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End mass incarceration

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EDITORIAL We at the Bay Guardian wholeheartedly support the Stop Mass Incarceration Network and its call for the month of October to be “a month of resistance to mass incarceration, police terror, repression, and the criminalization of a generation.” It’s time to rediscover our humanity, redirect our resources, and invest in this country’s underclass instead of attacking it.

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, 717 per 100,000 citizens last year, or about 2.3 million people behind bars. Put another way, the US has about 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, costing this country over $60 billion a year.

San Francisco has long been a leader in criminal justice reform, pursuing policies based on rehabilitation and redemption instead of the mindless “tough-on-crimes” approach of other jurisdictions. Two of our state legislators, Sen. Mark Leno and Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, have chaired their respective Public Safety Committees and been important statewide leaders on prison reform.

Yet it hasn’t been enough in a state that still has among the world’s highest incarceration rates, and which is still resisting demands by federal judges that we reduce our prison population to address severe overcrowding and its unconstitutionally inadequate health care system.

So we need to join this broad and growing national movement that seeks to drastically reduce our prison population and redirect those resources into social services, education, and other more productive pursuits.

The Stop Mass Incarceration Network began in 2011 with a proclamation by Carl Dix and Cornell West, two important thinkers who have highlighted the disproportionately high arrest and incarceration rates of Latino and African American young men.

“If you don’t want to live in a world where people’s humanity is routinely violated because of the color of their skin, JOIN US. And if you are shocked to hear that this kind of thing happens in this so-called homeland of freedom and democracy — it does happen, all the damned time — you need to JOIN US too — you can’t stand aside and let this injustice be done in your name,” they wrote.

Recently, this movement has been joined by a wide variety of activists from the Bay Area, including Van Jones and Matt Haney, who have co-founded #50Cut, an initiative focused on cutting the US prison population in half in the next 10 years (see “Schools not prisons,” 9/3/14).

While dissident Chinese artist Ai WeiWei laudably uses his new exhibit on Alcatraz Island to focus attention on political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, the injustice of incarceration here in the US is even broader and deeper, affecting entire generations of young people and their families. It must end.

 

Changing the climate in SF

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EDITORIAL As hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of New York City and other cities around the world for a Global Climate Convergence on Sept. 21, demanding that our political and business leaders finally get serious about global warming (see “Flooding the streets“), there was no such gathering in San Francisco.

Sure, there were a few thousand Bay Area activists who gathered for the climate change event along Lake Merritt in Oakland, which included many groups and individuals from San Francisco. But we found it telling symbolism that San Francisco, as a city, was absent from this important political moment.

A city that was once a trailblazing leader on environmental issues such as solid waste reduction, transit-first policies, and adopting the precautionary principle — which calls on city officials to avoid policies and purchases that have the potential to cause environmental harm — has instead become a city guided by the logic and imperatives of capitalism, eager to grow and consume at any cost.

Speaker after speaker in New York City, Oakland, and other cities called for humanity to wake up to the realities of global climate change, slow down the wasteful economic churn and rapid depletion of important natural resources, and pursue fundamental changes to the system.

But in San Francisco, we appear to be headed in the opposite direction. The Mayor’s Office unceremoniously killed CleanPowerSF, the city’s only plan for offering more renewable energy to city residents. And it has pandered to motorists in ways that have taken millions of dollars away from public transit (see “Money for Muni“), encouraging more driving in the process even though we know that adds to global warming.

It isn’t just the neoliberals in City Hall, but the entire institutional structure of the city. Even SEIU Local 1021, long a stalwart supporter of progressive causes, has strangely endorsed the pro-automobile Prop. L and is aggressively supporting BART Board member James Fang, a Republican who supports costly extensions of the system rather than projects that promote more intensive transit uses in the urban core.

Finally, there’s this city’s monomaniacal promotion of the energy-intensive technology industry. Americans emit more greenhouse gases per capita than anyone, and recent reports show that reality is compounded by massive increases in China’s greenhouse gas emissions — which is partly because Bay Area companies produce their tech gadgets and other toys in China, which we then consume here.

San Franciscans need to stop being such voracious consumers and strive to be true innovators who accept our responsibilities and work to disrupt the rapid descent into a dangerously warming world.

 

Bridge the housing-Muni divide

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EDITORIAL One the most frustrating political conflicts in San Francisco this election season is the schism between sustainable transportation activists and affordable housing advocates, a split that unnecessarily divides the progressive movement and one that has been cynically manipulated by the Mayor’s Office and its political allies.

We at the Bay Guardian haven’t yet decided what position we’ll take on Props. A and B — both of which would give more money to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency for Muni and other transportation needs — or Prop. K, the affordable housing measure that was heavily watered down by the Mayor’s Office. Our endorsements come out Oct. 8.

But we can say that we’ve been concerned with how housing and transportations needs have been pitted against one another — and by the political tactics that are being used to create that false choice in the minds of voters, often by those who have a financial self-interest in making misleading arguments.

San Francisco needs more affordable housing, a robust public transit system, and fully funded social services if it is to remain an efficient, diverse, compassionate city. We need all of those things, now, before we experience even more impacts from the rapid growth now underway.

Mayor Ed Lee chose to break his promise to place a local vehicle license fee increase on the fall ballot, so Sup. Scott Wiener and others placed Prop. B on the ballot instead. It would tie the city’s General Fund contributions to Muni to city population growth, but it would also allow the mayor to end that subsidy if voters approve the VLF increase in a future election.

Several local journalists have reported on the carrots and sticks that members of the Mayor’s Office have used to try to sink Prop. B and maintain affordable housing advocates’ support for Prop. K (see “Mayoral meltdown,” Aug. 5), pitting transportation and housing activists against one another, either by accident or design.

But San Francisco can’t afford this false dichotomy, and it’s high time to finally have this discussion openly and honestly. So the next Bay Guardian Community Forum — on Oct. 9 from 6-8pm in the LGBT Center, 1800 Market Street — will focus on bridging this gap. We’ll be inviting key players on both sides and we hope that you, dear readers, will join us as well.

The same players in this city who are urging San Francisco to rapidly grow as an economic and population center are sabotaging the political alliances and funding mechanisms that we need to handle that growth. It’s time for a forthright, public discussion about the city’s many long-term needs and how to finance them.

 

Defend the deal

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EDITORIAL Creating a functional and equitable San Francisco for tomorrow requires political will and foresight today. Do our current political leaders have the requisite courage and commitment to the broad public interest, or are they too willing to give away the farm to powerful private interests wielding promises or threats?

This week at City Hall, there was a fascinating test case for these questions, one that we laid out on Sept. 8 on the SFBG.com Politics blog (“Developers lobby hard to slash payments promised to Transbay Terminal and high-speed rail”). In a nutshell, it involves developers of the biggest office towers proposed for San Francisco reneging on promises to pay for vital public infrastructure, which they made in exchange for lucrative upzoning of their properties.

With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, they hired top political fixer Willie Brown to make their case to politicians, including those he helped bring to power, giving him a cut of whatever money this shakedown can shake loose. The Board of Supervisors was set to consider the issue after the Guardian press time for this issue, so check our Politics blog for what happened, but there a few observations we can make without even knowing what the outcome was.

This power play would never happen unless these developers and their allies — including Salesforce, which has leased most of the Transbay Tower, what would be the tallest building on the West Coast — thought they had a reasonable chance of success. And given how the Mayor’s Office seems willing to give developers and business leaders whatever they want, it seems likely that this lobbying effort will more than pay for itself, to the detriment of the public.

Mayor Ed Lee isn’t a political leader, he’s really just the city’s chief administrator, a role he’s been playing since Brown was mayor and that he continues playing since Brown helped put him into Room 200. Chief-of-Staff Steve Kawa, another loyalist to Brown and downtown, dishes out discipline to supervisors who don’t toe the line.

City leaders should be willing to play hardball, stick to the original deal, and call the bluff of these developers, even if that means risking that these towers might not get built in their proposed form and timeline. Yes, that strategy might involve some legal liability, but these massive towers were always proposed as a means to an end.

San Francisco doesn’t need a 1,000-foot office building. But given its commitment to rebuild the Transbay Terminal, it does need to ensure that expensive project includes 21st century rail service connecting to the rest of the state, as well as the open space and neighborhood amenities that these developers should fund.

Equally important, San Francisco needs to show that it’s not for sale, that it won’t be bullied, and that its leaders are looking out for more than their own political interests.

Get to work

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EDITORIAL The San Francisco Board of Supervisors returned to work this week after a month-long summer recess. While it may be too much to expect the supervisors to seriously tackle the many pressing issues facing this city during the fall election season, that’s exactly what needs to happen.

The city has been cruising along on auto-pilot, propelled by inertia more than any coherent political leadership, its elected leaders content to throw political platitudes and miniscule policy remedies at huge problems that are fundamentally changing the city.

While the eastside of the city is being rapidly transformed by rampant development, with no real plan for the displacement and gentrification that it’s causing, the westside still has suburban levels of density and no plan for shouldering its share of this city’s growth pressures. It’s good to see Sup. Katy Tang take a small step toward addressing the problem with her recently introduced Sunset District Blueprint, which seeks to build up to 1,000 new homes there over the next 10 years, that conceptual framework will require political will and more concrete goals to become reality.

To serve the density that westside residents are going to have to accept, the city and its Transportation Authority also must fast-track the Geary Bus Rapid Transit program that has languished for far too long. And the city’s “Complete Streets” and “Vision Zero” transportation reforms need to become more than just slogans, instead backed by the funding and commitment they need to become reality.

Similarly, there’s no reason why the Mayor’s Office, Planning Department, and pro-growth supervisors should be waiting for voters to act on Proposition K, the watered-down housing advisory measure, before they create a plan for implementing Mayor Ed Lee’s long-stated goal of building 30,000 new housing units, more than 30 percent of them affordable. That should have already happened before the promise was made.

This week, while the Board of Supervisors was slated to approve master lease agreements with the US Navy to develop Treasure Island, the city still isn’t seriously addressing concerns about radioactive contamination on the island or the project’s half-baked transportation plan.

Another important issue facing this compassionate city is how to provide legal representation for the waves of child refugees from Central America facing deportation in immigrations courts here in San Francisco. Board President David Chiu proposed a $100,000 allocation for such legal representation, which is a joke, and the board should instead approve the something closer to the $1.2 million commitment that Sup. David Campos has proposed.

We could go on and on (for example, when will Airbnb make good on its past-due promise to pay city hotel taxes?), but the point is: Get to work!

 

Airbnb must work with SF

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EDITORIAL

Airbnb and other companies that facilitate illegal short-term apartment rentals to tourists visiting San Francisco need to engage in a more honest and direct dialogue with this city’s political leaders and stakeholders, something that became clear during last week’s Planning Commission hearing on legislation that would legalize and regulate short-term sublets.

This is a complicated, vexing issue that defies simple solutions, as Board of Supervisors President David Chiu learned as he and his aides spent more than year developing the legislation. They did a pretty good job at striking a balance between letting people occasionally rent out their homes and preventing Airbnb from being used to remove apartments from the already strained local housing market.

A key provision for striking that balance was to limit rentals to no more than 90 nights per year, but the Planning Commission — dominated by appointees from Mayor Ed Lee, who has long coddled Airbnb’s scofflaw approach to the city (see “Into thin air,” 8/6/13) — removed that provision, which the Board of Supervisors should reinstate.

The commission also seemed to side with landlords who want to prevent their tenants from renting out rooms, calling for landlords to be notified when their tenants seek to become Airbnb hosts, another provision the board should reject. Landlords using Airbnb to get around rent control laws is at least as bad as tenants who violate their leases by subletting rooms, and this legislation shouldn’t favor one group over the other.

If the city decides to end its decades-old ban on short-term apartment rentals, it should have a compelling reason to do so. Maybe we want to allow struggling city residents to make some extra money while they’re out of town, or to have some flexibility in renting out rooms without taking on permanent tenants, which are legitimate if difficult policy questions.

But it seems like much of the discussion is about how to rein in the widespread violation of city housing and tax laws caused by Airbnb, which has refused requests to share more of its occupancy data, dodged its obligation to collect the city’s transient occupancy tax, and failed to even send a high-level representative to last week’s hearing. Yet the legislation would require the company’s cooperation to help enforce the regulations.

If Airbnb and its hosts want the city to legalize lucrative short-term rentals in San Francisco, then the company should be willing to engage in high-level public discussions with city leaders to shape this important legislation, rather than simply whipping its hosts into a libertarian frenzy with deceptive public relations campaigns.

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky has gotten rich with a business model that is illegal in its home city, so the very least he can do is show up at City Hall next month to make a good faith effort to help solve the divisive problems that his company is creating.

 

Arguments against minimum wage increase are out of touch

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EDITORIAL

“Will the SF minimum wage hike kill our restaurants?” Zagat SF tweeted last week.

No, Chicken Little, it won’t. Not even if you tweet it.

Two days earlier, the Board of Supervisors had unanimously approved a measure for the November ballot to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018, up from where it stands at $10.74.

Zagat may be fine for restaurant reviews, but this attack on raising the minimum wage — which parroted fearmongering about high-priced burgers and relied heavily on a narrative served up by a powerful business lobby, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association — was enough to cause heartburn.

And it’s only one example of the backlash directed at low-wage workers since the bid to boost the minimum wage has picked up steam. A now-infamous billboard that popped up in SOMA, funded by conservative lobbying group Employment Policies Institute, taunted minimum-wage workers by claiming they would be replaced with iPads if they didn’t give up the fight for higher pay.

The proposed minimum wage increase, actually a compromise that turned out weaker than an initial proposal spearheaded by a progressive coalition that would have delivered $15 an hour a year earlier, is backed by business-friendly Mayor Ed Lee. Even the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce has expressed support for it. Still, some conservative interests seem bent on ensuring that minimum-wage workers never achieve living-wage status — demonstrating how out of touch these naysayers are.

Once better known for its rich labor history and track record of holding employers accountable for wage theft and discriminatory practices, San Francisco is better known these days as one of the nation’s highest-ranking cities for income inequality.

Scraping by at a minimum wage job translates to a stressful existence. Even if minimum-wage earners were currently earning $31,000 a year, the amount a full-time $15-an-hour job would bring in before taxes, it wouldn’t begin to stretch far enough to rent a market-rate apartment. Earlier this year, the National Low Income Housing Coalition pointed out that a renter’s got to earn at least $29.83 an hour — or $62,046 annually — to afford a San Francisco one-bedroom at market rate.

Meanwhile, those spouting doomsday scenarios over a higher minimum wage seem blind to the fact that the city is regularly populated with hordes of tourists and well-compensated San Francisco professionals with a penchant for fine food, even if it’s pricey.

Just for a sense of how much cash is pumping through the local economy, the San Francisco Center for Economic Development reports that San Francisco claimed 40 percent of all venture capital investment in the Bay Area last year, with nearly $5 billion in VC funding invested in 2013. Meanwhile, 16.5 million visitors flocked to the Bay Area last year — can anyone really claim with a straight face that a higher minimum wage for restaurant workers will prevent this army of tourists from chowing down at local restaurants?

Instead of having a debate about whether we ought to raise the minimum wage, a better conversation would focus on the consequences of allowing the city’s sharp inequality to continue unchecked.

Reducing phone charges helps inmates connect with families

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OPINION

It’s expensive being poor. Families of inmates often live on the edge of insolvency.

I know a mother of two, married to a man doing time in the San Francisco jail, who is trapped between the domino effect of poverty and the desire to maintain her children’s relationship with their father. The trouble began when her credit rating dropped due to late bill payments, which triggered the repossession of her car, which put her job at risk because public transit couldn’t get her to work on-time.

Now she relies on loan centers that charge high interest rates or paying the rent on her dilapidated apartment late, all while trying to stave off eviction. She says she contemplates leaving San Francisco on a daily basis. To do so would improve her financial situation, but would reduce her children’s already limited access to their father.

Depending if they can afford the time it takes to take transit to County Jail 5 in San Bruno for a weekly visit, or the unreasonable cost of a phone call, this family must literally choose between putting food on the table or connecting with their loved one.

Research shows that inmates who preserve ties with their families, especially their spouses and children, have a much better chance of staying out of jail once released. Keeping in touch is almost an impossible reality considering the jolting cost of making a $1 per minute in-state, long-distance or pre-paid collect call.

Until a cap on interstate calling rates was introduced earlier this year by the Federal Communications Commission, the telephone companies providing inmate phone services were largely unregulated. As a result, correctional facilities allowed inmate phone service providers to charge jacked-up calling rates in exchange for a cut of the revenue, paid to the facility in the form of a phone commission. Because these commissions are used to fund services for inmates, this decades-old practice created a paradoxical relationship between inmates, inmate phone service companies, prisons, and county jails.

In the San Francisco Sheriff Department’s most recent contract with its phone service provider, Global Tel*Link (GTL), we broke this counterproductive cycle and changed the way we do business. We’ve dramatically reduced calling rates and surcharges for inmate phone calls, including a 70 percent reduction for a 15-minute collect or pre-paid collect, in-state, long-distance call, from $13.35 to $4.05, and a 32 percent reduction for a 15-minute debit, in-state, long-distance call, from $5.98 to $4.05.

Given the city’s longtime dependence on phone commissions to fund rehabilitative programs, like Resolve to Stop the Violence and the One Family visitation program, reducing inmate calling rates endangers program stability while spotlighting an addiction that’s shared by almost every prison and jail in the country: balancing incarceration budgets on the backs of people who can afford it least. According to the US Department of Justice, 80 percent of families who have a member incarcerated live at or below poverty levels.

Fortunately, our department recently won a settlement against GTL’s predecessor, enabling us to fund programs for several years without taking a hit. But, in the long run, City Hall must realize that gouging poor people doesn’t improve public safety. It punishes innocent children by limiting their communication with their family, subordinates the healing value of family reunification to profit, and strengthens the inter-generational resentment that is laced between impoverished communities and the justice system that is supposed to protect them.

Gratified with the unanimous support of our phone rate reform by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department is proud to be one of the first county jail systems in the nation to dramatically reduce its telecom rates.

Our next policy reform will be the unregulated, exorbitant cost of inmate commissary fees and commissions.

Ross Mirkarimi is elected Sheriff of San Francisco

Housing ballot measures would weaken city policy

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EDITORIAL Under the misleading guise of encouraging the development of more affordable housing in San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee and Sup. Jane Kim have sponsored a pair of fall ballot measures that actually weaken existing housing policy in San Francisco. It’s a ruse that shouldn’t fool politically savvy San Franciscans.

Lee has the authority to place his Build Housing Now measure on the ballot, although he may withdraw it under his backroom deal with Kim. But the Board of Supervisors should reject Kim’s City Housing Balance measure, a once-promising proposal that she last week made toothless and counterproductive. What she called a “compromise” was actually a capitulation to developers and the Mayor’s Office [Editor’s Note: The board was scheduled to consider Kim’s measure on July 29 after Guardian press time, which is why we posted this editorial early at sfbg.com, where print readers can check for an update].[UPDATE: The board unanimously approved the amended measure.]

Kim’s original measure called for market-rate housing developers to get conditional use permits and perform additional economic studies on their projects when affordable housing production falls below 30 percent of total production. She then weakened it with several exemptions, yet it was still a check against runaway development of luxury housing.

But her new measure, much like Lee’s, is little more than a wishful policy statement calling for the city to seek the goal of 33 percent of housing affordable by moderate income San Franciscans and below (usually defined as those making 120 percent of area median income or less) and 50 percent by the more vaguely defined “working middle class.”

While neither measure includes any enforcement or funding mechanism to help reach that goal, it’s noteworthy that the goals themselves weaken those the city set for itself in the Housing Element of the General Plan, which call for 60 percent of new housing construction to be affordable to those with moderate incomes and below. The board adopted an amended version of this Housing Element just last month.

This is politics at its very worst: Politicians claiming to be doing one thing in order to score points with voters and appear responsive to their concerns, while they actually do just the opposite and try to disguise that fact with disingenuous rhetoric.

Kim’s allies in the labor and progressive political communities tell us they’re disappointed in her capitulation at such a crucial moment in determining whether San Francisco becomes a city of the rich or whether it can retain its socioeconomic diversity.

We were also disappointed, although we weren’t surprised. There’s an ugly, money-driven brand of politics being practiced at City Hall these days, and Kim has repeatedly shown herself to be more concerned with her future political prospects than living up to the progressive values she has long espoused.

Appealing to San Francisco values

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EDITORIAL When lawyers become politicians, and when those politicians assume offices where they can exercise discretion about when to appeal judicial rulings, the decision to do nothing can be as big and impactful as the decision to file a lawsuit.

Luckily for California, it is progressive-minded attorneys from the Bay Area who have found themselves in the position of advancing public policy through wise decisions about when to let rulings stand and when to challenge them. And it is our hope that Attorney General Kamala Harris remembers her Bay Area roots when making a couple of important pending decisions on appealing some high-profile recent rulings.

Harris was already weighing whether to appeal a judge’s ruling striking down teacher tenure laws (see “Pride and prejudice,” June 24) when another judge ruled that California’s death penalty is unconstitutional (see “Death sentence for executions?” Page 16).

Her opponent in fall runoff election, Republican Ron Gold, has called for Harris not to appeal the teacher tenure ruling — and he would almost certainly make great political hay of a decision by Harris not to challenge the death penalty ruling. But Harris should easily defeat this also-ran challenger in November and she should maintain the courage of her convictions in making these decisions.

We urge Harris to aggressively appeal the teacher tenure ruling and not be swayed by the judge’s fallacious argument that teacher tenure hurts urban schoolchildren. And on the death penalty, which Harris has long opposed, we urge her to help end the barbaric, expensive, and ineffective executions (which could mean appealing the recent ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and then not appealing a favorable ruling there, which would serve to end capital punishment in California).

That kind of selective use of the Attorney General’s Office discretion on appeals would follow in the tradition of Gov. Jerry Brown, when he was attorney general, choosing not to appeal the ruling striking down Prop. 8 and instead helping to legalize same-sex marriage.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, we’re happy that City Attorney Dennis Herrera decided to “aggressively defend” Prop. B, which requires voter approval for projects that exceed current height restrictions on the San Francisco waterfront, against a lawsuit by the State Lands Commission.

Likely prompted by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, one of three members of that commission and someone who has long been friendly to big investors and developers, this lawsuit should have never been filed — and Herrera was right to say so and pledge a vigorous defense of the measure.

The people of San Francisco and California are lucky to have Harris and Herrera in the position to make these important decisions.

Stop Big Tech sprawl

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EDITORIAL The footprint of Big Tech companies and their employees continues to spread through San Francisco, gobbling up the vast majority of commercial office space this year, driving up rents, and creating pressure to build ever more office towers. With Wall Street and Silicon Valley investors focusing so much wealth on this one economic sector, in this one once-dynamic city, this trend is threatening to squeeze out every other civic interest and sector in its path.

For example, city officials have long-struggled with how to preserve light industrial spaces in the city, known as Production Distribution and Repair (PDR) in the parlance of planners, who recognize the importance of such jobs and services to a city, even though they have a hard time competing with other economic sectors on rent. Indeed, despite efforts to protect it, San Francisco now has one of the lowest proportions of PDR uses of any big city in the US, a worrying sign for future economic prosperity.

Nonetheless, the new out-of-town investor-owners of the PDR-zoned San Francisco Design Center are trying to improperly use a loophole to evict most of its tenants to let Pinterest take over most of the building (which it bought at a bargain because of the zoning). Only the political will of politicians — who crave the campaign cash of capitalists — stands in the way of perversions like this. And without that will, which is severely lacking in the city right now, the economically strong will roll over everyone.

Let’s call it: Big Tech sprawl. Like urban sprawl — in which developers covered the cheapest land with housing and shopping malls, then let the public sector subsidize the roads and other infrastructure to serve it and passed the environmental costs on to future generations — the Big Tech firms favored by the Mayor’s Office will continue to expand ever outward if left unchecked.

Even conservative City Economist Ted Egan has warned against the city putting too many eggs in the basket of an industry known for its volatility and boom-bust cycles, repeatedly calling for the city to diversify its economy. As in nature, healthy ecosystems are marked by their diversity, while monocultures can be quickly destroyed by shocks to the system. Just like housing developers will build nothing but luxury condos if we let them — capital always seeks to maximize its returns, the most basic law of economics — Big Tech will continue to sprawl outward, greasing its path with political contributions, if San Franciscans don’t fight to maintain this great city’s diversity.

Don’t weaken protections against chain stores

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EDITORIAL As we reported two weeks ago (“Breaking the chains,” June 17), the San Francisco Planning Commission will soon consider rival measures to modify the city’s decade-old policies regulating chain stores (aka formula retail businesses) and giving neighborhoods the ability to reject them. This should be viewed as a chance to strengthen protections, not to weaken them at a time when small businesses need all the help they can get.

There are a number of important reforms in both the formula retail proposal by Sup. Eric Mar and the one developed by the Planning Department in coordination with the Mayor’s Office. Both expand on the types of businesses covered by the regulations, they close key loopholes, and they require more detailed economic studies to give the public and policymakers more information on how chain stores impact neighborhood commercial districts.

But in exchange for those protections, the Planning Department measure also makes concessions that are unacceptable and inconsistent with the formula retail standards that voters adopted through Prop. G in 2006. Specifically, planners are making the dubious claim that they have the authority to increase the threshold of what’s considered a chain from 11 stores now up to 20 stores, unilaterally rejecting a compromise number negotiated at the time between progressive leaders and the business community.

The logic offered for that change is equally questionable. The planners and backers of the change in the Mayor’s Office and business community say local businesses that grow beyond 11 outlets — such as Philz Coffee, Lee’s Deli, and San Francisco Soup Company — shouldn’t be “punished for their success” by enduring a lengthy and expensive conditional use permit process.

But gathering information and letting the community have a voice isn’t punishment. Larger businesses have more resources to go through the approval process, and the city rarely rejects formula retail applications anyway. Planners argue that the conditional use process is onerous and can take six months or more — but that’s an argument for reforming the process, not bypassing it. The Mayor’s Office should devote more resources to hiring more Planning Department staff to speed up this process, raising the fees on applicants to do so if necessary.

The Planning Department proposal also makes no effort to determine who owns the business that want to open here, allowing corporations to create endless subsidiaries and spinoffs to bypass the formula retail controls, something the city already has seen with the controversial Jack Spade application in the Mission District and other projects.

Corporations can be wily and predatory as the seek to endlessly expand into new markets, and if San Francisco’s nationally recognized controls are to have any relevance, they’ll need to adapt to changing circumstances. That means we need to strengthen and not weaken them.

Justice delayed is justice denied

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EDITORIAL Members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who try to identify with both the progressive movement and business-oriented Mayor Ed Lee — most notably, Sups. David Chiu and Jane Kim — engaged in a strange bit of self-congratulations during their June 10 meeting, patting themselves on the back for a trio of “progressive” reforms.

Yet in each case, the measures are weaker than they should be and too long overdue — and they have their full implementation delayed for years, while the needs of the people they aim to serve are immediate. What Kim and Chiu presented as a demonstration of political effectiveness on behalf of needy constituents is actually just the opposite. It is political cowardice and not political courage.

The best of the trio of approvals was a measure by Sup. David Campos that finally closes the loophole that allows employers to satisfy their employee healthcare mandate by creating healthcare savings accounts, which they make difficult to use and then pocket the money that remains.

This should have been enacted three years ago when Campos first won approval for it, only to see Lee veto it and Chiu sponsor a watered-down alternative that didn’t address the problem. Even now, in order to win over Sups. Mark Farrell and London Breed to attain a veto-proof majority, Campos had to delay full implementation until 2017.

“I also want to commend Sup. Campos for finding compromise,” Chiu said before joining the inevitable majority, a snide dig at his Assembly race opponent that only served to reinforce Campos’ campaign trail points that Chiu’s compromises are often just sellouts to downtown interests. This watered-down version, albeit better than the last watered-down version, also won unanimous approval.

Another kumbaya moment came with the introduction of a consensus ballot measure for increasing the minimum wage in San Francisco, with the Mayor’s Office and business community finally agreeing with the campaign by labor and progressive groups to increase the minimum wage to $15 — but delaying that implementation to 2018. How much displacement and economic hardship will San Franciscans experience between now than then?

Chiu and Kim also sang the praises of Lee for finally agreeing to finally keep his word and support a local increase in the vehicle license fee to fund safer and smoother streets and more money for Muni. But rather than this year as promised, that measure will be on the November 2016 ballot, pushing it back from prosperous to uncertain times.

At the June 12 Guardian community forum, Sup. Scott Wiener said he may still move forward with his proposed charter amendment to give Muni more general fund money until the local VLF is approved, and we strongly urge him to so do.

“Justice delayed is justice denied” is a legal maxim that this board full of lawyers is certainly familiar with. Their delays of crucial reforms are disgraceful and damaging to the city, and for them to congratulate themselves for doing so is insulting.

Housing crisis requires creative thinking

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EDITORIAL Does the construction of brand new high-end towers represent the only possible opportunity for new affordable housing in San Francisco? To hear the arguments of those bemoaning the passage of Proposition B, the ballot measure overwhelmingly approved June 3 requiring voter approval for increased building heights along the waterfront, one would think so.

Shortly after Prop. B had been decided, the Washington Post ran a headline proclaiming: “Voters in one of America’s most expensive cities just came up with another way to block new housing.” The idea seems to be that by making it harder for developers to build waterfront towers incorporating a small percentage of affordable units, San Francisco has sealed itself off from any new affordable housing, forever.

To buy this argument, you must resign yourself to a world where the only conceivable pathway for housing average-income people is to hope high-end developers decide to incorporate them into massive complexes for the wealthy on a narrow strip of waterfront property. Which just isn’t a terribly creative solution.

Surely, alternatives exist. The city is brimming with clever people who are skilled at creative thinking and aren’t afraid to dream big. Why not apply some brainpower to the housing crisis? Here are a few ideas.

• Change city law to allow people to build their own backyard cottages to rent out at affordable prices. Here we must holler at the Public Press, which is hosting a conference Fri/13 called “Hack the Housing Crisis,” and recently calculated that San Francisco could theoretically add another residence to each of its 124,000 single-family lots if the city were to legalize backyard cottages. That would increase the total number of households by 33 percent; no luxury towers required.

• Make the most of public land holdings. A Budget and Legislative Analyst’s report dating back to March of 2012 determined that city agencies have in their possession at least 27 underutilized “surplus” properties. Under the Administrative Code, the top priority for such lands is affordable housing, yet they go unused. Why not prioritize the transfer of these parcels for 100 percent affordable projects?

• Figure out some alternative financing schemes. Recent changes to federal law sanction crowdfunding for real-estate projects, an option that didn’t previously exist. Say some affordable housing people got together, started an online fundraising campaign, bought vacant properties for conversion into affordable units, and secured public funding to make the whole thing pencil out. Real estate investors won’t give a project a green light unless they’re guaranteed a stupidly high return; maybe under this scenario, thousands of nontraditional investors who care about the city they live in could reap small bonuses for pitching in.

And by the way, developers are still free to propose highly affordable projects under Prop B. In fact, voters might be much happier to sign off on that idea than high-end luxury condo towers.

 

End the open primary experiment

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EDITORIAL

This week’s primary election on June 3 occurred after Guardian press time for this issue, but there’s one conclusion that we can draw about it without even knowing the results: This is a pretty shabby form of democracy that few voters cared about. California’s experiment in open primaries is a disaster, and it’s time for a new model.

Turnout for this election was expected to hit historic lows, and for good reason: There was nothing of any real significance on this ballot, except perhaps for Proposition B on the San Francisco ballot, to require voter approval for height increases on waterfront development projects.

Even the hotly contested Assembly District 17 race between David Campos and David Chiu was simply a practice run for a rematch in November, thanks to an open primary system that sends the top two primary finishers, regardless of party, to the general election.

The system was approved by voters at Proposition 14 in 2010, placed on the ballot by then-Assemblymember Abel Maldonado as part of a deal with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to break a budget stalemate caused by their fellow Republicans. Such horse-trading should have been a bad sign that this change wouldn’t live up to its idealistic hopes.

Its backers promised that it would favor more moderate candidates and reduce negative campaigning, but that hasn’t happened. Indeed, at press time it appeared Gov. Jerry Brown would be facing the most radically right-winger in the race, Tim Donnelly, in November.

What it has instead done is reduce the primary election to a boring and meaningless waste of time and money, turning off voters and creating low-turnout elections that are more prone to manipulation by wealthy special interests.

We at the Guardian are all for greater experimentation in our electoral models. We were big supporters of the ranked-choice voting system that is working well in San Francisco and Oakland. We support even more aggressive models for publicly financing campaigns and reducing the role on private money in electoral politics. Hell, we also support a proportional representation system and other wholesale transformations of our political system.

But while we’d love to see even more electoral experimentation, we also need to recognize when experiments are failing, as California’s open primary system now is. It’s time to try something new.

 

Progressives challenge mayor’s abuse of authority

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EDITORIAL Mayor Ed Lee has repeatedly overstepped his authority on behalf of the entrenched political and economic interests who put him into office, and we’re happy to see Sup. John Avalos and his progressive allies on the Board of Supervisors starting to push back and restore a more honest and equitable balance of power at City Hall.

There was no excuse for Lee and his political appointees on the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to sabotage a decade of work creating the CleanPowerSF program, the only mechanism the city has for creating the renewable energy projects we need to meet our climate change goals.

This was a program created by a veto-proof majority on the Board of Supervisors, the body that the City Charter gives the authority to create such programs on behalf of the people who elect them, then the SFPUC used a vote that should have been a procedural formality to block it (see “Power struggle,” 9/17/13).

Lee refused to work with the supervisors to address his stated concerns — most of which have already been addressed by now anyway, from the program’s cost to the involvement of Shell Energy North America, which is now out — draining the CleanPowerSF funding and providing more evidence that this ruse was really all about protecting PG&E from competition.

So Avalos and other progressives of the Budget & Finance Committee last week rejected the SFPUC budget, forcing Lee and allies to now bargain in good faith. That’s the kind of realpolitik in service of progressive values that we’ve been missing at City Hall in recent years, the willingness to get tough with the grinning mayor who disingenuously talks about civility while his operatives stab their opponents in the back.

Avalos is also sponsoring a fall ballot measure that would let voters fill vacancies on the Board of Supervisors, rather than letting the mayor, who heads the executive branch, stack the legislative branch of government in his favor. We should have done that a decade ago after Gavin Newsom executed his infamous “triple play” to gain another ally on the board, and it’s especially relevant now that two supervisors are running against either other for the Assembly.

Avalos isn’t stressing the balance of powers argument for his Let’s Elect our Elected Officials Act of 2014, which would call a special election to fill vacancies in all the locally elected positions if the next election was more than year away (both the Board of Education and City College Board of Trustees would appoint interim members). It even gives up the supervisors’ power to appoint a new mayor (with the board president serving the interim, as is now the law). San Francisco isn’t a dictatorship, as much as that might please Lee’s business community allies. The people and our district-elected supervisors need to have a stronger voice in how this city is being run, so we at the Bay Guardian are happy to see a few new green shoots of democracy springing up at City Hall.

Stop wiggling around the bike debate

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EDITORIAL

Our blog post last week about traffic cops ticketing bicyclists riding the Wiggle on Bike to Work Day (see “Bike sting on BTWD,” page 13) triggered heated reader reactions on both sides, as stories about bikes often do. Many are angry that cyclists routinely run stop signs, while cyclists argue police should focus enforcement on motorists who present a far greater danger to the public.

When we finally heard back from the San Francisco Police Department this week, a spokesperson said that targeted enforcement on the Wiggle is being driven by complaints, and that the SFPD is compelled to act on those complaints and can’t selectively enforce traffic laws. A few people in the neighborhood have pledged in online forums to put a stop to the scofflaw behavior of cyclists there.

This presents an ideal opportunity for San Francisco to finally have a long-overdue discussion about traffic safety and how to encourage more people to ride bikes, which is official city policy — and for good reason in this era of global warming, fiscal austerity, and increasing traffic congestion.

The Wiggle — a series of city-posted turns snaking their way through Lower Haight — is a crucial east-west connection that is one of the most well-traveled bike routes in the city. But it also includes stop signs at the end of every block, six in all, that almost every cyclist slowly rolls through.

Rather than let a few people undermine the city’s voter-approved policies promoting cycling, we should see this standoff as an opportunity to use intersection designs and traffic enforcement strategies that recognize it unnecessarily clogs up intersections for everyone when cyclists lose their momentum and have to start pedaling from a full stop.

So as part of the study of Wiggle intersections that is now underway, the city should give serious consideration to installing traffic circles at each of these intersections, something it should then consider for intersections throughout the city that have high volumes of cyclist traffic.

San Francisco should also start pushing statewide reforms like Idaho-style laws allowing cyclists to treat stop signs as yield signs and red lights as stop signs, which wouldn’t change when motorists or pedestrians have the right-of-way, simply enshrining into law how cyclists already ride.

In the meantime, the SFPD should focus on dangerous intersections and behaviors, as Police Chief Greg Suhr has already pledged, and clearly communicate that priority to traffic cops. As it does with marijuana laws, San Francisco should make a deliberate decision to not make criminals of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

If thousands of San Franciscans are breaking the same law everyday, in the same intersections that actually have low collision rates, perhaps the problem is systemic. We should make changes that foster a respect for the law, not pursue crackdowns that will only feed division and hostility on our streets.

Politics trumps police oversight

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EDITORIAL

A proven advocate for the public interest was removed from the San Francisco Police Commission last week. Not only was this a missed opportunity for stronger civilian oversight at a time when the San Francisco Police Department is under federal scrutiny, it raises disturbing implications about how things get done in City Hall.

The Board of Supervisors voted to oust Police Commissioner Angela Chan, voting 7-4 to strike Chan’s name from the appointment and replace it with contender Victor Hwang instead. City Hall insiders privately explained that Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, a friend of Mayor Ed Lee who wields great political influence, pressured supervisors to vote for Hwang specifically because she and her allies wanted Chan to be ousted. Supervisors who could not be relied upon to vote for Hwang were even reportedly cautioned that they shouldn’t be too vocal about their positions.

A civil rights attorney who proved effective and independent as a commissioner, Chan often directed pointed questions at police, for example drilling down on the finer details of officer-involved shootings.

Hwang, also a civil rights attorney, is qualified and respected, but he didn’t need to replace Chan. There’s another vacant seat on the commission — up to Mayor Ed Lee to appoint — so this vote was never about Hwang’s qualifications versus Chan’s. There was room for both.

This was about political patronage, pure and simple. It was about getting rid of an independent voice and replacing her with the former chair of the “Run Ed Run” committee, which urged Lee to break his pledge and run for mayor — a tradeoff that hurts police accountability.

Having two civil rights attorneys on the Police Commission would have sent a strong signal that the city is serious about addressing police misconduct at a time when the SFPD officers are facing federal charges for alleged civil rights violations (see “Crooked cops, March 4).

Supervisors should have called upon Lee to appoint Hwang rather than ousting Chan. Instead, the board majority was unwilling to challenge the consolidated power of Lee and his well-connected allies, who conducted an anti-democratic closed-door lobbying effort.

Board President David Chiu, who is running for Assembly, stated at the meeting that he’d asked Lee about appointing Hwang to the vacant seat, only to be told: “It is not something that will happen.”

So Chiu was unwilling to question the mayor’s bizarre refusal to appoint a candidate that Lee’s own allies were furiously advocating for. Instead of pushing for stronger civilian oversight of police, Chiu and six other supervisors voted to oust a commissioner with a proven track record.

If elected officials are casting votes for personal advancement, or out of fear that they’ll be rendered ineffective as punishment for pissing off the wrong people, then San Franciscans have a big problem: Their local government is beholden to the whims of entrenched power.

 

The future of Piers 30-32

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EDITORIAL

It was good news for San Francisco when the Golden State Warriors withdrew a proposal to build a new arena on Piers 30-32 and to instead build it on private land in Mission Bay, sparing city residents a costly and divisive fight sullied by millions of dollars in political advocacy and propaganda.

The new location near the intersection of 16th and Third streets is still close enough to the water to provide picturesque images for network television, but without sparking concerns about the city’s stewardship of coastal land held in trust for the people of California. The new site will have better public access once the Central Subway is completed, and it could help encourage the teardown of Interstate 280 and its conversion into a multi-modal boulevard like Octavia, a good idea the city is now studying.

Best of all, this provides a golden opportunity for the city and the Port of San Francisco to launch a truly public process for how to use Pier 30-32, the largest remaining open stretch of the central waterfront, as well as the adjacent Seawall Lot 330. Rather than simply reacting to big ideas hatched behind closed doors, the public could take part in a truly democratic process to proactively shape this high-profile public property.

Admittedly, there are challenges to overcome, starting with the high cost of demolishing these aging piers, so it’s likely that the valuable Seawall Lot 330 will be part of the equation, with its pure profit potential used to help pay for whatever happens to the piers. But how that balancing act is done would be for the public to decide.

Should we open up that stretch of waterfront by not replacing the piers, or replacing it with a much smaller pier? Could it become an artificial wetland that is both pretty and ecologically beneficial in an era of rising seas? Would we accept a luxury condo tower on the seawall lot to help pay for this new open space? Or maybe the city would want to float a bond and seek grants to help remove this bay fill and keep the seawall lot to a more limited and public-interest use?

These are the kinds of honest and direct questions San Francisco should be asking its citizens. The waterfront is an invaluable resource, and it shouldn’t be treated as merely a liability because the Port needs money. The same goes for Seawall Lot 351 that was part of the 8 Washington project that voters rejected, as well as Seawall Lot 337 that is part of the Giants proposal at Pier 48.

The views of the people of San Francisco shouldn’t be afterthought to be avoided, as opponents of Proposition B seem to believe, but a creative resource that could help shape the San Francisco of tomorrow.

 

Hold BART accountable for deaths

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EDITORIAL

Bay Area Rapid Transit made a deadly miscalculation last year — one that built on years of reckless decisions to value efficiency over safety — and nobody was ever held accountable. That’s not acceptable for a public agency, and it’s time for the people who made these decisions and the elected officials who enabled them to come clean and make amends.

Last year’s contentious contract negotiations between BART management and employees was marked by an ugly union-bashing media strategy and dangerous brinksmanship that forced two strikes. During the second strike in October, two BART workers were killed by a train operated by someone management was training to run replacement service to break the unions.

Whether that driver’s inexperience directly caused the deaths is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, but we do know that this tragedy was a direct result of the “simple approval process” that made these workers responsible for their own safety even though they couldn’t see or hear a train coming with enough time to safely get out of the way.

California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health has been battling with BART for years to change this dangerous procedure that had killed workers before, but BART chose to aggressively litigate the mandate at every turn instead doing the right thing, finally acceding after these latest avoidable deaths.

DOSH last week concluded its investigation of the October deaths, finding BART guilty of “willful/serious” safety violations and leveling the maximum fine allowed by law, a mere $210,000. Civil wrongful death settlements are likely to reach into the millions of dollars, and the NTSB could soon bring more punishment down on BART.

But real accountability begins at home. This reckless management strategy should be an issue in every one of this year’s reelection races for BART’s Board of Directors, each of whom are culpable and none of whom have challenged the decisions by General Manager Grace Crunican and Assistant Manager of Operations Paul Oversier in any serious public way.

This arrogant agency has abused the public trust and been hostile to reasonable public oversight, whether that involves its trigger-happy Police Department or its callous disregard for the safety of workers and riders, something its unions have been calling out for many years.

The California Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment unveiled damning evidence of BART’s lax safety culture during a hearing in November, and it’s time for the Legislature to follow up and give DOSH the authority and funding it needs to hold BART and other serial safety violators accountable.

Voters should also consider replacing current elected directors this fall (we’ll offer our endorsements then), giving special consideration to those who want to clean house and change a management culture that is hostile to safety and its workers.