Volume 42 Number 22

February 27 – March 4, 2008

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War on science


› annalee@techsploitation.com

TECHSPLOITATION Over the past eight years, the lives of millions of people in the United States and beyond have been endangered by the US government. No, I’m not talking about the war in Iraq. I’m talking about the quiet, systematic war the government has been waging against science.

You may have heard about gross examples of the government censoring scientific documents. For example, it was widely reported last year that a government regulatory group excised at least half the statements Centers for Disease Control director Julie Gerberding was set to make at a congressional hearing about how climate change will affect public health. You may also have heard about the scandal in 2004 when a whistleblower at the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that five of the seven members on a panel of "independent experts" stood to gain financially from shutting down a scientific investigation of a controversial mining technique called "hydraulic fracturing." The panel claimed that in its expert opinion, the technique didn’t require regulation, despite many scientists’ concerns that it might pollute groundwater.

But these are the stories that hit the headlines. There are hundreds more where they came from, and many of them are documented meticulously in a study released earlier this month by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) called "Federal Science and the Public Good." (Download it for free online at http://www.ucsusa.org/scientific_integrity/restoring/federal-science.html.)

The UCS report documents, in chilling detail, how agencies have fired scientists who disagreed with government policies. For example, in 2003, experts in nuclear physics were dismissed from a panel within the National Nuclear Security Administration because some of them had published about how the George W. Bush administration’s beloved "bunker buster" weapons weren’t very effective. And scientists who spoke out against the administration’s stem cell policy were booted from the President’s Council on Bioethics.

Worse, the government has falsified scientific studies to bolster its policies and undergird its ideological positions. Perhaps the most egregious example of this was when the EPA lied outright to Americans that the air around ground zero directly after Sept. 11 was safe to breathe. In fact, according to the UCS report, the EPA made this statement without even testing the air. As a result, the authors of the report write, "thousands of rescue workers now plagued by crippling lung ailments continue to feel the impact of this public deception." There’s also an example of the Food and Drug Administration inventing a fake study to support its decision to approve the drug Ketek, along with many others.

Most intriguing, though, is the UCS report’s suggestion that many federal regulatory agencies may in fact be breaking the law by cutting real science out of government policy decisions. Both the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act require the EPA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service to base their decisions on "the best scientific data available." And yet the UCS has documented countless examples of both agencies, as well as others, refusing to take into account the latest research on climate change, animal populations, and systems biology.

It would be intriguing to see a lawsuit based on the fact that these agencies aren’t using "the best scientific data available," but the UCS doesn’t suggest that as a remedy. Instead, the report concludes by looking to the future of federally funded science, suggesting ways the next presidential administration might remedy the failures of the last.

First on the agenda would be to bring a scientific adviser back into the cabinet. (Bush dismissed this adviser from the cabinet.) The UCS also suggests that the next president repeal Executive Order 13422, which gave an obscure regulatory body known as the Office of Management and Budget a lot of control over how regulatory agencies handle science. Currently the OMB has the power to revise the findings of scientists within those agencies, despite the fact that the OMB has little to no scientific expertise. And finally, the UCS asks that the government extend protections to whistleblowers within the government who come forward to report on the very kinds of abuses the UCS has reported (often with the help of whistleblowers who lost their jobs or worse).

Hopefully the next presidential administration will relegate this report to the status of historical document instead of a warning about our future. Science is crucial to the management of the nation, and without it we’re no better than a medieval kingdom.

Annalee Newitz (annalee@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who is fifteen feet tall, and she has a federal agency science report that proves it.

Beyond beds


› news@sfbg.com

What do army barracks, prisons, hospitals, and dog pounds have in common? They all have minimum and legally enforceable standards of care, something absent in San Francisco’s homeless shelters. Legislation to fix that problem now appears to be shaping up as the latest political skirmish pitting fiscally conservative Mayor Gavin Newsom against progressives on the Board of Supervisors.

The Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee met Feb. 20 to hear testimony and discuss proposed legislation that seeks to impose basic requirements on city-funded shelters, improve complaint procedures, and allow fines for noncompliance (see "Setting Standards," 1/30/07).

Prior to the hearing, dozens of activists, city officials, and homeless people rallied on the steps of City Hall in support of the legislation, holding colorfully painted signs with references to some of the proposed requirements, including "nutritious meals," "clean sheets," and "8-hour-a-day sleep."

Marlon Mendieta, program director at the Dolores Street shelter, took to the podium to make his case for supporting the legislation: "It may seem strange that a service provider would be here to support legislation that will cost money and more time and more work — it’s easy though. It’s an issue of human rights."

The scene was just as lively inside as demonstrators and officials packed the board’s chambers. The committee — composed of Sups. Aaron Peskin, Bevan Dufty, and Tom Ammiano (sponsor of the ordinance) — took testimony, almost all of it urging the committee to pass the legislation on to the full Board of Supervisors for approval.

Dariush Kayhan, who has been on the job for six weeks as the mayor’s appointed homeless policy director, gave the only testimony urging the committee not to pass the legislation.

"This is the part where we have some concerns, the fiscal part," Kayhan said. "Give us more time, maybe we can plow some of these items — the ones we can agree on — into the existing contracts," he said, referring to the contracts awarded to nonprofit organizations who manage the city’s shelters.

While the city’s contracts with shelter providers do spell out many standards, a recent Guardian investigation (see "Shelter Shuffle," 2/12/08) and work by the Shelter Monitoring Committee, which developed the recommendations embodied in Ammiano’s legislation, found they are often ignored with no consequences. The Guardian also found that people are being turned away from the shelters every night despite vacancies.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, in a letter to supervisors obtained by the Guardian, voiced his concern with the fiscal impact of the legislation, citing a $2.4 million price tag, the high end of costs developed by the Budget Analyst’s Office, which said the legislation could cost $1.7 million or even less. Advocates of the legislation are confident they can bring its price down.

The $2.4 million estimate assumes a new security guard will be hired at each shelter to meet safety requirements. The legislation does not specifically mandate new personnel and many argue increased staff training and facility improvements could provide cheaper alternatives.

The Shelter Monitoring Committee, composed of mayoral and board appointees, estimates the cost will be closer to $1 million, which amounts to less than half of 1 percent of the city’s total projected deficit of $225 million.

"This is an investment in a population that has not been invested in in a long time," committee chair Quintin Mecke said at the hearing. "I don’t think there is any reason to wait to make sure people have access to toilet paper, have access to clean conditions, have access to ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] -compatible beds."

At Ammiano’s request, the committee decided to postpone the vote for two more weeks to try to work out differences with the Mayor’s Office, and set the next hearing for March 5. If the supervisors proceed without Newsom’s support and he ends up vetoing the legislation, it would take the vote of eight supervisors to override and implement the standards anyway.

Newsom and the board have been at odds over homelessness and other budget priorities. Buster’s Place, the city’s only 24-hour drop-in shelter, is now caught in the middle of the political tug-of-war between budget cuts and shelter improvements. There is a provision within the standards of care legislation that mandates a 24-hour emergency drop-in center. At the time it was drafted, Buster’s Place filled this requirement.

However, due to the timing of the midyear budget cuts ordered by Newsom, the Department of Public Health cut off funding for Buster’s, effectively closing the center at the end of March (see "No Shelter from the Budget Storm," 2/20/08). It is now unclear how the requirement will be met if the legislation passes.

"We’re tired of having centers like Buster’s Place on the chopping block," Mecke told the Guardian. "It’s ludicrous to keep going in this cycle over and over again." Buster’s was slated to close six months ago but was rescued by a Board of Supervisors’ budget add-back, and a year before that, McMillan’s (another 24-hour center) was forced shut its doors.

The ordinance seems to challenge Newsom’s recent efforts to whittle back shelter services. It would allocate more funds to a department Newsom is trying to cut and assure the existence of an emergency 24-hour center, a clear departure from Newsom’s recent announcement that he wants to ultimately "get San Francisco out of the shelter business."

The most controversial requirement within the standards of care legislation seems to be its enforcement mechanism, calling for fines of $2,500 levied against the nonprofit service providers for noncompliance. While Kayhan voiced reservations about creating new staff positions to carry out enforcement, the SMC has insisted the fines are crucial and will only be used as a last resort.

"In 2004, the supervisors [created the] Shelter Monitoring Committee because contract compliance was not working," Mecke said. "If there are policies in theory, they should be legalized and should become mandates and be enforced."

Barbra Wismer, the medical director of Tom Waddell’s clinic, which frequently serves homeless men and women, urged attendees at the budget meeting to put politics aside and remember the importance of shelter standards, not just for the current homeless population, but for all San Francisco residents.

"If there was a natural disaster like an earthquake, or a fiscal disaster like increased foreclosures, and 1 to 2 percent of people — 14,000 in San Francisco — had to be put in emergency shelters," Wismer said, "we do not have any standards to protect them."

Newsom’s woman problem


OPINION Be nice, wait your turn, pay your dues, your time will come.

This is the “guidance” given to women in politics, and many of us have bided our time and paid our share of dues. But what happens when our time comes, and we speak out for what we believe in? We are called pushy, mean, controlling, or cold. And worse — we are stripped of our positions.

In the last month, four of the most respected women in city government have been removed from their posts:

Susan Leal is considered one of city government’s best managers and was leading the city toward a future of sustainable energy usage. According to the Chronicle, she was fired from her position as director of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission because the Mayor did not consider her to be a “team player,” and because it appeared that Leal was readying herself for another run for Mayor in 2011.

Leah Shahum is a fearless bike advocate and Executive Director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. She was removed from the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency for being an outspoken critic of the city’s inaction on promoting alternative forms of transportation.

Roma Guy is a fierce advocate for women’s health, a former lecturer in San Francisco State University’s health education department and a longtime progressive activist. She was removed from the city’s Health Commission without explanation.

Debra Walker is the only woman on the city’s powerful Building Inspection Commission, a longtime affordable housing activist, and a fighter for reform and transparency in the Department of Building Inspection (a male-dominated department in a male-dominated field). Walker lost her leadership position on the commission after she was targeted by the mayor’s office for openly disagreeing with his positions.

We can’t allow these affronts to go unnoticed and we can’t afford to lose more good women in poweror let the few that remain be silenced into inaction. It is time for women to stand behind our sisters who work hard every day to represent us in government, many on a volunteer basis, while also pursuing full time careers and caring for their families.

The National Women’s Political Caucus and the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee are working to increase the number of women in positions of influence in city government. In September of last year, 47 elected officials and other community leaders from the San Francisco women’s community came together for a Women’s Policy Summit where the participants agreed that our top priority is to promote more women to positions of influence in government.

Even though women comprise 51 percent of the voting population, we hold only 16 percent of the seats in Congress, 23 percent of state legislative seats nationwide, and 27 percent of the seats on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Only one elected executive office in San Francisco — district attorney — is held by a woman.

San Francisco must do more to promote women to leadership positions. We must also call on the mayor to appoint women to positions of influence in city government and demand an explanation when he removes qualified women from their posts without good cause. The time for patience and waiting our turn has passed. *

Alix Rosenthal, Amy Moy and Micha Liberty

Alix Rosenthal is the founder of the San Francisco Women’s Policy Summit. Amy Moy is president of the San Francisco Women’s Political Committee. Micha Liberty is president of the National Women’s Political Caucus (SF chapter).


Rent control fix


Cities would be empowered to require replacement of rent-controlled units lost to demolition or disasters under legislation introduced by state senator Carole Migden with the support of affordable housing advocates in San Francisco.

Migden, during a Feb. 22 rally outside City Hall announcing State Senate Bill 1299, acknowledged that many property owners might oppose the effort but said, "We are at our wit’s end in trying to keep this city affordable."

The legislation comes just as the San Francisco Tenants Union and other groups are mobilizing against this June’s Proposition 98, which would end rent control in California — affecting 170,000 apartments in San Francisco alone.

"Rent control in San Francisco remains our largest and most effective affordable housing program," Sup. Chris Daly said at the rally. But SFTU head Ted Gullickson told the crowd that it is undercut by redevelopment projects, such as a current proposal to demolish apartment complexes at Park Merced, and could be wiped out by an earthquake.

As Gullickson said, "San Francisco every day is bleeding its rent control housing stock."

Where to now, SFPUC?


› sarah@sfbg.com

Months after Mayor Gavin Newsom announced his intention to get rid of San Francisco Public Utilities Commission general manager Susan Leal, his appointees on the SFPUC board finally made if official on Feb. 20.

But the reasons for the previously unexplained move that have finally started coming from Newsom and his surrogates have only added to the confusion and concern over why Leal got canned and whether Newsom has compromised this important agency’s work for political reasons.

Leal was terminated without cause and is thus entitled to the $400,000 severance package from the contract Newsom used to convince her to move from city treasurer to SFPUC chief in 2004. Nonetheless, in the days leading up to the Feb. 20 hearing, the Mayor’s Office made a series of unsubstantiated allegations, including the claim that Leal botched negotiations with JPower over combustion turbines in Potrero Hill, that she was too much of a political animal and not enough of a team player, and that she didn’t focus enough on Newsom’s environmental initiatives like tidal power.

At first, Leal tried to handle her termination gracefully: for example, she told the Guardian that tidal power "is really expensive, doesn’t generate much power, and is a difficult process to get approved, environmentally speaking."

But then Newsom told reporters that city officials had discussed terminating Leal for cause, so that the SFPUC could avoid paying her severance, but eventually decided against it to avoid potentially expensive litigation costs. At that point, with the implication that she had done something wrong, Leal’s gloves came off.

"I really wanted to go out on the high road," Leal told us after Newsom’s latest allegations hit. "It’s unfortunate that the Mayor had to resort to 11th hour innuendo to try and justify what he did."

Leal notes that city officials never undertook a performance evaluation of Leal or the SFPUC, which would usually form the basis for an expensive effort to remove a high-profile public official. So why did Newsom really dump Leal?

Was it her creation of public power projects that earned her the scorn of Pacific Gas and Electric Co.? Was it her environmental initiatives, ranging from a biofuels program to a ban on bottled water, which seemed to show up Newsom? Was it the fact that she was a strong and independent woman in a male-dominated political landscape?

One clue can be found during the agency’s Nov. 14, 2007, meeting — just before Newsom announced he wanted Leal gone — in which SFPUC president Dick Sklar ripped into Barbara Hale, the assistant general manager for power, after she made a presentation on the agency’s long-term energy goals.

Sklar objected to Hale’s presentation, claiming, "It implied adoption of principles stating that the SFPUC was going to be in the public power business and take over public power generation in the city, making statement of principles totally inconsistent with anything the commission had adopted."

Equally disturbing to staff was the abusive way Sklar delivered his message.

"It was very painful," Leal told us. "It got so bad I had to intervene. I’m not going to allow my staff to be yelled at."

At issue was the agency’s plan to underground gas lines in Bernal Heights and extend its transmission lines, which Leal described as "a gimme. We have the easement all up the peninsula."

Beyond her openly pro–public power stance, Leal speculated that her friendly working relationship with the Board of Supervisors, including board president Aaron Peskin and Sups. Bevan Dufty and Sophie Maxwell, tweaked the mayor, who at times has seemed to have a personal vendetta against his former board colleagues.

"Maybe the mayor thinks that I’m too close with them. But we did more than just talk about climate change. We actually addressed it," said Leal, who convened a world-renowned climate change conference in San Francisco last year — on the same day Newsom was confronted by his then campaign manager Alex Tourk about the affair Newsom had with Tourk’s wife, Newsom’s commission appointments secretary Ruby Rippey-Tourk.

"Why am I fighting back, not going quietly?" said Leal, whose removal is effective March 21. "Because this is too big not to. I actually really like this job and will be going in to work for the next 30 days."

Addressing allegations that she mismanaged the JPower negotiations, Leal explained that PUC staff drew up a term sheet with JPower and presented it to the commission’s governing body. And it was at that point, said Leal, "that Commissioner Sklar popped off," claiming that the contract’s terms were terrible and should be renegotiated.

In the end, all five commissioners approved a description of the contemplated transaction with JPower, including a brief description of Sklar’s preferred alternative, which, as it turned out, had problems of its own.

"So, there never was a deal," Leal told us. "JPower was pushing the city to pay more money up front because it knows PG&E will do everything it can to make the implementation of JPower’s contract tough, and the city was pushing to pay the money later and so reduce its own risks."

Today, the PUC continues to work with JPower on a contract that has taken years to formulate and that, Leal notes, will ultimately allow the city to own the plant.

"So, if we want to shut it down, or run it on alternative fuel, we’ll have control," Leal told us. "My goal was to make the PUC as viable and green as possible."

She believes Sklar didn’t turn against her leadership until she started to push things that infringed on PG&E’s monopoly. "Did PG&E get me fired? If I was PG&E, I’d want me fired," Leal said.

Maxwell is a strong advocate of the Newark-to–San Francisco transmission line Leal sought, not just because it would help reduce environmental burdens in Maxwell’s heavily polluted southeast district but also because it would give the entire City more ability to bring in cleaner power.

"We could do large-scale solar in the Central Valley, as well as wind and geothermal energy. It would allow us to hook renewable power into statewide grid," Leal said, noting that the link would also allow the city to import the electricity it generates at Hetch Hetchy without using PG&E’s expensive lines.

Leal noted that under her leadership, the PUC tripled the city’s municipal solar generation. "But we don’t control residential solar. PG&E does," she said, noting the city is lagging at getting solar panels on homes but leading at doing in on public buildings. "It’s too bad PG&E couldn’t have made it easier for people."

Maxwell says she’ll miss Leal.

"I don’t think we’re going to be better off without her," Maxwell told us. "Susan is independent, a straight shooter, a grown up woman trying to make a difference and listening to all sides. She knew we had to be involved regionally. She also understood we have to have relationships with both sides of the hall."

Convinced that PG&E had something to do with Leal’s demise, Maxwell also believes the stinky sewage digesters, which sit down the road from her own house, need to be removed, not retrofitted, as Sklar recently advocated.

"The digesters need to go," Maxwell told the Guardian. "No other place in the nation, to my knowledge, has digesters within 25 feet of people’s homes."

Noting that Controller Ed Harrington, whom Newsom has nominated as the next general manager of the PUC, has a financial background, Maxwell says the question of what to do with the digesters should not be about money.

"We need to do the best we can for people, in the most economic and financially prudent was possible, but people must come first, "Maxwell told us.

Maxwell said these recent power struggles at the PUC convinced her to join seven other Supervisors in placing a charter amendment on the June ballot that will make it easier for supervisors to block mayoral appointees to the agency and will also require that PUC nominees have appropriate awareness and skills.

With a proposed $4.3 billion program in the works to upgrade the aging Hetch Hetchy system, which provides water to 2.4 million Bay Area residents, will the newly nominated Harrington be able to address water conservation, efficiency and recycling, without causing further harm to the Tuolumne River — all while dealing with battles over public power and wastewater concerns?

Noting that he began his City Hall career as Assistant General Manager for Finance at the PUC, a position he held for seven years before becoming City Controller 17 years ago, Harrington told us, "This is not the perfect way to walk into a position. Susan and I are old friends, she’s been very gracious, and has made it known that I had nothing to do with her removal. And I’m trying to be gracious. There’s no need to criticize her."

Leal, who calls Harrington a friend, said she believes Harrington "will push a little bit, but how much independence he can take and preserve remains the question."

Neither Sklar nor representatives from the Mayor’s Office returned calls from the Guardian. But Sup. Chris Daly, who saved Sklar’s neck by leaving the board one vote short of the supermajority required to reject a PUC mayoral appointee, told us, "I don’t think Sklar is Newsom’s tool. He’s bigger than that. If I thought he was not independent from PG&E, I wouldn’t have voted from him."

In fact, he said perceived lack of PG&E independence was why he joined seven other supervisors in voting against reappointing Ryan Brooks, who Newsom then nominated to the Planning Commission on the same day Leal was fired.

Big finish


› tredmond@sfbg.com

After more than three weeks of testimony, a series of expert witnesses, reams of documents entered into evidence, and some stunning admissions on the part of the nation’s largest alternative newspaper chain, the Guardian‘s lawsuit against the SF Weekly is headed for the jury just as this issue hits the streets.

The outcome could impact the future of the alternative press.

The Guardian is charging the Weekly and its corporate owner, Village Voice Media, with predatory pricing, arguing that the Weekly for many years sold ads below cost with the intent of harming the locally owned competitor. That would be a violation of the California Unfair Practices Act.

The Weekly‘s last few witnesses were slated to take the stand Feb. 26 and closing arguments are set for Feb. 27, when Judge Marla Miller told the jury that it will probably begin deliberating.

The daily newspapers and the mainstream media in general have ignored the case. "That’s a shame," Mark Fitzgerald, a columnist for the trade magazine Editor and Publisher, wrote in a Feb. 24 piece that called the trial "sometimes raucous."

In fact, it’s been fascinating, and the jurors have seen some remarkable evidence. Since the chain, then known as New Times, bought the Weekly in 1995, the evidence has shown that the paper has never once made a profit. In fact, the corporation has had to ship in $13 million from its Phoenix headquarters to keep the Weekly afloat.

Several top executives, including two former Weekly publishers, Troy Larkin and Chris Keating, have admitted under oath that the Weekly was selling ads below cost. The Guardian‘s financial expert, accountant Clifford Kupperberg, has presented evidence that the Weekly sold ads below cost as much as 90 percent of the time and that the predatory practices have cost the Guardian between $5 million and $11 million.

On Feb. 22, Everett Harry, an expert witness hired by the Weekly, as much as admitted the same thing, presenting a series of charts that showed consistent below-cost sales.

The Weekly‘s lawyers are arguing that the 16-paper chain and its senior management never intended to harm the Guardian. Any financial setbacks the Guardian has suffered were due entirely to the dot-com bust, the post 9/11 recession, and the rise of Internet advertising, they say.

They also say that the Weekly and the Guardian have so many competitors in the San Francisco market that it would be foolish for VVM to try to damage a single competing newspaper.

But three witnesses have come forward to testify that Mike Lacey, one of the two principal owners of Village Voice Media, specifically vowed to put the Guardian out of business when he took over the Weekly. Memos from Weekly publishers to the bosses in Phoenix refer to the Guardian as the only significant competitor and discuss how the Weekly can take ads away from the Guardian.

In some memos, Weekly executives talk of how well they are doing in San Francisco, even as the Weekly was losing more than $1 million a year. The clear implication: the Weekly publishers weren’t being judged on how much money they made, but on how effectively they’ve tried to cripple the Guardian.

The jury will have to find that the Weekly sold below cost, that it did so to harm the Guardian, and that the Weekly‘s behavior played a significant role in causing the Guardian financial harm. The panel can then award damages.

Alternative papers around the country, particularly independents, are watching the trial closely. If the Guardian wins, the jury verdict could send a signal to big publishing outfits in California and in the 20 other states with similar antitrust laws that below-cost selling and attempts at market domination could be risky business.

Building green in SF


› news@sfbg.com

GREEN CITY Wind turbines and solar panels may soon sprout on San Francisco rooftops as the city considers rival plans to implement mandatory green design standards for new residential and commercial buildings.

One ordinance proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Green Building Task Force would require new commercial construction of more than 5,000 square feet, residential buildings above 75 feet, and renovations to buildings of more than 25,000 square feet to be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certified by 2012, the second-highest designation.

The U.S. Green Building Council developed the point-based LEED system based on numerous green factors. The lowest green standard is LEED Certified, followed by Silver, Gold, and Putf8um. The new Academy of Sciences building, with the country’s largest living roof, is LEED Putf8um.

Newsom’s legislation would start off by mandating requiring only the lowest standard, LEED Certified, which requires 26 points, and gradually move to LEED Gold by 2012. But Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin has introduced an ordinance that would require the same buildings to immediately earn LEED Gold certification.

According to the LEED system, most existing buildings already have between 18 to 22 points, so Newsom’s proposed goal should be fairly easily attainable. A bike rack outside a building qualifies for 1 point. Proximity to mass transit gains another point, and Muni runs within two blocks of 90 percent of all San Francisco residences, according to the Municipal Transportation Agency.

At a green building standards workshop Feb. 20 at the San Francisco Green Party’s office, about 20 people voiced their concerns with the ordinances in front of three city commissioners.

"We need to correct the language to include all buildings," said panelist Patricia Gerber, a member of the city’s Peak Oil Preparedness Task Force. The San Francisco Office of Economic Analysis last year concluded both proposed ordinances would impact only 38 percent of the construction industry. "We should look to Europe for inspiration," Gerber recommended. "They have much stricter standards."

Some European nations started mandatory green construction in the mid-’90s, but critics say the United States has lagged.

"There are no minimum requirements on windows, insulation, and leaks," Gerber told the Guardian, describing the proposed ordinances. "LEED is a joke."

But Mark Westlund, spokesman for the Department of the Environment, defended Newsom’s longer LEED certification timeline. "We want to develop a green building plan that business can work with," he told us.

The Green Building Task Force claims that businesses need time to adjust to the higher costs associated with green materials, such as EnergyStar windows, can reduce heating costs by 30 to 40 percent. "They’re expensive because they’re used on a small scale. The minute they require it, it will become cheaper," John Rizzo, Green Party member and City College Trustee, told the audience. "It would be great if this could be done on a statewide level."

Panelists noted that green buildings save money in energy costs over the long run. Another criticism raised at the workshop was the Newsom plan’s loopholes. "Even if a project is approved green, it might not end up green," Gerber told us. If a construction company runs out of money for example, it can ask the planning director to waive LEED certification.

In addition, the event attendees questioned the credibility of the mayor’s Green Building Task Force, which does not include any environmentalists. Rather, it is composed of developers, financiers, architects, and engineers.

"We feel it represents a good variety of industry people, and so far we haven’t received any negative responses on the ordinance," Mark Palmer, San Francisco’s green building coordinator, told us.

Smaller residential buildings in San Francisco will not require LEED certification, but could be required to follow a GreenPoint scorecard developed by Berkeley nonprofit Build It Green.

Newsom’s ordinance will be presented March 19 at the Building Inspection Commission, which has already forwarded Peskin’s measure to he Board of Supervisors’ Land Use Committee. According to Peskin’s office, the two ordinances will likely be combined once supervisors decide which standard to seek.

The Market-Octavia mess


EDITORIAL A remarkable thing is happening in the area surrounding Market and Octavia streets: middle-class neighborhood groups, often accused of being NIMBYs, are actually asking for more affordable housing and less parking.

The Duboce Triangle Neighborhood Association, one of the oldest community groups on the east side of the city, and the Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association, want the city to make some important changes in the sweeping Market-Octavia plan, which will transform the area with close to 6,000 new housing units.

And what they’re asking for is eminently reasonable, entirely in sync with the city’s existing planning policies, and perhaps the only way to make the comprehensive area plan acceptable. The City Planning Commission refused to go along with the neighbors; the supervisors need to change that.

This isn’t a tiny neighborhood issue: the Market-Octavia plan is not only a huge policy issue involving a large chunk of the city; the outcome will set the stage for the epic battle over the Eastern Neighborhoods plan, which will guide development in the city’s last urban frontier.

City planners have been working on the document since 2000, and it’s gone through many different drafts. The current version, which will come before the Board of Supervisors next week, has the elements of a progressive plan, developed with neighborhood input. But it’s badly lacking in several key areas:

<\!s>Affordable housing. The plan calls for constructing 5,960 new residential units over the next 20 years — and 460 of those will be built under the direction of the Redevelopment Agency whether the plan is approved or not. So the Market-Octavia plan by itself involves 5,500 units — and only 960 of those will be sold below market rate.

Let’s remember here: market rate is upward of $500,000 for a studio or small one-bedroom unit. And only a fraction of the "affordable" units will be available to people making less than about $70,000 a year.

So most of what is planned here is housing for the rich. And if the pattern we’ve seen with market-rate condos downtown and South of Market continues here (in a neighborhood with easy access to the freeway), this will be housing for rich commuters who work in Silicon Valley, and rich out-of-towners who want a pied-à-terre in the city.

The city’s only General Plan — the document that’s supposed to drive all land-use policy — states very clearly that 64 percent of all new housing ought to be affordable. If that standard were applied here, 3,520 affordable units (not 960) would be included in the plan. That means the plan is 2,560 affordable units short of meeting existing city policy.

Housing activist Calvin Welch has put together a work sheet on this, and he concludes that developers would have to pay about $60 per square foot to the city to meet that standard. Over the 20 years slated for the Market-Octavia project, the cost of meeting those affordability goals would reach $1.3 billion.

There’s another side to this too: A December 2006 study by Keyser Marston Associates, prepared for the Planning Department, shows that every 100 new market-rate condo units built in San Francisco creates an additional demand for 25 new affordable units. Why? The new wealthy residents spend money on goods and services (from restaurants to laundry) that create much lower-paying jobs. Those workers need a place to live too — or they wind up commuting from the far suburbs, placing additional pressure on transportation systems and undermining efforts at building an environmentally sustainable community.

Part of the Market-Octavia plan includes new retail outlets. Where will those workers live?

Welch, the neighborhood groups, and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who is spearheading the drive for more affordable housing, agree that it’s probably unrealistic to force developers to pay $60 a square foot. But they also agree that the plan on the table today does little to meet the needs of the community or the city as a whole. They’re proposing a very modest new fee of $10 a square foot — money the developers can absolutely afford — to help the city meet a small portion of the affordability burden.

That supervisors need to approve that fee. Without it, the plan is a farce.

•<\!s>Parking and transportation. This is supposed to be a transit-first plan, and in the early drafts it was. Now, at the final stages, the Planning Department has changed it to add a lot more parking.

That creates two problems: Obviously, it encourages car use (and makes it more likely that the units will be sold to commuters who see San Francisco as a bedroom community). It also drives up the price of housing: building garage space for cars can add as much as $150,000 per unit to the construction costs — and frankly, condos with parking cost more than condos without parking.

In a lot of neighborhood development battles, the current residents are the ones demanding more off-street parking. In this case, the neighborhood groups totally get it: they have asked that parking be strictly limited, with only one parking space allowed for every four units in some areas (and as much as three spaces for every four units under some conditions in other areas). The Planning Commission wants much more parking — in fact, the department’s proposal would allow one space for every two-bedroom unit. That’s supposed to help families — but in many cases, those second bedrooms will become home offices for the wealthy, who will drive their cars to work.

That makes no economic or political sense. (In fact, less than half the housing units in the neighborhood today have off-street parking.) The supervisors should go with the neighborhood option.

The board also needs to mandate that the actual public transit infrastructure that’s needed gets built out as the new housing is constructed.

<\!s>Street-level environmental impacts. The plan envisions 400-foot residential towers in the area closer to Van Ness and Market — and that part of town already has serious problems with high-rise-driven wind gusts. The federal government had a chance to build its new office building at 10th and Market streets, but refused the site because its wind studies showed the gusts would actually be a physical hazard to people walking to the building. The city needs to do a real study of how shadows and wind affect people on the street before it approves any more high-rises.

<\!s>Jobs for the community. The plan needs to include written mandates that the developers offer construction jobs to local residents, particularly to unemployed San Franciscans in the eastern neighborhoods. This is the sort of thing that project sponsors always promise and rarely deliver; it needs to be codified in law.

The Market-Octavia plan could be a tremendous success, a way to take land that was once in the shadow of a freeway and turn it into a thriving, sustainable community. But the supervisors first have to fix the mess that the Planning Department created by adopting Mirkarimi’s amendments — and if they can’t do that, this entire thing needs to be put on hold and rewritten.

Tooth and consequences


› culture@sfbg.com

It’s two days after Christmas and I’m sprawled out on a plastic-lined chaise lounge, sipping fluoride and waiting for the blood to stop gushing from my gums so the doctors can get back to work. Beyond the noise of drills and X-ray machines I hear grunts from several other patients and the sounds of merchants outside hawking sombreros, sweetbread, bootleg Fendi bags, and pottery. Kind of strange, but I’m not worried anymore. This is my second day at Dr. Rafael Lopez’s dental clinic, and I’m no longer freaked out that it’s nestled among trinket stores and cantinas in a bustling bazaar in Mexico.

I also don’t care that the dentists here speak hardly any English, nor I any Spanish. I mean, it’s not like I’m alone. All the other patients at Dr. Lopez’s office are either Canadian or American, and all the people shopping out front are too. In fact, nearly every person I’ve met on the streets here is Caucasian and an English speaker. We’re all dental tourists, and we’ve come to Los Algodones — a sunny border town near Yuma, Arizona, which allegedly has more dental clinics and pharmacies per block than any other city in the world — to save money. In my case, I’m in for three root canals with posts and crowns for the price of a secondhand scooter on eBay: $1,850, about a third of what I’d pay for the same procedures in the States.

I’d heard about Dr. Lopez’s clinic through a friend of my mother’s, but Los Algodones, like other dental tourism destinations, was easy to find on the Web. In fact, the town’s Web site, www.losalgodones.com, is actually a dental clinic referral network, with pictures of smiling clinicians and graphic before and after shots flashing across its home page. Clinics like Dr. Lopez’s, which often handle 10 to 20 patients a day, are set up exclusively for foreigners. Dr. Lopez estimates that 80 percent of his customers are American and 20 percent are Canadian; most Mexicans in the area can’t afford his rates. Many of them come to towns like this for big-ticket procedures like bridges and reconstructive surgery, some of which can cost more than $10,000 at home.

And they’re coming in increasing numbers. According to HealthCare Tourism International, a nonprofit accreditation and information organization set up to monitor the medical tourism boom, an estimated 1 million Americans will travel abroad this year for some of sort of medical service, up from the National Coalition on Health Care’s figure of about 150,000 in 2004. Of the procedures sought, 40 percent will be dental related. A recent article in the New York Times on the dental tourism phenomenon cited a boom in luxury travel packages designed around dental procedures. A root canal followed by a little fly-fishing in Costa Rica? Why not? The money you save can justify a short vacation.


Dr. Lopez’s clinic is, hopefully, the end of the road for me. I’ve been struggling with dental problems (and the potential resulting bills) for years. With all this talk of health care reform, you’d think I would have been able to find a decent low-cost US dentist, especially in civic-minded San Francisco. But it just wasn’t happening. For whatever reason, dental care and health care are viewed as two separate issues in the United States. When it comes to diseases, colds, and broken bones, you can usually catch a break, but good luck trying to get your teeth fixed on a budget. The truth is, even if you have some form of dental insurance, which is unlikely — according to the American Dental Association (ADA), only about half of all Americans do — dental care is nearly impossible for average wage earners to afford. At least, I’ve never been able to afford it. And I’ve looked everywhere.

My own dental horror story began nearly a decade ago when the Marine Corps kicked me off my retired father’s lifelong dental plan. I was fine for about a year, until the day I awoke with a terrible pain in my mouth. I was 19 at the time, taking classes at a community college and working at a café — barely able to pay rent, let alone find the time and money for a visit to the dentist. So I did the next best thing: simply ignored the pain, staving it off with copious amounts of ibuprofen when it got intense. The over-the-counter denial did the trick for almost two years, but I knew I would be forced to eventually bite the bullet, however softly.

And then it happened. My teeth started breaking. Not hurting, at least no more than usual, just breaking off — in huge, gray chunks.

This went on for years. By the time I was 25, four of my teeth had shattered and the rest seemed well on their way to doing the same. I adopted the diet of a five-month-old, unable to chew anything tougher than bananas or scrambled eggs. It was time to act, but I had no idea where to go. As a full-time student, getting by on financial aid, loans, and whatever I could rake in as a part-time waiter, I was nearly destitute. I’d recently transferred to San Francisco State University, but at that time, in order to purchase the student dental plan the school offered, I also had to purchase its medical plan, a combination that would have increased my monthly bills by nearly $200.

It was tempting, particularly in comparison with most employer-related or individual plans I qualified for, which could run into the thousands. But SFSU’s dental plan screened out existing problems, like the trainwreck I had going on, and carried an annual cap of less than $1,000. (Unlike medical insurance plans, which feature deductibles, most dental plans have annual monetary ceilings.) So even with the plan I would still be unable to afford even a fraction of the work I needed to have done. Since my student days, SFSU has implemented a dental-only plan available to undergrads, but often the limits are too low to cover anything other than cleanings and fillings.

Thus I began my search for a pro bono dentist, figuring that with all the uninsured people living in the city there must be someone around. It quickly became clear, however, that scoring free dental is harder than finding a decent vegetarian restaurant in rural Alabama.


First, I had a glimmer of hope: a medical and dental clinic in Berkeley that had the word free in its name.

The Berkeley Free Clinic (BFC) has been offering free medical and dental care to the hard-up since 1969. It provides free HIV tests, medicine, preventative education, and more. But I needed dental work — and that was another story. As the only clinic in Northern California offering free fillings, extractions, and referrals to discount dentists, BFC is insanely popular. And since it’s run by volunteers and donors, it’s also chronically understaffed. Jessica Hsieh, a clinic coordinator, explained that the facility does as much as it can with limited resources. "We used to take patients on a first-come, first-served basis," she says. "But there were so many people lined up every night that our waiting room and hallway became fire hazards."

To deal with this problems, the clinic has devised a maddening selection system, which includes spotty business hours and a name-in-the-hat-style lottery. It sounded a little sketchy, but I gave it a go.

After making the 45-minute commute from my home, I arrived at the clinic at exactly 5:30 on a Monday evening. I scribbled my name on a small slip of paper, handed it to the receptionist, and took a seat in a waiting room crowded with students, broke workers, and homeless people. A nurse came out and told everyone to sit tight; the dentists were taking our names into a separate room and she’d return soon with their random choices. Ten minutes later, she came out again, read off three names, and then told everyone else to go home.

The room had been quiet as we all waited to see who’d won, but when a young blond girl with designer jeans and a fancy cell phone rose to claim her prize, the atmosphere became tense.

"That’s fucking bullshit," said a man with dirt on his face and ripped boots. "I’ve been coming here for weeks. This is her first fucking time!"

One of the dentists apologized and reminded us that we were welcome to keep trying as many times as we liked. I took his advice and returned three more times, missing a day of study or work for every fruitless visit until I gave up. One of my teeth in the back had started aching like hell, and I couldn’t stomach the wait any longer.

I broadened my search to include dental schools like that at the University of California San Francisco, where the wait times were rumored to be long, but once on the list, getting work done was guaranteed. After talking to students at the UCSF clinic, though, I realized treatment would require several days off from work and school because each step a student made during surgery would have to be approved by a busy professor and analyzed by other students. And the discount wasn’t exactly phenomenal.

The average cost of a single complete root canal procedure (root canal, post, and crown) at UCSF is more than $1,100, almost twice the amount I wound up paying in Mexico and way more than I could afford at the time.

So I scrapped the dental-school idea and dug deeper, figuring that if I couldn’t find free or cheap dental work, I could at least find a place that offered a payment plan. And I did find such a place.

Western Dental is like the McDonald’s of dental clinics. With multiple locations in almost every city in California, it’s effectively cornered the market on affordable dental work. Only it’s not cheap. A complete root canal procedure on one tooth can cost up to $1,590 — a lot less than a regular dentist, but much more than a dental school and about three times as much as Dr. Lopez charged me in Mexico. People flock to Western Dental because it lets you pay off your dental work like you would a car. You plunk down $99 for a yearlong membership, make a 20 to 30 percent down payment, and then pay the rest off monthly over the course of one year. And Western Dental doesn’t take your credit history into account when working out a plan.

Out of desperation, I eventually did get one of my teeth fixed at the Mission and 24th Street location, and wound up paying a $350 deposit and monthly installments of $110 for the next 12 months.


With my most painful tooth taken care of, I could now focus on finding a better deal, which is how I wound up in Mexico. So far it seems to have been a pretty smart decision. My new teeth look great and they’re holding up fine. I was treated extremely well by Dr. Lopez’s staff. But there are many reasons not go to Mexico for cheap dental work. And Brad Hatfield, a Korean War vet and retired city planner from Arizona City who asked that I not use his real name, knows them all.

Hatfield has been making the three-hour trip to Los Algodones for nearly a decade. He’s seen the town evolve from a haven for cheap trinkets and booze into what it is now: a medical resort for Americans with expensive tooth and eye issues. Hatfield started going to Los Algodones when he realized that even with his insurance he’d never be able to afford necessary dental work. But now, many years and thousands of dollars later, he’s learned his lesson.

"The problem with dentistry in Mexico," says Hatfield, "is that there’s no recourse. If something bad happens, you can’t sue anyone. All you can do is ask for your money back." And that’s just what Hatfield did when he returned from Los Algodones recently and discovered that his new teeth were worthless. Indeed, he claims that almost none of the work he’s gotten in Mexico has held up longer than a year or so.

This last time was the worst. "As soon as I got home," says Hatfield, "my gums started hurting really bad and bleeding off and on." When he called his clinic to complain, they denied his request for a refund and invited him back for some discounted work instead. Hatfield went back, got the work done, and thought his problems were over. But a few days later he realized they weren’t. "I was sitting here eating a piece of chocolate, and all of a sudden I realized I was chewing on two of my teeth and the bridge that was connecting them. All the work they had done had just fallen out."

Hatfield has tried repeatedly to get his dentist to refund his money back, but all he gets in response are invitations to return for more work. "Now they want to just rip all my teeth out and give me a full set of implants. It’s going to cost thousands of dollars on top of the $10,000 I’ve already spent there over the past year."

Hatfield is currently trying to get his problems fixed at a dental college in Mesa, Arizona, but he’s facing steeper prices and will probably have to return to Mexico soon. "My dental and medical problems have ruined me as a person," he says. "I can’t get a job because my teeth are so screwed up, and I can’t think through all this pain. I just don’t understand why dental work is so expensive. It’s much worse than medical."


Hatfield brings up a good point. For some reason dental issues aren’t included in national or local debates about health care. Healthy San Francisco, the universal, citywide health care access program operated by the San Francisco Department of Public Health, doesn’t cover access to dental services, which were never even considered for inclusion. When reached by the Guardian for comment on this exclusion, SFDPH spokesperson Eileen Shields stressed the difference between the city’s program and regular insurance plans, saying "[Healthy San Francisco] is a health access plan, providing access to basic medical care. I mean, my health plan doesn’t even include dental — does yours?"

Denti-Cal, the state dental insurance program offered as part of Medi-Cal, is an option for California residents with a low income, a social security number, and at least one child. But it obviously doesn’t help the throngs who fill the waiting rooms of Western Dental. San Francisco General Hospital keeps an oral surgeon on call for extreme emergencies but if you want your janked-out teeth replaced or aren’t doubled over in chronic pain, SF General can’t help you.

It doesn’t look like any of this is changing soon. None of the candidates running for president this year has announced a platform that specifically deals with the high cost of dental care in America. Why? Why are medical and dental issues treated as two separate entities? And why is it so hard to afford dental treatment even with insurance?

Hsieh of the BFC thinks it may have to do with the fact that dental issues aren’t thought to be as life-threatening as medical issues. But if an infected tooth is left untreated, it can lead to death just as surely as unchecked pneumonia. On its Web site, the ADA acknowledges the high cost of dental insurance but privileges prevention over treatment, claiming that most dental problems are preventable. If Americans would just take care of their teeth, use their paltry insurance plans for routine checkups, and quit eating so much candy, they wouldn’t have to get root canals. But I brush after meals, floss regularly, and stay away from sweets — and I’ve been in and out of dental clinics with major problems since I was five.

Another theory has to do with the high costs of dental school and specialized equipment, which makes sense. But the truth of the matter, commonly pointed out in the ongoing health care debate, is that mixing profit with patients is a recipe for disaster. As long as insurance companies are able to make billions by fleecing their customers, and as long as dental clinics and drug companies are allowed to set their own prices, the general population is going to be cavity ridden and kind of ugly.

For now, it seems dental tourism may be the best option for people with normal-to-low incomes and chronic problems. Two months after my visit to Mexico, my teeth feel much better and I’m back on solid food. But this kind of travel isn’t for the fainthearted. The weather and food in Los Algodones are great. But getting your teeth ripped out and reconstructed in a foreign country with no legal recourse is dangerous and scary, especially during the high-traffic winter season when the tendency to rush through patients escalates.

My triple root canal, for example, took a mere two visits. The doctors hacked away for 10 hours straight, let me heal for one day, and then stuck on the crowns and pocketed my check. I stumbled out of Dr. Lopez’s office a few days before New Year’s, in a Novocain-induced daze, with blood on my shirt and pieces of rubber molding stuck to my cheeks. My jaws and head ached as I shuffled through the mile-long border-crossing corridor, sweating and dry-heaving.

As I approached the checkpoint, I wondered if I had made the right choice.

Then I remembered that I hadn’t actually made one. It was this or nothing.

Emma Lierley contributed to this report.

>>View a video interview with a Canadian dental tourist

Noise Pop 2008