Volume 43 Number 32

Editor’s Notes



The first time the Guardian made an issue of the role small businesses play in the local economy, official San Francisco freaked out.

It was 1985, and only a handful of people were talking about sustainable local economies, about the connection between environmentalism and community-based economics, about how malls and chains stores were ruining America, and how spending money locally would create more jobs, with less waste of energy, than shopping at Wal-Mart or Home Depot.

The Guardian hired MIT economist David Birch to produce a study on job generation in San Francisco. His conclusion: small, locally-owned, independent businesses generated the vast majority of jobs in San Francisco. That directly contradicted the fundamental thesis driving city planning at the time; the planners and the mayor (Dianne Feinstein) argued that high-rise office development was the city’s prime source of new jobs.

The day the study came out, the city planning director (Dean Macris) called in his senior staff and directed them to work all weekend poring over our study and trying to figure out how to discredit it. Feinstein ignored us. The supervisors continued to allow high-rises to sprout, damaging small business and the local economy. The Chamber of Commerce was so disdainful of small business that a group of Fisherman’s Wharf merchants quit in disgust.

Today that battle is over. Done. The argument isn’t even an argument anymore. Everyone, from Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Chamber on down, agrees that locally-owned businesses are the lifeblood of the San Francisco economy. The mayor goes around urging people to "shop local."

But as we suggest in this special issue on San Francisco small business, the city itself isn’t doing such a great job at that. In fact, the public sector in general has been trained for so long to do business with the lowest bidder that the role a major institution like the city and county of San Francisco can play in boosting the local economy has gotten lost.

A 2007 study sponsored by the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance shows that if local residents shifted just 10 percent of their purchases from big chains to local businesses, the city’s economy would pick up $200 million and 1,300 new jobs a year. Imagine if City Hall, BART, state agencies, the school district — every public sector agency in this city — did the same. *

Making sunshine work


EDITORIAL The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force and the Ethics Commission are talking to each other, which is some small progress on one of the most annoying lingering issues in San Francisco. But the joint meeting last week, while positive in tone, didn’t solve the basic problem.

Under the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, the task force investigates complaints about city agencies improperly withholding records or meeting in secret. If the task force members find that there’s been a violation — and that the matter is serious enough to merit enforcement action against the city officials involved — the file is forwarded to Ethics, which can charge elected and appointed officials with misconduct.

But that never happens.

Fourteen times the task force has asked Ethics for action, and 14 times those cases have been dismissed — with little serious investigation. In fact, at the April 24 meeting, John St. Croix, the executive director of Ethics, admitted that his staff doesn’t always interview the complainants in these cases. Instead, Ethics asks the respondent for his or her side, and relies heavily on the advice of the city attorney.

That’s a problem in itself, because sometimes City Attorney Dennis Herrera will advise a department to keep something secret when the task force — which has its own lawyer, also from the City Attorney’s Office — disagrees. And in some cases it’s very clear that city officials have willfully ignored, defied, or sought to circumvent the open-government law.

Mayor Newsom, for example, refuses to release his full appointments calendar, which would show the public whom he’s meeting with — a key way for San Franciscans to understand who is influencing, and seeking to influence, city policy. The New York Times just published a detailed investigative report on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s ties to Wall Street financiers, basing the story in significant part on a review of Geithner’s appointment calendars. The New York City Federal Reserve Bank — a secretive institution if ever there was one — released the calendars of Geithner’s appointments when he was bank president. Newsom can certainly do the same, and the law requires him to. But he simply ignores that mandate.

The district attorney also has the authority to enforce the law, but has never filed a single sunshine violation case.

The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance is supposed to be the best and most comprehensive law in the state ensuring public access to government activities. But it’s rendered almost meaningless when city officials can defy it, routinely, and suffer no consequences.

The current enforcement system is simply not working. The supervisors should hold hearings on this with the goal of placing a charter amendment on the ballot giving the task force the independent authority to order documents released and adopting a more effective way to sanction officials who disregard the law. The task force should also have the right to take cases directly to the Ethics commissioners and prosecute them in public before the full commission. It’s the biggest open government issue in the city right now. Which supe wants to take it on? *

CJC just criminalizes the poor


OPINION Two SF police officers stood; another was in the car at the curb, door ajar, lights flashing onto the sidewalk. It was 3:00 p.m. and the lights, the three police officers, and the squad car were all focused on one small man huddled next to a shopping cart and a torn Hefty bag, shining steel handcuffs glittering off his deep brown wrists. The man said nothing as they arrested him. His "crime": sitting, standing, sleeping while houseless in San Francisco.

It’s illegal to be houseless in the United States. In fact, arguably it’s illegal to be poor in a nation that has somehow equated urban messiness with the presence of youth, adults, and elders sitting, standing, and convening in public and cleanliness with emptiness and the lack of people, color, and things. Since the new $2.7 million Community Justice Center (CJC) — a.k.a. the poverty court — opened in San Francisco, police have been out in droves drumming up customers.

There are so many wrong things about the CJC, beginning with criminalizing people in poverty just for being poor. As a poverty scholar and formerly houseless child and young adult who was incarcerated for the sole act of living without a home, I can say for a fact: it didn’t matter how many times you arrested me or my Boricua houseless mama — it didn’t take us out of homelessness. In fact, it made our situation more compounded, more complicated, more intractable.

The city is grappling with a $350 million budget deficit — it has been cutting back and closing vital emergency services for houseless people, like the Tenderloin Resource Center (TARC) and Caduceus, for example, which does truly revolutionary work with houseless folks who struggle with a psychological disability.

But I think one of the most terrifying aspects of the CJC is the institutionalization of a new form of criminalized service provision. This stems from the idea that the delivery of services, advocacy, mental health, physical health, and housing are somehow more urgently needed, deserved, or valid if they are triggered by arrest and adjudication.

At the hour of 3:00 p.m., near the corner of Hyde and Larkin streets, the system was triggered by Richie, a 56-year-old who used to hold down a construction job until he was laid off. Arresting him didn’t get Richie a job. The CJC didn’t get Richie a job. But, the folks there would argue, they referred him to job training and a temporary shelter bed. And guess what? Other organizations that didn’t arrest Richie also referred him to job training and a temporary shelter bed.

My mother and I didn’t get affordable housing, mental health services, or access to free child-care for my infant son because I was arrested.

Acts of revolutionary legal advocacy, art, support networks, and political awareness, like the ones I learned through the Suitcase Clinic, POOR Magazine, WRAP, the Coalition on Homelessness, and People Organized to Win Employment Rights, were what took me out of the sorrow and desperation and depth of struggle of poverty.

Criminalization, arrest, and adjudication of people in poverty really accomplishes only one thing: it brings the prison industrial complex to a neighborhood near you. *

Tiny a.k.a. Lisa Gray-Garcia is the author of Criminal of Poverty: Growing up Homeless in America and the cofounder of POOR Magazine/PoorNewsNetwork.

Appetite 5-10