Volume 44 Number 23
I have always had an interest in inserting thin objects into my urethra, and now manage a large-diameter pencil. It really feels thrilling, and depending on the mood, I tend to orgasm. My question is: how much can the urethra in a woman stretch? I have also inserted the same into my cervix; are there dangers in either?
There is no question that the urethra, or at least its surrounding tissue, is sexually sensitive. Ernest Gräfenburg’s orginal break-out paper was called "The Role Of Urethra in Female Orgasm" and figured the locus of internal vaginal sensitivity (later called the G-spot) to be the area of nerve-rich erectile tissue wedged between the urethra and the upper wall of the vagina. You stimulate the paraurethral area though the vagina. There’s no reason it shouldn’t work from the other direction. Except for that pesky business about the vagina being thickly muscled, tough, flexible, and dead-ended, while the urethra is relatively inflexible and fragile and leads directly into the bladder, which leads to the kidneys, which you do not want to mess with. But assuming you are real and really female, you have already done this and lived to tell. Yay for you. Your job now is either to quit it (recommended) or find a very clean and safe way to do it.
I was intrigued to hear from a physician (this was 10 or so years back, but not, like, 40 years back) that little girls are routinely brought to emergency departments with hairpins in their urethras. Let’s say that "hairpin" was just shorthand for "small, easily accessible, and inappropriate random object" and consider why it’s a bad idea: small things get lost; easily accessible random objects are dirty; and small, dirty objects loose in your urinary tract will cause infection and may cause perforations. Either way, you would end up in the ER. The only appropriate object for urethral insertion is a urethral sound, or something as smooth, appropriately sized, long-handled, and sterilizable as a urethral sound. Does any of that say "Use a pencil!" to you?
As for the cervical insertion: I will admit that it ought to be technically possible. The cervix, even in a woman who’s never been pregnant, is closed-ish but not entirely closed, and it waxeth and waneth like the moon. You do hear of people doing cervix "play" or see pictures of such things on the Internet. But that does not mean you should do it.
For one thing, there’s pain. If you have never had a baby or a miscarriage (I have had both, and may I add OMG) or really horrible menstrual cramps, you have no idea how much having your uterus cranked open hurts. That muscular organ, inevitably referred to as "fist-sized," is usually clenched down tight, and for a reason. Anything introduced in there can perforate, causing peritonitis and possible death, or just plain infect, causing peritonitis and possible death. If you do not want to risk peritonitis and possible death, please just leave your cervix alone. It has a job to do and does not need you interfering with it.
See Andrea’s other column at carnalnation.com.
TV EYED Still stuck on Lost? Executive producers Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse are counting on it, and it’s about half-past the time to finally wrap it up, because the time-travel device and the many dead people who flitted around the island were starting to make it seem like very little was at stake. The revelation that the Lost crash survivors appeared to simply be chess pieces in a cosmic bout between the blonde, sad-eyed, and benevolent-seeming Jacob (Mark Pellegrino) who intercedes in the islanders’ destinies and his murderous-minded Smoke Monster/Man in Black/anti-Locke nemeses (played by Titus Welliver and Terry O’Quinn) didn’t help matters either
So despite the attractions of brawls between Sayid (Naveen Andrews) and Dogen (Hiroyuki Sanada); the dryly smart-ass, geek charm of the intuitively gifted Hurley (Jorge Garcia) sparring with the telepathically talented Miles (Ken Leung); the promise of seeing killed-off faves like physicist Daniel Faraday (Jeremy Davies) and rock star Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) again; and the weird mixed personal pleasure of seeing Oahu haunts standing in for, say, downtown South Korea (an effect that usually jars my Honolulu-bred self straight out of the story) I must confess that the most intriguing and chilling character this season is Claire (Emilie de Ravin). She gave birth on the island to a son who, an Aussie psychic prophesied, was surrounded by danger. She then becomes the focus of the latest rescue mission embarked upon by Kate (Evangeline Lilly), who has a thing for saving moms.
Bestowed with a name that seems diametrically opposed to the smoky obfuscation veiling Lost, Claire also embodies the cyclical patterns of the island. She’s "gone native" in the madly violent, Col. Kurtz-style survivalist swagger of the French woman Rousseau (Mira Furlan), who also gave birth on the island and, after the disappearance of her baby, likewise took leave of her senses. Claire’s ax murder of a captive Other truly shocked: both in its prime-time bloodlessness the death of Boone (Ian Somerhalder) was gorier and uncharacteristic cold-bloodedness. We’re not in the Kansas of the guileless, sweet-faced single mom anymore.
Claire also embodies more than a few of the themes critical to Lost survivors: she has a missing-daddy issue, much like the father-challenged Jack (Matthew Fox), Locke, Hurley hell, who doesn’t have problems with Pops on this show? Much like Jin (Daniel Dae Kim) and Sayid, she was also an abduction victim, and she’s in the thick of the current crisis between good and evil. Despite Lost‘s references to dharma and Ram Dass, this battle between the island god-titans seems to be disappointingly flattened into a kind of Judeo-Christian light vs. dark, do-gooders vs. sinners sort of dichotomy. Claire upsets that tidy apple cart as the little nut-bag lost who is locked into a deal with the gloom and doom team.
SONIC REDUCER How to reconcile an ultra-catchy, hooligan-cozy chorus like “These girls fall like dominos!” with the unpretentious, Dennis Cooper-idolizing music lover who dreamed it up — namely Milo Cordell of the rosily buzzing U.K. outfit the Big Pink?
It helps to have a little distance from your unreliable narrator, according to Cordell, son of producer Denny Cordell (the Moody Blues, Procol Harum, Joe Cocker). “I kind of see it, in a way, as kind of dumb and quite crass and slightly throwaway, really. But it’s got this bubblegum sugar-coated layer on it, though underneath it’s pretty dark,” says Cordell matter-of-factly of “Dominos,” while tucking into dinner at a Turkish restaurant in his Dalton hood in London. The unpretentious keyboardist’s home “twiddling his thumbs,” waiting for a replacement for a lost passport while the rest of the band tours Australia.
“The whole subject matter is about the weakness of man, really, and then it’s made to be quite jubilant. I think it’s throws a lot of people people who think it could be misogynistic, but I think it’s quite honest.”
At least a few critical people understand: he recently e-mailed Carly Simon to get permission for a version of “Dominos” that the Big Pink put together for NME, which included a portion of “You’re So Vain,” sung by Lily Allen, in its bleak candy center. Fortunately, Simon got it. “I get a bit freaked out about it sometimes,” Cordell confessed. “That people will get it all wrong.”
Tossed-off one-night stands, MDMA massives (“Crystal Visions”), late nights spent battling back that fiery orb (“At War With the Sun”), youthful rebellion (“Too Young to Love”), and Dennis Cooper-style entanglements (“Frisk”) crop up, judgement or no, on the Big Pink’s debut, A Brief History of Love (4AD). The disc’s big hooks, up-close ruminations, and ear-teasing sounds, ranging from the 8-bitty to the Congotronic, are defined as poppier and punchier than, say, Crystal Castles, whose early recording Cordell released on his Merok label — a smudgy amalgam of “digital Velvet Underground” mixed with “Timberland and Ministry,” as he puts it.
“I think at the moment there’s a lot of bands that are bored by every other band in England,” he offers, when asked about the clouds of noise and experimentation creeping into U.K. rock. “Every other band trying same licks, all these shit bands referencing the Kinks and Beatles, which is all fair enough, but there’s so many of them! You flip through NME, and it’s the same band on every page, wearing the same checkered shirt. There’s a bunch of people who are bored by that and are creating their own sonic atmospheres. Whether it’s the Klaxons or the xx — there’s something similar between all of us because perhaps we don’t want to sound like the Kooks.”
Cordell started the project with his teenage friend and vocalist-guitarist Robbie Furze after tinkering in Furze’s studio one day. “We both had come out of relationships and were a bit lost,” recalls Cordell, “and I think we kind of found each other and found something to do as well. We filled a void of a lover with each other and making music.” Furze also supplied Cordell with one major revelation: “‘You don’t have to be a musician to make music,’ he said. ‘You’ve got an amazing ear.’ He knew all the bands I worked with [via Merok, like Titus Andronicus]. We started playing around with noise through pedals, chopping it up and layering sound.”
And as for the band name, Cordell explains, “We probably couldn’t be further apart from the Band in terms of musical styles, but there’s a certain ideology we share with them: knuckling down and having a good time on tour, the sense of grandeur and being slightly phallic-like.”
Or a vulvic, I add. “I never even thought of it as female privates till somebody said it a few months ago,” he marvels. “You just translate it as you translate it. I think it’s great. I bet Oasis doesn’t get asked that much about their name.”
THE BIG PINK
Wed/10, 8 p.m., $17
Great American Music Hall
859 O’Farrell, SF
GUNSLINGERS AND BEACHES
Bloody digits mark the the French three’s darkabilly creations, and the all-girl latter’s promise souped-up garage psych. Fri/12, 9:30 p.m., $7. Hemlock Tavern, 1131 Polk, SF. www.hemlocktavern.com
SURF CITY AND THE ART MUSEUMS
The Kiwis blend the Flying Nun swirl of the Clean with riptide licks, whereas Glenn Donaldson’s lo-fi jangle rumbles off a new Woodsist release. Sun/14, 8 p.m., $10. Rickshaw Stop, 155 Fell, SF. www.rickshawstop.com
MUSIC I am a Judaism junkie. I love Fiddler on the Roof. I read Heeb magazine online. And I collect Jewish puns the way Midwest moms used to collect Beanie Babies. But until recently, I knew shockingly little about Jewish music. Turns out the term doesn’t just refer to music made by Jews (sorry, Beastie Boys), nor is it limited to songs sung in synagogue. Even the broad genre of klezmer music is just one facet of an ancient and dynamic musical tradition that mixes the theme of Jewish experience with Jewish languages like Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), and Judeo-Arabic dialects, all translated through crosscultural musical tropes. And just as the Jewish experience continues to grow and change, so does the music associated with it.
It is this ongoing genre-bending cultural conversation that the 25th edition of Berkeley’s Jewish Music Festival, hosted by the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay, will honor. “This year, we’re focusing on that dialogue between the sacred and the secular,” said director Eleanor Shapiro. “The idea was music that’s revelation as well as revelry.”
The program starts with sacred Jewish and Muslim music from the Middle East, performed by the award-winning Yuval Ron Ensemble (whose founder and namesake, incidentally, won an Oscar for the score of the comedy short West Bank Story). Next up is a free concert for Jewish sacred music that can be sung during the Sabbath and on Passover (which starts several days later).
The lineup takes a contemporary turn with the American premiere of Diaspora Redux, a jazzy, avant-garde project created by top musicians from New York, Berlin, and Buenos Aires, and featuring members of Klezmer Buenos Aires, who were a hit at the 2007 festival and will perform as a duet during a special Monday matinee. Sunday sees the West Coast premiere of Saints and Tzadik, a collaboration between Grammy-winning Celtic singer Susan McKeown and Klezmatics alum Lorin Sklamberg.
As if that isn’t enough, four of the festival’s musicians will host a four-hour master class for seasoned musicians. And, for the first time, the festival will return for one day in July for a free, outdoor concert featuring local Jewish music talent and a new work from award-winning composer Dan Plonsey exploring the theme of becoming an adult.
Shapiro says the intention of the festival has always been twofold: entertainment and education. With that in mind, JCC East Bay will host a pre-festival roundtable of expert scholars to discuss the Jewish musical revival on March 14, a discussion that won’t be necessary to enjoy the coming concerts but will “help frame the music with a historic background.” Shapiro is particularly proud to present a full festival of music that wouldn’t be heard many other places, given that Jewish music is often buried within the broad genre of roots or world music.
But with such an eclectic lineup, it might be hard for Jewish music novices like me to know where to start or what to prioritize. Shapiro’s advice? “If you’re spiritually-oriented, come to Yuval Ron. If jazz-oriented, come to Diaspora Redux. If you like folk, come to Saints and Tzadiks. If you play the accordion or piano, don’t miss Klezmer Buenos Aires. And if you have kids, try the matinee on Monday.”
Me? I’ll do my best to go to all of ’em, especially the event in July, which will feature an instrument petting zoo. I’m also going to bring all my gentile sisters and goy boys along. After all, Shapiro says of Jewish music, “you don’t have to be Jewish to either do it or like it.”
JEWISH MUSIC FESTIVAL
March 14–29 and July 11
Multiple locations, including
Jewish Community Center of the East Bay
1414 Walnut, Berk.
LIT If you’ve been tracking the battle over San Francisco’s sanctuary ordinance, or you’re simply interested in the fight for immigration reform at the federal level, then check out Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America (Scribner, 400 pages, $27.99). Written by Helen Thorp, a journalist married to Denver mayor and Colorado gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper, Just Like Us is the true story of four young girls whom Thorp tracked for five years, starting with their senior year in high school.
“All had at least one parent who entered the country from Mexico without the right documentation,” Thorp says over the phone. “One was born here; one had a green card; and two didn’t have papers, so they were split down the middle on their legal status — through no fault of their own — but because of a situation they inherited.” This split led to differing experiences as all four girls came of age in the United States, even though all excelled in public high school.
“Two of them didn’t have the same opportunities, privileges, or even ways to pay for college as the two with papers had,” Thorp explains, noting that she changed the names of all four students to protect their identities. The main narrative of Thorp’s book sticks closely to the experiences of these four exemplary girls — including the political firestorm that broke out in Denver (and spread statewide) after an undocumented Denver resident committed a violent crime.
The echoes for San Francisco are obvious. The slaying in 2008 of three members of the Bologna family by the alleged killer Edwin Ramos, an immigrant who repeatedly passed through the city’s justice system as a juvenile, increased the heat in a political firestorm that had been crackling since the city passed its City of Refuge ordinance in 1989 and burst into flames in December 2007. That was when federal agents intercepted San Francisco probation officers at a Houston airport as they tried to repatriate Honduran teenagers by flying them home instead of reporting them for formal federal deportation.
In the Denver-based story Thorp recounts in Just Like Us, a young man who never had much schooling and was in Colorado without the necessary paperwork shot two police officers at a party, killing one. To add to the intrigue, the man was employed as a dishwasher at a restaurant owned in part by Thorp’s husband.
“It certainly was a heinous crime, since this young man shot two police officers in the back,” Thorp recalls. “Even the Mexican immigrant community was horrified, and no one rallied to his side. He was disrupting a baptismal party for a Mexican family in a popular social hall. He destroyed the celebration and he had a young daughter, who he essentially ended up abandoning, when he went to jail. He had lived in Los Angeles — that’s where he purchased the gun — and may have had gang ties. That, at least, was what was alleged at his sentencing. He shot the police officers because he felt one of them had insulted him and allegedly had mishandled him. His pride was wounded, but his response was so aggravated, there was no justification for it.”
As a result of this tragedy, which touched one of the high school students she was tracking, Thorp ended up becoming close to the widow of the police officer. “His family had an immigrant background, and he grew up in a Spanish-speaking family — though that was not reported in the media — and his widow’s mother was an immigrant from England who kept her green card and never became a citizen,” Thorp continues. “So the widow ended up having an incredibly nuanced point of view and would comment on what happened to her family with more grace and generosity than you would ever expect a human being to muster in those circumstances.”
Thorp feels that heated debates between advocates on opposing sides of the immigration equation is a result of what she calls “a collision of different beliefs.”
“We believe strongly that you are innocent until proven guilty, and we believe in the United States as a nation founded by immigrants. But we also believe in the value of law and order, so we don’t have a favorable view of illegal immigrants, and definitely not of illegal immigrants who commit crimes,” Thorp observes. She also noted that people tend to view juvenile immigrants in a kinder light: “They are morally in a different category than people who made the decision to come here without documents.”
But Thorp suggests that tackling immigration locally may be a losing proposition. “I understand why people want to tackle the subject at a local level since the federal government continues not to resolve the issue,” she says. “But you run into the fact that, peculiarly, this issue needs a federal solution even though we feel the impacts at the local level.” She believes the Obama administration needs to create reform that clarifies whether the feds are offering people a path to citizenship and that involves penalties for those who knowingly broke the law when they came here without papers,
“I understand that San Francisco is on the cutting edge of many things, but I can’t imagine that my husband, as mayor, would adopt a sanctuary policy in Denver,” she says. “And that’s because the concept of a sanctuary city in Colorado is only used by social conservatives with derision. The way ‘sanctuary city’ is used here signals a flagrant disrespect for law and order.”
That said, Thorp notes that the question of whether local police should become an arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and an enforcer of federal immigration laws has been debated, and that people generally agree that this is not the job of the local police. “Local police department budgets are exhausted simply by doing the other tasks we’ve given them. If you add to that locking up nonviolent offenders [accused of being here illegally], it would break the bank.”
LIT/VISUAL ART Yvan Rodic has to be one of the luckiest souls on the planet. He’d have to be to make my cynical ass fall in love with him. His new book Facehunter (Prestel, 320 pages, $24.95), a pastiche of photo book, style manual, travelogue and (hallelujah!) manifesto, has just the right combination of couture and subversion to earn a place on every cigarette- burned coffee table in the world.
"Globalization is a myth," he declares in his introduction. "The belief that international brands and pop culture are making the world a standardized society populated by clones is an old-skool science-fiction vision of the future, not the reality of the 21st century."
If anyone would know it is Rodic, who has traveled in nearly 30 countries, taking pictures of real people looking real fly for his blog, which eventually landed him as a contributor to Tokion, GQ, and Modette, which in turn got him a book deal with Prestel. Told you he was lucky. But luck, in this case, is only preparation meeting opportunity, because Rodic has an eye and a philosophy that is long overdue in the worlds of art, fashion and photography.
"Judging from the people I’ve met on my travels, it’s obvious that instead of talking about globalization, we should talk of ‘creole-ization,’" he says. Rodic calls this phenomenon of customizing identity from fragments of culture from different parts of world "New Creole Culture." I can think of another name for it …
Whether standing in front of the lush foliage of Turku or the stark grayness of a Manhattan winter, the clothes and the everyday people in Facehunter are beautiful. The mostly 20-something Nordic models within Rodic’s pictures are to be expected. He calls his peers "the iPod generation," and credits them for taking "this chameleon-like approach to fashion, exploring the many facets of their personalities with radically different looks, or customizing their individual styles with elements from different eras and cultures." John Galliano, Prince, Vivienne Westwood, Afrika Bambaataa, and myself cuff you on the ear for that one, young’un.
The real surprises in Facehunter come from Rodic’s more atypical models: the stout, the squat, the over 30. In these photos, I find the folks who really knew how to "work it" in the parlance of prêt-à-porter rabble-rousers. They bring a radical cohesion to the book’s overall aesthetic. People from cities as disparate as Sao Paulo, Singapore, and Warsaw have a shared sense of what is fashionable, transcending economics, geography, race, and gender an encouraging sign if there ever was one.
There are no labels mentioned in Facehunter, no designers, allowing the clothes to speak for themselves, and even better, allowing you to bite that style without it coming back to bite you in the ass. Rodic posits that the rise of the "New Creole Culture" encourages this.
"Trends are dead, baby!" my new favorite shutterbug announces. "Nietzsche’s exhortation ‘Become what you are’ is now a reality." I couldn’t have said it better myself.
FILM Fortuitous bookings bring two remarkable American films standing at the crossroads of avant-garde cinema and sensory ethnography to the Bay Area this week: Sweetgrass and Let Each One Go Where He May. Both works adapt effective strategies to work against the slide toward unexamined realism endemic to their troubled genres (the wildlife film and standard anthropological ethnography). First and foremost among them is a coherent program of intense artfulness. One can immediately point to Ernst Karel’s sound design (Sweetgrass) and Chris Fawcett’s 16mm Steadicam cinematography (Let Each One) as virtuoso performances opening the films to beauty and doubt, an unlikely ethnographic tandem.
Short descriptions are bound to fail these films’ experiential stakes, but here are the basic outlines. Recorded between 2001-03 by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, Sweetgrass immerses us in sheep farming before taking off after a pair of latter-day cowboys on a 150-mile drive through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth range — a journey with deep historical roots and no practical future. Let Each One Go Where He May‘s title refers to a Surinamese proverb in which the gods emancipate the native population from slavery. Ben Russell’s film unfolds as 13, 10-minute takes depicting two brothers (Benjen and Monie Pansa) retracing an ancestral slavery route toward a ritual site. As far as global capital is concerned, the nominal “remoteness” of both films’ locations (and the accompanying visual lexicon) is a mirage.
As Sweetgrass‘ rugged scenery beggars (but ultimately unseats) projections of the pastoral, so too do its mild sheep trigger myriad symbolic associations. But in the intensified apprehension of the animals themselves, which occasionally return the camera’s gaze and are heard like Zidane is seen in 2006’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, these abstractions are restored to the dualistic cradle John Berger pinpoints in his essay, “Why Look At Animals?”
Sweetgrass is finally about the relationship between farmhands and their flocks, and in this, it is notably unsentimental. During long takes of shearing and birthing, the correspondent displays of violence and tenderness, much of it erotic and seemingly reflexive, speaks to the human-animal encounter Berger eulogized in 1977. The lonesome cowboys whisper sweet nothings to the dogs and hurl fantastically mismatched streams of curses at the sheep (the absence of women being the common link). Through it all, Castaing-Taylor’s camera is an embodied presence, and hard work at that. Compared with Planet Earth‘s impossible views and spectacular displacements, Sweetgrass has its feet planted on the ground.
Russell also unwinds the notion of a comfortable vista of things as they were, though his long-take structure pushes the edge of hallucination. Russell’s history as a development worker in Suriname helps account for his film’s understanding of the way a sense of place is above all enactive, simultaneously engaging seemingly disparate stages of history, economy, and identity. Thus, Let Each One‘s modernist migration traverses a rural dwelling, country roads, urban bustle, an illegal goldmine, a mythic river, and a baffling reenactment of a clown-masked ritual dance — the ambiguity of whether it’s the brothers motivating the camera or vice versa is posed not as a riddle, but as a dance.
Let Each One‘s formal parameters make it a challenging viewing experience, especially given the paucity of explicatory titles or subtitled language. But then the fact that both filmmaking teams eschew exposition should be viewed in light of all those documentaries that are nothing but context. Even when necessary, these kinds of films tend to substantiate what we already know. Sweetgrass and Let Each One do something very different. In the hours after watching each, my own semi-urban environment seemed quite alien to me, but my feelings were more intact for it.
SWEETGRASS opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters
BEN RUSSELL: LET EACH ONE GO WHERE HE MAY
Fri/12, 7:30 p.m., $10
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
FILM Like only the very best filmmakers, 25-year-old Raya Martin knows that a movie screen in a theater is a site for waking dreams and also a window into forms of sleep. Martin’s first feature-length effort A Short Film About the Indionacional (2005) commenced with an extended foray into one woman’s nocturnal restlessness. His new and stunning work Independencia (2009) is sprinkled with stark sequences of characters lying down to fight or embrace their dream lives.
The second entry in a trilogy devoted to the history of the Philippines, Independencia takes place during the first American occupation, and is set and shot in a manner evocative of American studio films of the time. Its lush jungles are largely lensed in stunning black-and-white by Jeanne Lapoirie, and foliage commingles with painted backdrops. A young man (Sid Lucero) and his mother Allesandra De Rossi) flee to the forest when invasion by American troops is imminent. There, they encounter a young woman (Tetchie Agbayani) who has been raped by soldiers, and in time, the young man and woman raise a son born from colonialist violence.
If the forest domain and its invocation as a place of temporary respite and sensuality calls the films of Apichatpong Weerasethakul to mind, Martin is the first director who doesn’t come up entirely wanting in comparison to Apichatpong. This is partly because his use of these elements is distinct, and also because his recreation of early cinema techniques isn’t mere stylistic whimsy but a alluring, barbed form of commentary, a prodigious act of imagination in zones of erased or abandoned memory. At 78 minutes, Indepedencia‘s braiding of incident and interlude is light in feel and heavy in content in a manner that lingers within and teases the mind after viewing. As a writer (with Ramon Sarmiento) and director, Martin uncovers and reimagines the folk tales and myths buried beneath official histories. His feat, as his late friend Alexis Tioseco wrote, is akin to that of an inventive jazz musician. This movie’s siren call embodied by Lutgardo Lubad’s stark and lovely score is strong, and will remain for years to come.
Fri/12, 7 p.m.
Pacific Film Archive
Sun/14, 4:30 p.m.
Sundance Kabuki 5
City of Life and Death (Lu Chuan, China, 2009) There have been a number of recent works about the "rape of Nanking," but perhaps none tackles the brutal nature of Nanjing’s fall with as much beauty as City of Life and Death. Shot in striking black and white, the film depicts the invasion of China’s capital by Japanese forces from a number of points of view, including that of a Japanese soldier. It can be difficult at times to become emotionally attached to characters within such a restless narrative, but the structure goes a long way toward keeping the proceedings balanced. The stunningly elaborate sets and cinematography alone are worth the price of admission, and it’s amazing that such detail was achieved with a budge of less than $12 million. But it is the unflinching catalog of the some 300,000 murders and rapes that took place between 1937 and 1938 in Nanjing that will remain with you long after watching. (Peter Galvin) Fri/12, 6:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; Sat/13, 8 p.m., PFA.
The Forbidden Door (Joko Anwar, Indonesia, 2009) This year’s midnight screening at SFIAAFF is The Forbidden Door, a surreal genre throwback from Indonesia. It’s hard to describe exactly what this film is about beyond basic character descriptions it concerns Gambir, a sculptor of pregnant female figures and doormat for his friends and family. Less clear are matters like why Gambir inserts aborted babies into his sculptures, or the significance of his wife’s secret room in the basement. As inorganic as some of the plot points feel initially, the tangential nature of the film is leading somewhere. Joko Anwar has succeeded in shaking the loose and shaggy nature that plagued his 2007 breakthrough Dead Time, and The Forbidden Door is a sturdy showcase for the director’s ambition. His keen handle on the film’s eerie Jakartan atmosphere and his follow-though in the riveting, bloody climax should be enough to secure The Forbidden Door a place in cult cinema. Still, it’s ultimately apparent that the film’s standout moments are a sign that Anwar’s best work is yet to come. (Galvin) Fri/12, 11:59 p.m., Clay; March 19, 9:10 p.m., PFA; March 21, 7 p.m., Camera 12.
Aoki (Mike Cheng and Ben Wang, USA, 2009) This stirring, dynamic portrait of Black Panther Party founding member Richard Aoki makes use not only of historical footage from his rabble-rousing days, but also of blunt and hilarious speeches and interviews conducted during the last five years of his life (he died at last year at age 70). After being held in an internment camp during World War II, Aoki’s family returned to the Bay Area; soon, as he recalls, the teenage Aoki "got the reputation as the baddest Oriental to come out of West Oakland." He enlisted in the Army at 17, but became disenchanted with the military due to the Vietnam War. He was already well on his way toward becoming a radical when he befriended Huey Newton and Bobby Seale at Merritt College; post-Panthers, he remained an activist and charismatic community leader. Directors Mike Cheng and Ben Wang do an admirable job condensing such a full life into 90 educational, entertaining, and enlightening minutes. (Cheryl Eddy) Sat/13, 3:30 p.m., Viz; March 17, 9:30 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; March 20, 3 p.m., Camera 12.
A Moment in Time (Ruby Yang, USA, 2009) The decline of the filmgoing experience is one of the more depressing cinematic developments of the past decade. There was a time when going to the movies was a momentous event and it is this era that A Moment in Time captures, from the unique perspective of the residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Accompanied by great period footage and rare film clips, the doc features interviews with a number of local figures who were raised in a Chinatown that at one time had as many as five movie theaters. What began as a source of pride in the 1930s soon proved to have far-reaching effects in shaping the identities of those who grew up in the neighborhood. It’s appropriate that A Moment in Time (directed by Ruby Yang, who won an Oscar for her 2006 short doc, The Blood of Yingzhou District) is showing at a festival, perhaps the last of the true film-going experiences. (Galvin) Sat/13, 7 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; Tues/16, 5 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
The Oak Park Story (Valerie Soe, USA, 2010) The Oak Park Story is a nice piece of local interest, a document of the struggle by an Oakland apartment community to improve their living conditions. As a piece of film, Valerie Soe’s short film is a little rough around the edges, but it feels like such a deeply personal undertaking that it’s easy to get caught up in the lives of its deeply-bonded residents. At a scant 22 minutes, The Oak Park Story is the perfect length, and the gamut of emotions the filmmakers are able elicit in such a short amount of time is impressive. But should you find yourself interested in hearing more, just ask, since director Soe is expected to appear in person. The film screens with the feature-length Manilatown is in the Heart: Time Travels With Al Robles. (Galvin) Sun/14, 2 p.m., Sundance Kabuki; Mon/15, 7 p.m., Sundance Kabuki.
Lessons of the Blood (James T. Hong and Yin-Ju Chen, USA, 2010) The latest experimental work from sometimes San Francisco resident James T. Hong is his first feature-length documentary. It’s also his most accessible film to date, which is not to say that Hong’s unconventional style, bold opinions, and fascination with controversial subject matter have been dulled in the slightest. Codirected by Hong’s frequent collaborator (and wife) Yin-Ju Chen, Lessons of the Blood uses archival clips, old educational films, current interviews, and not a small amount of hidden-camera footage to explore the topic of revisionist history, specifically as it relates to Japanese cruelty in China circa World War II. Stark, artful visuals plus a grim travelogue’s worth of shots taken at significant sites, including Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin (once occupied by the Japanese), and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial contrast with a curious, furious tone. Lessons‘ lessons are harrowing, and unforgettable. (Eddy) Sun/14, 3 p.m., PFA; Tues/16, 7 p.m., Sundance Kabuki. *
The 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival runs March 1121 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Sundance Kabuki, 1881 Post, SF; Viz Cinema, 1746 Post, SF; Clay, 2261 Fillmore, SF; Pacific Film Archive, 2575 Bancroft, Berk.; and Camera 12 Cinemas, 201 South Second St., San Jose. Tickets (most shows $12) available at www.asianamericanmedia.org.
EVENTS Diarmuid Philpott, chairman of this year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade and president of the Irish United Societies, knows a thing or two about SF’s glorious Irish heritage, the holiday’s significant religious and cultural roots, and of course, where the party is for the upcoming week. “First of all, it’s a celebration of being Irish,” Philpott explains. “Everyone wants to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. And they are welcome to be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day!” So don that emerald green, and buckle down for a hooley of a time.
“GETTING THE JOB DONE: IRISH CITIZENS AND A LIFETIME OF CIVIL SERVICE”
What have the Irish ever done for you? Learn about their contributions to our city at this panel discussion, featuring local paddies from the public and private sectors and moderated by Tony Bucher of the Irish Herald. The event is part of the Irish Crossroads Festival, which celebrates the intersection of roots and modernity in Irish culture today.
Thur/11, 7 p.m., free
United Irish Cultural Center
2700 45th Ave. , SF
159TH ANNUAL ST. PATRICK’S DAY PARADE AND FESTIVAL
The largest celebration of Emerald Isle culture west of the Mississippi is taking over downtown this weekend — and you want in on the dancin’, pipin’ action. Afterward, head to the Civic Center street festival, featuring vendors, activities, a beer garden and Irish gypsy jazz group, the Doug Martin Avatar Ensemble.
Parade: Sat/13, 11:30 a.m. , free
Starts at 2nd St. and Harrison, SF
Festival: Sat/13 and Sun/14, 11 a m.-5 p.m., free
Civic Center Plaza, SF
ST. PATRICK’S DAY BLOCK PARTY
For a family-oriented celebration, jet down to the United Irish Cultural Center, which will be co-hosting this al fresco event with Java Beach. There’ll be food, drink, games for the kids, jumpy castles — and a zoo across the street if you really want to make a wee one’s day.
Sun/14, 11 a .m.- 4 p.m., free
45th Ave. (between Sloat and Wawona), SF
HARRINGTON’S BLOCK PARTY
Sure, we’re a city that doesn’t lack for a superlative Irish pub in which to celebrate St. Patty’s — Durty Nelly’s, the Plough and Stars, and the Chieftain come to mind — but Harrington’s joins with neighborhood businesses for a celebration right in the FiDi of it all, closing down the block for performances by Ben Hunter and Celtic Scandal, the Kennelly Irish dancers and big, steaming plates of corn beef and cabbage.
Wed/17, 11 a m-1 a m., free
245 Front, SF
Get a load of the reggae-laced tones of these Irish rebel rockers, who’ve got the street cred to back it up. Frontman Kevin Barry escaped from Belfast’s Long Kesh prison in the IRA’s 1983 “Great Escape.” They rock.
Wed/17, 8:30 p.m., free
1353 Grant, SF
FATHER YORKE DAY
A salute to a real hero. Father Yorke was a 19th century Irish revolutionary and labor activist. His service takes place each year here at All Saint’s — a sober end to a holiday season that can be anything but.
Sun/28, 10:30 p.m., free
All Saints’ Chapel Holy Cross Cemetery
1500 Mission, Colma
And though the Guinness be full of vitamin D and goodness, take ‘er easy — the real Irish celebrate responsibly. Berg Injury Lawyers are sponsoring the same free cab rides home on St. Patty’s that they do on New Year’s. Call Luxor Cabs at (415) 282-4141 for a lift in the city, or Veterans Cab at (415) 282-4141 for Oakland, Alameda, or Berkeley .
DINE How odd that the world’s best beef should come from Japan, a small island nation where pastureland is scarce and whose gastronomic renown largely has to do with the sea. Beef’s natural home is a big, flat place: the pampas of Argentina, say, or our own Great Plains. Throw in a few zillion acres of wheat — for the refined white flour whence come soft buns — and you have the culture of mass-produced, drive-through hamburgers that defines us. Given the powerful connection between the burger and the car, it’s a wonder that someone hasn’t yet closed the circle by putting tread marks on a burger: the Treadburger.
At 5A5, a next-generation steak house in the Barbary Coast, beef is treated as the delicacy it can be, and not surprisingly the restaurant’s tones and accents are Japanese and east Asian. Beef is a — pricey — delicacy in Japan, the Land of the Rising Sun but not the 32-ounce steak. The name refers to the wagyu beef the restaurant actually imports from Japan and sells for prices beginning at about $16 an ounce. On that scale, your 32-ounce steak would cost you … well, let’s say bailout money
But the 32-ounce steak represents life out of balance in a particularly American way — “koyaanisqatsi” is the Indian term and title of the 1982 movie — and 5A5 is all about a Zen-like equilibrium. The restaurant reposes in an unassuming brick building on a narrow, quiet street. Inside, the look is thoughtfully understated, with cream-colored, 1960s-looking chairs, nests of horseshoe banquettes, lots of open space (a witty hint at prairies?), and a ceiling of perforated concavity that looks like a giant, upside-down, backlit colander.
For a steak house, 5A5 lays a surprisingly light hand on the meat. Chef Allen Chen’s menu contains a full page-and-a-half of smaller courses, including shooters, bites, starters, soups, and salads — many of them as clever, elegant, and meatless as you would find in any temple of California cuisine — before you reach flesh country. Even the list of main dishes transcends beef to include buffalo, fish, poultry, and a vegetarian option. And vegetables here aren’t an afterthought. Behold a platter of glisteningly green-white bok choy ($8), tossed with chunks of meaty bacon and crumblings of macadamia nuts, or a berm of baby spinach ($8), sautéed with onion and garlic and topped with a fine thatch of shredded, fried naan.
Flavor patterns are polycultural but vigorous. A shooter of hamachi ($4), for instance, includes not only a small chunk of yellowtail (a fish familiar to sushi lovers) but a creamy, tangy blend of avocado, ginger, yuzu juice, and tobiko. It’s like a piece of sushi roll liquified into a health drink and presented in a wide-mouth, heavy-bottom shot glass. A plate of ribs and chips ($12) gives you several exquisitely tender spare ribs in a spicy hoisin glaze, accompanied by a stack of lacy fried-potato disks. And truffle fries ($8) introduce a distinctly occidental note, though modified by the ramekin of sriracha aioli. Sriracha is a Thai hot sauce, but in aioli it produces an outcome quite similar to cayenne or other hot red pepper.
As for the meat: even the plebeian cuts of Angus are sensuous and delicate. Like cheesecake, their texture is soft, with just enough firmness to hold their shape. And, perhaps in a nod to a pair of unsettled Zeitgeists, financial and cardiovascular, you can have either a smaller or larger portion of several of the main courses. I thought the smaller, six-ounce portion of filet mignon ($23) was just right: enough to register as a proper serving of meat but not so much as to induce that sickening feeling of overload. Better yet, the meat was juicy and flavorful, which, if you’ve ever cooked filet mignon yourself, is far from a given. Tender bonelessness does carry its price. For a bit of extra insurance (and a bit more money, $29), you can get your filet on the bone.
After all that, dessert should be light-hearted, and maybe just plain light. A nice example is the plate of green-tea doughnuts ($8), presented with a globe of macha ice cream and a pot of intense, coarse, barely sweet raspberry jam. Hints of bitter, sour, sweet, creamy, crunchy, gooey — and we have at least one small slice of life in balance.
Dinner: Mon.–Sat., 5:30–9:30 p.m.;
Sun., 5:30–9 p.m.
244 Jackson, SF
Wheelchair accessible (elevator to restrooms)
DANCE Conceptual art and minimalism are not usually associated with dance. Yet the terms frequently swam into consciousness at last weekend’s three choreographers program at Theater Artaud. Spare, rigorously crafted works by Hope Mohr, Molissa Fenley, and Yvonne Rainer made for an unusually satisfying evening of mostly pure dance. Mohr presented the program in the context of her company’s "third home season: three generations."
Rainer’s 1966 Trio A is a legendary work, originally performed by three dancers as part of Judson Church Dance’s revolutionary rethinking of the art form. It consists of a single, intricately structured, four-and-a-half minute dance phrase, presented impersonally and as evenly on keel as possible. As performed out of sync by Mohr and Robbie Cook, Trio A offered different perspectives on the same material. Watching it felt like observing two Rubik’s cubes in action, and it was totally involving.
In the second version, Trio A Pressured, Cook assumed the role of an obstacle trying to push Mohr, who was repeating the phrase, out of her single-minded commitment. He hopped in front of her, mirrored her movements, and acted like a mechanized clown. Although not that interesting in itself, it turned Mohr into something akin to a sleepwalker.
Hope turned the middle part of this so-very-welcome program over to Fenley, who has been making pristine, tightly built solos for more than 30 years. Mass Balance is her latest piece, designed for herself and a very long white pole.
Fenley moved little a couple of pawing step here, slight turns of positions there. Most noticeable were her hands: they are gnarled but strong, with fingers that curl like roots that have grown around a foreign object. By the end of Mass, the pole was no longer a stranger. As she quietly held it with an outstretched arm, it became an extension of her body even as she got ready but didn’t to let it go.
In her gray tunic and pants, Fenley had something of a priestess about her. Yet that thing in her hands talked a lot. It became a ballet barre, an oar, an offering, something that welcomed a caress, a challenge to be controlled, perhaps even wings. Even if you were not imagistically inclined, the beauty of Fenley’s reserve and her mastery over time and space were enough. I’m not even sure she needed Cenk Ergun’s electronic score.
Mohr named her new Far From Perfect accurately. This quintet is not perfect, but it’s very good her best work yet. Most satisfying was to see how carefully she shifted gears and opened the complex subject about the nature, and process, of making art into a contemplation of the pain human beings inflict on each other. These two subjects do not naturally go together, but Mohr made sense of the connection.
The first part, with its shifting relationships in which dancers constantly reconfigure space, was pure dance economical, linear, fluid. But small inconsistencies crept in. They were like the first raindrops you aren’t quite sure you felt. When Emily Hite quit the stage, we were left with two couples, and lightning struck. They kicked, threw, and imprisoned each other, tearing apart connections but also hugging until the tempest passed and one woman was left weeping.
The dancers (Hite, Laura Blakely, Derek Harris, Cameron Growden, and Tegan Schwab), the collaged music, and the text a compilation of Mohr’s writing and a poem by Brenda Hillman were excellent. At 50 minutes, Far can be tightened; it should be seen again.
Dear Earl Butter,
I think I know what the essential-oil-wielding hippies meant when they talked to me about personal growth and evolution. For example, I now believe in marriage. State-sanctified, and with as much paperwork as possible. I know it’s still only a 50-50 proposition, but at least it might weed out complete posers and the temporarily sane.
Stormy weather. The sea is choppy. We made it about halfway to the shipwreck then had to turn back, on account of motion sickness. That was a couple days ago and it’s been blowing ever since.
This morning I woke up in a state of disrepair and utter existential itchiness. Sitting on my air mattress, I leaned back against the bare wall, looked around the bare room in the empty guest house I occupy, and listened to the wind. I scratched my many insect bites and various rashes and wondered what I’ve wondered since I got here: how much will it cost me to change my return flight to tomorrow?
Instead of going over to the main house to wake up Jean-Gene and borrow his cell phone, I got out of bed and put my clothes in the refrigerator. I’m not sure how I knew this would help, but it did! Refolding my shirts and skirts, I felt finally soothed by the knowledge that thenceforth when I looked in the fridge I would be deciding what to wear. On the door, where ketchup goes, I put my socks, bras, and panties, and my bikini went nicely into the butter drawer.
When I finally went to get my brother it wasn’t to plan my escape, but to report that all my clothes were in the refrigerator.
“Right on,” he said.
I spent the rest of the morning in an artistic frenzy that was way more healing than arnica. I dragged our blow-up kayak into the dining room, turned its little yellow seats to face each other, set a cooler in the middle, and put a flower in an empty spinach can on top.
My three dildos I hung where wine glasses would go, upside down over the bar, and in lieu of liquor I staged all my lotions and sunscreens, some work gloves of Jean-Gene’s, a dust mask, and rolls of toilet paper and duct tape. Don’t tell Phenomenon, but I prayed all day a prospective buyer would drop in.
Thank you for finding a way to get a message to me here on this Web-forsaken island. The bottle washed up at sunset, and the words in it were just what I needed to hear. Food!
Indeed, since you’ve already given up, and I really ought to, I’m thinking we should probably get married. In church. Joel’s younger than us, right? He can be our kid. Between me and you, I think that boy could use some fucked-up parenting for a change, and I know I’d kill for a crack at eventual grandmotherhood. Think about it. It would make great copy, and anyway we might all be living in the same building.
Dearest Lady, Dearest-Dearest Lady,
Hello, I love Mr. Pickles! First, let me say — how could you not? Second, let me say they are great! And third, I love sandwiches! It’s hard to decide at Mr. Pickles because everything looks and sounds great. Joel got the Tony Soprano, which is salami and ham and mortadella and provolone cheese and Italian dressing ($6.99), and I got the Bear, which is hot roast beef and BBQ sauce and melted cheddar cheese ($6.99), and Joel paid. Imagine, way back when, Joel could have picked a different friend, and they could be enjoying Mr. Pickles on this guy’s yacht instead of Joel having to pay all the time.
— Sigh — nothing can get me out of the funk I just put myself in.
Except Mr. Pickles!
And Mr. Pickles himself stands outside the place like a pickle bandito with a mustache made out of hair. Imagine a pickle like that in the jar! A mustache made of hair! In his holster, mustard and mayo! I once had a goal to have more sandwiches in my life, but you know how things work out. Mr. Pickles makes you want to yell Mr. Pickles a bunch of times. I bet kids love to yell Mr. Pickles. I do too. Mr. Pickles! Mr. Pickles! Try it. Mr. Pickles! Hoorah!
MR. PICKLES SANDWICH SHOP
Mon.–Fri. 9 a.m.– 6 p.m.;
Sat.-Sun. 10 a.m.– 5 p.m.
3380 20th St., No. 103, SF
SF INTERNATIONAL ASIAN AMERICAN FILM FESTIVAL All that is solid melts not into air, but is milled into rebar in Jason Byrne’s mesmerizing, nearly hour-long short film, Scrap Vessel. The centerpiece of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival’s experimental shorts program, “Memory Vessels and Phantom Traces,” Scrap Vessel is Byrne’s documentation of the final voyage of the Hari Funafuti — formerly a Chinese coal freighter called Hupohai that was built in Norway in 1973 to make hauls around northern Europe — as it sails from Singapore to Bangladesh to be gutted and dismantled for scrap.
Byrne, along with fellow cameraman Theron Patterson, explore the soon-to-be-ghost ship from bottom to top. Their 16mm camera frequently transforms the mechanically mundane — pounding pistons, a flickering fluorescent light, the pleasant geometry of the ship’s gigantic, mastaba-like hold covers — into something formally beautiful, thanks in part to a palette of smudged greens, inky blues, and the occasional brilliant flash of chartreuse. However, their investigation is not solely aesthetic.
For, as often happens in suspense and horror films set at sea, the filmmakers, along with the Bangladeshi crew, discover that they are not entirely alone (one current crew member worries that the previous crew might have sabotaged the ship, resenting their vessel’s forced retirement to the ironworks). No such malfeasance manifests itself, but material traces of the ship’s Communist past-life keep surfacing. A bunch of 35mm photos of the captain and his men visiting a Buddhist shrine are discovered in the captain’s quarters, along with a cassette of easy listening tunes sung in Mandarin. The most dramatic find is 15 cases of 16mm Chinese films that were sitting in a still-locked room labeled “Rec/Film.”
Byrne touchingly weaves these remnants into the fabric of his film, showing us a slideshow of the vacation snaps, using the cassette to augment Albert Ortega’s original score of spooky ambient electronica, and suspending his narrative to interject a montage of the leftover mainland films (including scenes from what looks to be a campy, propagandistic romantic drama). It’s not much. But it’s enough of a hook to cause one to feel something close to sadness when the Hari Funafuti finally reaches its terminus and we witness its gradual destruction.
Byrne pans over several docked ships, rusting and already in the process of being dismantled for scrap, that resemble nothing so much as the rotting carcasses of beached whales. Even before the Hari Funafuti has docked, the scent of fresh blood seems to be on the water: pirates make a failed attempt to remove the propeller for its bronze and Bangladeshi naval officers come aboard to remove reusable communication equipment for their own fleet.
It might seem odd to speak of a commercial freighter in such elegiac terms. Better that it be melted down into materials used to build something new, rather than simply be left to rot on the sea floor or in a junkyard somewhere. And yet, if the Hari Funafuti‘s journey from Norse factory to the Yangtze to a rolling mill in Chittagong is, to some degree, the story of the shifting geographic centers (from Europe to China to South Asia) of industrial manufacturing under globalization, is that not all the more reason to attempt to preserve the human elements of that story?
Scrap Vessel answers, however modestly, in the affirmative. Byrne’s film becomes the true scrap vessel of its title, ensuring that the memory of those who have called his subject home at some point over its 32 years will continue on long after any material traces of the vessel have disappeared — even if only within the span of an independently produced, experimental documentary.
“MEMORY VESSELS AND PHANTOM TRACES” SHORTS PROGRAM
Mon/15, 6:45 p.m., Sundance Kabuki
March 17, 4:45 p.m., Viz
Information is power. But too often, those with political power guard public documents and information from the journalists, activists, lawyers, and others who seek it on the people’s behalf. So every year, we at the Guardian honor those who fight for a freer and more open society by highlighting the annual winners of the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards, which are given by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
This year’s winners are:
Beverly Kees Educator Award
Rachele Kanigel, an associate professor of journalism and advisor to Golden Gate Xpress publications at San Francisco State University, has been highly involved in student press rights work on a national level. She wrote The Student Newspaper Survival Guide (Blackwell Publishing, 2006), a book designed to empower budding campus reporters. A champion of the free speech rights of her students, Kanigel has gone to bat on several occasions on behalf of student journalists whose work was challenged by interests that didn’t believe students should be afforded the same protections as professional reporters. Kanigel sees part of her job as educating the world about the importance of student journalists and standing up for their rights. “A lot of people won’t talk to student journalists, but they’re doing some really important work,” she said. “A lot of what we have to do is to assure the student journalists and tell the world outside that these are journalists.” The educator award is named in honor of Beverly Kees, who was the SPJ NorCal chapter president at the time of her death in 2004.
Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award
Mary Fricker is the kind of investigative reporter many of us would like to be.
She started out in the 1980s investigating complaints of irregularities at her local savings and loan when she was reporting for the old Russian River News community paper. Her dogged research and hard-hitting stories produced the first major investigation into the toxic problems of financial deregulation in S&Ls. Her work won numerous awards, including the Gerald Loeb Award given out by UCLA and the prestigious George Polk Award, and ultimately led to the book, Inside Job: The Looting of America’s Savings and Loan. The book won Best Book of the Year award from the Investigative Reporters and Editors association.
Fricker did business reporting and major investigative work for 20 years with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. She retired and joined the Chauncey Bailey Project as a volunteer investigative reporter, researcher, Web site maestro, and general good spirit. Her work included several key investigations that determined that the Oakland Police Department was virtually alone in not taping interviews with suspects in investigations. Her stories changed that practice. She is a most worthy recipient of the Norwin S.<0x2009>Yoffie award, which honors the memory of the former publisher of the Marin Independent Journal, a founder of the SPJ/FOI committee, and a splendid warrior in the cause of Freedom of Information.
G.W. Schulz was busy when we got him on the phone. “I’m sending out about eight or nine new freedom of information requests a day,” he said. “I fired off a few to the governor of Texas this morning.”
The relentless reporter is working on the Center for Investigative Reporting’s program exposing homeland security spending. It hasn’t been easy. Since the federal government began making big grants to local agencies for supposed antiterrorism and civil emergency equipment and programs, following the money has required unusual persistence. Homeland Security officials don’t even know where their grants are going, so Schulz has been forced to dig deeper.
“I think this is the biggest open government campaign I’ll ever do in my career,” he said. “We’re juggling dozens of requests, state by state. And it’s breathtaking what some people will ignore in their own public records laws.”
He’s found widespread abuse. “These agencies are getting all this expensive equipment and they don’t even maintain it or train their staff how to use it,” he said. CIR is not only doing its own stories, it’s working with local papers that don’t have the resources to do this kind of work. “Lots of great stories in the pipeline,” he said before signing off to get back to the battle. “I’m really excited.”
On the heels of a now-infamous Supreme Court ruling on so-called First Amendment rights for corporate political speech, SPJ is honoring an individual who has made a career devoted to protecting real, individual free speech rights for almost 20 years. Ann Brick, staff attorney for the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has litigated in defense of privacy rights, free speech, government accountability, and student rights in cases ranging from book burning to Internet speech to illegal government wiretapping. “I can’t tell you how much of an honor it is to have worked with the ACLU,” she says, adding, “I can’t think of another award I’d rather get than this one — an award from journalists.” But the public’s gratitude goes to Brick, whose years of service are a shining example of speaking truth to power.
Computer Assisted Reporting
Phillip Reese of The Sacramento Bee is being honored for his unrelenting pursuit of public records and for producing interactive databases. Reese was the architect of the Bee‘s data center, providing readers readily accessible information about legislative voting records, neighborhood election results, state employee salaries, and other important information. At one point, the city of Sacramento demanded several thousand dollars in exchange for employee salary data. Reese gathered the city’s IT workers and a city attorney for a meeting, where he argued that organizing records in an analyzable format would insure the system wasn’t being abused, so they chose to provide the records for free. The online databases provide public access to records that are often disorganized and cryptic. “Sometimes these databases go well with a story, and sometimes they can stand on the Internet alone. People can view them in a way that is important to themselves,” Reese said.
State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has been an open government advocate since his days on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and one of his favorite targets is the administration of the University of California. He has fought to protect UC students from administrators who want to curtail their free-speech right and to get documents from university officials.
In 2008, he authored and passed SB 1696, which blocked the university from hiding audit information behind a private contractor. UCSF was refusing to release the information in an audit the school paid a private contractor to conduct. “I read about this in the newspaper and I was just scratching my head. How can public officials do this stuff?” Yee said. He had to overcome resistance from university officials and public agencies arguing that the state shouldn’t be sticking its nose into their business. “But it’s public money, and they’re public entities, and the people have a right to know where that money is going.”
Computer Assisted Reporting
Thomas Peele and Daniel Willis
This duo with the Bay Area News Group, which includes 15 daily and 14 community newspapers around the Bay Area, performed monumental multitasking when they decided to crunch the salaries of more than 194,000 public employees from 97 government agencies into a database. Honored with the Computer Assisted Reporting Award, the duo provided the public with a database that translated a gargantuan amount of records into understandable information. They had to submit dozens of California Public Records Act requests to access the records of salaries that account for more than $1.8 billion in taxpayer money. “It is important that the public know how its money is spent. This data base, built rather painstakingly one public records act request at a time by Danny Willis and myself as a public service, goes a long way in helping people follow the money,” Peele said.
Californians Aware: The Center for Public Forum Rights
California’s sunshine laws, including the Brown Act open meeting law and California Public Records Act, aren’t bad. Unfortunately, they are routinely flouted by public officials, often making it necessary to go to court to enforce them. That’s why we need groups like CalAware, and individuals like its president, Rick McKee, and its counsel, longtime media attorney Terry Francke. Last year, while defending an Orange County school board member’s free speech rights and trying to restore a censored public meeting transcript, CalAware not only found itself losing the case on an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion, but being ordered to pay more than $80,000 in school district legal fees. “It’s never been easy, but that was going to be the end of private enforcement of the Brown Act,” Francke said. Luckily, Sen. Leland Yee intervened with legislation that prevents awarding attorney fees in such sunshine cases, leaving CalAware bruised but unbowed. “We’ve become active in court like never before.”
SF Public Press/McSweeney’s
Last year, when author Dave Eggers and his McSweeney’s magazine staff decided to put out a single newspaper issue (because “it’s a form we love,” Eggers told us), they filled San Francisco Panorama with the unusual mix of writers, topics, and graphics one might expect from a literary enterprise. But they wanted a hard-hitting investigation on the cover, so they turned to the nonprofit SF Public Press and reporters Robert Porterfield and Patricia Decker. Together, they worked full-time for four months to gather information on cost overruns on the Bay Bridge rebuild, fighting for public records and information from obscure agencies and an intransigent CalTrans. “We’re still dealing with this. I’ve been trying to secure documents for a follow-up and I keep getting the runaround,” said Decker, a new journalist with a master’s degree in engineering, a nice complement to Porterfield, an award-winning old pro. “He’s a great mentor, just such a fount of knowledge.”
San Jose Mercury News reporter Sean Webby won for a series spotlighting the San Jose Police Department’s use of force and how difficult it is for the public or the press to track.
The department and the San Jose City Council refused to release use-of-force reports, so Webby obtained them through public court files. He zeroed in on incidents that involved “resisting arrest” charges, and even uncovered a cell phone video in which officers Tasered and battered suspects who did not appear to be resisting.
Webby has won numerous awards in the past, but says he is particularly proud of this one. “Freedom of information is basically our mission statement, our bible, our motto,” he said. “We feel like the less resistance the average person has to getting information, the better the system works.”
Webby said that despite causing some tension between his paper and the San Jose Police Department, the project was well worth it. “We are never going to back off the hard questions. It’s our job as a watchdog organization.”
KTVU’s Rita Williams is being honored for her tireless efforts to establish a media room in the San Francisco Federal Building that provides broadcasters the same access to interviews as print reporters.
Television and radio equipment was banned from the federal pressroom following 9/11, but Williams solicited support from television stations, security agencies, the courts, and the National Bar Association. After a six-year push, they were able to restore access.
Williams and her supporters converted a storage unit in the federal building into a full-blown media center, which was well-used during the Proposition 8 trial. “I only did two days of the trials, but every time I walked into the room, I would just be swarmed with camera folks saying thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said. “I’m getting close to retirement and I was in the first wave of women in broadcasting, and I’m proud that almost 40 years later, I can leave this legacy.”
With her Betty Page looks, dogged sense of justice, and journalistic training, Melissa Nix became a charismatic and relentless force in the quest to find out how her ex-boyfriend Hugues de la Plaza really died in 2007. Nix began her efforts after the San Francisco medical examiner declared it was unable to determine how de la Plaza died and the San Francisco Police Department seemed to be leaning toward categorizing the case as a suicide. Using personal knowledge of de la Plaza and experience as a reporter with The Sacramento Bee, Nix got the French police involved, who ruled the death a homicide, and unearthed the existence of an independent medical examiner report that concluded that de la Plaza was murdered.
Contra Costa Times reporter Daniel Borenstein wasn’t out to deprive public worker retirees of yachting, country club golf, and rum-y cocktails at tropical resorts. The columnist was only trying to figure out how, for example, the chief of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District turned a $185,000 salary into a $241,000 annual pension. Borenstein’s effort to unearth and make public, in easily readable spreadsheets, the records of all Contra Costa County public employee pensioners led the Contra Costa Times to a court victory stipulating just that: all records would be released promptly on request without allowing retirees time to go to court to block access. The effects have been noticeable: “I get scores of e-mails most weeks in reaction to the columns I’m writing on pensions, [and] public officials are much more sensitive to the issue,” Borenstein says. It is a precedent that has carried into the Modesto Bee‘s similar pension-disclosure efforts in Stanislaus County.
Student Name Withheld After a photojournalism student at San Francisco State University snapped photographs at the scene of a fatal shooting in Bayview-Hunters Point, police skipped the usual process of using a subpoena to seek evidence, and went straight into his home with a search warrant to seize this student’s work. But with the help of his attorney, the student quashed the warrant, arguing California’s shield law prevents law enforcement from compelling journalists to disclose unpublished information. He won, and the case served to demonstrate that the shield law should apply to nontraditional journalists.
The student is being recognized because he resisted the warrant rather than caving into the demands of law enforcement. Invoking the shield law in such cases prevents reporters from being perceived as extensions of law enforcement by the communities they report on, enabling a free exchange of information. The student remained anonymous in the aftermath of the shooting because he feared for his life. Based on his ongoing concerns, NorCal SPJ and the Guardian have agreed to honor his wish to have his name withheld.
On the same evening the Police Commission shot down Chief George Gascón’s plan to arm his officers with Tasers, a Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) committee reviewed a proposal to give itself a set of enforcement tools that, if approved, could help nail governmental agencies and officials that violate public information laws.
These proposals include the right to appoint outside counsel to enforce serious, willful violations of the voter-approved Sunshine Ordinance against respondents who fail to comply with SOTF orders, thereby allowing enforcement actions to be brought in civil court.
Despite the potential significance of these amendments to the cause of open government and the history of SOTF findings being blatantly ignored by Mayor Gavin Newsom and other officials who have refused to release public documents, only a small posse of regular sunshine advocates attended the March 4 meeting of SOTF’s Compliance and Amendments Committee.
This lack of public interest underscores how the inability to enforce its findings has undercut its power, and why its members believe the legal equivalent of a stun gun is needed if people are going to start taking the work of this Board of Supervisors appointed body seriously.
Erica Craven-Green, an attorney who has served on SOTF for six years, has seen a number of departments not take the body’s proceedings seriously.
“There are very few penalties for individuals and departments that choose not to comply with the ordinance,” Craven-Green observed. “We’ve had numerous instances where representatives from city departments and the offices of elected officials failed to show up at our hearings and explain how they did or did not comply with the ordinance.”
Angela Chan, staff attorney of the Asian Law Caucus, filed a complaint with SOTF in October 2009 after the Mayor’s Office refused to explain why it gave a confidential City Attorney’s Office memo about sanctuary city reforms to the San Francisco Chronicle but not her organization for two full weeks, despite her requests.
At a December 2009 SOTF hearing, Brian Purchia of the Mayor’s Office of Communications handed SOTF a note that read, “I had to leave to respond to the press,” shortly before Chan’s complaint was heard. As a result, the task force decided to continue the matter to January so someone from the Mayor’s Office could attend. Yet despite repeated requests, no mayoral representatives attended that or subsequent SOTF’s meetings about Chan’s complaint.
“It is deeply disappointing that the Mayor’s Office has not shown any respect for the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, which works hard to try to improve government transparency and accountability for the residents of San Francisco,” Chan told the Guardian. “The mayor appears to be acting like a monarch rather than a democratically-elected official who is accountable and responsive to the people. Reform is needed to ensure all city officials comply with our Sunshine Ordinance and heed [SOTF’s] orders.”
And it’s not just members of the public who feel their time is being wasted. “I think it is very frustrating and, quite frankly, a waste, not only of the task force’s [time], but of city resources as well, to have a hearing on a matter that the city decides not to reply to and/or show up for,” said Craven-Green, who steps down from SOTF later this year.
SOTF is seeking to address this sense of powerlessness by renaming SOTF the Sunshine Ordinance Commission (SOC), giving it the ability to hire an attorney and propose fines, and requiring that departments post notices of sunshine violations on their Web sites. The amendments also expand the list of public officials required to keep working calendars and clarify access requirements for electronic records and systems.
Craven Green said changing the SOTF’s name is a “nonsubstantive” amendment, but that it “makes it sound more permanent.”
The key difference between SOTF and SOC is that, under the proposed amendments, SOC could, with a two-thirds vote, appoint outside counsel to enforce serious and willful violations of the ordinance by bringing action against them in civil court. Right now, only the Ethics Commission and District Attorney’s Office can enforce SOTF decisions, and neither has been willing to do so.
Retired attorney and sunshine advocate Allen Grossman recently won a $25,000 settlement to cover legal fees in a lawsuit he brought against the Ethics Commission and its executive director John St. Croix to force the city to provide him with previously withheld public records about why Ethics dismissed 14 sunshine cases SOFT had referred to it. The amendment would give SOC that same authority.
“Where we feel there hasn’t been sufficient action by the Ethics Commission or sufficient compliance on issues we think are very important for public access, we could instigate outside counsel to prosecute serious and willful violations,” Craven-Green said.
The amendments also lay out penalties for officials who willfully flout sunshine laws. Government officers and employees found to have committed official misconduct would be required to personally pay $500 to $5,000, while public agency violations would have that amount taken from their budgets.
SOC would recommend the level of these fines, and any fines that Ethics decided to impose would be placed in SOC’s litigation fund. “That should be enough for most departments to comply,” Craven-Green said.
Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware, a Sacramento-based center for public forum rights, has been consulting with SOTF on the changes. He says the Achilles’ heel of the Sunshine Ordinance, which the board enacted in 1993 and voters amended in 1999 through Proposition G, has been what happens to a department or official who refuses to comply with what SOTF thinks is required.
Under the state’s Brown Act open meeting law and the California Public Records Act, correcting the unlawful withholding of public information requires a civil lawsuit. “You go into court, tell them this or that practice violates the Brown Act and ask the court to order a correction,” Francke said. “Or you go to court with a request for public records that you believe are being unlawfully withheld.”
But now SOTF is folding Francke’s recommendations to hire a litigator into the SOC amendment package, along with establishing a $50,000 annual litigation fund. The amendments would require voter approval and the willingness of four members of the Board of Supervisors to place them on the ballot.
Francke acknowledges that this litigation fund could sound odd, “but it’s a kick start that’s needed” to encourage compliance. “It’s not so much a net outflow of funds as a kind of transfer of funds from the operating fund of a particular agency that violated law to the litigation fund of the SO commission.”
Francke says Grossman’s lawsuit is a good example of a successful effort to take the city to court. “But the difference, under the proposed amendments, is that $25,000 payment would go into SOC’s litigation fund,” Francke said. “If the lawsuit by Mr. Grossman had been filed by SOC with its enforcement attorney, that would not have meant a net loss by the city, it would mean a net gain to the commission’s litigation fund.”
The problem now, Francke observes, is that Ethics dismisses most complaints on the grounds that it was not official misconduct or willful failure because employees or officials were acting on City Attorney’s Office advice.
“It’s less important that the occasional willful violation of the Sunshine laws gets punished personally than that the violation gets stopped,” Francke said. “And someone saying, ‘Harry/Judy, what you did there cost $25, 000’ is not a career morale builder.”
Craven-Green agrees that the problem to date has been that departments rely on the advice of the City Attorney’s Office, and SOTF often disagrees with its positions. “One of the reasons we referred these cases to Ethics was so it would take a neutral look,” she explained. “What’s been frustrating is that the Ethics Commission has not done that. It’s simply sided with the City Attorney’s Office.”
Last year, following a joint meeting between the Ethics Commission and SOFT to discuss difficulties those bodies have had with one another, Ethics’ St. Croix introduced changes in how the agency handles SOTF referrals, including defining when he may simply dismiss a referral and allow some documents from its investigations to be made public.
“We are really working to resolve these difficulties,” St. Croix told us. “The core of the conflict has been that when they refer complaints, we investigate. But from their point of view, they’ve done an investigation, and our response should be to assign penalties.”
Grossman is hopeful that SOTF’s proposed amendment package will resolve some problems. As he told us, “It substantially reduces Ethics’ ability to dismiss cases arbitrarily.”
Several weeks ago, Sup. Chris Daly e-mailed the San Francisco Ethics Commission to ask what seemed like a simple question. Daly is spearheading a June citywide ballot measure to ask voters to support the designation of the new Transbay Transit Center as the end point for the planned California High Speed Rail project, a response to the California High Speed Rail Authority’s move to explore alternative locations.
As an elected official, Daly knew there were certain individuals he might be barred from accepting money from for this effort. A San Francisco campaign finance law prohibits entities holding city contracts worth $50,000 or more from donating to political campaigns run by the elected officials who approve those contracts, a rule crafted to eliminate quid pro quo dealings that can corrupt the political process.
But when Daly tried to find out whose checks he shouldn’t be accepting, he didn’t receive a simple list of names in response. Instead he got a dense e-mail highlighting the complexity of this area of campaign finance law, offering no easy answers. For one, it wasn’t clear whether the law applied to his committee. Assuming it did, however, there was another hurdle.
“Determining which contributors are prohibited from contributing to your committee is a bit complex at the moment,” Oliver Luby, an Ethics Commission staffer, wrote in the e-mail, “because the contractor disclosures filed … are only in hard copy format.”
This vexing detail meant that obtaining a searchable list of banned contributors would require scanning hundreds of Ethics Commission forms filed on behalf of the Board of Supervisors, then manually entering potentially thousands of data rows into a spreadsheet, a project that could suck up significant time and resources.
The campaign contribution ban applies not only to major contractors, but the executive officers, subcontractors, and major shareholders of those contracting firms, so there could be a long list of individuals prohibited from making a political donation once a single contract is approved.
These restrictions theoretically create an excellent safeguard against corruption — but since it’s not recorded in electronic format, the filings amount to an almost useless sea of data. In fact, even the Ethics Commission, which is supposed to regulate violations of this ban and issue fines, isn’t able to routinely do so.
Luby pointed out the shortcoming of the system and an easy solution to Executive Director John St. Croix and Deputy Director Mabel Ng in an internal e-mail last December. “Private interests that can afford to manually create databases using the data … will have an advantage over other interests (perhaps even our own office) where the resources are not available to manually create such databases,” he wrote. “The obvious solution to this problem is e-filing.”
For example, if city agencies and political campaigns were required to submit their data in Excel spreadsheets or through an online system that automatically created spreadsheets, it would be easy to compare them to see who is violating the law.
When asked about this, St. Croix said the resources just don’t exist to upgrade the commission’s online capabilities. “We don’t have the resources to develop the software right now,” he told us. “So someday, yes. After we go through the next election season, and people see that they have a lot of difficulties in complying with this, then we may be able to build some support to make these changes.”
The e-mails were among hundreds of documents included in response to a Sunshine Ordinance public information request the Guardian submitted to the Ethics Commission in February. The assortment of documents relating to the contractor contribution ban revealed just how difficult it is for the average person to discern whether any entities striking deals with the city are at the same time trying to curry favor with the politicians who approve their contracts.
In 2006, a batch of reforms were approved to tighten restrictions on campaign contributions from major city contractors and require filing disclosure forms. Intended to point a floodlight on pay-to-play practices, the rules were championed by former Ethics Commissioner Joe Lynn, who died late last year.
Since it was established in 2006, however, the law has seen neither steady enforcement nor routine compliance from elected officials, documents show. The Mayor’s Office, for example, did not start filing the forms until April 2009, a month after critical media reports pointed out that few city departments were in compliance. While many more have started filing regularly, it appears that certain state agencies covered by the law — including the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) — have not.
Nor does the Ethics Commission itself seem focused on ferreting out potential violators. “I am reluctant to ask my auditors or enforcement staff to review [contract disclosure] filings and compare them against campaign filings because the sheer amount of data will make the search wasteful and likely fruitless,” St. Croix wrote in a memo to his staff last October.
At the same time, attempts have been made to scale back the scope of the law, based on the argument that it is difficult to enforce. St. Croix’s memo recommended that the contribution ban not apply to contractors who deal with state agencies such as TIDA or the Redevelopment Agency, which are controlled by mayoral appointees and oversee development contracts worth millions of dollars. “Although city elective officers appoint some members of those bodies, city officials rarely have any involvement with those agencies’ contracts,” he argued.
Asked if these suggestions will be discussed formally anytime soon, St. Croix was doubtful. “Unfortunately, even though we think they’re necessary, it’s going to be a very difficult sell at the Board [of Supervisors],” he said. “Even though we think we’re fixing a problem, it looks like you’re rolling back reform, and that’s not popular.”
On the eve of an election season featuring hotly contested seats on the Board of Supervisors, the Democratic County Central Committee, and other high-profile local and statewide offices, the relatively arcane archive of the contractor disclosure forms stored away at the Ethics Commission might get more attention. Are major corporations that do business with the city scratching the backs of politicians who want to advance their political careers to keep the wheels greased for their own business ambitions?
Without a user-friendly, functional system for tracking contracts and comparing them against campaign contributions, it’s tough to say.
By Gabriel Haaland
OPINION Last week, Mayor Gavin Newsom introduced legislation that would make it illegal for anyone to sit or lie on the sidewalk in San Francisco’s commercial corridors. The move came after an intense media campaign by the San Francisco Chronicle, which once again created a “crisis” between young street people and other residents of the Haight, much as the paper did with immigrant youth.
The crisis? Youths are sitting on the sidewalk. As a long time resident of the Haight, the dynamics I see are far more complex than that. I understand that my neighbors feel overwhelmed and upset. They want options, want solutions, and, at first blush, it seems some want to get the youths off our streets. However, citing or jailing the kids will not make them go away or improve their relationships with the rest of the community.
The real frustrations my neighbors are voicing are not primarily about whether someone is sitting on the sidewalk, but over genuine concern about violence in our neighborhood. They are looking for safety and respect; however, this legislation does not create conditions for increased safety and respect.
Most experts recognize that the criminal justice system for youths has failed, and putting people in jail for a nonviolent crime doesn’t make a lot of sense. Most of the youths on San Francisco streets come from broken homes from around the country. Some of them, LGBTQ youths in particular, are forced out of their homes and come here because we are still a beacon of hope for those who are marginalized and discriminated against.
If the criminal justice system is failing these young people, how can we address that in a way that creates real, positive change for everyone involved?
I would like to suggest a different path, one that has been wildly successful working with young people. It’s based on restorative justice principles. Restorative justice refers to a growing number of practices around the world that set out to bring together those most affected by a crime or conflict in order to understand and address the harm that has been done. At their best, these practices also support changes in the conditions in which these actions or crimes are taking place, making them less likely to happen in the same way in the future.
One example of this is the Restorative Circle process, which I was introduced to by Dominic Barter, who began developing this process 15 years ago with others in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where drug gangs are the main employers and homicide is the most common cause of death for people under 25. The process has been used in pilot programs by the Brazilian Ministry of Justice for the last five years and shown to be very effective. And now Restorative Circle pilot programs are starting in other countries.
Restorative Circles bring together the three parties involved in crimes or other painful acts: those who committed the act, those most directly affected, and the community of those indirectly affected. After each party has a pre-circle meeting with a facilitator, they all come together using a dialogue process intended for each to speak and be heard about the impact the conflict is having on them and about what motivated them to choose the actions they took. With the new understanding established, all are invited to collaborate in devising specific actions, with doable timeframes, involving accessible resources, in an attempt to repair the harm done and restore the sense of dignity, security, and justice of all present, and the wider community.
In Brazil, people across the political spectrum acknowledge the success of Restorative Circles. I would ask people across the political spectrum in San Francisco to join me in creating a new paradigm of public safety in the Haight and across the city based on Restorative Circles, a model that will empower our communities and transform systemic problems into real solutions. *
Gabriel, a.k.a. Robert, Haaland is a 15-year resident of the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood and serves on the board of SF Pride at Work and the Democratic County Central Committee. This proposal was reviewed by Li Morales and by Becky Sutton, community outreach coordinator for Restorative Circles, North America. For more info, go to www.restorativecircles.org.
EDITORIAL The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance is a national model for open government, the first and strongest local sunshine law in the country. It was written to improve public access to government records and meetings, and to clear up some of the problems and loopholes in state law. On paper, it makes San Francisco a shining example of how concerned residents can come together and eliminate secrecy at City Hall.
But 17 years after its passage, it’s still not working. That’s because city officials routinely ignore the law — and the city attorney, the district attorney, and the Ethics Commission have utterly failed to enforce it.
Here’s how it works, in theory: A San Franciscan makes a request for records in the office of a public official. The official is supposed to make the documents available promptly — within 48 hours for immediate disclosure requests and within 10 working days for routine requests. If the records aren’t forthcoming, the resident can complain to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, which brings both sides in, holds a hearing, gets legal advice, and determines whether the complain is valid. If the task force finds that the official should have made the records available, the matter gets referred to the Ethics Commission, which can file charges of official misconduct.
Here’s how it happens in practice: Some officials, like Mayor Gavin Newsom, simply ignore sunshine requests, or delay responding well beyond the statutory limit, or refuse to release records on grounds that clearly violate the law. The task force holds a hearing, and nobody from the Mayor’s Office shows up. Then the task force finds in favor of the person seeking the records, sends the file to the Ethics Commission — and the whole thing dies.
Not once in the history of the ordinance has the Ethics Commission actually filed misconduct charges. Not once. Violating the Sunshine Ordinance is a crime, but D.A. Kamala Harris has never once prosecuted a miscreant. And public officials who disobey the law hide under the protection of advice from the city attorney — although that advice itself is secret.
The message to City Hall is clear: you can defy the sunshine law with impunity; nothing will ever happen.
The task force is offering a series of amendments to the law that would improve enforcement and give the measure some teeth. The supervisors ought to support those proposals — but the board ought to go even further.
The proposals would turn the task force into a commission, which is a fine idea. But more important, the new commission would have something extraordinary: a $50,000 litigation fund to pay for an outside lawyer — not the city attorney — to sue officials who flout the law. If those lawsuits succeed, the city would have to pay attorneys’ fees, which would replenish the fund. And the very threat of that could have a huge impact on the way City Hall responds to sunshine requests.
We support the plan — and since nobody else will enforce the law, we think the task force (or commission) needs the authority to do it. The body overseeing sunshine complaints should be able to force public officials to release records or open meetings; rulings from that body should have the force of law. That works well in Connecticut, where a state Freedom of Information Commission has the authority to order anyone, from the governor to a city council, to open up files. Government in that state hasn’t become unwieldy; officials secrets haven’t fallen into the hands of terrorists. But ordinary citizens who can’t afford a lawsuit have a forum to force reluctant public officials to do their business in public.
San Francisco should adopt that model, and the sooner the better.
The crowd protesting at San Francisco’s Civic Center March 4 had a different demographic than we’re used to. There were families, moms and dads with their kids. A lot of the people there don’t demonstrate and protest on a regular basis; they have jobs and families and can barely keep up with their day-to-day responsibilities. I know the drill.
But they were out in the streets because they’re furious at what’s happening to public education in California and they should be. It’s criminal. The state is headed for the very bottom, and at this rate we’ll soon have the worst-funded public schools in America. And a gem of a state higher education system is on its way to becoming a set of overpriced, second-rate institutions.
And now everyone who stood up to be counted last week needs to take the next step and support the only solution that will actually work. It’s called raising taxes.
California’s more than $20 billion in the hole. There’s money going to waste, plenty of it. We could release every prisoner doing time on drug charges and save a few billion. But even that wouldn’t be enough to save the education system.
We all knew, or should have known, back in 1978, when Proposition 13 passed, that this day was coming. When you cut off the main source of revenue for schools local property taxes and rely on state funding, and the state Legislature can’t raise new revenue without a two-thirds vote, which means a handful of troglodyte Republicans can prevent it, this kind of crisis is inevitable.
So some intense, ongoing political action has to come out of the exciting and wonderful Day of Action. And if it’s going to make a difference, the action has to take place on three fronts.
1. We’ve got to get rid of the two-thirds majority requirement. There’s a ballot initiative circulating now that would do that.
2. We’ve got to amend Prop. 13. Assembly Member Tom Ammiano is pushing for a split-roll, to tax commercial property at a higher rate. That’s an excellent start.
3. We’ve got to push local government to raise taxes right here at home to help fund schools and public services. That means pushing Mayor Gavin Newsom, who loves to crow about education, to work with the supervisors on some major new revenue measures.
Either that or we let the politicians point fingers and blame each other. And the schools fall apart.