Volume 48 Number 02

No room left in San Francisco for an artist who helped make the Mission what is

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After four decades living and creating art in the Mission, iconic San Francisco artist and curator Rene Yañez is being threatened with eviction.

Yañez made local history in 1972 when he brought Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring the dead, to San Francisco. The parade through the Mission District every Nov. 2 quickly became a Bay Area tradition, drawing thousands of people each year.

He founded the Galeria de la Raza and brought Latin America’s premier artists and photographers to showcase their work there. When the Museum of Modern Art rejected the work of a little-known Mexican woman, it was Yañez who gave a young Frida Kahlo a space to exhibit her paintings. He taught art classes for youths in the community and offered crucial support to many of the Mission’s mural projects.

In 1998, the San Francisco Foundation awarded Rene the “Special Trustees Award in Cultural Leadership.” Now, the man who has contributed so much to the culture of this city finds himself on the verge of being expelled from it.

Rene’s impending eviction from the house on San Jose Avenue where he has lived for the for 35 years is producing a fierce reaction. Fellow artist and personal friend Guillermo Gómez-Peña recently released an open letter expressing his outrage and rallying for public support of Rene’s cause.

“You are being physically and culturally evicted,” Gómez-Peña writes. “Shame on this city! Shame on the greedy landlords and politicians! Your sadness is ours…A city without Rene Yañez…can’t be called San Francisco.”

Gómez-Peña’s cry to action will be answered tomorrow (Sat/12) at 2pm at the Brava Theater on 24th Street with Our Mission: No Eviction, a march in protest of the Ellis Act, the law used to evict all of the tenants living in the five-unit house on San Jose, including Rene, his partner Cynthia, his former wife Yolanda, and his son Rio. (For more on tomorrow’s event and the city’s eviction trend, see our Politics blog).

On Saturday, Oct. 26, Brava Theater in the Mission will host “Our Mission: No Eviction!” a fundraiser in honor of Rene and Yolanda featuring art and performances.  All proceeds from ticket sales to the event will go to the legal expenses of fighting the eviction, as well as Rene and Cynthia’s medical bills; both the artist and his partner are currently battling cancer.

“They were kind of at peace that this would be their home when they passed away, in the community they’ve put so much into,” Rio told us. “Cynthia could be dying or dead while they are in the process of moving.”

Under the Ellis Act, Rene and Cynthia qualify for a year-long postponement of their eviction because of their illness, a fact which their landlord, Sergio Iantorno of Golden Properties, LLC, neglected to tell Rene when he offered him $21,000 and a years’ free rent if he accepted his eviction immediately.

Consulting his lawyer, Raquel Fox, Yañez was informed about the legal extension and proceeded to successfully apply for it. Even without her advice, though, Yañez would not have accepted Iantorno’s offer. As Rio explained, that amount is nowhere near enough for Rene and Cynthia Yañez to get another place in San Francisco, especially in the neighborhood that they call home.

“They are in their 70s. They aren’t looking for a huge buyout so that they can start a new life,” Rio told us.

When their original landlord died 13 years ago, Yañez and his fellow tenants pooled their money to make a bid for the house. Golden Properties saw their offer, and doubled it. Now, they are banding together again to refuse Iantorno’s money and fight  the eviction.

“I would rather take my chances and fight it,” Yañez told the Guardian. “And also I see it as resistance to what is going on and affecting a lot of people.”

On Oct. 1, the San Francisco Rent Board released its Annual Statistical Report for fiscal year 2012-2013. The report revealed a 36 percent increase in eviction notices since the year before. Evictions from rent-controlled apartments in particular are at an 11-year high.

The Ellis Act was used 81 percent more than last year, providing the basis for almost 10 percent of all evictions. The law was used with greatest frequency by landlords in the Mission District. Meanwhile, city public health officials estimate that someone earning minimum wage would need to work more than eight full-time jobs to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment downtown.

“It is a disaster,” states Christopher Cook, an organizer with the nonprofit group Eviction Free Summer. “Individuals, families, and increasingly small businesses are being hammered by these twin tsunamis of evictions and dramatic rent increases. Those two factors have been driving people out of the city in ever greater numbers for the past 10 to 15 years.”

Gómez-Peña blames these changes on the mass of high-paid young people produced by the second dot-com boom. They may work in Silicon Valley, but they play in San Francisco, and this new class of wealthy young techies can and will pay any price to live in the city—especially the Mission District.

“I see them everyday, the hordes of iPad and iPhone texting zombies, oblivious to us and our lives, our inspirations and tribulations,” he writes. “I see them in my building and on the street, invading the city with an attitude of unchecked entitlement, taking over every square inch and squeezing out the last drops of otherness.”

It is no easy task to make room for all that wealth when the majority of the city’s residents are renters protected by law against unfair rent increases, landlord mistreatment, and unwarranted evictions. The actual strength of these safeguards may be waning, though, leading Gómez-Peña to warn the public in his letter that, “As renters our hours here are numbered.”

The only way to evict a tenant in San Francisco is by claiming one of 15 “just cause” reasons for removing them. Among those 15, the Ellis Act is something of a landlord’s dream date, skipping all the talking to get straight to the action—eviction. Established in 1985, the California law gives landlords the unconditional right to evict tenants if they are “going out of business.”

In order to implement the Ellis Act, a landlord must evict all of the tenants in his or her building, giving them 120 days notice, and wait five years before they can put the units back on the rental market at an increased price. However, the law does not prevent landlords from renting the units out as short-term lodgings, or converting them to be sold as one massive unit, tenancies in common or condominiums.

“Ellis Act evictions are impossible to fight,” admitted Ted Gullickson, the head of the San Francisco Tenants Union. This makes them an ideal weapon against rent control, which has allowed residents from lower income brackets to hold onto their homes in San Francisco for decades while the values of the real estate grew and grew. Even then, many tenants do not feel secure. Guerra has heard stories about people with rent control living for decades without hot water, working windows, heat, or even a stove. “To have this amazing rent control,” she concludes, “they put up with substandard living.”

When something broke in their building, Yañez and his family often did not even tell the landlord about it. If they did ask him to fix something, and he ignored their request, no complaints were ever made. “Because of rent control, we tried to keep a low profile,” Yañez acknowledges. “We tried not to bother the landlord or make too much of a fuss, because we did not want to find ourselves in this position.”

Rene has been aware of how precarious his situation is for years. Iantorno attempted to evict him multiple times. He watched as neighbors, nonprofit organizations, and local artists accepted their own eviction notices without a fight. When he first opened the Galeria in 1970, Yañez had a list of artists living in the Mission that neared 200 names. Today, it does not even reach 20.

“Since 2000, they’ve started this thing in the Mission,” he states. “They were very quiet about it at first, but now it’s accelerating. Willie Brown started it, this trend of redevelopment, eviction, displacing people without consideration. He opened up this gaping wound in the Mission, and now these developers are throwing salt on it, trying to kill the patient,” he chuckles. “People get really upset when somebody paints over a mural, like, ‘It has history, it has value, it’s been here for years,’ but they don’t have anything to say if the muralist gets evicted.”

Legally, there is not much that Yañez and his family can do in the coming year to stop their eviction. Even an advocate like Cook admits, “You can’t reverse an Ellis Act. All you can do is fight it, try to make it clear that it’s not worth the landlord’s while, that they’re gonna be in for a world of headaches, costs, and public shaming if they do this.”

Yañez has not accepted the eviction, but he is preparing for the worst, searching for a new home for Cynthia and himself. He continues to scour the Mission, in vain. “I love the Mission,” he explains. “I’ve been there 40 years. I adopted it, it adopted me. And it needs cultural preservation,” he says, curling his hands into fists that bang the air. “We saved the community from really greedy people who had absolutely no interest in who we were as a people. They just saw us as savages standing in the way of them making money. That attitude is still here. It’s actually worse than ever—unregulated and devastating. When I see the trucks moving people out, older people who have no idea where they’re going, sometimes they go downtown to the hotels—I just think it’s really heartless,” he finishes, his eyes wide in earnesty.

Guardian of San Francisco culture that he may be, Rene and Cynthia Yañez will be forced to leave the city in search of somewhere more affordable if their eviction occurs. In that event, there is little chance that the elderly man will be able to return to the city to curate SOMArts annual Dia de los Muertos exhibition as he has every year since he began it.

“I’m hoping that I can hang in. It’s a throw of the dice, but I still have some miles left in me,” he says, his eyes drooping wearily.

There is a chance that the exhibition, which opened today (Friday/11), might be Yañez’s last. Every year, he changes the theme. This November, the Dia de los Muertos exhibition is dedicated to all the living battling cancer, and  all the dead for whom that battle is over. Each piece is haunting, and all together it is a stunning collection encompassing a range of ages and races to touch any and every person that sees it. Like a loved one lost to cancer, the exhibit leaves you wanting more, yet so grateful fpr what you have experienced.

His last or not, it is something that Yañez can be very proud of.

Volume 48 Number 2 Flip-through Edition

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Blitzkrieg what?

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arts@sfbg.com

MUSIC The progression of party-rock champion Andrew W.K.’s career reads less like a linear trajectory than a whirlwind of bizarre, hilarious, and downright enviable undertakings. After he started out as a keyboardist in New York’s avant-garde circles, and built his reputation with a handful of ecstatic butt-rock records (most notably 2001’s I Get Wet, featuring that iconic nosebleed on its cover), W.K.’s biography plunged into full-on chaos mode.

From new-age piano improviser on 2009’s 55 Cadillac, to kids’ game-show host on Cartoon Network’s Destroy Build Destroy, to celebrity ambassador of Playtex Fresh + Sexy Wipes, to valiant record-setter for Longest Drum Session in a Retail Store after this year’s much-blogged 24 Hour Drum Marathon, predicting W.K.’s next move over the past decade has proved futile. Yet, his latest gig might be the most wonderfully surprising of all: assuming the bandleader role in the latest incarnation of punk-rock legends, the Ramones.

Marky Ramone’s Blitzkrieg, featuring W.K. on lead vocals, will hit the Independent this Saturday night, introducing a new twist in the Ramones’ storied legacy.

Speaking to the Bay Guardian over the phone from St. Louis, on his second US tour stop as the band’s de-facto Joey figure, W.K. sets his zany, carefree party persona aside, revealing himself as both humbled and starstruck at the reality of leading the band he’s idolized for so many years.

“It’s a combination of feeling on top of the world, because dreams just keep coming true, and terrified by the magnitude of how fantastic the opportunity is, and also, not embarrassed, but just aware, of how many other people would like to have this chance to sing these songs with Marky. Why do I get it?” W.K. ponders.

“I feel very, very lucky, like I want to represent all my friends and all the people around the world that love this music so much. I feel like I’m doing this on [their] behalf, and that this opportunity is to be shared as much as possible, at least in spirit.”

Most famously led by Joey, Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy, the most iconic quadfecta of first names in rock since the Beatles, the Ramones forever changed the course of pop music, as one of the formative outfits of the punk rock movement. The songs, from “Blitzkrieg Bop,” to “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” to “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” were hedonistic in their intent, and radically economical in their structure and duration, feeding directly into the party mindset W.K. would adopt decades afterward.

Their records, from the skeletal beginnings of Leave Home and Rocket to Russia in 1977, to the Phil Spector-produced technicolor pop of End of the Century in 1980, certainly marked an artistic progression, but W.K. thinks of it differently.

“All the albums are just this big explosion of inspired genius. It’s hard to even break it apart. I don’t want to break it apart, actually. I just like thinking of the whole thing as just this one phenomenon.

“[The Ramones are] so singular. They’re so completely self-actualized, that just them standing there screams this certain feeling, and no one else has it… When we play live, it almost feels as if the show is one song.”

While Marky Ramone didn’t join the band until partway through its creative explosion (he took over for Tommy on drums in ’78, after several stints with the Misfits and Richard Hell & the Voidoids), he continues to keep the Ramones legacy alive, as its last remaining member after the deaths of Joey, Johnny, and Dee Dee, from lymphoma, prostate cancer, and a heroin overdose, respectively. W.K. is clearly inspired by Marky’s resilience, through tumultuous times that would’ve rendered positive, joyful music a near impossibility for many musicians moving forward.

“One of the most inspiring parts is his conviction to keep on going and doing all that he can to do this music, which is a cheerful kind of music,” W.K. explains. “No matter how dark aspects of the whole adventure have been, or how challenging, or how sad, or how frustrating, there was always a cheerful effort. The end result was to feel good, not bad.”

W.K. might not be the most intuitive choice to assume Joey’s position as lead singer, yet he contends that his feel-good reputation, and outspoken promotion of partying as way of life, is what captured Marky’s attention, eventually resulting in the current touring lineup.

“Marky, right away when we first met, had done some amount of research into my vibe, or whatever, and said he definitely enjoyed and appreciated the party philosophy,” W.K. says. “[However], at our first dinner together, he explained that he doesn’t want someone who would even attempt to replicate [Joey’s persona]. The shoes are impossible to fill.”

“The thing is, the music is so good, that as long as you sing the best you can, it takes care of itself. No one could ever sing like Joey, even if they tried. It’s futile. There’s no singer like him. But, the songs, as Marky says, deserve to still be played. I just serve him, serve the legacy, and most of all, the music, as best I can.”

On Saturday night, Ramones fans can expect a 30+ song set, borrowing from each of the band’s albums, from its 1976 self-titled debut, to 1995’s farewell effort, ¡Adios Amigos!. Upon W.K.’s request, Marky agreed to include a rendition of “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” from 1986’s Animal Boy, a song he heard in a NYC record store as a teenager, in the moment that cemented his Ramones fandom.

“That’s the moment during the show when I can connect all these different times,” W.K. explains, “from the first time I ever saw the Ramones, to the first time I ever heard that song, and now I’m singing it with Marky onstage. Those are the kind of moments that make life worth living. Even if you just get a few of them in your life, you’re lucky.”

MARKY RAMONE’S BLITZKRIEG WITH ANDREW W.K.

With FIGO, the Meat Sluts

Sat/12, 9pm, $25

Independent

628 Divisadero, SF

(415) 771-1421

www.theindependentsf.com

 

Exile on Main St. USA

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arts@sfbg.com

FILM Escape From Tomorrow acquired cachet at Sundance this year as a movie you ought to see because it probably wouldn’t surface again — not because it was that bad, but because any regular release seemed sure to be legally blocked. The reason was its setting, which composites two of the most photographed (and “happiest”) places on Earth. They’re also among the most heavily guarded from any commercial usage not of their own choosing.

That would be Disney World and Disneyland, where Escape was surreptitiously shot — ingeniously so, since you would hardly expect any movie filmed on the sly like this to be so highly polished, or for its actors to get so little apparent attention from the unwitting background players around them. (Let alone from security personnel, since as anyone who’s ever tried to do anything “against the rules” at a Disney park can tell you, those folks are as omnipresently watchful as Big Brother.)

Disney does not have a history of taking perceived affronts to its brand lightly. One movie that never did never make it past its festival bow was 2002’s The Sweatbox, an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the animated feature that eventually emerged as 2000’s The Emperor’s New Groove. That was a fun movie, but completely different from the far more ambitious narrative its first round of creators envisioned, only to have years of work curtly dismissed with a “start over from scratch” memo from top executives mid process. Though green-lit by the studio itself, its directors given full warts-and-all access, The Sweatbox turned out so heartbreakingly revealing (and so unflattering toward the aforementioned execs) that the studio shelved the finished product after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere. It hasn’t been seen since … at least not legally.

So there seemed little hope for Escape, which is anything but “authorized.” You don’t have to be a Disney lawyer to imagine how it could be seen as copyright infringement, a slander of sorts, or outright theft. That nobody has pulled the fire alarm, however, suggests Disney realized this movie isn’t going to do it any real harm. And perhaps more importantly, that a lawsuit would provide a publicity gold mine for the naughty filmmakers while hardly keeping viewers away in the long run. (Todd Haynes’ infamous, Barbie-enacted 1988 biopic Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story has been “banned” since 1990, thanks to unamused sibling Richard Carpenter. Surely by now he’s aware his actions helped make it perhaps the most widely seen “unseeable” movie in history; as of this writing, there are 10 copies on YouTube alone.)

Anyway, Escape From Tomorrow is here, in improved form even. Nearly 15 minutes cut since Sundance have made all the difference between a clever, albeit slightly overstuffed, stunt and something uncategorizable yet fully realized. While its illicit setting remains near-indispensable (another big family theme park probably would have worked, too), what writer-director Randy Moore has pulled off goes beyond great gimmickry. His movie’s commingled satire, nightmare Americana, cartooniness, pathos, and surrealism recalls a few cult-fabled others — Eraserhead (1977), Parents (1989), even Superstar — mostly alike only in going so far out on their very own twisted limb.

We’re introduced to average, 40-ish Jim (Roy Abramsohn) the morning of the last day of his family vacation. He’s on their hotel room balcony, taking a phone call from his boss — who cheerfully fires him sans explanation. As Jim sputters in disbelief, approximately seven-year-old son Elliot (Jack Dalton) mischievously — or malevolently — locks the sliding door from the inside, then crawls back into bed beside still-sleeping mommy Emily (Elena Schuber), leaving dad stuck outside in his skivvies. Thus the film’s two major paths for interpretation are introduced right away: What follows might either be hallucinated by shell-shocked Jim, or really be a grand, bizarre conspiracy (usurping son included).

This final day is to be spent doing, well, what you do with kids at places like this. Elliot wants to go on certain rides; little sister Sara (Katelynn Rodriguez) often wants to do different things. Their parents, when separated by conflicting child demands, stay in touch via cellphone — or don’t, to Emily’s exasperation. Jim has a tendency to get distracted by … things, like whimsical park characters that suddenly grow menacing fangs (thanks to the wonders of digital post-production) only he notices, or the two barely-legal French girls frolicking in short shorts (Danielle Safady, Annet Mahendru) who seem to be deliberately exciting his lascivious interest at every turn.

Then there are the disquieting rumors of a “cat flu” epidemic; the wife’s rebuffing all physical affection; a very weird interlude with a fellow park guest (Alison Lee-Taylor) whom Jim abruptly finds atop his bound, naked self, barking “Fuck me! Feel my vagina!;” and assorted other occurrences either imaginary, or apocalyptic, or both. Emily’s irritated accusation “Did you black out again?” is as intriguing and baffling as the full-blown sci fi-horror plot Jim finds himself the center of — or at least thinks he does.

Lucas Lee Graham’s crisp B&W photography finds the natural noir-slash-Carnival of Souls (1962) grotesquerie lurking in the shadows of parkland imagery. Abel Korzeniowski’s amazing score apes and parodies vintage orchestral Muzak, cloying kiddie themes, and briefly even John Williams at his most Spielbergian. All the actors do fine work, slipping fluidly if not always explicably from grounded real-world behavior to strangeness — clearly they were given the explanatory motivational road map that the audience is denied. But then the real achievement of Escape From Tomorrow, more than its sheer novelty of concept and aesthetic, is that while this paranoid fantasy really makes no immediate sense, Moore’s cockeyed vision is so assured that we assume it must, on some level. He’s created a movie some people will hate but others will watch over and over again, trying to connect its almost subliminal dots. *

 

ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW opens Fri/11 at the Roxie.

Survival mode

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cheryl@sfbg.com.

FILM Eye of the tiger, baby. The fight for survival is a dominant theme this season at the movies, with astronaut Sandra Bullock grappling for her life in Gravity; lone sailor Robert Redford piloting a leaky boat in All Is Lost; and Tom Hanks battling Somali pirates in Captain Phillips. (More on that film — directed with trademark urgency by Paul Greengrass — in a moment.)

No movie stars appear in The Summit, a documentary from Irish filmmaker Nick Ryan, but that doesn’t lessen its power. In fact, this tale of a staggeringly tragic mountaineering accident — in which 11 people perished in a 48-hour period atop K2, the second-highest peak in the world — might be the most terrifying of the bunch. Along with the expected historical context, talking heads, and some stunning aerial footage, The Summit crafts its tale using a seamless blend of re-enactments and archival footage shot during the deadly 2008 expedition. Editor Ben Stark picked up two awards at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, and you can see why — it’s difficult at times to pick out what’s real and what’s not.

“Only 18 percent of the footage is reconstructed. I actually did the calculation, because it was coming up a lot,” Ryan explained on a recent visit to San Francisco. In this era of obsessive self-documentation, it’s not surprising that many of the climbers happened to be carrying cameras. “I was always aware, though, that perhaps once things started to go bad, there wasn’t going to be much footage there. People were going to be too busy surviving, and filming was probably the last thing on their minds. As a director, the reconstructions were a very conscious choice — I knew how complex the story was. The best method would be to tie [its fragments] together with a strong narrative structure.”

Accompanying Ryan to SF was Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, a professional climber who was a hero amid the chaos in 2008. Though K2 claimed the life of his teammate and close friend, charismatic Irishman Ger McDonnell, he didn’t hesitate when Ryan asked him to participate in the film.

“The documentary allowed us to show the public what happened on the mountain,” Sherpa explained. “But the reconstructions did bring up some difficult feelings.”

The Summit has been compared to Kevin Macdonald’s 2003 Touching the Void — a documentary enhanced by re-enactments that’s also about a controversial climb. Ryan said he saw the movie when it came out, but he’s avoided other obvious touchstones, like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster. “You don’t want to be influenced. But though they’re substantially different, I was always envious of the simplicity of Touching the Void as a story. The Summit was the polar opposite of that, because of its complexity.”

The Summit also delves into the more metaphysical aspects of climbing, including “summit fever” — sharing the startling statistic that for every four people who attempt K2, one will die. “As a non-climber, I was fascinated by that,” Ryan said. “Why would anyone take worse odds than Russian roulette?”

Those who do must understand the sport’s unwritten rule of self-preservation. “Morality is skewed when you get above the [high-altitude] death zone. The morally right thing to do isn’t necessarily the actual right thing to do,” Ryan said. “If you climb these mountains, I think you have to realize that when things go wrong you can only rely on yourself. You can’t expect anyone to help you — when you’re stuck there, you might as well be stuck on the moon. Nobody is coming to help you.”

Fortunately for cargo ship captain Richard Phillips, the Gulf of Aden is neither K2 nor the moon. In 2009, Phillips was taken hostage by pirates who’d hijacked the Kenya-bound Maersk Alabama. His subsequent rescue by Navy SEALs came after a standoff that ended in the death of three pirates; a fourth, Abduwali Abdukhadir Muse, surrendered and is serving a hefty term in federal prison.

A year later, Phillips penned a book about his ordeal, and Hollywood pounced. Hanks is perfectly cast as Phillips, an everyman who runs a tight ship but displays an admirable ability to improvise under pressure.

“He was essentially trying anything to shake them off his path. [The pirates] let him hold onto his radio, and he was able to communicate with everybody else on the ship that way,” Hanks said, in town to promote the film with Greengrass and co-star Barkhad Abdi. “[Phillips] had so much knowledge as a merchant mariner. Prior in his career, he’d been in a hurricane in the middle of the Pacific, in which he was helpless — so he’d experienced a different type of terror at sea. With [the pirates], he had somebody he could interact with. It was a different type of fear and anxiety.”

Abdi, cast from an open call among Minneapolis’ large Somali community, plays pirate leader Muse. Captain Phillips focuses mostly on Hanks’ character, but it takes the time to emphasize that piracy is one of few grim career options for Somali youths. The first-time actor, who left Somalia at a young age, brings nuance to what could’ve been a one-note villain.

“I relate to that character, because that could have been me,” he said. “I was lucky enough to have parents that took me to another country, where I could be a better person. But what if my parents had been killed? I don’t excuse [Muse’s] actions, but I understand his motives.”

With a résumé full of intelligent, doc-inspired thrillers (2006’s United 93, 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum), director Greengrass has mastered the art of fast-paced action filmmaking. He’s especially known for his use of handheld cameras, and Captain Phillips is no exception.

“Ships rock around. How do you shoot on a lifeboat and keep it steady? It’s impossible. You want the images that you’re capturing to authentically arise out of the environment that you’re shooting in,” Greengrass explained, with a caveat. “The faster-moving your sequence, and the more intensely complicated your action is, it [becomes] imperative to render detail. Detail is what gives you acceleration and focus. You’ve got to be inside the action, and your filmmaking must unlock the inner dynamics in a way that’s clear. With this film, you’ve got a very simple, unbelievably dramatic, stark story. If we render it as authentically as we can, we’ll find out what it means — which you couldn’t have found from the news, because you’re looking at it from the outside. You can only find out by being in it.” *

 

THE SUMMIT and CAPTAIN PHILLIPS open Fri/11 in Bay Area theaters.

Legacy of rhythm

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arts@sfbg.com

DANCE Has there ever been a celebration at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts quite as exuberant, layered, and embracing of a people, a period, and a place as Dimensions Dance Theater’s 40th anniversary show? Not as far as I know. Despite a timing hitch at the end, probably due to the exigencies of costume changes, Dimensions offered a one of a kind evening of glorious dancing. It was a long program — but then, why can’t some events keep going so that they spill deep into the night and the dreams beyond?

The three-hour show opened on a ceremonial note with thank-yous — not to deep-pocketed donors, but to the ancestors both dead and those present who have made Dimensions possible. Poet Marvin White was the griot who poured libations and repeatedly returned to reset the company’s focus on a trajectory of kindness, strength, and love, ending with a promise of a state of being in which earthly limitations will have fallen by the wayside.

Artistic director and Dimensions founder Deborah Vaughan’s vision for the program was both intimate and grand. In the first section, the dancers revisited excerpts of works in the company’s repertoire. If there is one theme that travels through Dimensions’ history, it’s dancing that embodies strength, courage, and joy. In the excerpts of Fly and Catalyst: One by One, the very diverse bodies of Dimensions’ women took to the air with silken buoyancy. Breaking out of unisons, their individuality was still carried by a common impetus. Even the trio of youngsters from the Dimensions youth program danced with that kind of personalized discipline. Young Micaiah Bell’s initial solo just about burned itself into my mind.

In the excerpt from Project Panther, Dimensions’ trio of male dancers (Erik Lee, Justin Sharlman, and Noah James III) proved themselves fierce warriors and fierce dancers in the way they dived over each other and hurled themselves through space. Lee’s exquisitely nuanced solo from Garth Fagan’s Yesterday/Yesternow made you want to see the whole work again — as was, actually, the case with many of the glances in this retrospective, which closed with spitfire ensemble takes on South African boot and can dances.

For the world premiere of Rhythms of Life: Down the Congo Line, Vaughan invited choreographers from the Republic of Congo, Cuba, and Brazil to set works drawn from their traditions on her remarkable dancers. The piece opened with the evening’s pied pipers, MJ’s Brass Boppers, who had led the initial procession into the theater. Latanya d. Tigner choreographed a witty, yet not ironic The Last Dance/St. Ann and Rampart, inspired by New Orleans funeral traditions. With the dancers in brilliant white, they shook their hands, bowed their torsos, and stepped in and out of line, making sure that they were noticed. They were mourning but also celebrating because they were not about to be overcome.

In Palo, the Cuban section, backed by strong singer Sulkary Valverde, dancers used poles as a practice of self-defense but also to demonstrate precision ensemble work. Lovely to see how Sharlman moved through the group and slowly replaced the “weapons” with hooked drumming sticks.

From Brazil, choreographer Isaura Oliveira showcased the Dimensions men in low-to-the-ground feats, that constant shift of weight and direction that we recognize from capoeira. Despite their being filled with an inherent sense of danger, these dances also mesmerize. Danilo Portugal deserved all the applause he got for his chanting and haunting birimbau playing.

I wish the lovely, sexy, and sassy couple dances — inherited from a colonial past though they were — could have been extended before leading into a skirt-swirling, intoxicating carnival. The section ended with a celebration of the end of colonialism with a lilting King (Sharlman) and Queen (Laura Elaine Ellis), and Tigner as an Elder who deposited a totemic doll on the altar.

The after-intermission Vulkana squarely threw the spotlight on the drum, without which African dance — whether in the Congo or in the Diaspora — would not exist. To have these different traditions come together proved both exhilarating and a little messy. Yet it was one of the evening’s highlights to have Kiazi Malonga in a friendly competition with tiny Congolese firecracker Hervé Makaya and his cohort Teber Milandou. They set not only the makuta drums but also costume parts flying.

Vukana also paid tribute to these brave Dimensions performers who, whether chanting in a sitting circle or swiveling their hips so that the energy rose up through the torso and sailed through the arms, looked at home. Whatever the specifics of the wide-ranging demands made on them, Dimensions looked as if born into them. *

 

Keep choppin’

0

arts@sfbg.com

CULTURE It’s 6:35pm in Hunters Point and Poll Brown is about to be late to a documentary about himself. The puckish man from South End, Essex, and a small crew of bikers are scrambling to fix a snapped throttle cable. This is a way of life for them: always under the gun, always fixing things, always a little behind. Like a rag-tag task force, they rip a cable out of one bike and marry it to another. There’s not enough time.

At 7pm, after a hairy ride up the 101, lane-splitting between Google buses on Van Ness, Poll is inside the Opera Plaza Cinema for the premiere of Dirtbag.

“We had a bet — just between four buddies,” Brown says in the film, with his gravelly English accent. “It got to be who could build a custom motorcycle for the least money.”

And thus was born the Dirtbag Challenge, which marks its 10th year this Sunday with more rock music, BBQ, and custom motorcycles doing burnouts than is healthy for any person’s ears, lungs, cholesterol, or psyche. The rules have changed a bit since 2003, but here’s the way they currently stand: 1) build a motorcycle in one month; 2) spend less than $1,000; 3) no Harley-Davidsons; 4) the bike must complete a 60- to 100-mile ride.

The restrictions are designed to bring out the creativity and ingenuity of the builders. The first few years without the 100-mile ride rule attracted several very artistic bikes — some more sculpture than road-ready. (One year, a bike with a partially wooden frame went home in splinters.) As for the no-Harley rule, “the quintessential chopper will always be a Harley-Davidson,” explains Poll. “No matter how bad, if a Harley shows up, it still might win.”

Director Paolo Asuncion’s doc chronicles the 2009 Dirtbag Challenge. “When we started, we were going to do ‘This is about the industry’,” he says. He went so far as to interview bike-building royalty like Arlen Ness. “But by the end of filming, all those high-dollar guys didn’t really belong to the story we were trying to tell.”

Overall, the film is a fun look at a unique subculture of motorcycling. By its end, you get a sense that the Dirtbag is more than just a biker build-off — it’s an idea with a spirit behind it. Asuncion drives the point home with the final word of the film, which was met with roars of approval from the crowd: “This documentary was edited in under a month. And making this entire film cost under a thousand dollars.”

After the screening, Brown says, “I’m blown away. It’s interesting to watch something you’ve created have such a positive influence on so many people.”

Pinky McQueen, longtime organizer of the event, has one honest critique. “I realize the movie was spotlighting the builders in particular, but as far as the [Dirtbag Challenge] party goes, there are so many people who selflessly put in countless hours for free to make sure the event [goes] off without a hitch.”

A few days later, one such volunteer, Emily Wakeman, says, “The movie inspired me to just go with our skill set.” With 16 days to go until this year’s event, she and her friends have a running bike and are getting ready to mount a brake light in an old, mud-filled trombone — donated from the Great Guerneville Flood of ’86.

“We’ve spent more money on beer than we have on parts,” confesses fellow builder Shannon Jones.

In Bayview, master fabricator Turk is exactly $521 into his Yamaha-powered, side-car equipped dragster bike. He enjoys the educational side of the Dirtbag Challenge. “It shows that if you want to build a motorcycle, you can,” he says. “If you don’t know how, you can get help.”

Jason Pate is working against the clock in Fremont. Having spent around $800, he has a running bike constructed from no less than six different motorcycles. His son, Jason Pate II, says Brown was here yesterday and showed him how to clean out carburetors. Meanwhile, San Jose resident Alex “Koska” Verbisky — originally from Moldova — is at exactly $1,000. His 1969 Honda CB450 has a wacky new set of handlebars made from Suzuki shock parts and a Volkswagen camshaft.

Up in Orland, Casey Anderson, a professional chopper builder featured in the film, is about $580 into his build, converting a 1979 Honda touring bike to look like a 1928 BMW R62. Thirty minutes south through walnut and olive orchards, in Willows, Kyle Cannon’s son Michael is building a bike for credit in shop class with his pals Joseph and Jake Martin. And down the road, Josh Stine is overcoming his muscular dystrophy, building a bike he hopes he will sell to supplement his Social Security check.

It’s inspiring — a quality that’s fitting for a volunteer-run event that promotes creativity, self-expression, and self-reliance, and encourages learning and community. Participants build strange, mutant vehicles. And it all started as a small gathering of friends near the waters of San Francisco. Sound like any other event you know?

“At first begrudgingly and now gratefully, I accept comparisons to Burning Man,” says Brown.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he likes it. The biggest difference between the Burn and the Dirtbag is that there’s simply no way to throw money at the Dirtbag. Ten years in, the event is still free and no one is getting paid. Brown even recently sold his van to finance a cross-country motorcycle trip.

“If I did want to make this a money-making enterprise, the potential is there,” says Brown toward the end of the film. “[But] I’m not sure if I’m ever gonna actually do that, because that might remove the soul from it.” *

DIRTBAG CHALLENGE

Sun/13, 2pm, free

End of Quesada St, SF

www.dirtbagchallenge.comwww.rattlerproductions.com

Supervisors examine anti-cyclist bias at SFPD

17

The Board of Supervisors Neighborhood Services and Safety Committee held a high-profile and well-attended hearing Oct. 3 to examine how the San Francisco Police Department investigates motorist versus bicyclist collisions. Sup. Jane Kim called the hearing following revelations about shoddy police work and anti-cyclist bias in the Aug. 14 death of cyclist Amelie Le Moullac.

Dozens of cyclists told horror stories of being hit by cars and then treated badly by police, which routinely absolves motorists of responsibility even in cases where they are clearly at fault.

Deputy Police Chief Mike Biel admitted some shortcomings in their investigations and promised to do better, and he apologized for the absence of Police Chief Greg Suhr and Sgt. Richard Ernst, who showed up at an Aug. 21 memorial event for Le Moullac to make inaccurate and insensitive comments criticizing cyclists. Kim had requested testimony from both men. Sup. David Campos pledged to hold another hearing on the issue, this time at a rare joint hearing of the Board of Supervisors and Police Commission.

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Executive Director Leah Shahum urged the SFPD to, “Focus limited traffic enforcement resources on known dangerous intersections and known dangerous behaviors.” (Read Shahum’s op-ed on the hearing.)

Concerns about selective enforcement and anti-cyclist bias by the SFPD were heightened in the week before the hearing when officers started enforcement stings focused on stop sign-running cyclists riding the Wiggle, one of the city’s most popular and heavily traveled bike routes.

Among those stopped and given a written warning — one of 534 written warnings and 16 citations the SFPD reported giving out to cyclists in September — was Guardian Editor Steven T. Jones, whose Oct. 1 blog post on whether SFPD should strictly enforce laws requiring cyclist to completely stop at stop signs was the most commented SFBG.com post of the last week.

Shahum told us that the Bike Coalition has done education campaigns urging cyclists to yield to pedestrians on the Wiggle, but that none of the seven intersections on the Wiggle meet the SFPD’s own stated goals of focusing enforcement on the five most dangerous intersections in each police district. “When you look at the data on the Wiggle,” Shahum said, “it’s not a high collision area.”

Airbnb says its hosts should pay taxes

7

Under pressure in San Francisco and New York City for violating local tenant and land use laws and refusing to pay local taxes, Airbnb has finally acknowledged that transient occupancy taxes apply to the room rentals it facilitates. But the company still hasn’t taken any steps to collect the tax or admitted that it shares this tax debt with its hosts.

“Our hosts are not hotels, but we believe that it makes sense for our community to pay occupancy tax, with limited exemptions for those who earn under certain thresholds,” CEO Brian Chesky wrote on the Airbnb blog on Oct. 3, addressing the post to New York City and not San Francisco, where it is headquartered and where we have shown the company is shirking an annual tax debt of nearly $2 million.

Contacted by the Guardian, a company spokesperson extended the pledge to San Francisco, writing, “Yesterday, our CEO Brian Chesky announced that we believe it makes sense for our community of hosts to pay occupancy tax to the cities in which they live, with exceptions under certain thresholds, and we are eager to discuss how this might be made possible. We have been in substantive discussions with Board President David Chiu on these issues for some time, and we’d like to thank him for the open dialogue that helped lead to today’s announcement. We look forward to continuing our work with him and others in San Francisco to set forth clear, fair laws that allow regular people to rent out their own homes, while giving back to the city that makes it possible.”

As the Guardian has repeatedly reported, most recently in our Aug. 6 cover story “Into Thin Air,” the San Francisco Treasurer/Tax Collectors Office has ruled that the city’s TOT of about 15 percent applies to Airbnb guests, and that Airbnb shares that joint tax liability with its hosts.

The ability of individual hosts to receive business licenses for renting out rooms and to collect and remit the TOT is complicated by the fact that such rentals violate land use, tenant, and other city laws — and Chiu has been developing legislation that would legalize and regulate the stays.

Airbnb could easily collect the TOT on each San Francisco transaction, as some of its online competitors have already been doing, but it has so far refused to do so. And when the Guardian asked Airbnb whether it now plans to include the tax in its transactions, the company ignored the question.

In fact, Airbnb’s public statements and private communications indicate its intention to pass the buck to its hosts rather that paying the tax liability itself, and several hosts who commented on Chesky’s blog post expressed hopes they would get more support from the company.

Nonetheless, Chiu took the Airbnb’s statement yesterday as a positive sign, telling us, “I am pleased to hear that Airbnb has acknowledged the need for their users to pay the occupancy tax. This policy was developed as a result of discussions that I’ve led in the past year to regulate and tax shareable housing activity in San Francisco. While we continue to negotiate with shareable housing companies, housing advocates, and the Mayor’s Office to find sensible solutions, I am confident that we will be able to move forward on a regulatory framework that provides flexibility to residents, protects our affordable housing stock, and collects the fair share of taxes for the City. I look forward to introducing legislation in the coming months.”

Justice for cyclists

54

OPINION

It was heartbreaking to hear their stories.

Sarah was hit while riding her bike. Then she was wrongly faulted for the collision, despite multiple witnesses’ testimony and photo evidence to the contrary. A police officer verbally harassed her after the incident.

“The crash was awful,” she said. “But the way I was treated by the police … absolutely compounded the trauma. I was treated, at every turn, like a criminal.”

Dorie was hit from behind while biking in Golden Gate Park with her son in a rear child seat. Thankfully he was fine, but she was injured seriously enough to spend two weeks in the hospital. She was blamed for the incident, despite witnesses’ statements claiming otherwise.

And after Sandrine was hit while biking, she was treated with hostility by police officers while she lay in pain at the hospital. She was shocked to learn witness statements were not included in her incident report, which faulted her. Thousands of dollars in debt later, Sandrine says she is “disheartened and completely disgusted with the attitude and bias of the police” toward people on bikes.

Nearly 40 people spoke up last Thursday at a Board of Supervisors committee hearing into the SF Police Department’s response to traffic incidents involving people biking and walking.

The spotlight is on the SFPD after it botched an investigation last month of a 24-year-old woman who was hit and killed while biking to work on Folsom Street. Police failed to look for video footage in the area, and a police sergeant blocked the bike lane at the memorial to publicly blame the victim for her own death, while forcing bike riders into high speed traffic.

I’m sorry to say that I was not surprised by the sergeant’s “blame the victim” attitude in that recent tragedy. Nor in the dozens of cases people shared at last week’s hearing.

Sadly, we regularly hear about experiences like these: people refused incident reports, despite injuries. Reports being taken inaccurately or incompletely, time and time again blaming the person biking, despite witness statements to the contrary. And officers being ignorant of the law, such as not understanding that people can leave a bike lane to avoid an obstruction or to make a turn.

I believe our police chief when he insists that all road users should be treated fairly, but that message is not being heard by all in the force.

The chief needs to make certain that all collisions resulting in injuries are fully and fairly documented; that training is significantly stepped up to ensure officers’ understanding of bicyclists’ rights and responsibilities on the road; and, finally, that the SFPD uses a data-driven approach to focus limited traffic enforcement resources on the locations and behaviors that are most dangerous.

We are not asking for special treatment for the growing number of people on bikes, but rather fair and equal treatment for all road users.

Leah Shahum is executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Friends in the shadows

36

rebecca@sfbg.com, joe@sfbg.com

It’s a simple fact of life: Money buys influence. But in San Francisco, despite strict sunshine laws to illuminate donations to city agencies and gifts to the regulators from the regulated, money still circulates in the shadows when it flows through the coffers of “Friends” in high places.

Major real estate developers, city contractors, and large corporations often lend financial support to San Francisco city departments, to the tune of millions of dollars every year. But the money doesn’t just flow directly to city agencies, where it’s easily tracked by disclosure laws. Instead, it goes through private nonprofits that sometimes label themselves as “Friends Of…” these departments.

They include Friends of City Planning, Friends of the Library, a foundation formerly known as Friends of the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Friends of SF Environment, and Friends of San Francisco Animal Care and Control.

The Friends pay for programs the departments supposedly cannot cover on their own. Bond money can build a skyscraper, but sometimes not fill it with furniture. Agencies are barred by law from funding an employee mixer or a conference trip, so departments turn to their Friends to fill in the gaps. Adding bells and whistles to city websites, holding lunchtime lectures, hiring a grant writer — or, in the case of the Department of Public Health, bolstering health services for vulnerable populations — these are all examples of what gets funded.

The extra help can clearly be a good thing, but the lack of transparency around who’s giving money raises questions — especially if it’s a business gunning for a major contract or a permit to build a high-rise.

City agencies receive outside funding from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes grants are made by the federal government, or a well-established philanthropic foundation — and according to city law, gifts of $10,000 or higher must be approved by the Board of Supervisors. But in the case of organizations like Friends, which are created specifically to assist city government agencies, the original funders aren’t always identifiable. And the collaboration is frequently much closer, with city staff members serving on Friends boards in a few cases.

the circle of donations to "friends of" foundations

Friends board members told the Guardian that their partnership with government helps bolster city agencies in a time of increasing austerity, in service of the public good. But do the special relationships these influential insiders hold with high-ranking city officials come into play when awarding a contract, issuing a permit, making a hiring decision, or determining whether a developer’s request for a rule exemption should be honored? Without more transparency, it’s tough to tell.

City disclosure rules state that any gift to a department must be prominently displayed on that department’s website, along with any financial interest the donor has involving the city. But Friends and other outside funders are under no obligation to share their supporters’ names, much less financial ties, when they distribute grants. Meanwhile, the disclosure rules that are on the books seem to be frequently ignored, misunderstood, or unenforced, our investigation discovered.

How are donors repaid for their support? Consider the controversy earlier this year around Pet Food Express, which won approval in June for another store in the Marina District despite opposition from four locally owned pet stores in the area that fear competing with a large national chain. Pet Food Express won the unlikely support of the city’s Small Business Commissioners, some of whom reversed their 2009 positions opposing the chain’s previous application.

SF Animal Care and Control Director Rebecca Katz personally lobbied the commission to support Pet Food Express, at least partially because the company has donated pet supplies valued at $50,000 to $70,000 per year to the department. That’s a lot of money for a cash-strapped city department, but a pittance compared to the profits of an expanding national chain.

It’s moments of clarity like those, when the public can easily trace the line from donations to political influence, that show why disclosure is so crucial. But those moments are few and far between when trying to trace the funders of private foundations and Friends organizations, where deals often happen in the dark.

 

WHEN DEVELOPERS ARE FRIENDS

At the Merchant Exchange Building in May, a crowd of high-profile real-estate developers mixed and mingled with city planners, commissioners, and even Mayor Ed Lee, wine glasses in hand. Sources told the Guardian that most of the planning staff was present, and not all were happy about having ribbons and name tags affixed to their shirts, as if they were being auctioned off.

With around 500 in attendance, the event was an annual fundraiser hosted by the Friends of San Francisco City Planning, a nonprofit organization that accepts contributions of up to $2,500 per individual to lend a helping hand to the Planning Department. This year’s event was titled “Incubator Startups, New Jobs for the Future,” hinting that the development community shares the mayor’s affinity for new tech startups and the droves of high-salaried IT professionals they’ve attracted to the city.

Some Friends of City Planning board members are major real-estate developers who routinely seek approval for major construction projects. Others are former planning commissioners, or have a background in community advocacy.

Amid widespread concern about displacement, gentrification, and the overall character of San Francisco’s built environment, no city department has greater influence than Planning. An individual’s interpretation of the Planning Code can carry tremendous weight; it’s a series of small decisions that shape a project’s profits and the look and feel of San Francisco’s future. And with cranes dotting the city’s skyline and market-rate construction catering to the wealthy while middle income residents get priced out, the amount of capital flowing through the development sector these days is astonishing.

In this dizzy climate, there might seem to be something askew about affluent developers and land-use attorneys rubbing elbows with city regulators, all eager to pass the hat for the Planning Department. Whiff of impropriety or no, the fundraiser appears to be totally legal.

“We aren’t violating the law — that I know,” Friends of City Planning Chair Dennis Antenore told the Guardian. “We’ve had legal advice on that for years.”

There is close collaboration between Friends of San Francisco City Planning and the Planning Department — a partnership so entrenched that it’s almost as if the nonprofit is an unofficial, private-sector branch of the agency.

“We are certainly thankful and appreciative,” Planning spokesperson Joanna Linsangan told the Guardian. “They’ve helped us for many, many years.” The additional funding is needed, she said, because “there isn’t a lot of wiggle room” in the departmental budget.

Each year, Planning Director John Rahaim submits a wish list to the Friends, outlining projects he wants funding for. This year, he requested $122,000 for a variety of initiatives, including training support to help planners assess proposals for formula retail (read: chain stores). That’s a hot-button issue lately, and one that shows how seemingly small decisions by planners can have big impacts.

When the department’s zoning administrator ruled that Jack Spade, a high-end clothing chain that opened up in the old Adobe Books location on 16th Street, wasn’t considered formula retail and therefore didn’t need a conditional use permit, neither widespread community outrage nor a majority vote by the Board of Appeals could reverse that flawed decision. It was a similar story with the Planning Commission’s Oct. 3 approval of the 555 Fulton mixed use project, where Planning Department support for exempting the grocery store for the area’s formula retail ban made it happen, to the delight of that developer.

Even though the planning director makes specific funding requests each year to the Friends and pitches the projects in person at their meetings — and the Friends publishes a list of the grants it awards to the department online — the Planning Department is not reporting those gifts to the Board of Supervisors.

“I confirm that the Planning Department did not receive any gifts,” Finance and IT Manager Keith DeMartini wrote in official gift reports submitted to the Board of Supervisors for the years 2011-12 and 2012-13. Those reports were sent to the board on Oct. 7 and Oct. 4, respectively, well after the July filing deadline and after the Guardian requested the missing reports.

The Friends typically funds two-thirds of the requests, said board member Alec Bash, totaling around $80,000 a year. In 2012, the Friends awarded a $25,000 grant to make the department’s new online permit-tracking system more user-friendly, making life a lot easier for developers.

When asked what safeguards are in place to prevent undue influence when the director is soliciting funding from a nonprofit partially controlled by developers, Linsangan responded, “those are two very separate things. One does not influence the other.”

She stated repeatedly that planners are not privy to information about individual contributors — but the fundraisers are organized by a board that includes identifiable developers, and anyone who attends can plainly see the donors in attendance. Nevertheless, Linsangan insisted that planners would not be swayed by this special relationship, saying, “That’s simply not the way we do things around here. We do things according to the Planning Code.”

But as the ruling on Jack Spade shows, as well as countless rulings by planners on whether a project is categorically exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act, interpreting the codes can involve considerable discretion.

The public can’t review a list of who wrote checks to the Friends of San Francisco City Planning for the May fundraiser. Since the organization waits a year between collecting the money and disbursing grants, donors stay shielded from required annual disclosures in tax filings.

But Antenore says the system was established with the public interest in mind. “We don’t reveal the contributors, because we don’t want anybody to have increased influence by a donation,” he insisted. Bash echoed this idea, saying the delay was to “allow for some breathing room.”

Unlike some of his fellow board members from the high-end development sector, Antenore has a history of being aligned with neighborhood interests on planning issues, helping author a 1986 ballot measure limiting downtown high-rise development. He emphasized that the developers on the Friends board are balanced out by more civic-minded individuals.

Still, developers who regularly submit permit applications for major construction projects sit on the Friends board. Among them are Larry Nibbi, a partial owner of Nibbi Bros.; Clark Manus, CEO of Heller Manus Architects; and Oz Erikson, CEO of the Emerald Fund development firm.

“We’re not making use of [the funding] in a way that benefits these people,” Antenore said. “I wouldn’t do this if I thought otherwise. I have been careful to maintain the integrity of this organization.” The money is meant to facilitate better planning, he added. “I don’t think there’s any conspiracy,” he said. “We’re not financing anything evil.”

Both the Planning Department and its Friends dismissed the idea that the donations could open the door to favoritism or undue influence. So why isn’t the department reporting gifts it receives from the Friends to the Board of Supervisors, or disclosing them on its website, as required by city law?

According to a 2008 City Attorney memo on reporting gifts to city departments, when an agency receives a gift of $100 or more, it “must report the gift in a public record and on the department’s website. The public disclosure must include the name of the donor(s) and the amount of the gift [and] a statement as to any financial interest the contributor has involving the city.”

John St. Croix, director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, confirmed that’s the current standard, telling us, “The actual disclosure should be on the website of the department that received the gift.”

Linsangan said records of the gifts are indeed available — listed as “grants” in the department’s Annual Report. But while the 2011-12 report lists grants from sources such as the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and the Environmental Protection Agency, there was no mention of Friends of City Planning.

The memo also says any gift of $10,000 and above must first be approved by a resolution of the Board of Supervisors. But last year, when the Friends provided $25,000 to upgrade the permit-tracking system, it wasn’t sanctioned by a board resolution. Asked why, Linsangan made it clear that she was not aware of any such requirement.

As is common, when it comes to adhering to disclosure laws, confusion abounds. And sometimes, only sometimes, politicos get caught.

 

READING UP ON DISCLOSURE LAWS

When the head of a city agency fails to report gifts totaling $130,000, how much do you think he is fined?

City Librarian Luis Herrera failed to report receiving that amount in gifts and he was fined exactly $600 by the California Fair Political Practices Commission on Sept. 19. Specifically, Herrera had to file a form 700 with the FPPC to state the gifts he received. From 2008-2010, the forms he turned in had the “no reportable interests” box checked.

The money was used in what he calls the City Librarian’s Fund, which is the money he keeps on hand to pay for office parties and giving honorariums to poets and speakers who perform at the library’s branches, money that wasn’t disclosed on the very forms designed for reporting it.

There are two stories of how the fine came about. Longtime library advocate James Chaffee said that it was the result of a complaint he filed with the FPPC in April, and indeed, he sought and obtained many public documents revealing the money trail. San Francisco Public Library spokesperson Michelle Jeffers disagreed, saying that the fine was the result of an ongoing conversation with the FPPC to figure how exactly to file the gifts appropriately.

“The law wasn’t clear around these forms and it wasn’t clear if he had to report them,” she told the Guardian. “For amending the reports you have to pay a $200 fine for every year it was proposed. We keep scrupulous records on every pizza party we have.”

When government officials receive “gift of cash or goods,” they must report them annually in statements of economic interest, known as a Form 700, to the city Controller’s Office. The form is kind of a running tally of who is receiving gifts from whom, a way for the public to track money’s influence in government.

The gifts came from the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, another nonprofit that bolsters city agency funding. Now Herrera has to list the $130,000 gifts from fiscal years 2008-09 and 2009-10 on his website.

What exactly does that accomplish? As it turns out, not a whole lot.

City Administrative Code 67.29-6 defines the reporting of gifts to city departments, and one of those requirements is to make a statement of “any financial interest the contributor has involving the city.” Now that Herrera lists the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library as donors on the department website, the statement of financial interest by the friends group is this: “none.”

There are myriad donors to the Friends of the SFPL, and the group doesn’t have to state the economic interests of its donors, or even mention who its donors are. The code requires gifts be reported to the controller, and the deputy city controller told us this doesn’t apply to the “friends of” organizations, or any nonprofit foundation arms of city departments.

“If gifts are made to a department, yes, they have to disclose, so people don’t get preferential interest in getting city contracts,” Deputy Controller Monique Zmuda told us. “I know it’s a fine line. The foundations don’t provide us with anything.”

Friends of the SFPL doesn’t provide money just for pizza parties. A breakdown of a funding request from the library to its Friends shows requests up to $750,000 to advertise the library on Muni and in newspapers, funding for permanent exhibits, and the City Librarian’s personal fund. That’s just the money it gives to the library. Other monies are spent directly on activities supporting the library.

As Jeffers pointed out to the Guardian, the money isn’t spent on “trips to Tahiti.” Friends of the SPL do good city works, from a neighborhood photo project in the Bayview branch library to providing books for children. But the question is: Who’s buying that goodwill and why?

The millions of dollars in donations made to the Friends of the SFPL don’t need to be approved by the Board of Supervisors, like gifts to departments do. They’re not checked for conflicts of interest or financial interest by any governmental body. Donors give and the Friends of SFPL spend freely, financial interest or not.

When our research for this story began, no financial statements were available of the Friends of the SFPL website. After a few days of inquiries, the most recent year’s financial statements from 2011-12 were posted to the website.

Ultimately, the San Francisco Public Library is one of the smaller city departments, with an annual budget that hovers around $86 million. The Department of Public Health is a much bigger beast, with a 2011-12 budget of around $1.5 billion.

One of its main foundations, the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation, is also one of the largest nonprofits that supplements city spending. In many ways, it could be described as the model of disclosure for city foundations, although its disclosures are not by law, but by choice.

 

FOUNDATION OF FRIENDS

The Department of Public Health relies on a few entities that fundraise on its behalf: the San Francisco Public Health Foundation, the Friends of Laguna Honda Hospital, and the San Francisco General Hospital Foundation.

“They’re private nonprofit entities that are separate from the department,” CFO Greg Wagner told us. “But their roles are to support the department in its efforts.” He cited examples such as sending its staff to conferences or hosting meetings, “things that we don’t have the budget for or don’t have the staff or resources.”

The lion’s share of the DPH’s gifts are funneled through the SFGHF. Unlike many of the assorted Friends groups or foundations that support city services, the SFGHF extensively reports the sources of its $5 million in donations. The donors include a veritable who’s who of San Francisco: the Giants, Sutter Health, Xerox, Pacific Union, and Kohl’s all donated between $1,000 and $10,000 in the past two years.

But the largest gifts to the SFGHF came from Kaiser Permanente, and its financial interests in the city run deep. Kaiser came into the city’s crosshairs in July, when the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution calling on Kaiser to disclose its pricing model after a sudden, unexplained increase in health care costs for city employees. Kaiser holds a $323 million city contract to provide health coverage, and supervisors took the healthcare giant to task for failing to produce data to back up its rate hikes.

In the meantime, Kaiser has also been a generous donor. It contributed $364,950 toward SFGHF and another $25,000 to SFPHF in fiscal year 2011-12.

The funding from Kaiser and a host of other contributors — which include Chevron, Intel, Genentech, Macy’s, Wells Fargo (another city contractor), and a pharmaceutical company called Vertex — does support needed programs. They include research into the health of marginalized communities, services through Project Homeless Connect, screening for HIV, and immunization shots for travelers.

But because DPH doesn’t count much of this support as “gifts” formally received by the city, it isn’t subject to prior approval by the Board of Supervisors, or posted on the department’s website along with the contributors’ financial interests. Major contributions are disclosed in a report to the Health Commission, something Wagner described as a voluntary gesture in response to commissioners’ requests.

“Most gifts to foundations are donations to a nonprofit and do not come through the city or DPH at all,” he noted.

This distance is maintained on paper despite close collaboration with the department. In the case of Project Homeless Connect, a program that holds a bimonthly event to aid the homeless, it supports programs headquartered in city facilities. Penny Eardley, executive director of SFPHF— which used to be called Friends of San Francisco Public Health — noted that her organization occasionally makes grants or seeks funding in response to department requests. And Deputy Director of Health Colleen Chawla is a foundation board member. It’s almost like these foundations are extensions of the department, except they’re not.

SFPHF also earns revenue as a city contractor. When DPH received a grant from the Centers for Disease Control, it contracted with SFPHF to manage subcontracts with about a dozen community-based organizations.

The web gets even more tangled. The president of SFPHF is Randy Wittorp — who’s also Director of Public Affairs for Kaiser Permanente’s San Francisco Service Area. It’s a similar story with SFGHF, whose board includes several General Hospital administrators, including CEO Susan Currin.

Former Health Commissioner James Illig said people shouldn’t worry, that hospital the staff would never direct foundation funds to pet projects or mishandle funds. They maintain a separation and a firewall,” he said, for example noting, “Sue Currin is not directing funds to her own hospital.”

But he did admit that since SFGHF’s minutes are not public documents, that “raises a few concerns,” arguing the public should be able to inspect financial documents to decide if the foundations are directing funds lawfully to city departments.

Even when the public by law has a right to access financial records of a city department, rooting out corruption can be like pushing a boulder up a San Francisco hill.

 

FROM PATIENTS TO PARTIES

In 2010 and 2011, Laguna Honda Hospital administrators and staff used money from the hospital’s patient gift fund to throw a party. And then they spent it on airfare. And then they gave laser-engraved pedometers to the staff. All told, they spent nearly $350,000 meant for the dying and the infirm, nearly half of the total funds.

The incident was big, messy, and out in the public eye. It was an all-too-rare glimpse into the shady use of public funds by public officials. But when hospital staff members Dr. Derek Kerr and Dr. Maria Rivero blew the whistle on Laguna Honda’s misuse of patient funds in 2010, they were drummed out of their jobs.

Eventually litigation on behalf of the whistleblowers and their complaints of corruption were found to have merit.

Kerr’s vindication came at a meeting of the Health Commission in April 2013. In the packed City Hall meeting room, the public watched as Laguna Honda Executive Director Mivic Hirose read her apology to Kerr and Rivero aloud, even announcing a plaque in Kerr’s honor.

“The hospital will install the plaque in the South 3 Hospice,” she read, stiltedly, from a written statement, surrounded by microphones at the podium. “The plaque will say: In recognition of Derek Kerr MD of his contributions to the Laguna Honda’s hospice and palliative care program 1989-2010.”

Kerr received a settlement of $750,000 and something more important: His good name cleared.

But that conflict of interest was rooted out only after years of litigation that revealed the financial abuse through legal discovery of the department’s documents — documents that should’ve been public in the first place. ABC 7’s I-Team broke the story and did much of the reporting at the time, otherwise the entire affair may have been swept under the rug.

The misuse of funds was only brought to light with the revelation of public documents — revelations not possible with most Friends groups. The Laguna Honda Hospital Foundation has also had financial dealings with potential conflicts and a lack of transparency.

The now-defunct LHHF’s board chair, former City Attorney Louise Renne, made an interesting choice for her vice chair after she formed the nonprofit in 2003. Derek Parker was vice chair of the LHHF while simultaneously heading architecture firm Anshen-Allen, with a $585 million city contract to rebuild the hospital.

So he was not only rebuilding Laguna Honda under city contract, but soliciting and spending donations meant to supplement his project. Renne wrote to the Health Commission in December 2011 that LHHF’s purpose was to manage over $15 million in donations meant to furnish the hospital with beds, chairs, and other necessities. Eventually, then-Mayor Willie Brown found funding for the hospital, reducing the foundation’s role.

In a phone interview with the Guardian, Renne said the goals of the LHHF were only ever to furnish the newly christened hospital. “Our purpose was to fill the void, if you will, for what the city and its services could not do,” she said.

But in her letter, Renne advocated for LHHF to take an active role in fundraising for the hospital for years to come. “Today, the members of the Board of Directors of the Foundation continue to assist the hospital in various phases of its new projects and operations with projects approved by the City and/or the hospital administration,” she wrote to the Health Commission.

And Parker would have potentially managed millions of dollars flowing through donations for countless other hospital projects, while heading an architectural firm with contracts to build in San Francisco. We were unable to reach Parker for comment.

“I never saw Derek use his position as an architect or position for any political gain, I never saw it,” Renne told us. But no one else would see it either, because organizations like the now closed Laguna Honda Hospital Foundation operate without public oversight.

The Health Commission itself even noted this in its March 2012 meeting, the minutes describing then-commissioner James Illig as critiquing the foundation for not being open about its source of funding.

“Commissioner Illig thanks Ms. Renne and Mr. Parker for coming to the Commission,” the minutes read. “Because (LHHF) is a project of Community Initiatives, a fiscal sponsor for nonprofits, it is not possible to find basic financial information about the Foundation or its activities.”

Divided interests on hospital board

Due to a quirk of her foundation being under the “umbrella” of a separate entity, Community Initiatives, Illig was never able to even get the LHHF’s IRS forms, he told us. “We tried to get information and reports, and the Community Initiatives [Form] 990 was giant,” Illig said. “It didn’t separate anything out.”

Illig told us that it made sense to have Parker on the board because he is monied and well connected, making it easier to solicit donations. But insiders close to the board told us that Parker’s position may have made it easier to swing getting other contracts for his firm.

Parker got another city contract building the UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital at Mission Bay, slated to open in 2015. No doubt his firm got the job partly due to his reputation as pioneering architecture that leads to healthy patient outcomes — but then again, the board he served on also approved donations to research at UCSF.

Laguna Honda Hospital Foundation may now be defunct, but it serves to illustrate the lack of controls and oversight of the foundations beyond even gift disclosure.

 

OFF THE BOOKS

It might be characterized as a web of influence, cronyism, or just the way business is done. But is there something improper about all of this?

Private funding often represents a needed boost that allows for important work to take place beyond what could happen under ordinary budgeting. At the same time, it smacks of privatization. While departments and funders point to lean times in the public sector to justify the need for this help, the funding continues to flow whether it’s a good year or a bad year for city government. And at the end of the day, the most glaring issue of all seems to be the lack of transparency.

Are city departments ever tempted to bend the rules to lend a little help to their Friends? As long as the funding is in the dark, the public has no way of knowing.

Ethics chief St. Croix told us his office lacks the resources to visit every city website and check up on whether departments are following the disclosure rules. “If someone brought it to my attention that a department received a gift and didn’t post it [on the website],” he said, “we would look into it.”

But if the watchdogs need watchdogs, citizens who can’t even review documents that should be publicly available, then these quasi-governmental functions and the people who fund them will remain in the shadows.  

Danielle Parenteau contributed to this report.  

ADDENDUM  

When city funders operate in the dark, one of the best ways to learn about corrupt influence, misuse of funds, and other transgressions is from whistleblowers. If you have a tip for us, send us snail mail at SAN FRANCISCO BAY GUARDIAN, 225 Bush, 17th Floor, San Francisco, CA 94104. Or email us at news@sfbg.com. Just make sure not to use an email address provided by your workplace, which is less secure.

Help us keep raising hell

70

EDITORIAL The last couple years have been some of the most difficult and precarious in the Guardian’s 47 years of printing the news and raising hell in San Francisco. We’ve been struggling to survive and thrive, both the newspaper and the larger progressive political and alternative arts communities the Guardian is a part of, at a moment when this city needs us more than ever.

But the good news is that people are awakening to what has been lost as our resources have waned. We see it in the resurgent movements against evictions and gentrification and for better transit and bike lanes, in a rare referendum campaign challenging the 8 Washington project and its lies, in the lively online discussions we facilitate, and in the community support that the Guardian and other nascent progressive media projects are receiving.

Most people don’t trust the mainstream political, economic, and media institutions to understand or explain what’s happening to San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. Technology has created an explosion of new media outlets, but it’s come at the price of common narratives and gathering places where we can join together, discuss the issues, and then assert our collective will.

This is where the Guardian comes in, and it’s why we must find the way to grow through these tough years and regain our standing as the premier forum for discussing and promoting San Francisco’s values and needs. And for that, we need your help and support.

In some ways, it’s a situation similar to when Bruce B. Brugmann and Jean Dibble started the Bay Guardian in October 1966, when San Francisco was at the epicenter of social movements and technological innovation that were challenging entrenched economic interests and the inertia of the status quo.

The Guardian gave voice to new ideas about human rights and responsibilities, sexuality and identity, art and expression, diversity and tolerance, and many of the other issues and values that have animated San Francisco for the last half-century. Along with papers such as the Village Voice, Boston Phoenix, and Chicago Reader, the Guardian helped create the model for alternative newsweeklies that came to proliferate in every major US city, expanding the political and cultural dialogue in the country.

But that model is faltering. The Phoenix, which was founded the same year as the Guardian, closed its doors earlier this year, falling victim to the same economic pressures that are plaguing the entire newspaper industry. And the Voice soldiers on as a relatively apolitical corporate clone of its former feisty self after being bought out by a Phoenix-based chain driven by the kind of bottom-line Wall Street values that alt-weeklies were originally launched to oppose.

Regular readers of the Guardian know how we’ve fought for our independence and sustainability over the last year (see “On Guard,” June 19, and “New Guardian leadership wants your input,” July 23), and that we’ve approached it in a way that was consistent with our values on transparency, fearless truth-telling, and partnership with our progressive community.

And now, on the Guardian’s anniversary, we are recommitting to the mission stated on our masthead, “to print the news and raise hell,” while updating that mission for the digital age in myriad ways, some of which we’ll be announcing soon. This region is at a crossroads, choosing between greedy, myopic elitism and egalitarian sustainability, and we need strong media voices like the Guardian to clarify that choice.

For that, we need your help. Read the paper and then pass it to a friend. Post our stories to your favorite online forum. Buy an ad to promote your business, event, or cause. Participate in our community forums, including our Oct. 23 discussion of high-rises and waterfront development at the LGBT Center. Send us good story tips. And, most importantly, help us promote the idea that an informed and engaged citizenry is the foundation of democracy — and the only way to save the soul of San Francisco.