’ll miss the season premiere of America’s Next Top Model! Church of Tyra! Church of Tyra!" a tiny voice in the back of my head had protested, the one I call Tiki La Shot. "Big whup, lady," said another, the one I call Mann Coulter. "You’re also missing the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. Wanna cry about it?"

Turns out I had the dates wrong for both. Then Anna Nicole collapsed. Predictions!

Despite my extended geography of lovers, I still can’t speak a lick of española — which of course only adds to my mysterious attractiveness. The language of sexy is silence. So the only information I could glean from the gorgeous local populace for you is this: if you ever find yourself in an old-fashioned paleteria in the dusty, delightful village of Todos Santos, don’t ask them to scoop your purplicious uva ice cream into a sugar conio.

Also, horrid faggot fashions have truly gone global. While the nuevo dinero flowing in from all the unfortunate American second-home development has triggered a growth market in mid-’90s gangsta baggies among the more macho Baja-anians, abruptly blooming on the street corners are packs of mincing teen Mexican queens with tie-dyed mullets, pink cell phones, and embroidered denim flares. Flacas, please.

Toward the end of our sojourn, we avoided the awful, gringo-polluted Disneyland of Cabo San Lucas and took off to the raucous Carnaval parade and festival in the state capital, La Paz. (Will someone please, please solve the riddle of Middle American female hair? Why are white ladies in Cabo still working the frizzy bob thing, squished into yellow Dress Barn stretchiness, and screaming for "peena coladas"? Tufted bangs, even! I almost had to love it.)

There we swooned over the hundreds of handsome caballeros who’d descended from their mountainside ranchos in impeccably spotless Stetsons, Wranglers, and mustaches to hoof it to banda sinaloense, the breathtaking polka-style Mexican dance music. There were so many tuba, trombone, and accordion ensembles oompa-pahing away mere inches from one another I thought I was being squeezed through an awesome Lawrence Welk mashup tube.

As the gangs of muy guapo musicians waltzed the night away and the blanket sellers hawked their tiger-striped and Virgin of Guadalupe–decorated wares, the pink sliver of the moon dipped below La Paz Bay. I turned to Hunky Beau and sighed. Fuck the fruitless Carnaval cruising, I thought. I’m the real princess here.

Funny how sometimes the hardest nightlife things to find are the ones right under the mirror beneath your nose. So I get back and want to hear some banda on the home team dance floor, right? But … where? Seems any night of the week I can get freaky to Southeast Asian, Brazilian, Moroccan, and Afro-Caribbean beats, but, despite the recent explosion of norteño music (the "gangsta rap of banda"), an early ’00s club interest in electronic-tinged banda by groups such as Nortec Collective, and our own estimable population of Mexican folk, the only reliable finds on my banda radar are occasional events at clubs such as El Rincon, Cancun, the Make-Out Room, and, of course, that reina wonderland, Esta Noche.

In this way, banda is like hyphy: everywhere in the media and streets but rarely on the dance floor. I’m the first to admit that I’m a mite too white sometimes. Just because I don’t know about it doesn’t mean it’s not banging. Therefore, I vow to go immediately to the Discolandia and Ritmo Latino record stores in the Mission and follow the plethora of flyers for live banda to Latinate bliss. Meanwhile, hey, all you worldly and alternative DJs: how about slipping some slices from Banda el Recodo de Cruz Lizarrága in your mix? Huh? *

Upside Woodside


› paulr@sfbg.com

"Are we on the San Andreas Fault?" my companion asked uneasily as we stepped from the car and stood looking at the Bella Vista Continental Restaurant, lit up like something out of a Hans Christian Andersen tale in the soft winter gloaming. "No," I said. "The fault" — really a rift zone, so I’d learned in my college geology class — "is down there." I gestured vaguely past the rambling structure, perched at the edge of a woody abyss, toward the twinkles and shadows below, perhaps at Larry Ellison’s $27 million Woodside backyard. The fault, or rift zone, as I understand it, creates the long, narrow valley that separates Skyline Boulevard and I-280 for much of the northern length of the Peninsula. The valley’s chain of lakes look like Scottish lochs but are in fact reservoirs run by the San Francisco Water Department. Larry Ellison runs Oracle; would we find him at the bar at Bella Vista? Is he a regular?

When we stepped inside, we found no sign of him, but the bar was lightly populated by a quartet of young men in sweatpants and sneakers staring at a flat-screen broadcast of some Stanford game.

"We’re overdressed," my companion hissed, and my heart sank. I remembered the restaurant as being agreeably classy in an Aspen-ish, horse-country way, with a wealth of rustic, roadside-inn touches — exposed wood beams, picture lamps with their cords trailing down the walls, an unpaved parking lot among the cedars — but my last visit had been some years earlier, in the summer of 1980, when Jimmy Carter’s solar panels were still in place on the White House roof and the phrase "President Reagan" was still tinged with irreality. Had the past quarter century brought a down-market slalom to this handsome and atmospheric stalwart, which opened in 1927? Had it become a kind of Dutch Goose with a view, or a rival to Zott’s, the fabled hamburger stand and beer garden (once a stagecoach stop, now called something else) on nearby Alpine Road? We were led to our table, which was set with a red rose and a frosted hurricane lamp with a real candle, and our server shortly appeared in a black dinner jacket and black tie, speaking with an Old World accent we guessed might be Belgian. No, no down-market drift.

Cuisine described as "continental" might have had an alluring patina a generation or two ago, but nowadays it suggests museum cooking. Bella Vista is one of the Bay Area’s premier view restaurants anyway, and views tend to be conversation pieces. The view is why people are there, and the food only has to be good enough to keep them from getting up and leaving in disappointment.

As it turns out, Bella Vista’s food is quite a bit better than that, and while it is old-fashioned — I found myself wondering if the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton might offer a similar menu if it were moved to a lonely mountain road — it’s far from arthritic. Good food always does honor to a restaurant, of course, and is a sound fallback plan for any view restaurant in the event (at some point inevitable) that the view is temporarily obscured by weather or … other forces. We found the air hazy and smoke scented when we arrived; was Larry Ellison hosting a huge barbecue somewhere on the glittering carpet of lights below?

No grilling at Bella Vista. The kitchen’s main instruments are the sauté pan and the oven. New Zealand mussels ($14), for instance — gigantic ones — were arrayed on the half shell, slathered with garlic, parsley, and butter, and briefly roasted. This was fine by us, especially since the puddles of leftover melted butter were perfect for sopping up with the formidably sour sourdough bread.

For the relief of unbearable garlic breath, we were presented with an intermezzo of peach sorbet, spooned into sturdy sherry glasses that resembled dwarf champagne trumpets. Across the way: a birthday gathering of eight or so, with some off-key singing, which grew lustier as the wine disappeared. If we were at all tempted to join in, we were soon distracted by the arrival of our big plates, one of which was a simply gorgeous lobster tail ($55), shelled and sautéed in butter. The less done to lobster, the better; no fancy sauces, please, or incorporations into pasta or risotto. Just butter, and maybe some boiled new potatoes, a ration of seared green beans (squared off and stacked like firewood), and a smear of splendidly orange puree of roasted carrot.

Veal au poivre ($24) was similarly accompanied, except the potatoes gave way to a wild-rice pilaf. The slender, tender sheets of meat were bathed in a Dijon cream sauce dotted with green peppercorns, and while I have become uneasy about meat and almost always shun veal, whose production doesn’t bear much looking into, I was not at all sorry I failed to shun here.

Dessert production tilts toward soufflés for two ($18), and trayfuls emerge regularly from the kitchen. Raspberry was recommended to us (over chocolate and Grand Marnier); I found the soufflé itself to be eggy (with no burst of raspberry inside) but the swirl of sauce on the plate to be a winsome combination of butter, caramelized sugar, and whole raspberries. It could easily have been spooned over vanilla ice cream or pound cake or just eaten like zabaglione from a tall glass. Even if someone (not me!) were seen licking it right off the plate, it would be hard to find fault. *


Dinner: Tues.–Thurs., 5–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5–10 p.m.

13451 Skyline Blvd., Woodside

(650) 851-1229


Full bar


Pleasant noise level

Wheelchair accessible


Getting lucky


› le_chicken_farmer@yahoo.com

CHEAP EATS The word she uses is "flexitarian." I seldom run retractions. Not that I never get anything wrong; on the contrary, my impressions of reality are so impressionistic, it would be a stretch to say that I ever exactly get anything right.

This can cause problems.

Give you an example: I want to know what time Penny’s opens for lunch. I look it up. Cheap Eats, Penny’s Caribbean Café, says right there: 11:30 a.m. So I write to Lisa Bitch Magazine, and I say, "Dear Ms. Magazine, Hi! How are you? 11:30 a.m."

She writes back and says stop calling her Ms. Magazine.

And: No. Noon, she says. Flexitarians always have weird rules about eating meat, like only free-range, organic, or only at home, or only in restaurants, or, in Lisa’s case, once every six months, and never before noon. If it’s goat.

I’m assuming she makes early-morning exceptions for bacon. Actually, my assumption is that all vegetarians make exceptions for bacon, all the time. Because how can you not eat bacon? It’s bacon!

(Have I dazzled you yet with my simplemindedness?)

Cut to 12 o’clock. Noon. I’m standing outside Penny’s Caribbean Café, waiting for my new friend Lisa. And for Penny, because I’ll be damned if she’s open. Which goes to show: you can’t always believe what you read in the paper — even if you wrote it.

Sign in the window says CLOSED. No lights. And still I’ve got my nose to the glass, both hands visoring my eyes, like, Come on, come on, Penny. I know you’re in there. Come on.

I love Penny. I LOVE Penny and not just because of her curry goat roti, either. There’s the jerk chicken and pelau and … I don’t know, we just seem to live in very similar worlds. Where Einstein is taken perhaps a tad too literally and time is extra relative. And space …

Nebulous is one of my favorite words.

So hey, here comes Lisa, responsible journalist, on her lunch break. She has exactly this much time, and she’s hungry, and she has agreed to eat her biannual meat with me. Me!

Today! I’m beside myself with honor and anticipation, watching vegetarians eat meat being one of my all-time favorite pastimes, right up there with pitching washers and spitting watermelon seeds.

And I’ve been talking up the curry goat. But Penny is showing no signs of peering around any counters or refrigerators anytime soon, so I give up on the window, pack Lisa into my pickup truck, and whiz us to West Oakland, to the Island Café.

Even though it’s regular business hours for them too, by the book, and even though it smells like meat heaven on the sidewalk outside the place … closed. Cooking, you could smell, but closed. Sign on the door says they’re catering a musical event that afternoon in Santa Cruz, sorry!

Aaaaargh! Whisk us back to Berkeley, the clock ticking on Ms. Magazine’s lunch break. And I’m thinking, damn my luck, she’s going to cave and call falafel.

Know what she says? She says, "Stop calling me Ms. Magazine." And she says this, she says, "Flint’s?"


Flint’s? Not to put too pointy of a point on this, but you would think that if Flint’s — everybody’s favorite Bay Area barbecue (not to mention mine) — was back in bidness, Cheap Eats would know about it before Bitch Magazine. Which is one reason why I try not to think too much these days. Because you never know.

So I point us toward Flint’s, thinking, yeah, right, Flint’s, right, sure, like Flint’s is going to be open, way things are going for us, right….

It is! It’s open, and the rest of the day is like a dream. Lisa gets her meat fix, I get to be there for it, get to see Bitch Magazine with barbecue sauce all over her face, just like she got to see Cheap Eats with beans in her hair.

Flint’s is as good as ever. My new favorite (and old favorite) barbecue. New management. No tables. We sat on the slat-style benches in the corner of the place, paper bags spread out on our laps, and went to work. Well, I went to work. They only had beef ribs. Then, after us, they didn’t even have those and started turning people away.

So, after all that running around and frustration and, you know, goatlessness in general … in the end we got to feel lucky. *


Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 11 a.m.–9 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 11 a.m.–10 p.m.

6609 Shattuck, Berk.

(510) 595-5323

Credit cards not accepted

No alcohol

Takeout available

Wheelchair accessible


Snake oil


› andrea@altsexcolumn.com

Dear Andrea:

Thanks for answering my question about performance anxiety ["Spectator Pumps," 2/21/07]. We solved the problem on our own. My girlfriend recognized that it was a confidence issue, so she went to the local sex shop and purchased an herbal male performance pill. We were both skeptical, but it actually worked within an hour. We proceeded to have awesome marathon sex. I had random boners for the next 48 hours.

My confidence was back pretty much instantaneously. We’ve had a healthy sexual relationship since then. We get a pill every now and again for kicks, but they are thankfully mostly unnecessary.


The "Mind-Blowing Sex, Not the Good Kind" Guy

Dear Good Guy:

I am simultaneously happy that you’re happy and terribly sad that I ever read your follow-up letter. Why couldn’t you have solved your problem with therapy or toys or pharmaceuticals or threesomes or gender reassignment surgery or anything, really, other than Dr. Woody’s Hygienic Vega-Vital Specific Elixir? Now I have to burst your bubble, and you have no idea how much I don’t want to do that.

Actually, you got past whatever was blocking you and now know you’re capable of having mind-blowing sex, the good kind, not only with those bull-pucky pills but, more important, without them. You may be immune to bubble-bursting of any sort, which is great, however you got there. They’re just, ugh, fake sex pills. I can’t help imagining those creepy late-night pseudoceutical ads with the happy, happy wife with the unhinged jaw like an adder’s — and shuddering.

I have a story that is vaguely apropos if you’ll just bear with me. Until fairly recently, I was plagued by crippling phlebotophobia — merely thinking of blood draws turned me clammy and faint, and having one, well, I don’t know what having one would have done, since I never let those needle monkeys get within a hundred yards of me. Since I wouldn’t get a blood test, I couldn’t get any serious medical care, which was fine with me but irritating to my partner, who preferred to think I’d make a good-faith effort not to drop dead on him without warning. So I resolved to do something about it, and since a couple therapist friends had been taking EMDR training, I decided to do that.

EMDR stands for eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, a hypnosislike process that is supposed to heal posttraumatic stress and be useful for treating phobias, although there is no scientific basis for those claims. There are studies suggesting it works as well as any other therapy, but then there are also studies demonstrating that all therapy modes, semiscience and pseudoscience alike, work about equally well. The most likely explanation? Doing something helps. It doesn’t matter what you do, just do something, the more formal the something, the better. Paying for the something also helps, if you ask me, since most people believe, deep down, that something for nothing is worth what you paid for it.

I knew all this but was determined to do EMDR (it seemed preferable to talk therapy, because I hate talking about stuff). I tried not to think about it too much. I also took my copy of Skeptic magazine with the cover story called "EMDR: Just a Big Fat Fraud?" or close enough, and buried it under a pile of old shopping circulars for the duration. I knew what it would say, you see, and I knew it was true: EMDR is bunk. It was the bunk that seemed most convenient at the time, though, so I willed myself to let it work. It worked OK (I’ve had umpteen blood tests since), although I’m fairly convinced that slipping $150 through a slot in the therapist’s door every Wednesday at 3 p.m. would have worked equally well. Just do something.

"Just do something" also explains why some patients report an immediate improvement when they start antidepressants, even though the real effects may take as long as two weeks to kick in. There is also, more directly apropos here, the Viagra effect, whereby a filled prescription for magic beans reliably produces enormous, um, beanstalks, whether or not you ever open the bottle. You pointed out yourself that expecting to have disappointing, dysfunctional sex nearly guarantees that you will have it, so it shouldn’t surprise you that merely knowing there’s help available if you need it can be enough to break the cycle. If not taking a pill can fix you right up, it shouldn’t be news that taking one, even a pharmacologically inert one, can work even better.

There is one strange addendum to that, though, if you’ll stick with me: your snake oil pills may contain something besides snake oil, chalk, and blue dye number 26, and guess what that something might be? Consumer protection agencies both here and abroad have tested some alleged herbal supplements and found them to be adulterated with … sildenafil citrate. That’s Viagra to you, bub. You might be better off just getting the real thing. At least that way you’d know the dosage you’re not taking.



Andrea Nemerson has spent the last 14 years as a sex educator and an instructor of sex educators. In her previous life she was a prop designer. And she just gave birth to twins, so she’s one bad mother of a sex adviser. Visit www.altsexcolumn.com to view her previous columns.

Scruff trade


› a&eletters@sfbg.com

Forty years ago Bruce Nauman made a squat, unpainted block of plaster sculpture titled A Cast of the Space under My Chair. This single work, one of dozens in the Berkeley Art Museum’s absorbing exhibition "A Rose Has No Teeth: Bruce Nauman in the 1960s," is said to have provided enough inspiration to fuel the career of British artist Rachel Whiteread, who famously cast the interior of a condemned Victorian house. Nauman’s sculpture, here seen as cast exhibition copy, could easily be overlooked. It’s modest in scale and, like much of this show, constructed with the most basic materials. The piece points, as do others, to Nauman’s uncanny and influential ability (Matthew Barney’s use of physical endurance and film are connected to Nauman) to activate negative space, be it a physical zone or the creative void artists face in the studio. As is evidenced here, he exalts, questions, liberates, and gibes the anxiety-ridden act of making art, irrespective of material form. He quite often relies on the one thing always at hand: his body.

The show, curated by BAM’s Constance Lewallen, is limited to works made during five prolific years while Nauman lived in Northern California. There are an impressive number of classics here, including Self-Portrait as a Fountain, a 1966–67 photograph of the artist squirting an arc of water from his mouth, and Wax Impressions of the Knees of Five Famous Artists, a 1966 phlegm-colored, rectangular wall sculpture that subverts the promise of its title (it’s fiberglass, and all the knees are Nauman’s). But the exhibition is less about masterpieces than it is about the spirit of experimentation that’s always been a hallmark of Bay Area art making. In four galleries fitted with drawings, sculpture, photography, film, video, and neon, text, and sound works, the show easily proves its thesis: Nauman established his artistic vocabulary — using whatever means necessary to focus on the physical, playful use of language and that sense of void — while living here. "Rose" also communicates the thrill of seeing the vision, propelled by a sustained, successful run of art production, of an artist who became one of the most important of his generation.

It’s rare to see static and projected works installed together so handsomely, and the spare yet lively exhibition design is a key to the show’s success. Nauman’s promiscuous use of media is in glorious effect throughout. In the first gallery, fiberglass sculptures cast from architecture and forming homely objects sit next to videos that find the artist slowly and sometimes suggestively interacting with a corner of a room or a glowing fluorescent light tube. Nearby, small ceramic works from 1965 depict imploding cups and saucers. Drawings and neon present Nauman’s interest in text and wordplay. Later the exhibition adds Nauman’s quasi-how-to 16mm films, pieces that illustrate his interest in the notion of making. Andy Warhol made dry, deadpan films concurrently, but Nauman’s are more boyishly wry and reveal the artist getting his hands dirty, literally. Challenging the hegemony of minimalism, Nauman channeled the 1960s spirit of political and lifestyle fomentation. His classic studio videos, in which he engaged in repetitive, sometimes strenuous physical acts for the camera (Bouncing in the Corner, No.1 and Stamping in the Studio, both 1968, among them), directly link the artist to his work.

Lewallen’s decision to focus on pieces made in a specific region, one outside the art world mainstream, introduces elements of Bay Area art history and the contested notion of regionalism and place in a contemporary art scene ruled by international biennials and art fairs. Here we see pieces made while Nauman was in the nascent graduate art program at secluded UC Davis, where he studied with William Wiley and Robert Arneson and TA’d for Wayne Thiebaud. That backdrop indirectly surveys the role of graduate schools when they were affordable — and in this case, laid-back and apart from the limelight and marketplace.

Nauman has always seemed to operate as a lone cowboy and has long resided in New Mexico, far from art world centers. He’s notoriously reticent about attending openings, though he surprised everyone by showing up in Berkeley for this one. The exhibit’s catalog pinpoints Nauman’s onetime studio at 144 27th St. in the Mission District, a neighborhood still attractive to artists. But "Rose" doesn’t so much suggest a Bay Area aesthetic as use location as a framing device.

In a 1970 interview Nauman said that his work was initially confused with funk art, a 1950s-born movement that had a strong Bay Area presence in the early work of Bruce Conner and others. "It looked like it in a way," he said, "but really I was just trying to present things in a straightforward way without bothering to shine them and clean them up." Scruffy still works around here, and in that spirit the show generates a frisson of hometown pride that feels anything but sentimental. It’s heartening to see what amazing things emerge from under the radar. *


Through April 15

Wed. and Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.–7 p.m., $4–$8 (free first Thurs.)

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft Way, Berk.

(510) 642-0808



It’s on


Invoking the spirit of George Moscone and Harvey Milk "so that we may be worthy of their powerful legacy," Assemblymember Mark Leno announced his candidacy March 2 for the State Senate seat now held by Carole Migden, setting off a high-profile fight between the two for the Democratic Party nomination next year.

"Welcome to democracy in action. Welcome to people power," Leno told the large crowd that gathered under the warm noontime sun at Yerba Buena Gardens, adjacent to the Martin Luther King Memorial and Moscone Center with its rooftop array of solar panels, which Leno said he will work to bring to more buildings.

MCing the event was Assessor Phil Ting, who praised Leno’s efforts to legalize same-sex marriage and said, "That’s the kind of leadership and integrity we deserve in San Francisco." District Attorney Kamala Harris then told the crowd, "I stand here in strong and unequivocal support for Mark Leno."

Among the other local notables on hand to support Leno were Fiona Ma, Susan Leal, Laura Spanjian, Julian Davis, Kim-Shree Maufas, Hydra Mendoza, Norman Yee, Lawrence Wong, Donna Sachet, Theresa Sparks, James Hormel, Natalie Berg, Bob Twomey, Jose Medina, August Longo, Linda Richardson, Calvin Welch, Jordanna Thigpen, Leah Shahum, Tom Radulovich, David Wall, Tim Gaskin, Esperanza Macias, and Espanola Jackson.

Notably absent were all the members of the Board of Supervisors, but it’s still very early in a campaign that is bound to be heated. (Steven T. Jones)

The honeymoon is over


Update: That alert bunch over at the SFist has raised questions about whether the photo that we published this week of Mayor Gavin Newsom (wearing a pink honeymoon kimono) and his alleged stalker Han Shin was real or altered — and we’re kinda curious about that ourselves. As we acknowledged in the paper, we got it from a source who got it directly from Shin, so we can’t verify its authenticity. But maybe you can? Is is a real photo? Or if not, which are the fake parts? Are they really together? Is Newsom really wearing a pink honeymoon over a Reelect Bevan Dufty T-shit over what looks like a business shirt?
No matter what the conclusions, we’re still glad that we published the photo, which is either real or was faked and being passed around by Shin. Either way, weird stuff. Post your thoughts below.

The Honeymoon is over
By Tim Redmond

Poor Gavin Newsom: it’s tough to be a globe-trotting, movie star–dating celebrity mayor with a lingering sex scandal … and now a stalker. But not just any stalker — Han Shin, assuming the above photo is real (we got it from a trusted source who said he got it directly from Shin), once got the mayor to pose with him in a pink honeymoon kimono.

Shin, according to police accounts, has a troubled history: the San Francisco Chronicle reported that he allegedly threatened to kill his 76-year-old mother, who said that her son was dangerous whenever he stopped taking his medication.

Shin is also accused of shining a laser into a prosecutor’s eye during a court hearing. He was arrested by San Ramon police Feb. 28 for allegedly burglarizing the home of a man officers believe he had been in a relationship with and repeatedly trying to run over the guy’s roommate with his car.

Shin told the Chron that only the cops think he’s crazy and that he’s stopped taking his meds. He says he wears purple latex gloves because purple is the color of divinity and royalty. The city got a restraining order against him after he showed up in the lobby of Newsom’s apartment building.

The man apparently has a thing for Newsom: a Bay Area Reporter story this week says that "reports have also noted that Shin has attempted to flirt with the mayor and was seen photographing Newsom from the waist down at a recent public meeting the mayor held in the Bayview."

He kind of likes Sup. Bevan Dufty too: the supervisor says he met Shin last year when he was running for reelection and the man gave him a raspberry kimono — perhaps similar to the one Newsom is wearing in this photo. Again, the BAR: "Asked if Shin identified as gay, Dufty said, ‘He is like a cross between Liberace and Hello Kitty. He is out of his gourd.’ "

Interestingly, in the photo we were given, Newsom is wearing a Dufty campaign T-shirt under his kimono.

100 years of secrets


› gwschulz@sfbg.com

They’re back.

First Amendment foes are again attempting to criminalize news reporting that exposes questionable if not illegal conduct by the White House, Pentagon, and intelligence agencies, from dispatching terrorism suspects to secret torture chambers abroad to listening in on private phone conversations.

An attempt by Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) in 2005 to pass legislation similar to Britain’s Official Secrets Act failed, but Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) quietly tried to attach an amendment to an unrelated bill scheduled for committee review last month that would have expanded the Espionage Act of 1917.

The amendment’s broad scope was narrowed March 2 before being shifted to another Senate bill amid an outcry by First Amendment advocates. The proposal’s almost laughably vague original legislative language aimed to punish anyone who published or communicated classified information "concerning efforts by the United States to identify, investigate or prevent terrorist activity."

The amendment would have extended jail time for whistleblowers to 20 years. Senate Bill 2, where the amendment now rests, was originally intended to enact the remaining recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. The new amendment would still punish employees working on Capitol Hill or other unauthorized personnel who knowingly disclose classified information contained in congressional reports.

Coalition of Journalists for Open Government coordinator Pete Weitzel told the Guardian that the earlier language seemed to include newspaper publishers as well as government employees in its scope.

Conservative members of Congress called for reporters to be punished under the Espionage Act after the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media reported details of the George W. Bush White House’s domestic wiretapping and extraordinary rendition programs. In particular, Post reporter Dana Priest and Times reporter James Risen were condemned and accused of treason by Fox News pundits and jingoistic bloggers for harming national security, today’s ever-present excuse for government secrecy.

"Current laws are sufficient to prosecute anyone who leaks classified information and has an intent to harm the United States," Weitzel told us from Washington. "There’s no impediment to going ahead and prosecuting under existing law. So I don’t see a need for this additional legislation."

Sunshine activists worried the original amendment could plausibly include journalists covering emergency response planning, security failures, public health threats, and federal homeland security spending. In addition, its broadness is simply unconstitutional, according to the Virginia-based Sunshine in Government Initiative.

"The amendment would work to constrain critical reporting on homeland security — even information as basic as homeland security grants — as well as national security and foreign policy matters," the group, which includes the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (of which the Guardian is a member), wrote in a public statement Feb. 27.

The Espionage Act was passed under President Woodrow Wilson and led to a 10-year prison term for one-time Socialist Party leader and presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who was eventually pardoned by President Warren G. Harding after serving three years. Debs had criticized World War I and conscription during a speech in Ohio.

"Do not worry over the charge of treason to your masters," he said during the speech, "but be concerned about the treason that involves yourselves. Be true to yourself, and you cannot be a traitor to any good cause on earth." *

James Madison Freedom of Information Award Winners


The Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter has been handing awards for 22 years to journalists, educators, public officials, and citizens who best exemplify the importance of open and accountable government and a free and diligent press. And every year the Guardian recognizes the winners and helps highlight the important issues that they raise for the Bay Area and beyond. Here are this year’s winners:

Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award


Three few years ago the Oakland Unified School District announced that, due to budget constraints, it was shutting down all the student-run newspapers in the district. Rowland "Reb" Rebele lives in Aptos, but he read about the shutdown in a San Francisco Chronicle column.

He picked up the phone, made some calls, and found out the situation was desperate and how much money was needed. He then wrote a check sufficient to resurrect the student newspapers for a year. Then he kept on writing checks to keep the papers going last year and again this year. This was typical of Rebele. No one asked him for help. He received virtually no acknowledgment for his gift. But his timely action turned the lights back on for fledgling newspapers that were out of money and, it seemed, out of luck.

Rebele is a First Amendment mensch (a description that James Madison, had he any familiarity with Yiddish, would have approved of). In his half century of publishing community newspapers that he owned and operated in Coalinga, Chula Vista, and Paradise in California and across the country, he was energetic, inspiring, and devoted to his readers and his communities, and a demon in pushing for open government and accountability. He pursued the same policies as a stalwart for half a century in the California Newspaper Publishers Association and as an activist president who brought key reforms and exceptional leaders to the organization.

Rebele has been a director of the California First Amendment Coalition for a decade. He quickly became the one truly indispensable member of the organization, pushing it, pulling it, holding it together, and cajoling it to broaden its activities because he felt the organization and its mission were vital.

He has also launched an innovative internship program at Stanford University. Rather than just give money to the school, he and his wife, Pat, created a program that has enabled dozens of students to get hands-on experience writing for real newspapers in California. Quietly and selflessly, Rebele has spent his newspaper career fighting the good fight for First Amendment and public interest principles. (Bruce B. Brugmann)

Beverly Kees Educator Award


Art Institute of San Francisco instructor Robert Ovetz was fired after he criticized the administration for confiscating a magazine his students produced for his class last December.

Ovetz, who had taught at the institute for three years, told his students to create a "culturally critical" magazine as their final project for a cultural studies class he taught last fall. They produced a 36-page zine called Mute/Off.

Less than 24 hours after he and students distributed 500 copies of the magazine, which Ovetz printed with the institute’s copy machine, most were gone. Ovetz initially attributed their disappearance to popularity, but he soon learned from students that the administration of the school, which was purchased by Goldman Sachs and General Electric last year, had removed them from its campuses and even literally pulled them out of students’ hands.

"This is an example of how a corporation is not held accountable for upholding basic constitutional rights [to] free speech. This is a private company that’s operating as an institution of higher learning," Ovetz told the Guardian. "Its only interest is its bottom line, and its bottom line is profit."

Ovetz complained to the administration about vioutf8g the students’ freedom of speech and received his pink slip Dec. 20, 2006. Dean of Academic Affairs Caren Meghreblian told Ovetz the magazine possibly violated copyright law by reproducing corporate logos without permission and had grammatical errors. She also said a story in the magazine called "Homicide," about three white kids playing a video game as black gangsters, might be racist.

After Ovetz and students complained and the media reported the story, the administration allowed students to redistribute the magazines, but it still refuses to give Ovetz his job back. (Chris Albon)

To size up the magazine yourself, visit www.brandedmonkey.com/muteOffLowRes.pdf.



The object of the California Public Records Act is to ensure the people’s right to know how their state and local governments are functioning. Newspapers are often the entities that test the limits and loopholes of the law. But in January 2006 an 18-year-old college student, Ryan McKee, undertook an audit of each of the 31 California state agencies that was the first of its kind. McKee tested how these agencies, which he personally visited, responded to simple requests to view and get copies of readily available public documents. The results revealed a disturbing pattern. Several agencies performed miserably, including the Department of Justice, which counsels and represents many other state agencies on the Public Records Act, and all of the agencies violated at least one aspect of the law. Common problems included asking for identification, making illegal charges, and taking longer than allowed to release information. McKee undertook the audit while volunteering for Californians Aware, a nonprofit where his father, Richard McKee, is president. A copy of the audit, including its results and grades, was sent to each agency to help it better understand and adjust to its responsibilities. (Sarah Phelan)



ANG Newspapers regional reporters Rebecca Vesely and Michele Marcucci are being honored for the series "Broken Homes" and their unflinching pursuit of public records that exposed negligent care administered to people with autism and other forms developmental disabilities. The series highlighted problems ranging from a lack of proper supervision to unlicensed officials working at health care facilities. Some of these offenses were then linked to patient deaths.

The award recognizes the daunting and tedious task that befell the journalists: 15 months of scouring thousands of hard-copy papers from dozens of sources that included licensing agencies, multiple law enforcement bureaus, and coroner’s offices. The results were entered into a database and cross-checked against other sources of information.

"It’s not like we work at the New York Times, where you can lock yourself in a room for a year. This is one-stop shopping here," Marcucci told the Guardian, noting that both reporters continued their daily beats while working on the project. The series was well received and helped prompt state officials to reinstate inspections of licensed facilities that had been eliminated due to budget cuts. (Christopher Jasmin)


Two reporters from the Sacramento Bee, Andrew McIntosh and John Hill, get Freedom of Information props for exposing the cronyism and the corruption of the California Highway Patrol.

The two wrote a series of articles detailing how the CHP violated state and department regulations in awarding contracts for items ranging from pistols to helicopters.

"The CHP spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year on equipment and goods," McIntosh told the Guardian. "That’s taxpayer money."

McIntosh said he and Hill took a systematic look at the department’s bidding process and found it was not competitive. The investigation led to the suspension of one officer, Gregory Williams, who the reporters found had awarded $600,000 worth of contracts to his daughter’s company for license plate scanning devices, $500,000 of which was canceled after the reporters exposed the scandal.

The reporters also found the CHP, which controls signature gathering at the Department of Motor Vehicles and other state buildings, denied more than 100 applications for permission to register voters or solicit signatures. Other stories pushed Senate majority leader Gloria Romero and Assemblymember Bonnie Garcia to call for a state audit of the CHP.

McIntosh told us the investigation showed "the CHP is not above public scrutiny or the law when it comes to business dealings." (Albon)


A good mayoral race isn’t really fun unless a bit of scandal emerges, like it did in Pleasanton two weeks before the November 2006 election.

Meera Pal decided to research the roots of a story that was handed to her by city council member Steve Brozosky, who was challenging incumbent mayor Jennifer Hosterman. Brozosky gave Pal e-mails his campaign treasurer obtained through open-records laws that showed Hosterman may have used her city e-mail account to solicit campaign donations and endorsements, a violation of state law.

But Pal went beyond Brozosky’s story and submitted her own public records requests for the city e-mail account of the mayor, as well as a year’s worth of e-mail from Brozosky and the three other council members.

Pal’s public records request revealed that Brozosky’s inbox was completely void of any e-mail, something neither he nor the city’s IT manager could explain. Brozosky is a computer expert who runs a company that vends city Web site software, so his technical expertise made the situation even more suspicious.

Investigations revealed it was just a setting on his computer that was inadvertently scrubbing the e-mail from the city’s server. Though both violations aren’t necessarily serious crimes, the race was close enough that dirt on either side could have had a profound impact on the outcome, and the results show 68,000 voters who were truly torn during the last two weeks before election day while Pal was reporting these stories. Hosterman eventually won by just 188 votes. (Amanda Witherell)


In the wake of 2003’s so-called Fajitagate police scandal — in which San Francisco officer Alex Fagan Jr. and others were accused of assaulting and then covering up their alleged vicious beating of innocent citizens — the San Francisco Chronicle uncovered records showing that Fagan’s short history on the force was marked by regular incidents of abusive behavior, the kind of records that should have served as a warning for the problems to come.

"We decided to take a look to see how common it was. And we spent a lot of time doing that," Steve Cook, the Chronicle editor of what became last year’s five-part "Use of Force" series, told the Guardian. The team used the Sunshine Ordinance to gather boxloads of records on use-of-force incidents, which it organized into a database that was then supplemented and cross-referenced with a wide variety of other public records, along with old-fashioned shoe leather reporting, all the while fighting through bureaucratic denials and delays.

Despite an embarrassing mislabeled photo on the first day of the series that served as fodder for attacks by the Police Department and Mayor’s Office, the series made clear that rogue cops were abusing their authority, totally unchecked by their supervisors. "We were proud of what we were able to show," Cook said. "We showed a department in need of some basic reforms."

The series helped spur the early intervention system that was recently approved by the Police Commission. It’s a good first step, but one criticized by the Chron and the Guardian for failing to include some key indicators used in other cities (see our editorial "Fix Early Warning for Cops," 2/28/07), something that Cook said requires ongoing vigilance by the press, to bring about needed reforms: "Only the news media is really going to accomplish this, if they stay with the story." (Steven T. Jones)

Legal counsel


The First Amendment was never about money. Free speech is supposed to be free. But these days threats to the First Amendment are growing, more and more people who lack the resources of a major media outlet are in need of help — and there aren’t many places dedicated to offering that assistance, free.

That’s where David Greene and the First Amendment Project come in.

Since 1999, as a staff attorney and executive director, Greene has helped dozens of freelance journalists, students, nonprofit organizations, and independent media outlets protect and expand their free speech and open government rights.

The operation he runs is totally independent. That’s a key point in an era of massive media consolidation: when the Guardian sought earlier this year to find legal representation to force open the key records in a lawsuit over Dean Singleton’s local newspaper merger, we found that just about every local media law firm represented at least one of the parties to the case and thus was conflicted. The FAP was not.

Greene and the FAP have represented blogger Josh Wolf and freelancer Sarah Olson in landmark subpoena cases. Greene, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, wrote the amicus brief on behalf of noted literary artists in the California Supreme Court case In re George T., in which the court, relying heavily on the FAP brief, overturned the conviction of a juvenile who made threats to other students with a poem. And the struggle just goes on. The FAP is funded largely by private donations and always needs additional support.

"Unfortunately," Greene told us, "we have to turn away a lot more cases than we can take." (Tim Redmond)

News media


After years of last-minute backroom deals at San Jose’s City Hall, things came to a head when the City Council rubber-stamped proposals to give a $4 million subsidy to the San Jose Grand Prix, $80 million for a stadium to keep the Earthquake soccer team from leaving town, and $45 million for new City Hall furniture.

Clearly, something had to give. But it was left to San Jose Mercury News editorial writers to push for transparent and accessible government and better enforcement of the state’s open government laws.

First they shamed the city, pointing out that "San Francisco, Oakland, even Milpitas have better public-access laws." Next they hammered then-mayor Ron Gonzales for saying that calls for more open government were "a bunch of nonsense." Then they printed guiding principles for a proposed sunshine ordinance that they’d developed in conjunction with the League of Women Voters and Mercury News attorney James Chadwick.

When city council member Chuck Reed was elected mayor on a platform of open government reforms, the paper still didn’t give up. Instead, it’s continuing to champion the need to bring more sunshine to San Jose and working with a community task force on breaking new ground, such as taping closed sessions so they can one day be made available when there’s no further need for secrecy.

Somehow the Merc also managed to pull off another amazing feat: the paper built public understanding of and support for sunshine along the way. (Phelan)


When outbreaks of the highly contagious norovirus sprang up in a number of California counties, San Mateo County was among those hit. Public health officials, however, would not release the names of the facilities where numerous individuals became infected, citing concerns about privacy and not wanting to discourage facility managers from contacting health officials.

Nonetheless, the San Mateo County Times ran a series of reports on the outbreaks in the named and unnamed facilities. After publishing reports on unnamed facilities, the news staff began to receive phone calls from residents who wanted to know the names of the facilities. Times reporter Rebekah Gordon told us it became clear that the public wanted to know this information, and the paper fought the county’s secrecy.

Gordon learned that facilities are required by law to report outbreaks, regardless of the potential for media exposure. Times attorney Duffy Carolan sought out and won the disclosure of the names of four facilities.

"The county’s initial nondisclosure decision evoked public policy and public safety concerns at a very broad level, and nondisclosure would have had a very profound effect on the public’s ability to obtain information that affects their own health and safety. By persisting in the face of secrecy, the Times was able to establish a precedent and practice that will well serve to inform their readers in the future," Carolan told us.

The paper learned the outbreak was far more widespread than the county had admitted, finding 146 cases in six facilities. Gordon said, "The numbers were so much higher than we were ever led to believe." (Julie Park)

Online free speech


Even as he sits inside the Federal Correctional Institute in Dublin, where he’s been denied on-camera and in-person interviews, jailed freelance journalist Josh Wolf manages to get out the message. Last month Wolf, who is imprisoned for refusing to give up video outtakes of a July 2005 anarchist protest in the Mission that turned violent, earned a place in the Guinness World Records for being the journalist to have served the longest jail term in US history for resisting a subpoena.

His thoughts on the agenda behind his incarceration were read at press conferences that day, reminding everyone of the importance of a free press. Meanwhile, Wolf has managed to continue operating his blog, www.joshwolf.net, by sending letters to family, friends, and fellow journalists, including those at the Guardian.

Wolf has also managed to create two other Web sites: www.mediafreedoms.net, which supports journalists’ resistance to government pressure, and www.prisonblogs.net, which allows prisoners to air thoughts and grievances. If Wolf can do all this from behind bars, imagine what he’ll do when he finally gets out. As Wolf would say, if we could only speak to him without reserving a phone interview 48 hours in advance: "Free press? Then free Josh Wolf!" (Phelan)

Public official


As district attorney for San Benito County, John Sarsfield upset the political applecart when he tried to prosecute the County Board of Supervisors for ignoring the Brown Act’s prohibitions on private communication and consensus building among board members on matters that involved employment decisions, personnel appeals, contracting, and land use–growth control issues.

His decision didn’t sit well in a county where battles over the future of the land have spawned Los Valientes, a secret society that has targeted slow-growth advocates and anyone who gets in its way — including believers in open government. So the board retaliated by defunding Sarsfield’s office, forcing the DA to file for a temporary restraining order against the board, the county administrative officer, and the county auditor, a countermove that kept his office operating and the investigation alive — until he lost his reelection bid to the board’s chosen candidate in January 2006.

One of Los Valientes’s targets, Mandy Rose, a Sierra Club member and slow-growth advocate, recalled how people on the outside warned Sarsfield what he was up against, "but he insisted on working within the system. It was what he believed in. Someone even said he was a Boy Scout."

For his efforts, Sarsfield’s life was turned into a living hell that cost him his dogs, his marriage, and eventually his job. But now, with this award, he gets some small recognition for fighting the good fight. And he has also been appointed special assistant inspector general within the Office of the Inspector General by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Phelan)

Special citations


Investigative reporter Lance Williams and sportswriter Mark Fainaru-Wada joined forces in 2003 to take on what became one of the biggest — and most controversial — local news stories of the past five years.

The investigation of the Burlingame-based Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative, better known as BALCO, and the larger scandal of widespread steroid use among baseball players was, the San Francisco Chronicle editors decided, too big for one reporter.

In fact, it turned out to be big enough for a series of stories, a book, and a legal battle that almost sent the two writers to federal prison. The duo admits today it was mostly the fear of getting scooped that drove them through the story’s dramatic rise.

"I’m a baseball fan in recovery," Williams told the Guardian. "I used to think I knew the sport. I didn’t have a clue about this stuff. I’m not kidding you. I had no idea how much a part of baseball steroids had become … that whole sort of seamy underside of the drug culture and the game. I just didn’t know it was like that, and I think most fans don’t either."

Although prosecutors seemed to be focusing on BALCO executives, everyone following the story wanted to know what witnesses — in this case top sports stars — told a federal grand jury investigating the company. The outfit had allegedly distributed undetectable steroids and other designer drugs to some of the world’s greatest athletes, including Giants slugger Barry Bonds, who is on his way to making history with a new home run record.

In 2003 the Chronicle published lurid details of the grand jury’s investigation based on notes Williams and Fainaru-Wada had obtained from court transcripts leaked by an anonymous source. Bonds denied knowingly taking any steroids, but prosecutors waved in the air documents allegedly confirming his regular use of substances banned by Major League Baseball.

Furious prosecutors launched an investigation into the leak of secret grand jury transcripts. The reporters were called on to testify but refused — and so joined two other reporters last year threatened with jail time for resisting subpoenas. A lawyer stepped forward last month and admitted leaking the documents, but Williams and Fainaru-Wada came dangerously close to landing in the same East Bay lockup where blogger Josh Wolf is held for refusing to cooperate with a federal grand jury.

The rash of recent attacks on reporters by federal prosecutors has First Amendment advocates up in arms. After all, no one’s going to leak crucial information if the courts can simply bulldoze the anonymity that journalists grant whistleblowers. Fainaru-Wada and Williams have since inspired a bipartisan proposal in Congress to protect journalists at the federal level (dozens of states already have variations of a shield law in place).

"People roll their eyes when you start talking about the First Amendment," Fainaru-Wada said. "But the First Amendment is not about the press, it’s about the public."

In addition to the James Madison Freedom of Information Award, Williams and Fainaru-Wada’s coverage of the BALCO stories earned them the prestigious George Polk Award. But the story took a dark, unexpected turn last month.

Defense attorney Troy Hellerman, who represented one of the BALCO executives, pleaded guilty Feb. 15 to contempt of court and obstruction of justice charges and could serve up to two years in prison for admitting he twice allowed Fainaru-Wada to take notes from the grand jury’s sealed transcripts.

Just as he was spilling details in 2004, Hellerman demanded that a judge dismiss charges against his client, complaining that the leaks prevented a fair trial. He even blamed the leaks on prosecutors. A deputy attorney general called the moves "an especially cynical abuse of our system of justice."

Media critics lashed out at Williams and Fainaru-Wada for exploiting the leaks before and after Hellerman moved for a dismissal. Among those attacking the Chron reporters were Slate editor Jack Shafer and Tim Rutten at the LA Times, who described the conduct as "sleazy and contemptible."

Williams and Fainaru-Wada today still won’t discuss specifics about their sources, but Williams said without the leaks, names of the athletes involved would have otherwise been kept secret by the government even though the grand jury’s original BALCO investigation was complete.

"The witnesses didn’t have any expectation of privacy or secrecy of any kind," he said. "They were going to be trial witnesses. It was in that context that our reporting got under way. I am sensitive to the need of an investigative grand jury to remain secret. And I’m respectful in general of the government’s secrecy concerns. But it’s not the reporter’s job to enforce that stuff." (G.W. Schulz)


When Oakland freelance writer and radio journalist Sarah Olson stood up to the Army by resisting a subpoena to testify in the case of Iraq war resister First Lt. Ehren Watada, she faced felony charges as well as jail time. But Olson understood that testifying against a source would turn her into an investigative tool of the federal government and chill dissent nationwide. "When the government uses a journalist as its eyes and ears, no one is going to talk to that journalist anymore," Olson told the Guardian.

She also objected to journalists being asked to participate in the prosecution of free speech. "The problem I have with verifying the accuracy of my reporting is that in this case the Army has made speech a crime," Olson said. Watada, whom Olson interviewed, has been charged with missing a troop movement and conduct unbecoming an officer, because he publicly criticized President George W. Bush and his illegal Iraq War.

In the end, Army prosecutors dropped the subpoena once Watada agreed to stipulate that Olson’s reporting was accurate. Olson, for her part, attributes the dropping of the subpoena to the support she received from media groups, including the Society for Professional Journalists. (Phelan)

Student journalist


The 2006 school year got off to a rough start for Lowell High School, one of the top-ranked public high schools in the country and certainly San Francisco’s finest. The school’s award-winning student newspaper the Lowell was covering it all.

After the October issue went to press, the school’s two journalism classes, which are solely responsible for writing and editing content for the monthly paper, received a visit from the school’s interim principal, Amy Hansen. Though Hansen says there was no attempt to censor the paper and the classes agree that no prior review was requested when it appeared that the students would be covering some controversial stories, the principal questioned their motivations as journalists and asked them to consider a number of complicated scenarios designed to make them second-guess their roles as reporters. The principal told the student journalists they had a moral responsibility, not to turn out the news, but to turn in their sources and information.

In separate meetings with each journalism class, Hansen questioned them about when it was appropriate to lay aside the pen and paper in the name of the law. The students maintained that as journalists they are in the position to report what happens and not pass moral judgment. Additionally, their privileged position as information gatherers would be compromised if they revealed their sources.

The lectures from Hansen did not deter the journalism classes from their basic mission to cover school news as objectively and thoroughly as possible. Even when police were called in to question Megan Dickey, who was withholding the name of a source she’d used in a story about a tire slashing, she still refused to say what she knew. (Witherell)



Mark Klein knew there was something fishy going on when his boss at AT&T told him that a representative of the National Security Agency would be coming by to talk to one of the senior technicians. Klein was a union communications tech, one of the people who keep the phone company’s vast network going every day. The NSA visitor stopped by, and before long Klein learned that AT&T’s building on Folsom Street would have a private room that none of the union techs would be allowed to enter.

Klein kept his eyes open and learned enough from company memos to conclude that the government was using AT&T’s equipment to monitor the private communications of unsuspecting and mostly undeserving citizens. When he retired in May 2004, he took a stack of material with him — and when he read in the New York Times a year and half later that the NSA had indeed been spying on people, he decided to go public.

The 62-year-old East Bay resident had never been a whistleblower. "I didn’t even know where to begin," he told us. So he surfed the Web looking for civil liberties groups and wound up contacting the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

It was a perfect match: the EFF was about to file a landmark class-action lawsuit against AT&T charging the company with collaborating with the government to spy on ordinary citizens — and Klein’s evidence was a bombshell.

"Mark Klein is a true American hero," EFF lawyer Kurt Opsahl told us. "He has bravely come forward with information critical for proving AT&T’s involvement with the government’s invasive surveillance program."

Federal Judge Vaughn Walker has kept Klein’s written testimony under seal, but the EFF is trying to get it released to the public. The suit is moving forward. (Redmond)

SPJ-NorCal’s James Madison Awards dinner is March 13 at 5:30 p.m. at Biscuits and Blues, 401 Mason, SF. Tickets are $50 for members and $70 for the general public. For more information or to see if tickets are still available, contact Matthew Hirsch at (415) 749-5451 or mhirsch@alm.com.

The ethics of flacks


› steve@sfbg.com

They go by many names: public relations professionals, spokespeople, public information officers, press secretaries, liaisons, public affairs practitioners, press agents, or — the widely used slang — flacks. They are the gatekeepers of records and access to their powerful bosses, either a conduit or barrier for those seeking information.

A spotlight was shined on the role of flacks in San Francisco last month when Peter Ragone, then the influential press secretary for Mayor Gavin Newsom, was caught posting comments under fake names on some local blogs and then lying about it to journalists.

The incident prompted Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin to call for Ragone’s ouster (which Newsom resisted, before last week transferring Ragone to his reelection campaign team, where he’s not dealing directly with the press or public) and to craft legislation creating standards of conduct for the city’s public information officers.

"There are bright ethical lines that cannot be crossed," Peskin told the Guardian. "Passing this is a wake-up call to people so busy playing politics that they’ve forgotten their moral responsibility."

The code calls for the city’s public information officers to be honest and accessible and to "advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information to the public and the press."

The legislation, which will soon be heard in the Rules Committee before going to the full board, notes that "it is critically important that Public Information [Officers] are viewed by citizens and the media as honest and trustworthy brokers of information" and "deception and disinformation severely damages the public trust and limits the City’s ability to serve the public."

Many activists and journalists say that’s a serious problem right now, particularly in the Mayor’s Office of Communications, which has become known for aggressively pushing deceptive political spin and repeatedly blocking the release of public documents, according to rulings by the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. In addition to Ragone, deputy press secretary Jennifer Petrucione is widely seen by those she deals with as a less than forthright and forthcoming broker of information.

But new press secretary Nathan Ballard, whose first day was March 5, said he supports the Peskin legislation and promises to maintain high ethical standards. "My overall philosophy is I’d like an accessible press office. You should be able to get the information you need with dispatch," he told us. "The public has a right to receive information from us that is true, accurate, and fair."

He made a distinction between private-sector public relations people and public-sector information officers, noting that the latter should be held to a higher standard of conduct because they work for taxpayers, not corporations or just politicians. It was a point echoed by City Attorney’s Office spokesperson Matt Dorsey, one of the most widely respected flacks in San Francisco.

"I have a duty to taxpayers and citizens to provide information, whether it’s good for my client or not," Dorsey told us. "Even when you’re working for an elected official, it’s the taxpayers who pay you."

Dorsey accepts that it’s the nature of the job and a free democratic society that sometimes his boss will take lumps in the press, but he said, "I will never hold it against a journalist for portraying the city attorney as a bad guy when we do look like the bad guy."

Eileen Shields, spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, agreed: "I don’t think of my client as the Department of Public Health of Mitch Katz. I think of it as the people of San Francisco."

But other flacks, such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Maggie Lynch, have a more adversarial relationship with the press and have been known to chew out journalists who write unflattering stories, although she agrees that flacks should maintain high ethical standards.

"It’s my job to point out what’s good about what the agency does," Lynch told us. "I pride myself on my directness and my honesty…. I think the standards should be the same for reporters and public information officers, that you need to be honest."

As the tenor of her comments indicates, there can be a dynamic tension between flacks and journalists that sometimes gets testy. And that can be exacerbated when the flack works for an agency under strong public scrutiny, such as Muni or the Mayor’s Office.

That’s why Peskin said his code is important. "Transparency in an electoral democracy is what keeps the system honest," said Peskin, who agreed that the issues associated with the Mayor’s Office of Communications go beyond the lie Ragone told about his blogging. "There is no question the Mayor’s Office has repeatedly failed to adhere to the Sunshine Ordinance."

Without commenting on the past, Ballard pledged to cooperate in the future. "We will comply with the spirit and the letter of the Sunshine Ordinance."

In addition to Peskin’s legislation, City Attorney Dennis Herrera has announced a new program that offers expanded training for the city’s flacks, covering Sunshine Ordinance compliance, legal guidance, and ethical guidelines. "It would be up to policy makers whether they want to make it mandatory," Dorsey said.

Ironically, the Guardian attempted to interview someone from the Public Relations Society of America (whose code of conduct Peskin incorporated into his legislation) for this story, but we were unsuccessful despite days of trying. Judy Voss, the contact person listed in its code of ethics, referred me to Janet Troy, the vice president of public relations, who spent 10 minutes asking me questions about the questions I had and said she would have someone get back to me. Despite several days of my calling and e-mailing her, neither she nor anyone from the PRSA got back to me by press time.

Luckily, there are alternatives to the PRSA. The National Association of Government Communicators has an even stricter code of conduct for public-sector flacks. It includes this central tenet: "We believe that truth is inviolable and sacred; that providing public information is an essential civil service; and that the public-at-large and each citizen therein has a right to equal, full, understandable, and timely facts about their government." *

Sunshine battles on three fronts


EDITORIAL It’s been, to put it mildly, a terrible year for open government. The climate of secrecy in Washington, DC, has only increased: from clandestine spying on antiwar protesters to secretive immigration raids to a huge growth in document classification, the nation’s capital has shifted squarely into the dark ages. As G.W. Schulz reports ("100 Years of Secrets," page 22), there’s even an attempt in Congress to create a new official secrets act, with stiff criminal penalties for people who disclose information the government doesn’t want the public to know.

In California the governor has vetoed a public-records bill backed by all 120 legislators, and the State Supreme Court issued one of the worst rulings in its history, ensuring that virtually all police disciplinary records will forever be hidden from public view.

San Francisco has its problems too. The Sunshine Ordinance still has some significant loopholes — and as Amanda Witherell reports ("The Sunshine Posse," page 20), a cadre of sunshine activists is working overtime to try to force the city to comply with its own rules and to demand that electronic documents get the same treatment as paper records.

So there’s a lot of work to do. But the good news is that there are legislative and grassroots efforts on many fronts to turn the tide back. Some of the key points:

In Washington: The Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, along with other sunshine advocates, is pushing a bill by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. John Cornyn (R-Texas) that would greatly strengthen the federal Freedom of Information Act. The bill would require federal agencies to expedite FOIA requests and allow requesters to seek attorney’s fees if the government forces them to go to court. The GOP-led Congress blocked it last year, and the Bush administration has always opposed it, but with the Democrats in control, it’s likely to get through both houses this spring.

Meanwhile, Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) tried last month to push a bill that would impose criminal penalties for unauthorized leaking of government information. He’s backed off somewhat, but that threat remains. It’s crucial that San Franciscans contact Sen. Dianne Feinstein (who sits on the Judiciary Committee) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi to demand that the FOIA bill pass and that Kyl’s proposal die.

In Sacramento: Assemblymember Mark Leno has introduced a bill that would override the devastating Supreme Court decision on police records. The measure, AB 1648, would once again allow public access to information about the extent of police officer discipline and would permit agencies such as the San Francisco Police Commission to hold some disciplinary hearings in public. It’s a crucial bill; cloaking all discussion of problematic cops in a veil of secrecy undermines public trust in law enforcement, perpetuates poor management, and protects abusive officers. The legislature needs to pass it quickly. Leno has also reintroduced his Public Records Act reform bill, AB 1393, with a few amendments to address technical problems that the Governor’s Office claimed to have with last year’s bill. This time Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has no excuse not to sign it.

In San Francisco: It’s still far too hard for members of the public to get basic information from city departments. The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force needs to have the authority to mandate that agencies follow its decisions; an attempt to make that happen three years ago failed when the supervisors balked at empowering the sunshine panel. The task force lacks the full-time staffer mandated in the ordinance.

The task force should bring its proposals back to the board, and one of the supervisors needs to step up as an open-government advocate and bring that proposal back. If the task force had any teeth or if the Ethics Commission or district attorney would enforce the existing law, these battles wouldn’t be necessary. *

The latest Presidio disgrace


EDITORIAL Here’s yet another reason why the Presidio national park is a national disgrace:

Way back in 1995, when Rep. Nancy Pelosi was in the process of turning the Presidio over to private interests, we and some other critics asked what the rush was. Sure, money for the new park was tight under a Republican Congress, but that didn’t justify privatizing a national park.

Pelosi’s response: if we don’t let the private sector control the park’s future, the Republicans will just sell it off to the highest bidder.

That struck us as unlikely at the time, particularly since the president, who would have to sign any bill to sell the park, was a Democrat named Bill Clinton. But in retrospect, even if Pelosi’s worst fears had come true, at least the private developers who’d bought it would have had to abide by city zoning rules and state laws.

Instead Pelosi has created the worst of both worlds. As Amanda Witherell reported last week, the Presidio’s special status as a federal enclave means the dozens of private businesses operating there don’t have to abide by California labor laws. And we already knew they didn’t have to follow city or state land-use or environmental laws. In effect, Pelosi has created a private-sector libertarian Wild West in progressive San Francisco, a place where big operators such as George Lucas can avoid taxes and, if they choose, skirt California labor laws, San Francisco’s minimum-wage and health-insurance requirements, and a long list of other workplace protections.

The Presidio isn’t the only national park to face this problem; legal battles over, for example, the right to sell untaxed booze at Yosemite have created a precedent that federal law rules on federal land. But it’s not much of an issue in the rest of the country, because most national parks aren’t business parks and have only modest, if any, private commercial activity going on. Most of the people who work on that federal land are federal employees, who have union contracts that protect them.

And most national parks aren’t right in the middle of crowded urban areas, where businesses right across the street have to obey rules, pay taxes, and act like part of a community.

This isn’t what the late Rep. Phil Burton, whose seat Pelosi now holds, had in mind when he passed a bill requiring that the Pentagon turn the Presidio over to the National Park Service when its days as a military base were done.

There is, of course, a simple fix, and organized labor ought to join the growing chorus of environmentalists putting pressure on Pelosi to get with the program. She needs to repeal the bill that privatized the Presidio, eliminate the requirement that the park pay for itself through commercial ventures, and let it be run like every other national park in the nation.

At the very least, she needs to put through an amendment that requires Presidio businesses — and the Presidio Trust itself — to abide by state and local laws and regulations. *

Editor’s Notes


› tredmond@sfbg.com

I don’t think anyone has seriously challenged an incumbent San Francisco Democrat for a seat in the state legislature while I’ve lived here, and that’s going on 25 years. So we all know that the race between Mark Leno, the challenger, and Carole Migden, the state senator, marks a change in local politics.

For one thing, it’s a major race, for a key political position — and there’s no official establishment candidate. Both Leno and Migden have ties to some very powerful interests in town; both of them will be able to raise a lot of money and line up an impressive list of endorsements. But as we saw from Leno’s campaign kickoff March 2, the political split is going to be highly unusual in a town where grassroots progressives versus the downtown machine has been pretty much the political mantra for a generation.

Five years ago, when then-supervisor Leno and former supervisor Harry Britt fought for the open District 13 assembly seat, it wasn’t hard to take sides. The progressives were behind Britt (and so was Migden); the moderates, the business types, and kingmaker Willie Brown were behind Leno. But Leno has moved considerably to the left over the past few years and has been a good legislator. A lot of the former Britt supporters may well wind up in his camp this time around.

At his kickoff, though, that wasn’t what you saw: District Attorney Kamala Harris was by his side, along with Treasurer Phil Ting, Assemblymember Fiona Ma, and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission boss Susan Leal. Harris and Leal are decent people who have taken some good progressive stands, but they aren’t exactly a definitive lineup of San Francisco’s left leadership. Ma was a horrible supervisor. Community college board member Natalie Berg is nothing if not an old machine hack.

Migden isn’t exactly pals with everyone on the left in this town either: she pissed off a lot of party activists by supporting Steve Westly over Phil Angelides for governor (although she could certainly argue now, given Angelides’s rather poor showing, that the centrist Westly was a more practical choice). And she’s been far less visible in town than Leno, who really works the San Francisco constituency.

Neither Leno nor Migden has done anything remotely close to what Brown and Phil and John Burton did in their days in the state legislature (and later Congress). The level of fear and intimidation from the top dogs in the Democratic Party is well on the wane.

It’s going to be hard for local politicians to make a choice in this race — but not because they fear the consequences of defying one side or the other. Frankly, if you’re a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors or the school board or community college board, or a prominent fundraiser in the Democratic Party, neither Migden nor Leno is terribly scary.

This is a good thing. We’re making progress.

For the grassroots activists who will be propelling the campaigns on the ground, the challenge will be not just to promote their own candidates but to avoid a queer-left schism that will last beyond the election. Queer-labor activist Robert Haaland has a proposal, which is posted on the politics blog at www.sfbg.com: he suggests that everyone — not just the candidates but also their supporters — promise not to resort to sleazy attacks and to remember that we will all have to work together another day. Migden and Leno have both signed on. Now let’s see if they can force their campaign consultants and political allies to get with the program.

That would be progress indeed. *