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Green City

Shit show


By Brady Welch



GREEN CITY Food safety groups complain that the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has until recently been dumping its crap in the backyards and gardens of any residents who unwittingly asked for it.

The city calls this crap “biosolids compost,” and for Mayor Gavin Newsom and the SFPUC, it seemed like a green dream come true. But it turns out that putting processed human excrement into people’s vegetable gardens might not be the elegant — if somewhat gross — reuse strategy it once seemed to be.

The vexing sewage sludge left over after treatment and separation of the city’s wastewater was being treated, combined with woodchips and paper waste, and labeled compost so it could, according to the SFPUC’s Web site, “provide essential plant nutrients, improve soil structure, enhance moisture retention, and reduce soil erosion.” Not bad for the ultimate human waste product.

The problem, say groups including the Center for Food Safety and Organic Consumers Association, is that the SFPUC’s compost contains a host of other toxins and hazardous materials not necessarily originating with what the city’s granola-munching denizens flush down the toilet. In fact, a January 2009 Environmental Protection Agency study of sewage sludge from 74 treatment plants found, in nearly every sample, “28 metals, four polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, two semi-volatiles, 11 flame retardants, 72 pharmaceuticals, and 25 steroids and hormones.” Yikes.

“You name it, it’s in there,” John Mayer, said spokesperson for the Organic Consumers Association. The compost “is hazardous waste, and it’s absurd to claim that it’s safe to consume. No matter what the sludge processing industry claims, it is by definition dangerous.” The EPA report would certainly seem to support Mayer’s claim, except that it expressly stops short of doing just that, stating that the results “do not imply that the concentrations for any [substance] are of particular concern to EPA.”

Then again, it was the EPA that started promoting the use of biosolid compost in the first place, back in 1978. The only safety thresholds the agency sets for biosolids compost concern nine heavy metals and the elimination of pathogens — none of the flame retardants, steroids, semi-volatiles, and carcinogens found in their study — a standard that has remained largely unchanged for a decade.

But that’s only part of the story, because as it turns out, San Francisco’s sewage sludge isn’t that contaminated compared to the shit generated in other regions. “We found in our tests that it’s really low for all the emerging pollutants,” SFPUC spokesperson Tyron Jue told us, citing data listed on its Web site indicating that testing goes beyond what the EPA requires, and even beyond more stringent European Union standards. Jue even said that the SFPUC’s biosolids compost has “metal limits lower than in a daily vitamin, and lower or comparable to store-bought compost.”

Yet Paige Tomaselli of the Center for Food Safety understands the data differently. “San Francisco may test above and beyond the national standards. They may think their testing is green. But the truth of the matter is that that the compost they’re giving away is not generated here in San Francisco.”

Indeed, the sewage sludge the SFPUC tested is not the same stuff it was handing out for three years as “organic biosolids compost.” After the organic food industry complained, the utility recently dropped the “organic” designation, offering the admittedly sheepish defense that the label was meant to imply “carbon-rich,” a definition that would make, among nearly everything else, the Guardian you hold in your hands organic.

Jue told us that the utility spends over $3 million annually on its biosolids program, $500,000 of which last year went to contracts with Synagro, “the largest recycler of organic residuals in the United States,” according to its Web site. The compost in the SFPUC’s giveaways came from the corporation’s Central Valley Composting Facility in Merced County, where it was mixed with sludge from at least eight other counties, including municipalities whose safety requirements are nowhere near as stringent as San Francisco’s.

“The vast majority [of sludge] comes from Fresno,” Tomaselli said, adding that the SFPUC continues to cite its own numbers, “completely ignoring the fact that this sewage sludge comes from a city with agricultural and industrial toxins that may be going into the waste stream.”

Many of those toxins remain in the “compost” San Franciscans have been applying to their tomato plants. “You can cook it all day,” Mayer told us. “Those things aren’t going anywhere.”

Both OCA and CFS say that, given such a broad avenue by which toxic material could enter the SFPUC’s compost, the SFPUC is violating San Francisco’s environmental standards. For example, the opening chapter of the Environment Code for the City and County of San Francisco explicitly states that all members of the city’s government should employ the “precautionary principle” in conducting its affairs, requiring the city to err on the side of caution in environmental policy.

One sentence in particular would seem to address biosolids and the 2009 EPA study specifically: “Any gaps in scientific data uncovered by the examination of alternatives will provide a guidepost for future research, but will not prevent the city from taking protective action.” And in the case of so-called biosolids, protective action would seem to call for keeping this shit away from food.

Hugh Kaufman, a senior policy analyst at the EPA and founder of the Superfund program, flatly stated to us over the phone that “there’s no scientific consensus that this stuff is safe. They test less than 1 percent of the stuff that has been tested to be in it.”

The health effects of even that 1 percent can be alarming. Of the nine heavy metals the EPA tests for, chromium is a known carcinogen and mercury can cause permanent nervous system and kidney damage. But if that stuff doesn’t kill you, prolonged exposure to low levels of arsenic, another heavy metal, “can cause a discoloration of the skin and the appearance of small corns or warts,” according to the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration Web site.

Considering that Kaufman works in the Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response (as apposed to the Office of Water that oversees biosolids), we asked him how and why his own employer is encouraging the land application of something so potentially hazardous.

“I think it’s very similar to the reason why the government doesn’t ban naked credit-default swaps. You’ve got a situation here where the cheapest way to dispose of the sludge is land application,” he said. By giving away the sludge as compost, as San Francisco has been doing, “you can transfer liability from the government to the public where the stuff is ultimately dumped. There is tremendous economic pressure to keep the ball rolling in the same direction.”

A February 2008 ruling of 11th Circuit Court of Appeals would seem to bear this out. The case involved the McElmurrays, a family of farmers that allowed the city of Augusta, Ga., to apply biosolids on their land from 1979 to 1990. The sludge eventually poisoned their crops and even the cows who fed on them.

Citing Augusta’s lack of disclosure about the noxious effects of the sludge, the McElmurrays sought compensation subsidies under a 2002 Farm Bill, going first to the county, then the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, a state-level agency. After a number of back-and-forth denials and delays, the matter was appealed to the national USDA, which then sought the EPA’s advice for their ruling.

The court found that the series of opinions the EPA subsequently issued were unrelated to the case before the USDA and were nevertheless based on Augusta’s faulty land application data. “In short,” the ruling’s conclusion states, “it appears that the only persons to consider [the McElmurrays’] applications ended up ruling in their favor…. The USDA’s decision to accept a contrary decision, based on no review of the applications by the EPA, was arbitrary and capricious. The conclusions of the EPA were not based on substantial evidence.”

As for SFPUC’s biosolids giveaway, “They wanted a program that would green-wash this dangerous substance,” Mayer told us. “And they participated in this ruse for the benefit of Synagro. Even the mayor got pulled in.”

Tony Winnicker, the spokesperson for the SFPUC before becoming Newsom’s press secretary in January, told us the idea behind the program was a good one. “The spirit behind this is right, in terms of reuse and sustainability,” he said. “This was one of the PUC’s environmental initiatives from the beginning, and the mayor supports the agency’s efforts at environmental sustainability.”

But Winnicker said he was not aware that San Francisco’s well-tested biosolids were being mixed with those of other areas, and that Newsom would defer to SFPUC experts on how to handle the situation.

“I have no doubt that they tell people it’s biosolids compost,” CFS’s Paige Tomaselli told us. But she echoed the 11th Circuit court’s findings when she added, “On the other hand, I don’t think people know what that entails.”

This could be why SFPUC recently suspended the compost giveaways. “We’re reevaluating,” Jue told us. “What we’re trying to do is take a step back. We’re always looking at all the new information presented in front of us.” As for the utility’s record of disclosure, “We’ve always been very transparent with everyone coming to pick up compost. This is bringing awareness to an issue people don’t want to think about. [Sewage] doesn’t disappear. We have to think about it.”

So what’s to be done? Newsom has pushed San Francisco to the national forefront in sustainability and generating zero waste. Unfortunately, “they’re part of the wrong side of the sludge game,” said EPA’s Kaufman. “Is it possible to manage it better? Yes. Is there a black box to spin gold out of hay? No. Can one be invented in the future? Maybe.”

Kaufman found quite a bit of potential in the city’s successful green-bin composting. “San Francisco collects biodegradable waste material, good waste material, that can make very good compost,” he noted. “It’s not made from industrial waste; it’s made from real organic material. That’s not what the giveaway compost is made from. If San Francisco had taken what homeowners had put in for recycling and composted that and given that away, that would be fantastic.”

It would certainly have been better than the shit it has been giving away.

Thawing ICE



Top San Francisco officials are still refusing to implement legislation approved by the Board of Supervisors that requires due process to play out before immigrant youth accused of felonies are turned over to the federal government, despite recent developments that call into question arguments that have been made against that policy.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, whose veto of the legislation was overridden by the board in November 2009, has been the main obstacle to putting the new policy in place. He has argued that it violates federal law, that the city faces civil liability for harboring undocumented immigrants accused of crimes, and that only serious criminals have been affected by his unilateral 2008 decision to turn minors over to federal authorities before they have been convicted.

But then Muni bus driver Charles Washington’s wife, Tracey Washington, and 13-year-old stepson, undocumented immigrants from Australia, were placed under the control of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ordered deported after the boy got into a fight at his middle school.

The case generated sympathetic media coverage because the felony charges and deportation order seemed excessive, so the federal government issued a 60-day reprieve to allow the family to finish applying for green cards and so the boy could have his day in juvenile court.

“All this got triggered by the non-implementation of a law that the board duly enacted last year,” Washington said March 11, a week after getting his reprieve, expressing exasperation with city officials. “The police are overcharging kids and waiting for someone else to whittle the charges down, and the probation officers are referring the kids to ICE, waiting for someone else to deal with the situation.”

Newsom’s policy required the city’s juvenile probation department to refer Washington’s stepson to federal immigration authorities after local police charged the boy with felony robbery, assault, and extortion in a dispute over 46 cents. Authorities then required his mother, rather than his stepfather, to come pick him up and placed an electronic monitoring device on her pending a deportation hearing.

Newsom’s policy has had a big impact in the city’s immigrant communities. Since July 2008 when the mayor ordered changes to Sanctuary City policies that had been in place for two decades, 125 youths have been referred to ICE, according to a March 9 report from the city’s Juvenile Probation Department.

In addition to the Mayor’s Office, the JPD has refused to enforce policies enacted through legislation by Sup. David Campos that are technically supposed to be the new city policy on referring undocumented youth, and the City Attorney’s Office has not required city employees to follow the new law, arguing it can only give advice and not compel departments to take action.

“With the benefit of legal advice provided by the City Attorney’s Office and outside legal counsel, and in light of current restrictions imposed by federal law, particularly the position taken by federal law enforcement authorities, the department has concluded that it cannot modify its policies and practices,” probation chief William Siffermann said at a March 4 hearing of the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on why his department didn’t implement the legislation.

Grilled by Campos, Siffermann could not identify a federal law that requires city officials to report kids to federal immigration authorities upon arrest. Instead, Sifferman pointed to what many in the criminal justice community see as U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello’s overly broad interpretation of federal immigration laws, including his allegation that transporting arrested juveniles to court hearings amounts to “harboring aliens.”

But the Washingtons’ case struck a raw nerve at City Hall, and the Obama administration’s conciliatory response, along with other recent legal developments, indicate that it isn’t the feds that are preventing implementation of Campos’ legislation.

In February, Superior Court Judge Charlotte Woolard ruled in a civil case that the Bologna family — of which three members were murdered in 2008, allegedly by Edwin Ramos, an undocumented immigrant who had been in city custody as a juvenile — can’t hold the city liable for failing to prevent the murders.

That crime had been sensationalized by the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and nativist groups, putting pressure on Newsom to change the Sanctuary City policy. Newsom’s spokespeople repeatedly have referred to it as an example of the civil liability the city faced.

On March 1 (the same day Washington first went public), City Attorney Dennis Herrera replied to allegations that his office has not done enough to implement Campos’ amendment by citing its victory in the Bolognas’ civil case, which sought punitive damages and to invalidate the city’s sanctuary ordinance.

Herrera also asked Gary Grindler, acting deputy attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice, to direct the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of California to “not use its limited resources to criminally prosecute local officials and employees who abide by California and local laws regarding the reporting of undocumented juvenile immigrants to the federal immigration authorities.”

Herrera based his March 12 request on an Oct. 19, 2009 memo that Grindler’s predecessor, David Ogden, issued curtailing federal action against medical marijuana dispensaries, which Herrera argued could serve as the model for clarifying the federal position on the city’s sanctuary law.

“If city officials and employees follow the mandates of state law, including those regarding the confidentiality of records of juvenile detainees, and the requirements of the amendment permitting the reporting to ICE of juveniles only after they have been adjudicated as wards of the court for criminal conduct, then the U.S. Attorney should not make it a priority to use its scarce federal resources to prosecute those city officials on the theory that by not reporting them at an earlier point, the city officials or employees are guilty of harboring,” Herrera wrote.

Campos said he welcomes any effort to get clarification from the feds, but believes such clarification is not necessary — and may not be forthcoming anyway. “So San Francisco should move forward. The law, in my view, allows us to do so, and it’s the right thing to do.”

The Green Party’s nadir


This should be a great time for the Green Party. Its namesake color is being cited by every corporation and politician who wants to get in good with the environmentally-minded public; voters in San Francisco are more independent than ever; and progressives have been increasingly losing the hope they placed on President Barack Obama.
But the Green Party of San Francisco — which once had an influence on city politics that was disproportionate to its membership numbers — has hit a nadir. The number of Greens has steadily dwindled since its peak in 2003; the party closed its San Francisco office in November; and it has now lost almost all its marquee members.
Former mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez, school board member Jane Kim, community college board member John Rizzo, and Planning Commissioner Christina Olague have all left the party in the last year or so. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi — a founding member of the Green Party of California and its last elected official in San Francisco — has also been openly struggling with whether to remain with an organization that doesn’t have much to offer him anymore, particularly as he contemplates a bid for higher office.
While a growing progressive movement within the Democratic Party has encouraged some Greens to defect, particularly among those with political ambitions, that doesn’t seem to be the biggest factor. After all, the fastest growing political affiliation is “Decline to State” and San Francisco now has a higher percentage of these independent voters than any other California county: 29.3 percent, according to state figures.
Democratic Party registration in San Francisco stood at 56.7 percent in November, the second-highest percentage in the state after Alameda County, making this essentially a one-party town (at last count, there were 256,233 Democrats, 42,097 Republicans, and 8,776 Greens in SF). Although Republicans in San Francisco have always outnumbered Greens by about 4-1, the only elected San Francisco Republican in more than a decade was BART board member James Fang.
But Republicans could never have made a real bid for power in San Francisco, as Gonzalez did in his electrifying 2003 mayoral run, coming within 5 percentage points of beating Gavin Newsom, who outspent the insurgent campaign 6-1 and had almost the entire Democratic Party establishment behind him.
That race, and the failure of Democrats in Congress to avert the ill-fated invasion of Iraq, caused Green Party membership to swell, reaching its peak in San Francisco and statewide in November 2003. But it’s been a steady downward slide since then, locally and statewide.
So now, as the Green Party of California prepares to mark its 20th anniversary next month in Berkeley, it’s worth exploring what happened to the party and what it means for progressive people’s movements at a time when they seem to be needed more than ever. Mirkarimi was one of about 20 core progressive activists who founded the Green Party of California in 1990, laying the groundwork in the late 1980s when he spent almost two years studying the Green Party in Germany, which was an effective member of a coalition government there and something he thought the United States desperately needed.
“It was in direct response to the right-wing shift of the Democrats during the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations. It was so obvious that there had been an evacuation of the left-of-center values and policies that needed attention. So the era was just crying out woefully for a third party,” Mirkarimi said of the Green Party of California and its feminist, antiwar, ecological, and social justice belief system.
But he and the other founding Greens have discovered how strongly the American legal, political, and economic structures maintain the two-party system (or what Mirkarimi called “one party with two conservative wings”), locking out rival parties through restrictive electoral laws, control of political debates, and campaign financing mechanisms.
“I’m still very impassioned about the idea of having a Green Party here in the United States and here in California and San Francisco, vibrantly so. But I’m concerned that the Green Party will follow a trend like all third parties, which have proven that this country is absolutely uninviting — and in fact unwelcoming — of third parties and multiparty democracy,” Mirkarimi said.
Unlike some Greens, Mirkarimi has always sought to build coalitions and make common cause with Democrats when there were opportunities to advance the progressive agenda, a lesson he learned in Germany.
When he worked on Ralph Nader’s 2000 presidential campaign — a race that solidified the view of Greens as “spoilers” in the minds of many Democrats — Mirkarimi was involved in high-level negotiations with Democratic nominee Al Gore’s campaign, trying to broker some kind of leftist partnership that would elect Gore while advancing the progressive movement.
“There was great effort to try to make that happen, but unfortunately, everyone defaulted to their own anxieties and insecurities,” Mirkarimi said. “It was uncharted territory. It had never happened before. Everyone who held responsibility had the prospect of promise, and frankly, everybody felt deflated that the conversation did not become actualized into something real between Democrats and Greens. It could have.”
Instead, George W. Bush was narrowly elected president and many Democrats blamed Nader and the Greens, unfairly or not. And Mirkarimi said the Greens never did the post-election soul-searching and retooling that they should have. Instead, they got caught up in local contests, such as the Gonzalez run for mayor — “that beautiful distraction” — a campaign Mirkarimi helped run before succeeding Gonzalez on the board a year later.
Today, as he considers running for mayor himself, Mirkarimi is weighing whether to leave the party he founded. “I’m in a purgatory. I believe in multiparty democracy,” Mirkarimi said. “Yet tactically speaking, I feel like if I’m earnest in my intent to run for higher office, as I’ve shared with Greens, I’m not so sure I can do so as a Green.”
That’s a remarkable statement — in effect, an acknowledgement that despite some success on the local level, the Green Party still can’t compete for bigger prizes, leaving its leaders with nowhere to go. Mirkarimi said he plans to announce his decision — about his party and political plans — soon.
Gonzalez left the Green Party in 2008, changing his registration to DTS when he decided to be the running mate of Nader in an independent presidential campaign. That move was partly necessitated by ballot access rules in some states. But Gonzalez also thought Nader needed to make an independent run and let the Green Party choose its own candidate, which ended up being former Congress member Cynthia McKinney.
“I expressly said to Nader that I would not run with him if he sought the Green Party nomination,” Gonzalez told us. “The question after the campaign was: is there a reason to go back to the Green Party?”
Gonzalez concluded that there wasn’t, that the Greens had ceased to be a viable political party and that it “lacks a certain discipline and maturity.” Among the reasons he cited for the party’s slide were infighting, inadequate party-building work, and the party’s failure to effectively counter criticisms of Nader’s 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns.
“We were losing the public relations campaign of explaining what the hell happened,” he said.
Gonzalez was also critical of the decision by Mirkarimi and other Greens to endorse the Democratic Party presidential nominees in 2004 and 2008, saying it compromised the Greens’ critique of the two-party system. “It sort of brings that effort to an end.”
But Gonzalez credits the Green Party with invigorating San Francisco politics at an important time. “It was an articulation of an independence from the Democratic Party machine,” Gonzalez said of his decision to go from D to G in 2000, the year he was elected to the Board of Supervisors.
Anger at that machine and its unresponsiveness to progressive issues was running high at the time, and Gonzalez said the Green Party became one of the “four corners of the San Francisco left,” along with the San Francisco Tenants Union, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, and the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which helped set a progressive agenda for the city.
“Those groups helped articulate what issues were important,” Gonzalez said, citing economic, environmental, electoral reform, and social justice issues as examples. “So you saw the rise of candidates who began to articulate our platform.” But the success of the progressive movement in San Francisco also sowed the seeds for the Green Party’s downfall, particularly after progressive Democrats Chris Daly, Tom Ammiano, and Aaron Peskin waged ideological battles with Mayor Gavin Newsom and other so-called “moderate Democrats” last year taking control of the San Francisco Democratic Party County Central Committee.
“Historically, the San Francisco Democratic Party has been a political weapon for whoever was in power. But now, it’s actually a democratic party. And it’s gotten progressive as well,” Peskin, the party chair, told us. “And for a lot of Greens, that’s attractive.”
The opportunity to take part in that intra-party fight was a draw for Rizzo and Kim, both elected office-holders with further political ambitions who recently switched from Green to Democrat.
“I am really concerned about the Democratic Party,” Rizzo, a Green since 1992, told us. “I’ve been working in politics to try to influence things from the outside. Now I’m going to try to influence it from the inside.”
Rizzo said he’s frustrated by the inability of Obama and Congressional Democrats to capitalize on their 2008 electoral gains and he’s worried about the long-term implications of that failure. “What’s going on in Washington is really counterproductive for the Democrats. These people [young, progressive voters] aren’t going to want to vote again.”
Rizzo and Kim both endorsed Obama and both say there needs to be more progressive movement-building to get him back on track with the hopes he offered during his campaign.
“I think it’s important for progressives in San Francisco to try to move the Democratic Party back to the left,” Kim, who is considering running for the District 6 seat on the Board of Supervisors, told us. “I’ve actually been leaning toward doing this for a while.”
Kim was a Democrat who changed her registration to Green in 2004, encouraged to do so by Gonzalez. “For me, joining the Green Party was important because I really believed in third-party politics and I hope we can get beyond the two-party system,” Kim said, noting the dim hopes for that change was also a factor in her decision to switch back.
Another Green protégé of Gonzalez was Olague, whom he appointed to the Planning Commission. Olague said she was frustrated by Green Party infighting and the party’s inability to present any real political alternative.
“We had some strong things happening locally, but I didn’t see any action on the state or national level,” Olague said. “They have integrity and they work hard, but is that enough to stay in a party that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere?”
But many loyal Greens dispute the assertion that their party is on the rocks. “I think the party is going pretty well. It’s always an uphill battle building an alternative party,” said Erika McDonald, spokesperson for the Green Party of San Francisco, noting that the party plans to put the money it saved on its former Howard Street headquarters space into more organizing and outreach. “The biggest problem is money.”
Green Party activist Eric Brooks agrees. “We held onto that office for year and year and didn’t spend the money on party building, like we should have done a long time ago,” he said. “That’s the plan now, to do some crucial party organizing.”
Mirkarimi recalls the early party-building days when he and other “Ironing Board Cowboys” would canvas the city on Muni with voter registration forms and ironing boards to recruit new members, activities that fell away as the party achieved electoral successes and got involved with policy work.
“It distracted us from the basics,” Mirkarimi said. Now the Green Party has to again show that it’s capable of that kind of field work in support of a broad array of campaigns and candidates: “If I want to grow, there has to be a companion strategy that will lift all boats. All of those who have left the Green Party say they still support its values and wish it future success. And the feeling is mostly mutual, although some Greens grumble about how their party is now being hurt by the departure of its biggest names.
“I don’t begrudge an ambitious politician leaving the Green Party,” said Dave Snyder, a member of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District Board of Directors, and one of the few remaining Greens in local government.
But Snyder said he won’t abandon the Green Party, which he said best represents his political values. “To join a party means you subscribe to its ideals. But you can’t separate its ideals from its actions. Based on its actions, there’s no way I could be a member of the Democratic Party,” Snyder said.
Current Greens say many of President Obama’s actions — particularly his support for Wall Street, a health reform effort that leaves insurance companies in control, and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan — vindicate their position and illustrate why the Green Party is still relevant.
“The disillusionment with Obama is a very good opportunity for us,” McDonald said, voicing hope they Green can begin to capture more DTS voters and perhaps even a few Democrats. And Brooks said, “The Obama wake-up call should tell Greens that they should stick with the party.”
Snyder also said now is the time for Greens to more assertively make the case for progressive organizing: “The Democrats can’t live up to the hopes that people put on them.”
Even Peskin agrees that Obama’s candidacy was one of several factors that hurt the Green Party. “The liberal to progressive support for the Obama presidency deflated the Greens locally and beyond. In terms of organizing, they didn’t have the organizational support and a handful of folks alienated newcomers.”
In fact, when Mirkarmi and the other Green pioneers were trying to get the party qualified as a legal political party in California — no small task — Democratic Party leaders acted as if the Greens were the end of the world, or at least the end of Democratic control of the state Legislature and the California Congressional delegation. They went to great lengths to block the young party’s efforts.
It turns out that the Greens haven’t harmed the Democrats much at all; Democrats have even larger majorities at every legislative level today.
What has happened is that the Obama campaign, and the progressive inroads into the local party, have made the Greens less relevant. In a sense, it’s a reflection of exactly what Green leaders said years ago: if the Democrats were more progressive, there would be less need for a third party.
But Mirkarimi and other Greens who endorsed Obama see this moment differently, and they don’t share the hope that people disappointed with Obama are going to naturally gravitate toward the Greens. Rizzo and Kim fear these voters, deprived of the hope they once had, will instead just check out of politics. “They need to reorganize for a new time and new reality,” Rizzo said of the Greens.
Part of that new reality involves working with candidates like Obama and trying to pull them to the left through grassroots organizing. Mirkarimi stands by his decision to endorse Obama, for which the Green Party disinvited him to speak at its annual national convention, even though he was one of his party’s founders and top elected officials.
“After a while, we have to take responsibility to try to green the Democrats instead of just throwing barbs at them,” Mirkarimi said. “Our critique of Obama now would be much more effective if we had supported him.”
Yet that’s a claim of some dispute within the Green Party, a party that has often torn itself apart with differences over strategy and ideology, as it did in 2006 when many party activists vocally opposed the gubernatorial campaign of former Socialist Peter Camejo. And old comrades Mirkarimi and Gonzalez still don’t agree on the best Obama strategy, even in retrospect.
But they and other former Greens remain hopeful that the country can expand its political dialogue, and they say they are committed to continuing to work toward that goal. “I think there will be some new third party effort that emerges,” Gonzalez said. “It can’t be enough to not be President Bush. People want to see the implementation of a larger vision.”

Informing the public



Information is power. But too often, those with political power guard public documents and information from the journalists, activists, lawyers, and others who seek it on the people’s behalf. So every year, we at the Guardian honor those who fight for a freer and more open society by highlighting the annual winners of the James Madison Freedom of Information Awards, which are given by the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

This year’s winners are:

Beverly Kees Educator Award

Rachele Kanigel

Rachele Kanigel, an associate professor of journalism and advisor to Golden Gate Xpress publications at San Francisco State University, has been highly involved in student press rights work on a national level. She wrote The Student Newspaper Survival Guide (Blackwell Publishing, 2006), a book designed to empower budding campus reporters. A champion of the free speech rights of her students, Kanigel has gone to bat on several occasions on behalf of student journalists whose work was challenged by interests that didn’t believe students should be afforded the same protections as professional reporters. Kanigel sees part of her job as educating the world about the importance of student journalists and standing up for their rights. “A lot of people won’t talk to student journalists, but they’re doing some really important work,” she said. “A lot of what we have to do is to assure the student journalists and tell the world outside that these are journalists.” The educator award is named in honor of Beverly Kees, who was the SPJ NorCal chapter president at the time of her death in 2004.

Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award

Mark Fricker

Mary Fricker is the kind of investigative reporter many of us would like to be.

She started out in the 1980s investigating complaints of irregularities at her local savings and loan when she was reporting for the old Russian River News community paper. Her dogged research and hard-hitting stories produced the first major investigation into the toxic problems of financial deregulation in S&Ls. Her work won numerous awards, including the Gerald Loeb Award given out by UCLA and the prestigious George Polk Award, and ultimately led to the book, Inside Job: The Looting of America’s Savings and Loan. The book won Best Book of the Year award from the Investigative Reporters and Editors association.

Fricker did business reporting and major investigative work for 20 years with the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. She retired and joined the Chauncey Bailey Project as a volunteer investigative reporter, researcher, Web site maestro, and general good spirit. Her work included several key investigations that determined that the Oakland Police Department was virtually alone in not taping interviews with suspects in investigations. Her stories changed that practice. She is a most worthy recipient of the Norwin S.<0x2009>Yoffie award, which honors the memory of the former publisher of the Marin Independent Journal, a founder of the SPJ/FOI committee, and a splendid warrior in the cause of Freedom of Information.

Professional Journalist

G.W. Schulz

G.W. Schulz was busy when we got him on the phone. “I’m sending out about eight or nine new freedom of information requests a day,” he said. “I fired off a few to the governor of Texas this morning.”

The relentless reporter is working on the Center for Investigative Reporting’s program exposing homeland security spending. It hasn’t been easy. Since the federal government began making big grants to local agencies for supposed antiterrorism and civil emergency equipment and programs, following the money has required unusual persistence. Homeland Security officials don’t even know where their grants are going, so Schulz has been forced to dig deeper.

“I think this is the biggest open government campaign I’ll ever do in my career,” he said. “We’re juggling dozens of requests, state by state. And it’s breathtaking what some people will ignore in their own public records laws.”

He’s found widespread abuse. “These agencies are getting all this expensive equipment and they don’t even maintain it or train their staff how to use it,” he said. CIR is not only doing its own stories, it’s working with local papers that don’t have the resources to do this kind of work. “Lots of great stories in the pipeline,” he said before signing off to get back to the battle. “I’m really excited.”

Legal Counsel

Ann Brick/ACLU

On the heels of a now-infamous Supreme Court ruling on so-called First Amendment rights for corporate political speech, SPJ is honoring an individual who has made a career devoted to protecting real, individual free speech rights for almost 20 years. Ann Brick, staff attorney for the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has litigated in defense of privacy rights, free speech, government accountability, and student rights in cases ranging from book burning to Internet speech to illegal government wiretapping. “I can’t tell you how much of an honor it is to have worked with the ACLU,” she says, adding, “I can’t think of another award I’d rather get than this one — an award from journalists.” But the public’s gratitude goes to Brick, whose years of service are a shining example of speaking truth to power.

Computer Assisted Reporting

Phillip Reese

Phillip Reese of The Sacramento Bee is being honored for his unrelenting pursuit of public records and for producing interactive databases. Reese was the architect of the Bee‘s data center, providing readers readily accessible information about legislative voting records, neighborhood election results, state employee salaries, and other important information. At one point, the city of Sacramento demanded several thousand dollars in exchange for employee salary data. Reese gathered the city’s IT workers and a city attorney for a meeting, where he argued that organizing records in an analyzable format would insure the system wasn’t being abused, so they chose to provide the records for free. The online databases provide public access to records that are often disorganized and cryptic. “Sometimes these databases go well with a story, and sometimes they can stand on the Internet alone. People can view them in a way that is important to themselves,” Reese said.

Public Official

Leland Yee

State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has been an open government advocate since his days on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and one of his favorite targets is the administration of the University of California. He has fought to protect UC students from administrators who want to curtail their free-speech right and to get documents from university officials.

In 2008, he authored and passed SB 1696, which blocked the university from hiding audit information behind a private contractor. UCSF was refusing to release the information in an audit the school paid a private contractor to conduct. “I read about this in the newspaper and I was just scratching my head. How can public officials do this stuff?” Yee said. He had to overcome resistance from university officials and public agencies arguing that the state shouldn’t be sticking its nose into their business. “But it’s public money, and they’re public entities, and the people have a right to know where that money is going.”

Computer Assisted Reporting

Thomas Peele and Daniel Willis

This duo with the Bay Area News Group, which includes 15 daily and 14 community newspapers around the Bay Area, performed monumental multitasking when they decided to crunch the salaries of more than 194,000 public employees from 97 government agencies into a database. Honored with the Computer Assisted Reporting Award, the duo provided the public with a database that translated a gargantuan amount of records into understandable information. They had to submit dozens of California Public Records Act requests to access the records of salaries that account for more than $1.8 billion in taxpayer money. “It is important that the public know how its money is spent. This data base, built rather painstakingly one public records act request at a time by Danny Willis and myself as a public service, goes a long way in helping people follow the money,” Peele said.


Californians Aware: The Center for Public Forum Rights

California’s sunshine laws, including the Brown Act open meeting law and California Public Records Act, aren’t bad. Unfortunately, they are routinely flouted by public officials, often making it necessary to go to court to enforce them. That’s why we need groups like CalAware, and individuals like its president, Rick McKee, and its counsel, longtime media attorney Terry Francke. Last year, while defending an Orange County school board member’s free speech rights and trying to restore a censored public meeting transcript, CalAware not only found itself losing the case on an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion, but being ordered to pay more than $80,000 in school district legal fees. “It’s never been easy, but that was going to be the end of private enforcement of the Brown Act,” Francke said. Luckily, Sen. Leland Yee intervened with legislation that prevents awarding attorney fees in such sunshine cases, leaving CalAware bruised but unbowed. “We’ve become active in court like never before.”

News Media

SF Public Press/McSweeney’s

Last year, when author Dave Eggers and his McSweeney’s magazine staff decided to put out a single newspaper issue (because “it’s a form we love,” Eggers told us), they filled San Francisco Panorama with the unusual mix of writers, topics, and graphics one might expect from a literary enterprise. But they wanted a hard-hitting investigation on the cover, so they turned to the nonprofit SF Public Press and reporters Robert Porterfield and Patricia Decker. Together, they worked full-time for four months to gather information on cost overruns on the Bay Bridge rebuild, fighting for public records and information from obscure agencies and an intransigent CalTrans. “We’re still dealing with this. I’ve been trying to secure documents for a follow-up and I keep getting the runaround,” said Decker, a new journalist with a master’s degree in engineering, a nice complement to Porterfield, an award-winning old pro. “He’s a great mentor, just such a fount of knowledge.”

Professional Journalist

Sean Webby

San Jose Mercury News reporter Sean Webby won for a series spotlighting the San Jose Police Department’s use of force and how difficult it is for the public or the press to track.

The department and the San Jose City Council refused to release use-of-force reports, so Webby obtained them through public court files. He zeroed in on incidents that involved “resisting arrest” charges, and even uncovered a cell phone video in which officers Tasered and battered suspects who did not appear to be resisting.

Webby has won numerous awards in the past, but says he is particularly proud of this one. “Freedom of information is basically our mission statement, our bible, our motto,” he said. “We feel like the less resistance the average person has to getting information, the better the system works.”

Webby said that despite causing some tension between his paper and the San Jose Police Department, the project was well worth it. “We are never going to back off the hard questions. It’s our job as a watchdog organization.”

Public Service

Rita Williams

KTVU’s Rita Williams is being honored for her tireless efforts to establish a media room in the San Francisco Federal Building that provides broadcasters the same access to interviews as print reporters.

Television and radio equipment was banned from the federal pressroom following 9/11, but Williams solicited support from television stations, security agencies, the courts, and the National Bar Association. After a six-year push, they were able to restore access.

Williams and her supporters converted a storage unit in the federal building into a full-blown media center, which was well-used during the Proposition 8 trial. “I only did two days of the trials, but every time I walked into the room, I would just be swarmed with camera folks saying thank you, thank you, thank you,” she said. “I’m getting close to retirement and I was in the first wave of women in broadcasting, and I’m proud that almost 40 years later, I can leave this legacy.”


Melissa Nix

With her Betty Page looks, dogged sense of justice, and journalistic training, Melissa Nix became a charismatic and relentless force in the quest to find out how her ex-boyfriend Hugues de la Plaza really died in 2007. Nix began her efforts after the San Francisco medical examiner declared it was unable to determine how de la Plaza died and the San Francisco Police Department seemed to be leaning toward categorizing the case as a suicide. Using personal knowledge of de la Plaza and experience as a reporter with The Sacramento Bee, Nix got the French police involved, who ruled the death a homicide, and unearthed the existence of an independent medical examiner report that concluded that de la Plaza was murdered.


Daniel Borenstein

Contra Costa Times reporter Daniel Borenstein wasn’t out to deprive public worker retirees of yachting, country club golf, and rum-y cocktails at tropical resorts. The columnist was only trying to figure out how, for example, the chief of the Moraga-Orinda Fire District turned a $185,000 salary into a $241,000 annual pension. Borenstein’s effort to unearth and make public, in easily readable spreadsheets, the records of all Contra Costa County public employee pensioners led the Contra Costa Times to a court victory stipulating just that: all records would be released promptly on request without allowing retirees time to go to court to block access. The effects have been noticeable: “I get scores of e-mails most weeks in reaction to the columns I’m writing on pensions, [and] public officials are much more sensitive to the issue,” Borenstein says. It is a precedent that has carried into the Modesto Bee‘s similar pension-disclosure efforts in Stanislaus County.

Student Name Withheld After a photojournalism student at San Francisco State University snapped photographs at the scene of a fatal shooting in Bayview-Hunters Point, police skipped the usual process of using a subpoena to seek evidence, and went straight into his home with a search warrant to seize this student’s work. But with the help of his attorney, the student quashed the warrant, arguing California’s shield law prevents law enforcement from compelling journalists to disclose unpublished information. He won, and the case served to demonstrate that the shield law should apply to nontraditional journalists.

The student is being recognized because he resisted the warrant rather than caving into the demands of law enforcement. Invoking the shield law in such cases prevents reporters from being perceived as extensions of law enforcement by the communities they report on, enabling a free exchange of information. The student remained anonymous in the aftermath of the shooting because he feared for his life. Based on his ongoing concerns, NorCal SPJ and the Guardian have agreed to honor his wish to have his name withheld.

Waste of paper



Several weeks ago, Sup. Chris Daly e-mailed the San Francisco Ethics Commission to ask what seemed like a simple question. Daly is spearheading a June citywide ballot measure to ask voters to support the designation of the new Transbay Transit Center as the end point for the planned California High Speed Rail project, a response to the California High Speed Rail Authority’s move to explore alternative locations.

As an elected official, Daly knew there were certain individuals he might be barred from accepting money from for this effort. A San Francisco campaign finance law prohibits entities holding city contracts worth $50,000 or more from donating to political campaigns run by the elected officials who approve those contracts, a rule crafted to eliminate quid pro quo dealings that can corrupt the political process.

But when Daly tried to find out whose checks he shouldn’t be accepting, he didn’t receive a simple list of names in response. Instead he got a dense e-mail highlighting the complexity of this area of campaign finance law, offering no easy answers. For one, it wasn’t clear whether the law applied to his committee. Assuming it did, however, there was another hurdle.

“Determining which contributors are prohibited from contributing to your committee is a bit complex at the moment,” Oliver Luby, an Ethics Commission staffer, wrote in the e-mail, “because the contractor disclosures filed … are only in hard copy format.”

This vexing detail meant that obtaining a searchable list of banned contributors would require scanning hundreds of Ethics Commission forms filed on behalf of the Board of Supervisors, then manually entering potentially thousands of data rows into a spreadsheet, a project that could suck up significant time and resources.

The campaign contribution ban applies not only to major contractors, but the executive officers, subcontractors, and major shareholders of those contracting firms, so there could be a long list of individuals prohibited from making a political donation once a single contract is approved.

These restrictions theoretically create an excellent safeguard against corruption — but since it’s not recorded in electronic format, the filings amount to an almost useless sea of data. In fact, even the Ethics Commission, which is supposed to regulate violations of this ban and issue fines, isn’t able to routinely do so.

Luby pointed out the shortcoming of the system and an easy solution to Executive Director John St. Croix and Deputy Director Mabel Ng in an internal e-mail last December. “Private interests that can afford to manually create databases using the data … will have an advantage over other interests (perhaps even our own office) where the resources are not available to manually create such databases,” he wrote. “The obvious solution to this problem is e-filing.”

For example, if city agencies and political campaigns were required to submit their data in Excel spreadsheets or through an online system that automatically created spreadsheets, it would be easy to compare them to see who is violating the law.

When asked about this, St. Croix said the resources just don’t exist to upgrade the commission’s online capabilities. “We don’t have the resources to develop the software right now,” he told us. “So someday, yes. After we go through the next election season, and people see that they have a lot of difficulties in complying with this, then we may be able to build some support to make these changes.”

The e-mails were among hundreds of documents included in response to a Sunshine Ordinance public information request the Guardian submitted to the Ethics Commission in February. The assortment of documents relating to the contractor contribution ban revealed just how difficult it is for the average person to discern whether any entities striking deals with the city are at the same time trying to curry favor with the politicians who approve their contracts.

In 2006, a batch of reforms were approved to tighten restrictions on campaign contributions from major city contractors and require filing disclosure forms. Intended to point a floodlight on pay-to-play practices, the rules were championed by former Ethics Commissioner Joe Lynn, who died late last year.

Since it was established in 2006, however, the law has seen neither steady enforcement nor routine compliance from elected officials, documents show. The Mayor’s Office, for example, did not start filing the forms until April 2009, a month after critical media reports pointed out that few city departments were in compliance. While many more have started filing regularly, it appears that certain state agencies covered by the law — including the Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) — have not.

Nor does the Ethics Commission itself seem focused on ferreting out potential violators. “I am reluctant to ask my auditors or enforcement staff to review [contract disclosure] filings and compare them against campaign filings because the sheer amount of data will make the search wasteful and likely fruitless,” St. Croix wrote in a memo to his staff last October.

At the same time, attempts have been made to scale back the scope of the law, based on the argument that it is difficult to enforce. St. Croix’s memo recommended that the contribution ban not apply to contractors who deal with state agencies such as TIDA or the Redevelopment Agency, which are controlled by mayoral appointees and oversee development contracts worth millions of dollars. “Although city elective officers appoint some members of those bodies, city officials rarely have any involvement with those agencies’ contracts,” he argued.

Asked if these suggestions will be discussed formally anytime soon, St. Croix was doubtful. “Unfortunately, even though we think they’re necessary, it’s going to be a very difficult sell at the Board [of Supervisors],” he said. “Even though we think we’re fixing a problem, it looks like you’re rolling back reform, and that’s not popular.”

On the eve of an election season featuring hotly contested seats on the Board of Supervisors, the Democratic County Central Committee, and other high-profile local and statewide offices, the relatively arcane archive of the contractor disclosure forms stored away at the Ethics Commission might get more attention. Are major corporations that do business with the city scratching the backs of politicians who want to advance their political careers to keep the wheels greased for their own business ambitions?

Without a user-friendly, functional system for tracking contracts and comparing them against campaign contributions, it’s tough to say.

Taxi turbulence


By Skyler Swezy


It’s 10:20 p.m. on a recent Saturday night. Cab driver Dorian Lavender picks up a middle-aged couple outside the Gold Club, a strip joint in SoMa.

The couple is sharply dressed for a night out. After requesting the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theatre as their destination, the man brags to Lavender about having had sex with a stripper in one of the club’s private rooms. His female companion smiles and says nothing.

“This is before I met her,” the man explains. “We’re swingers.”

Minutes later, beneath the theater’s flashing marquee, the man hands the driver a $20 bill for the $10 fare. “Keep the change,” he says.

A few blocks away, a young couple flags the cab from the corner of Bush and Polk streets. They are talkative and entertained as Lavender tells them about the swingers. Ten minutes later, the meter reads $9.86. Apologizing, the young man hands him $11.

Lavender folds the bills into the cash-wad kept in his pocket.

“That’s how it goes with cab driving,” he says. “The nice couple tips 10 percent, the weird swingers tip 100 percent — and they were more interesting to talk to.”

At 25, Lavender considers cab driving a great gig and survives working only three shifts a week. He enjoys the cash, freedom, and unpredictable encounters. He’s even landed a few dates. A lot of career cabbies start driving for the same reasons. But after the excitement wears off, it turns out to be a tough job.

A typical cab driver in San Francisco makes less than $30,000 a year. Before drivers even start a shift, gate fees (covering the rental on the cab and the use of its permit, known here as a medallion), gas, and graft have already set them back close to $100. Bribes are commonplace in the industry, used to ensure weekend shifts, airport fares, and newer cars.

The industry offers no retirement plan or health coverage. In fact, the primary reason some people stay behind the wheel long after the thrill is gone is the promise that at some point, after maybe 15 years, an active driver becomes eligible for his or her own medallion. It costs almost nothing, and offers a tremendous benefit: drivers with medallions no longer pay high gate fees, get better shifts — and can lease out the permit when they’re not working. The lease revenue alone can nearly double a driver’s income.

Since 1978, medallions have been issued only to working drivers, and entirely on the basis of a waiting list that now numbers 3,200 names. New medallions become available when permit-holders retire, die, or are forced by disability to stop driving.

That system — and the entire cab industry — is about to change, profoundly. On Feb. 26, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency agreed to allow some permits to be sold on the open market to help close its huge budget deficit. When the dust settles and the implications of that decision become clear, life for cab drivers and passengers will be very different.

Some say the industry will be better; some say it will be much worse — but the truth is, nobody really knows.



Mayor Gavin Newsom’s adminstration has talked about allowing the sale of permits for several years, but only in the past few months has Christine Hayashi, SFMTA’s deputy director of taxi services, come up with a detailed plan.

It’s aimed at addressing what some drivers call an unfair and flawed system. Permit-holders by law must drive a minimum number of shifts, and it they get hurt or just get too old to drive, they have to surrender their medallions, leaving them with no source of income.

It will also help SFMTA’s budget — the city could sell unclaimed permits for big money and would get a cut of every other sale.

But critics, including Judge Quentin Kopp, the former San Francisco supervisor who wrote the 1978 law that created the old system, say the medallion holders just want to cash in on something that has always been city property.

The pilot project approved by the SFMTA board allows the city to sell up to 60 medallions directly to drivers and allow about 300 drivers over the age of 70 to sell their medallions to any qualified driver who can come up with the cash. The program aims to set a fixed selling price, but has yet to do so, instead setting a $400,000 limit. It is estimated that medallions will sell for no less than $200,000.

That, of course, will be a huge windfall to the sellers, who paid nothing for their permits.

The pilot program was essentially a done deal even before the Feb. 26 vote. In an e-mail to the Guardian, agency spokesperson Judson True confirmed that $11 million in taxi revenue had been added into the MTA budget before the vote took place.



Kopp sat behind the desk in his West Portal neighborhood office a week before the MTA vote, bitterly condemning the medallion sales program. “It’s based on greed. It’s based on City Hall greed,” he said. The stentorian 82-year-old occasionally thumped the desk with his fist for emphasis as he launched into the history of Proposition K. Then-Sup. Kopp authored that landmark legislation prohibiting private companies from owning driving permits, instead granting control to drivers.

“This will reverse a system that gave a genuine cab driver the opportunity to obtain a permit and replace it with a system that restores the ability of people with lots of money to buy a permit,” he said.

But Kopp’s bill had some unforeseen consequences. The list has become so long that medallions are being issued to people in their 60s and 70s — and some of those people are driving passengers around town despite failing reflexes, eyesight, and motor skills.

Carl Macmurdo, president of the Medallion Holders Association (MHA), believes that selling medallions will provide an exit plan for geriatric drivers while giving younger cabbies an entry opportunity. At 59, Macmurdo is still a full-time driver and has been in the industry 27 years.

It makes sense that MHA members are generally in favor of the pilot program — they could potentially make a mountain of money. Although only those over the age of 70 are now eligible to sell them, the age limit could be lowered in the future.



The United Taxi Workers (UTW) headquarters consists of a few cramped offices on the fourth floor of an old office building in the Mission District. All the interior trim is painted taxi-yellow. In late January, UTW spokespersons Mark Gruberg and Rua Graffis sat at a large table, fearing the worst.

They predict the sale of medallions will provide large cab companies with the equivalent of indentured servants. They say drivers will need upwards of a $200,000 loan to purchase a medallion, requiring a hefty downpayment.

Few drivers will be able to pay for a permit with savings, so the system will only work if someone is willing to finance those purchases. And drivers who are recent immigrants or have bad credit may not be able to get traditional loans. So they could wind up borrowing from their employers, the cab companies, UTW activists say — and by owning the debt the companies will essentially own the medallion.

“Supposedly there’s going to be a provision that says a cab company can’t lend money to a driver toward purchasing a medallion. But it would be so easy to get around that by hooking up with an outside lender,” Gruberg said.

Another fear is that the pilot program will favor young drivers and punish veterans. “Suppose a 27 year-old is on the list and I’m 63. Which one of us is the bank more likely to lend money to?” Graffis asked.

Under the pilot program, drivers will have the option to purchase according to seniority on the list. But without a lender, that’s little help.



At 1 p.m. the day of the SFMTA vote, Bill Mounsey and David Barlow were sitting on a bench outside the hearing room. Both are members of UTW and planned to speak in protest of the pilot program.

Mounsey is 63. He’s been on the list for 13 years and is No. 200. He is part of the group most vulnerable in the medallion reform process — drivers who have already waited more than a decade but still have years to go.

If at any point the board decides to eradicate the list before he receives a medallion, Mounsey’s years of waiting will be wasted. “I would never buy one. I’m 63 years-old, no one would ever give me a loan,” he said.

For now, the wait list survives. Under the pilot program, one medallion will be given away for every one sold until the list is exhausted. However, with only half as many medallions being given out, Mounsey fears the list will move half as fast.

Around 50 people attended the meeting, a small fraction of the city’s cab drivers. At 3:56 p.m. the board passed the pilot program and Prop. K moved a little closer toward death.

Hayashi spent more than 175 hours trying to create a pilot program that provides the city with revenue and benefits the taxi drivers. She has made an effort to engage the taxi community and worked with a group of drivers to draft the proposal. She even plans on getting a taxi license.

After the City Hall meeting, Hayashi explained the challenges facing the pilot program over coffee in a downtown cafe. Before March 30, when the proposal is set for a final SFMTA vote, Hayashi must lock down lenders, create lending programs feasible for drivers, and set a fixed selling price for the medallions.

The blaring problem with the pilot program is a lack of committed lenders ready to finance cab drivers’ loans. Bank of the West has expressed interest, as well as two New York credit unions experienced in medallion loans and two San Francisco credit unions.

But how will those loans be structured? Who will qualify? How much of a downpayment will drivers need? And how, in the end, will this change the experience and qualifications of the drivers — and the quality of cab service in the city?

Hayashi sounds confident. “Good service depends on happy drivers. Our goal is to restore professional pride for the drivers, allow them to feel that taxi driving is a career and a respected profession,” she said.

But a lot — a whole lot — can go wrong with this major change in a complex industry that provides essential service to residents and tourists alike. And once the city moves down the path to private medallions, it’s going to be hard to go back.

Expanding movement



When University of California Berkeley students staged building occupations last fall, their furious, brazen response to startling tuition hikes and staff cutbacks captured the attention of the world, recalling the radical actions of earlier generations.

Yet the thrust behind the March 4 Strike and Day of Action, a mass mobilization for public education and services that is reaching into all corners of the state and spreading nationwide, appears to stem from widespread agitation that extends well beyond the flare-ups on college campuses.

"What’s historic about this is that pre-K through PhD has never walked together," said Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association, which represents faculty in the California State University system. "We have often been pitted against one another, and I think everyone feels finally, in the end, there is no difference in importance between pre-K and PhD. We need it all."

The historic new alliance faces an uphill climb in an environment characterized by a devastating budget crisis at the state level. California — the world’s eighth-largest economy — hovers around 47th in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending, and the most recent wave of budget rollbacks has cut to the bone.

Students and teachers across the Bay Area argue that with dramatic slashes in funding, the educational system is failing youth. Class sizes are ballooning to claustrophobic levels, students are unable to take their desired courses, fees are going up, bathrooms are getting cleaned less frequently, and staffers are getting stressed by overwhelming workloads. "Classes are jam-packed," Taiz says. "You have kids sitting on the floor. You have students just begging to be allowed in a class."

As University of California students decry a 32 percent hike in fees, the California State University system is suffering from damage inflicted by 2,000 faculty layoffs over the past year. The San Francisco Unified School District, meanwhile, is staring down an estimated $113 million budget deficit over the next two years, and 900 layoff notices recently were issued to teachers, librarians, secretaries, and other school employees to warn them that their jobs could be slashed by the end of the school year.

When San Francisco’s school district faced a gaping budget shortfall during the last budget cycle, it was propped up by a combination of Rainy Day Fund reserve dollars and stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. With no such safety nets in place this time around, anxiety levels are higher and the outlook is uncertain.

March 4 is shaping up to be more than an opportunity to vent frustrations to elected leaders. Instead, organizers describe it as a rallying point for a movement to defend public education that has caught on like wildfire, uniting people from different worlds. Pickets and rallies will be staged throughout the region. Thousands are expected to swarm Civic Center Plaza in San Francisco. Students from a handful of East Bay campuses are organizing marches to Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland. Students and faculty from Berkeley will be boarding buses to take the message to Sacramento. The Oakland Unified School district will host a districtwide mock "disaster drill" to call attention to the disastrous budget. Even public transit activists opposed to the latest round of Muni service cuts and fare hikes are joining the protests, hoping to expand the discussion to support vital public services (for details on these and other events, see "Alerts" opposite this page).

"We’ve never gotten this level of activism over anything in SF since I’ve been here," says Matthew Hardy, communications director for United Educators of San Francisco. "There’s a growing movement for progressive taxation and budget reform instead of draconian cuts."

Taiz, who teaches history at Cal State Los Angeles, described March 4 as an opportunity to fill a void in leadership. "Historically, in these moments where ordinary people step up to the plate, you end up leading the leaders," she said. "We are kind of shocked, but in truth, we do know what has to be done." Quality education isn’t just important for young people, but for society as a whole, she argued. "I am a baby boomer, and if the folks coming up behind me don’t have really, really good jobs, I’m going to be eating dog food. Because those are the people who pay Social Security and pay the taxes."

In the week preceding March 4, teachers and students throughout the Bay Area were in a frenzy of preparation.

Carlos Baron, a theater professor at SF State, was wondering whether the grand procession of papier-mâché puppets his theater students will unveil on the March 4 Day of Action should take a V-shape or some other form. "The main puppet is the Draculator," explained Baron, a Chilean who directed plays in the Salvador Allende era before he began teaching at SF State in 1978. "It’s a cross between the Terminator-Governor and Dracula. But also it doubles as a banker and a general."

When asked how funding cutbacks affect students, Baron didn’t hesitate. "It impedes the creation of a positive vision for themselves and this society," he said. It stunts "the development of the imagination," he added. "We are trained as individuals to accept our failure and our smallness because we’re familiar with it. They don’t want an educated population, a sensitive population, a dreaming population. Would we select Schwarzenegger?"

Nicole Abreu Shepard, a first-grade teacher at Buena Vista Elementary in San Francisco’s Mission District, was collecting permission slips from parents to take her students to a rally and march down 24th Street. "The entire school is walking out," Abreu Shepherd said. Buena Vista’s art program exists solely because parents volunteer their time, she explained. More than half the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and many incoming kindergarteners or preschoolers are new to the English language. Now there are proposals on the table to increase kindergarten class sizes to 25 or possibly even 30 students. "It’s sort of tying their hands behind their back and asking them to teach on one foot," she noted, and worried about the eventual result. "It’s going to be harder and harder to keep parents who could afford private school in a public school system."

Meanwhile, at the UC Berkeley campus, Krystof Cantor was sitting behind a table heaped with piles of radical literature bearing titles such as "After the Fall: Communiques from an Occupied California." Cantor, who earned his PhD in vision science in 2005, was joining student organizers in making one last push to drum up student interest in March 4 events at a multi-faceted event called "Rolling University." Late on the evening of Feb. 26, a dance party on the Berkeley campus morphed into a street riot — replete with ignited Dumpsters — in downtown Berkeley. The incident attracted media attention and drew public criticism from administrative officials.

The radicalized student movement that has erupted on the UC Berkeley campus is "very much about seizing power," Cantor told the Guardian several days before. "It’s been disruptive, it’s been militant, and it’s been creative. That’s very scary," to the administrators the movement is targeting, he added.

That focused pressure on UC administrators sets these students apart from the coalition of UC Berkeley faculty members and student government members and allies who are coordinating bus trips to protest in Sacramento March 4, he explained. "Sacramento’s not innocent, but it’s not like the administrators are just doing what they have to do," he charged, pointing to new construction projects on campus even as workers are hit with layoffs and furloughs, plus an increasing trend of privatizing on-campus jobs and services. "You can save the public sector by pouring money into it. But it won’t work if the people in charge … want to privatize everything."

Jasper Bernes, a graduate student in English who was seated next to Cantor, noted that the occupation tactic is catching on at other campuses. "I have no doubt that March 4 will greet us with news of many occupations," he said.

Baron, the Chilean theater professor, noted that some SF State students had occupied a business school building in protest of budget cuts. "They were pissed," he said. "They wanted to do something radical. They really inconvenienced a lot of people — but they took chances nonetheless. I went there, and I locked arms with them for awhile." At the same time, he wondered about how effective it was, he said.

And for all the months of preparation and visioning, Baron said he also wonders what will ultimately be borne out of the marches, rallies, pickets, and procession of lovingly crafted street puppets he helped breathe life into. For all the hard work and planning, he says, "My problem is not so much March 4. It’s March 5."

Questioning Prop. 16



GREEN CITY In Sacramento, at a Feb. 26 joint legislative committee hearing about Proposition 16, a ballot initiative that Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. plans to sink $35 million into, PG&E executive Ed Bedwell found himself in the hot seat. Sen. Mark Leno and Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, who both represent San Francisco, joined Assembly Member Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) in grilling Bedwell about an initiative that seems to be aimed directly at the efforts of San Francisco and Marin counties to establish alternative power providers to PG&E.

"What this measure is really about is limiting competition," Leno charged as the hearing got underway. "It’s not about anything else, right? In effect, this will do nothing but limit competition."

San Francisco and Marin are both in the process of creating community choice aggregation (CCA) programs, public entities that would offer electricity from clean, renewable technologies. Prop. 16, on the June ballot, would require two-thirds of voters to approve CCAs.

None of the state’s other investor-owned utilities have supported into the initiative, but representatives from the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Taxpayer’s Association joined Bedwell in testifying in favor of Prop 16.

Bedwell said he didn’t believe there is any motive behind it, a statement that prompted laughter from the audience. He argued that Prop. 16 would "give Californians the right to choose who would serve them." He quoted a professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who said CCA is "fraught with danger" and added, "We couldn’t agree more."

But if Prop 16 passes, the likelihood that San Franciscans will be able to choose between PG&E or a power provider that offers 51 percent green electricity will be significantly decreased. And if PG&E rates continue to climb, customers will have no choice but to go along for the ride with this energy monopoly.

Mark Toney, executive director of the Utility Reform Network who testified against Prop. 16, said PG&E has requested rate increases amounting to 30 percent by 2013. In rural communities where unemployment is high and farmers rely on energy-intensive water pumping for irrigation, these ballooning energy costs would hurt the economy.

Michael Boccadoro of the Agricultural Energy Consumers Association, an organization representing 40,000 growers that usually partners with PG&E, testified against Prop. 16. "This will have a chilling effect, not just on CCA, but on the irrigation districts as well," he said. In the midst of a recession, "we’re in a very significant water crisis," he said. "Rate increases have a chilling effect on the farming community because we’re paying for higher-priced power from PG&E and we have to pump groundwater."

Paul Hauser, representing municipally-owned Redding Electric Utility, testified that if customers in his economically depressed territory were paying PG&E prices instead of the municipal rates, they would pay an extra $440 per year.

"Never … have I seen political activity by a regulated utility so far outside the bounds of acceptable conduct as PG&E’s sole sponsorship of the Constitutional Amendment politely referred to as Proposition 16," said John Geesman, former executive director of the California Energy Commission. Geesman noted that PG&E Corp. derives all its funding from PG&E Co., which is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, meaning ratepayer dollars are being siphoned into the $35 million devoted to the Prop 16 campaign.

"It ought to be illegal to take ratepayer dollars and use it against ratepayer interests," Geesman said.

San Francisco Sup. Ross Mirkarimi testified that the opposition could never amass as much funding for a fight against Prop. 16 as PG&E will spend to promote it. "It should be laughed out of the political arena anywhere near Sacramento," Mirkarimi said.

Yet it’s moving forward. Despite stern warnings from Leno that PG&E is flouting a state law saying utility companies must cooperate fully with CCA programs, Bedwell was free to leave after the tough questioning session from elected officials. Clustered in the hallway just after their pro-Prop. 16 testimony, the men in expensive suits were the ones laughing.

Bill Bennett, Public-Interest Fighter, dies at 92


On the front page of the Oct. 19, l988 issue of the Guardian, we ran a big picture of Bill Bennett with a caption that read: “Bill Bennett, the only public official in California to take on PG&E.” The California Public Utilities Commission was poised to make yet another multibillion giveaway to the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — and not one public official in San Francisco was on hand to monitor the CPUC hearings and testify about the horrible impacts the rate hike to pay for the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant would have on the public. Our editorial noted, “The only public official in California who has taken on the case is Bill Bennett, a member of the State Board of Equalization and a former member of the CPUC, a determined old warrior who fought Diablo from the start and continues to do so, on his own, against the odds and at considerable personal cost.” William Morgan Bennett, the public official who for more than five decades fought the corporate goliaths, died Feb. 9 at his home in Kentfield after a short illness. He was 92. Today, there are other public officials out there fighting PG&E, but there is nobody who could take on PG&E and its private utility allies as effectively as Bennett.

For the full obituary, see the Bruce Blog at sfbg.com


Fixing the Foundation



By Anna Widdowson


The Foundation of City College of San Francisco is seeking to shield its financial dealings from public scrutiny under a new agreement that could limit the college district’s oversight of fundraising done in its name.

The agreement establishes the formal relationship between the foundation and the district, renewing a document that expired last June. But it became controversial when the district sought to make the foundation into an auxiliary organization, which would allow greater oversight by the district and the public, while the foundation sought greater autonomy and secrecy surrounding its fundraising operations.

The two sides have been in strained negotiations for months, but the freshly inked compromise agreement will likely be on the Feb. 25 Board of Trustees’ agenda as a discussion item so that public testimony can be taken and changes can be made before it’s formally considered for approval.

The backdrop of the dispute — and the reason it’s so contentious — is last year’s criminal indictment of former City College Chancellor Philip Day for a money-laundering scheme using foundation accounts. Last July, Day was charged with eight felonies for misappropriating more than $150,000 in college funds, including using the foundation to funnel public money into a political campaign and maintaining an unregulated slush fund. The trial is set to begin later this year.

But the foundation, which controls more than $19 million in scholarships and other assets for the district, says that corruption is precisely why it wants to back away from the college, which managed the foundation’s finances under the previous agreement that expired last June.

Peter Bagatelos, the foundation’s lawyer, said Day’s missteps have cast a shadow on the foundation that has impeded its ability to fundraise. He explained that many donors mistook the district’s actions for those of the foundation and were scared away from donating, which is why the foundation is seeking to be an independent body.

Yet a Guardian investigation (“On shaky ground,” 3/5/08) unearthed documents showing that the foundation helped Day launder $35,000 in public funds into a 2006 political campaign, although an internal audit couldn’t find evidence that foundation directors approved the transfer and, as Bagetelos told us at the time, “It was never done with their consent or knowledge or participation.”

Now the foundation is asserting that it cannot fundraise successfully if it is turned into an auxiliary organization, as some trustees are seeking, which would subject the foundation to public records, open meetings, and other sunshine laws that Bagatelos derided as “a lot of bureaucracy and entanglements.”

“They just want to go out and raise money to help the students,” Bagatelos said. As for why transparency hinders that cause, he said: “There are many donors who don’t want to be made public.”

“The foundation is not a public agency, it’s a private corporation,” he noted.

A rough draft of the agreement, which is still under review, lays out the steps the foundation will take to gain greater autonomy, including hiring and paying its own employees, and adopting a structure comparable to other nonprofit entities to make it more attractive to prospective donors.

But some college trustees, including President Milton Marks and Vice President John Rizzo, believe they should be given greater oversight over the foundation’s finances. “The district [and the foundation are] equally tarnished by the activity because they enabled [Day],” Rizzo said. “I just want to get enough sunshine in there that goes beyond what they have to report by law, so if a future chancellor does something like that, we’ll know about it.”

Bagatelos said the foundation will still be subject to monthly reviews and regular audits as outlined by the laws governing all nonprofit organizations, but the district may not have access to donor and fundraising information.

Hao Huntsman, president of the Academic Senate, which represents the college faculty, said this lack of transparency would hurt the ability of both entities to rebuild their reputations.

“The foundation raises money using the City College name. We have a lot of investment in that name and are very sensitive to how that name is being used and the kinds of places we are soliciting money from,” he said. “We don’t want to be taking money from firearm manufacturers and tobacco companies, for example.”

But Rizzo explained that the college has no control over where the foundation gets its donations. “They could collect money from PG&E or Chevron and give scholarships and the district would have no say,” he said.

This leaves the college wide open to efforts by corporations to make donations that direct the course of research at the college, a phenomenon that has blighted many a public school over the years. “We are concerned that there won’t be the same degree of knowing,” Huntsman said. “If the college doesn’t have a say in the control of that money, it could be used for something other than what it was intended for.”

As it stands, the foundation primarily raises money for scholarships. Rizzo would also like to see the foundation give the college from $3 million to $5 million annually to help cover operational costs and close the budget deficit. “It’s great to have scholarships, but if we don’t have classes the scholarship can’t mean much,” he said.

Rizzo and Huntsman also want the new agreement to require the foundation to turn over upwards of $3 million raised by faculty members independently of the foundation.

Rick Knee, a member of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force who has tried for years to bring City College under its oversight, said the potential agreement raises concerns about the foundation’s ability to wield unprecedented political clout.

“It might enable them to do some arm twisting,” Knee said. “If the foundation wants to make a clean break from the Day era, they should give the current Board of Trustees a chance to make their case and demonstrate that they’re not Phil Day.”

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said that an agreement in which there was both independence and transparency for the two parties would strike an appropriate balance.

“The irony here is that you have the college and the foundation saying the exact same thing,” he said. “The college is worried that unless they have control the foundation will threaten its integrity, and the foundation is saying that without autonomy the school will tarnish its name and make it harder for them to get donors. They are both right in light of what happened with Day.”

Lawyers on both sides agree that, as a nonprofit, the foundation has the right to control its own assets. But that doesn’t mean they should keep the district in the dark, say the trustees, who want the foundation to open its books to the district, if only to ensure a modicum of public accountability.

Rizzo, who was on the negotiating team, told us that the agreement currently maintains donor secrecy but allows for some financial oversight by the district, including monthly audit reports and notification of instances when district funds enter foundation accounts. “They’ll have to report some things to the Board of Trustees, then the district will make them public,” Rizzo said. “But they do not want to report donor names and that will be an item of discussion.” *

Steven T. Jones contributed to this report.

The people vs. corporate power



The June 8 election is shaping up to be one that pits the people against powerful business interests, a contest that will demonstrate either that money still rules or that growing public opposition to corporate con-jobs has finally taken root.

On the state level, the five ballot measures include two brazen money-making schemes and two experiments in election reform, along with primary races that are still in flux. In San Francisco, where the ballot measures still have a few more weeks to shake out, the election will feature two rarely contested judges races, recession relief for renters, City Hall fiscal reforms, and a fight for control of the local Democratic Party.

So far, only four local measures have qualified for the San Francisco ballot, all placed there by members of the Board of Supervisors. Progressives qualified the Renters Economic Relief package (which limits rent increases during recessions and sets conditions for landlords passing costs to tenants), an initiative establishing community policing standards, and one affirming city support for making Transbay Terminal the northern high-speed rail terminus. Supervisors were unanimous in supporting a charter amendment governing the Film Commission.

But the board is still hashing out changes to the more controversial ballot proposals, a debate that will continue at its Feb. 23 meeting. They include an overhaul of how the city funds its pension program and an effort to remove Muni salary minimums from the city charter, both by Sup. Sean Elsbernd; a $652 million seismic safety bond proposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom; and a Sup. John Avalos charter amendment that would prevent the mayor from unilaterally defunding certain budget expenditures. All measures must be approved by March 5.

Also still forming up in the coming weeks are primary races for legislative seats (although no incumbents appear to be facing strong challenges) and all eight state constitutional offices, including governor (where Attorney General Jerry Brown seems poised to easily win the Democratic nomination), lieutenant governor, and attorney general (which District Attorney Kamala Harris is running for).

Candidates have until March 12 to declare themselves for statewide and legislative offices, as well as for the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, which could play a key role in this fall’s Board of Supervisors elections. Two years ago, a slate of progressives led by Aaron Peskin and Chris Daly launched a surprise attack to wrest control of the board away from the moderates who have long controlled it. Newsom, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and their downtown allies are expected to try hard to regain control over their party’s purse-strings and endorsements.



Another struggle from two years ago is also being replayed. In 2008, then-Sup. Gerardo Sandoval successfully challenged Superior Court Judge Thomas Mellon, arguing the Republican-appointed jurist was too conservative (and the entire court is not diverse enough) for San Francisco. This time the target is Judge Richard Ulmer, a conservative appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Ulmer is being challenged by two LGBT attorneys, Daniel Dean and Michael Nava, the latter endorsed by Sen. Mark Leno, Assembly Member Tom Ammiano, and Peskin, who chairs the Democratic Party and could be helpful in the race. “He’s a brilliant guy,” Leno said of Nava.

Leno also has endorsed deputy public defender Linda Colfax, a Latina lesbian, in a four-way race to replace retiring Judge Wallace Douglass. The other candidates are Harry Dorfman, Roderick McLeod, and Robert Retana. If no candidate wins a majority of votes, the top two finishers square off in a runoff election in November.

Leno said he’s thrilled to see a diverse crowd of attorneys seeking judgeships: “This governor has failed horribly in his appointments, not only with the LGBT community, but with communities of color as well.”



The struggle between the broad public interest and the wealthy power brokers that have long-dominated California politics is most apparent in the state propositions, which have been certified and for which ballot arguments are now being collected by the California Secretary of State’s Office.

Two of those ballot measures, Propositions 16 and 17, are blatantly self-serving efforts by a pair of powerful corporations to increase their profitability, however deceptively and with overwhelming amounts of campaign cash they are presented.

Prop. 16, sponsored by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., would require local governments to get two-thirds of voters to approve creation of energy programs like Clean Power SF, San Francisco’s plan for developing renewable energy projects and selling that power directly to citizens.

As we’ve reported (“Battle royale,” Jan. 13, and “PG&E attack mailer puts City Hall on defensive,” Dec. 22, 2009), PG&E placed the measure on the ballot to avoid having to repeatedly crush public power initiatives around the state with multimillion dollar campaigns, even though political leaders like Leno and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi say the measure violates the state’s community choice aggregation law. That law allows local governments to create energy programs and prohibits PG&E from interfering with those efforts.

“The unregulated behavior of corporate arrogance is killing our democracy. Prop. 17, sponsored by Mercury Insurance, would let companies increase car insurance premiums for a variety of reasons that are now prohibited by the 1988 measure Prop. 103. Mercury has continuously attacked that landmark law, using lawsuits, huge political contributions, sponsored legislation, and, according to newly released documents from the California Department of Insurance (see “The malevolence of Mercury Insurance,” Feb. 10, Guardian Politics blog), blatantly illegal activity in setting premiums and excluding certain customers, such as artists, bartenders, and members of the military.

“The Mercury initiative is even more pernicious than what it was doing before,” Harvey Rosenfield, who wrote Prop. 103 and works for Consumer Watchdog, told the Guardian. “Under Mercury’s initiative, if you’ve never had prior insurance, you can be surcharged for the first time. Then they’ve thrown in some other tricks and traps.”

Mercury spokesperson Coby King told us the company has been unfairly maligned and denies that the measure is simply about boosting its profits: “Prop. 103 is the law of the land, but to the extent there are improvements that can be made that are pro-business and pro-consumer, Mercury has not been shy about acting in the public interest.”

Yet few public interest groups or public officials believe the claims being made by Mercury or PG&E, and they hope that the public won’t be fooled.

“These are measures designed to give a financial advantage to a specific industry or company,” U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, who battled Mercury as California’s first insurance commissioner, told us. He strongly opposes both measures, but did say, “Money talks. It always has, particularly in propositions.”

Yet Leno said he’s a bit more hopeful: “Californians have been savvy in the past, and I do believe they’ll be able to see through the tens of millions of dollars in misleading ads.”

“To me, it’s a classic case study of what’s going on with the initiative process in California and with politics in general,” said Derek Cressman, western regional director of California Common Cause. “There are two initiatives literally sponsored by corporations to push very narrow interests.”

Yet Cressman said recent events could help. There’s been a big public outcry in recent weeks over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to allow unlimited corporate spending to influence elections, the role that insurance companies played in sinking federal health care reform efforts, and the way businesses interests are hindering efforts to deal with global warming.

“It makes people aware of the overwhelming role corporations are playing in dictating government policy,” Cressman said.



A pair of election reform measures might help lessen the influence of money and political parties. Prop. 14 is an open primaries measure that Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) got placed on the ballot as a condition for breaking last year’s budget stalemate. It would create a single primary ballot and send the top two finishers to the general election, regardless of party.

Prop. 15, the California Fair Elections Act, takes direct aim at the corrupting influence of money in elections, creating a pilot public finance program in the secretary of state races for 2014 and 2018. The measure, which has broad support from politicians and good government groups in the Bay Area, is modeled on successful programs in Maine and Arizona.

“No elected official should be in the fundraising game the way they are now,” campaign chair Trent Lange told us. “This is a way to change how we fund elections.”

The idea is to create a model that will eventually be used for other offices. The campaign fund would be generated by a $350 annual fee on lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyist employers. Currently lobbyists pay just $12.50 per year to register, which Lange said, “just shows the power of lobbyists in Sacramento.” *


Labor’s love lost


Note: This file has been corrected from an earlier version.


Two recent events could have major implications for Service Employees International Union Local 1021 — San Francisco’s largest public-sector union and an important ally for progressives — for better or for worse. And this union’s fate seems closely tied to that of the progressive movement in San Francisco.

The first event was likened to a “nuclear bomb in the morning paper” by one observer, and might be interpreted as the kickoff to a fierce budget battle. Mayor Gavin Newsom announced that he is considering a plan to help solve next year’s budget deficit by laying off 10,000 full-time city workers and rehiring them at 37.5 hours, which would amount to a sweeping 6.25 percent pay cut for workers and an estimated $50 million in savings for a fiscally impaired city.

Though it was framed by Newsom spokesperson Tony Winnicker as one preliminary cost-saving option among many, the proposal received prominent front-page coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle, even before official discussions were called between the mayor and public sector unions. Since SEIU Local 1021 represents 17,000 members in San Francisco and a majority of the city’s 26,000 total employees, it would likely absorb the greatest impact if such a plan went through.

At the same time the mayor’s startling announcement hit newsstands, SEIU was in the midst of mailing out ballots to its membership for union elections. “I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence, or if the city is taking advantage of the fact that SEIU is absorbed in its elections,” Sin Yee Poon, an SEIU chapter president for Human Services Agency workers, told us while pointing out that the events happened simultaneously.

With three separate slates of candidates vying for control of SEIU Local 1021, grudges between warring internal factions have intensified into bitter sparring matches. The timing is unfortunate — just as SEIU’s internal turmoil is coming to a head, one of its greatest battles is pending over an unprecedented $522 million budget shortfall that looms like a dark cloud over the city. The deficit will surely result in job losses, and the public sector union’s ability to mount resistance even as it wrestles with internal strife is shaping up to be a key question.

This pivotal moment carries wider political implications considering that the progressive organization has in the past helped seal an alliance between San Francisco’s left-leaning leaders and organized labor through the San Francisco Labor Council.

With SEIU besieged by infighting and soon to be hurting from wage slashes and layoffs, more conservative factions of the labor community, such as the San Francisco Firefighters Union and the Building and Construction Trades Council, have recently been butting heads with progressive members of the Board of Supervisors.

At the same time, forces on all sides are beginning to eye the coveted seats up for election in June at the Democratic County Central Committee, a Democratic Party hub that is a cornerstone of local political influence, as well as the seats that will open up on the Board of Supervisors in November. Negotiations between unions and the mayor are ongoing, and mayoral spokesperson Tony Winnicker was quick to note that Newsom is open to options, other than reconfiguring 10,000 city jobs, that organized labor brings to the table. At the same time, the Guardian heard from numerous sources that city workers felt outraged and blindsided by Newsom’s decision to air the plan in the Chronicle instead of bringing stakeholders to the table.

SEIU Local 1021 President Damita Davis-Howard told us she thinks the idea of taking $50 million out of the pockets of working people in a rocky economy is wrong-headed.

“This was devastating,” said Davis-Howard, who is running for a newly created union position called chief elected officer, which is different from the union president, and similar to an executive-director post. “The mayor might as well have raised their taxes, because if you decrease their pay by 6.25 percent, they will still have the same amount of work, they will still have to pay the same mortgage, they will still have to buy the same food, the same PG&E, and they’ll be doing it with a lot less money. If any idea like this were to go through, it would actually remove the very fabric or fiber of San Francisco. It would really cut to the core of the very being of San Francisco. … I don’t see how anybody could believe that we could continue being the city that we love being with this kind of action.”

Winnicker, the mayoral spokesperson, cast it as a plan that could avert hundreds or even thousands of layoffs. “This year the easy decisions are behind us,” he noted in a recent discussion with the Guardian.

Solving last year’s fiscal shortfall was far from easy — budget tussles between frontline city workers and the mayor got ugly, and even then, the city received millions in federal stimulus dollars to cushion the blow. A similar plan of sweeping hourly cuts was floated then too, but it didn’t gain enough traction to move forward.

“The mayor is facing a huge budget deficit, there’s no question about it — but he has not lifted one finger to raise a dime in revenue,” charged SEIU member Ed Kinchley, who works at San Francisco General Hospital. As for how the union might respond if such a proposal went through, he speculated, “I think it’s the kind of thing that could lead to a strike. A big fight.”

While the city charter bars strikes by public employees, Kinchley’s comment indicates the level of frustration among SEIU’s rank-and-file.



The proposal could present a common enemy and a rallying point for a union in disarray. Internal jockeying for elected positions can be fierce in any organization, but for San Francisco’s service-workers union, the rifts are particularly deep.

The elections, which will be decided Feb. 28, mark the first time since a radical restructuring in 2007 that members will collectively decide who should lead. In 2007, the face of SEIU was changed across California when the international president, Andy Stern, began consolidating dozens of far-flung locals into centralized, beefier entities in a bid to maximize political effectiveness (California comprises roughly one-third of the entire union’s membership).

Local 1021 came into existence when 10 locals were conglomerated into one 54,000-member giant — hence the “10-to-one” label — representing health care and frontline service workers from the Bay Area to the Oregon border. 

In San Francisco, where a large segment of its members are based, the shift was interpreted by some as a power grab, and it triggered a period of ongoing strife between those allied with Stern and the international wing on one side, and those dissatisfied with changes they saw as antithetical to the democratic ideals championed by Local 790, its predecessor, on the other.

In the years following the reorganization, Stern began trying to aggregate members by raiding other unions to consolidate power. But campaigns to bring in members from United Healthcare Workers (UHW) and fend off membership losses to the newly created National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) have consumed money and resources that some members told the Guardian would’ve been better spent bolstering national support for health-care reform and the Employee Free Choice Act. According to one source, SEIU spent $10 million on a Fresno battle against NUHW.*

A fight waged between SEIU Local 1021 and UNITE HERE Local 2, a hotel-workers union that was historically allied with Local 1021’s predecessor, left some members especially stung because it marred a longstanding relationship between two groups of frontline workers.

“Andy Stern has concentrated more and more power into the hands of a group of so-called elite members of the union,” Kinchley told the Guardian. Stern’s top-down leadership style and growth-oriented objectives “run pretty harshly against what many of us believe is in the best interest of our workers locally,” he added.

In recent weeks, divisions have deepened further. A staff person who preferred not to be identified for fear of retribution filed charges with the U.S. Department of Labor against a supervisor, who is aligned with the international faction, for alleged harassment and bullying. Another complaint was filed with union leadership alleging that union bylaws were violated when membership money was authorized, but not spent, to conduct a poll without proper approval.*

“There’s a fiscal rogue-ness about it. [Davis-Howard] does whatever she wants, and she spends our dues money without authorization from anybody,” Kinchley charged.

Stern appointed Davis-Howard, and now she is running for election on a slate aligned with the international wing. When the Guardian tried to reach her to discuss union elections, spokesperson Carlos Rivera told us that Davis-Howard found it inappropriate to publicly discuss internal divisions.

Sin Yee Poon is running as her opponent on a reform slate, formed by members disaffected by the international’s modus operandi. “For the whole reform group, we’re disappointed with the general direction of corporate unionism,” Poon told the Guardian. Stressing that she believes grassroots, democratic ideals have eroded since the restructuring, she said members in her camp are agitated when they see resources siphoned into raids on other unions such as UNITE HERE and UHW. “We want it to be member-driven,” she said. “The raiding of other unions is absolutely not OK.”



The internal strife could have a wider ripple effect. SEIU Local 1021 has historically been influential in securing an alliance between the city’s labor community and San Francisco’s progressive leadership. During the last round of elections for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, Sups. John Avalos and Eric Mar campaigned and ultimately were elected with strong fundraising support from the labor council.

Yet in recent weeks, several skirmishes pitted certain factions of the labor community against progressive members of the Board of Supervisors. Outrage bubbled up from the firefighters — and ultimately the labor council as a whole — against a charter amendment proposed by Sup. John Avalos that would have extended the minimum number of work hours for firefighters.

Billed as a cost-saving measure, the proposal might have ultimately resulted in fewer firefighter jobs, but it was designed to spread the pain of budget cuts more equitably by grazing public safety departments instead of just inflicting blows on frontline and healthcare workers.

After Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson came out strongly against it, Avalos abandoned the idea. A source from within the labor council, who spoke on background only, described it as an opportunity for the labor council to come together and unite on class interests.

The political posturing that came out of that fight shook even Sup. David Campos, who vocally called for equitably sharing the pain during last year’s budget debacle. “This isn’t the way to do it,” Campos said when asked about Avalos’ failed charter amendment. “And I worry about the negative impact on labor and the progressive board. There are larger issues at play here. The entire progressive agenda is at stake. We need to think long-term about the specific issues plus the future of the progressive movement.”

Sup. Sean Elsbernd’s bid to reform the pension system to save money has provoked yet another fight with SEIU Local 1021. Union members argue that if they are asked to contribute to their own retirement funds, which would become mandatory under this proposal, then they should be given the same wage increase that other unions were granted when they agreed to similar terms.

But when Sup. Eric Mar tried to amend Elsbernd’s proposal by inserting language guaranteeing that pay increase, Elsbernd said it would cost the city millions more. If Mar’s amended version goes forward, “you’ll be going to the voters by yourself,” Elsbernd told the progressive-leaning supervisor at a Feb. 9 board meeting.



Another fight has erupted over 555 Washington, a tower proposed to go up beside the TransAmerica Pyramid, which was debated at a joint hearing Feb. 11 between the Planning Commission and the Recreation and Park Commission. For members of the Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents unionized carpenters, plumbers, and other workers in development-related trades, the project represented jobs — the screaming priority in an economy where funding for new construction has trickled to almost nil.

“There is, in general in San Francisco progressive politicians, a knee-jerk reaction to development projects,” Building & Trades Council Secretary Treasurer Michael Theriault told us. As a council representing people whose livelihoods depend on private sector construction, “We have a particular quandary,” he said. “We need politicians who at the same time are friendly to labor and understand that development is an economic tool that can help the city.”

The arm of labor representing Theriault’s council has been slammed with job losses due to the economic downturn, and he’s publicly expressed frustration when projects of this scale are shot down.

“What the mayor did, what Elsbernd did, and what Avalos did are all the same thing: They all staked out a position, put a provocative idea on the table, and forced unions to have a discussion with a gun to their head in a non-constructive way,” Mike Casey, president of UNITE HERE Local 2 and a member of the labor council’s Executive Committee.

A source familiar with the inner workings of the labor council said the tension between building trades and firefighters versus more left-leaning members of the labor community has been in existence for decades, and it isn’t anything new — particularly in the months preceding election season.

Casey challenged the very notion that there is a subculture of the labor council that isn’t progressive, pointing out that labor came together as whole to support Sups. Avalos, Mar, and David Chiu — “and I personally would do it again in a heartbeat,” he added. Internal catfights and struggles for control come with the territory in a democratic, diverse organization, he said. “As a group of working people, I have great regard for the membership [of SEIU Local 1021],” he said. “Occasionally there’s a dustup. In my experience, after the dust settles, more often that not, unions come out stronger for it.”.

*Corrections made to the original file.

Logging helps the planet?


By Jobert Poblete


The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an environmental group with offices in San Francisco, filed a series of lawsuits last month challenging the state’s approval of 15 logging plans it says do not adequately address greenhouse gas emissions and climate impacts. But the loggers take the opposite stance, arguing that their trees capture carbon and lessen global warming.

The logging plans submitted by Sierra Pacific Industries (SPI) involve more than 5,000 acres of forests in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade regions. With 1.7 million acres in land holdings, SPI is the largest private landowner in the state and, CBD claims, the largest clear-cutting operation.

The lawsuits, which allege violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and the Forest Practice Act, represent a new line of attack against clear-cutting in California forests. They follow greenhouse gas challenges filed by CBD in August that resulted in SPI’s withdrawal and revision of three logging plans covering 1,600 acres. Previous challenges have focused on logging’s impact on endangered species, water quality, and other environmental measures.

The lawsuits come amid legislative and regulatory efforts to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. The California Global Warming Solutions Act (or AB 32), which required the state to develop regulations to reduce emissions. So companies like SPI have begun to incorporate greenhouse gas analyses into plans they submit for state approval.

California Department of Forestry spokesperson Daniel Bearlant defended the approval of the SPI plans, insisting its heeded relevant environmental laws. SPI Director of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Mark Pawlicki called the lawsuits “groundless” and claimed that his company’s practices actually produce net carbon benefits.

“Our harvesting results in a net sequestration rate of carbon dioxide that far exceeds any emissions that might occur,” Pawlicki told us. “The people drafting the lawsuits don’t understand carbon sequestration as well as state experts who are supported by other experts. California has the most environmentally stringent laws anywhere in the world and the most environmentally knowledgeable technical experts.”

Pawlicki cited state data showing that the industry acts as a net carbon sink. “In California, forestry is the only sector that has a positive effect on air quality,” he said.

CBD disputed these claims. “There are [greenhouse gas] sources and emissions that they’re not including at all,” Brian Nowicki, CBD’s California climate policy director, told us. “And there are many accounting tricks that they are using to undercount their emissions.” Nowicki pointed specifically to SPI’s failure to account for carbon emissions from soil and from the decomposition of roots and understory vegetation.

Nowicki also accused SPI of relying on unproven assumptions and processes outside its control. For example, SPI’s logging plans assume that the carbon stored in harvested wood will continue to be stored in wood products, noting that carbon is released when wood burns or rots. SPI also discounts its emissions by the amount of carbon it expects to be stored in new growth on its managed forests.

“As a result of our forest management, we are increasing the amount of stored carbon exponentially over the amount that would be stored in trees under forestry practices that did not include the investments we make in our lands,” Pawlicki said.

But Nowicki criticized SPI’s statements as nothing but a public relations move, one that could produce financial windfalls for the company as carbon offset schemes take hold. “It’s not that they’re improving their management of the forest,” Nowicki said. “They’re only reframing and repackaging the business practices they’ve been using before.”

Mark Harmon, professor of forest science at Oregon State University, echoed CBD’s criticisms, calling SPI’s claims misleading and scientifically invalid. Harmon was quoted in CBD’s lawsuit saying: “Harvesting forests generally reduces carbon stores and results in a net release of carbon to the atmosphere.”

While the science remains unsettled, CBD claims progress. Three years ago, the organization convinced the state to conduct greenhouse gas analyses. “Now,” Nowicki said, “[we’ve] established that these analyses need to be there.”

Sunshine and shadows



It was, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed, the end of the world for development in the city, or at least something close to that. A ballot measure, sponsored by Sup. David Chiu, restricting new buildings from casting shadows on city parks “could imperil major development projects,” a Jan. 28 article by John Cote said. “Everything from a new wing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to the expansion of the Moscone Center and creation of a new downtown core around a rebuilt Transbay Terminal could be affected.”

A lot of that is wildly exaggerated. The Chiu ordinance, which has since been pulled from the ballot pending a city study of the issue, would hardly have halted all development — or even all high-rises — in San Francisco. It wouldn’t have gutted the Transbay Terminal plan (although it might have forced planners to reduce the height of a tower that would soar 400 feet above the tallest building in San Francisco). In fact, the real story is how Chiu has managed — for now — to stop a backroom attempt by developers to undermine a 25-year-old environmental law. We found some fascinating evidence of how Mayor Gavin Newsom has been working with the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce to undermine Chui’s efforts — using broad threats to try to get his way.

Chiu’s legislation sought to clear up a couple of loopholes in a landmark 1984 law, which passed on the ballot as Proposition K. The measure, authored by then-Sup. Bill Maher, essentially barred any new construction that would cast a significant shadow on a city park.

In 1989, the final implementation guidelines were approved, and they’ve stopped literally hundreds of proposed projects from casting dark shadows on public open space.

But in the past year, city planners have been meeting with lawyers for big developers and looking for a way to change the rules. Citing new technology that better measures the curve of the earth and complex algorithms that calculate sunlight, the Planning Department has since proposed revising the Prop. K guidelines — in a way that would allow taller buildings and more shadows without getting the approval of voters or supervisors.

Chiu told us he’s been trying for months to find out exactly what the proposed guidelines would do — how many new buildings, at what heights, would be able to shadow which parks. “I was unable to get any answers,” he said.

The measure he drafted would have barred any new guidelines that allowed more shadows — and would have required the Board of Supervisors to sign off any changes. It would still allow the city to make case-by-case exemptions for projects that cast minor shadows but are otherwise deserving of approval — affordable housing developments, for example.

But downtown went nuts — and Newsom joined the fray.

The crux of the opposition came from the Chamber — and is outlined in an e-mail from Chamber Vice President Rob Black to members of the Chamber board.

“The mayor was very direct and clear about the need to defeat the measure,” the e-mail, which we obtained, states. “The mayor was also very clear that he was in no mood for deal-making on the issue and that he would look very unfavorably on any developer or anyone else who tries to cut a deal with David Chiu on the issue. He literally said, you will be on your own for the next two years if you go there.”

Black confirmed that the e-mail was in fact his — but said the version we’d obtained “has been edited. Some words were changed and other omitted.” He refused to say what the changes were, saying that the e-mail was meant to be a confidential communication to his board. However, he confirmed that the basic message and descriptions of a meeting with Newsom were accurate.

Tony Winnicker, Newsom’s press secretary, confirmed that Newsom had been directly involved in trying to scuttle the ordinance — and didn’t deny the mayor had made those threats.

“The mayor made clear the importance of asking the supervisor to withdraw the measure,” Winnicker wrote in an e-mail to us. “The mayor was clear that backroom deal-making should not be tolerated on the issue.”

Chiu was somewhat aghast at the mayor’s statements. “The context for all this is that the developers and their lawyers were trying to change the rules,” he said.

Aaron Peskin, the former supervisor and longtime North Beach neighborhood activist, told us that the “hysteria around this is factually untrue. This isn’t about stopping development — it’s about making sure development doesn’t have an adverse impact on the city’s common space.”

So now Chiu has agreed to hold off — but only if the key stakeholders (not just developers) have some input into how planning devises new shadow rules. And he’s ready to go back to the ballot in November if the developers try to play games again.

That makes sense, Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, told us. “There should be a heavy burden of proof on the people who want new rules,” he said. “And there should be a heavy burden of proof for anyone who wants a ballot measure.”

In other words, Prop. K — as it is, as it’s stood all these years — is working pretty well. And if the developers hadn’t tried to sneak in some big changes, none of this would have happened in the first place.

Clipboard clash



When John Grubb switched jobs a few months ago to work for Repair California, a nonprofit that aims to remedy Sacramento’s political dysfunction by revising the state Constitution, he never imagined how ruthless the political world could be for a public figure advocating for reform.

“I got a death threat myself this morning,” Grubb confided in a recent telephone conversation with the Guardian. He declined to say from whom, and seemed to be wondering if he should have kept quiet about it. “Now we have our security guards at the building watching for this person,” he added, trying to laugh it off as if unfazed.

One day earlier, Grubb had distributed a press release charging that Repair California was being subjected to intimidation, blacklisting, and other “dirty tricks” and strong-arm tactics from representatives of the state’s major signature-gathering firms. These politically powerful companies are trying to quash Repair California’s campaign for a California constitutional convention, he charged.

Ironically, it seems an initiative campaign that could reform how initiative campaigns are conducted in California has provoked the ire of the initiative campaign industry.

Repair California is circulating petitions to get a pair of initiatives on the November ballot asking voters if a constitutional convention should be called to reform state government. Despite having a healthy $3.6 million in funding, it has encountered major stumbling blocks toward collecting the 1.1 million signatures needed to qualify.

Paid signature gatherers were shouted down in the streets, threatened with the prospect of never working in the industry again, and spied on by informants from signature-gathering firms that then placed them on blacklists, according to Grubb. The nonprofit also alleges that representatives from these firms were seen throwing stacks of signed constitutional convention petitions into the trash.

There are six major signature-gathering firms in California that contract with political campaigns to circulate petitions for ballot initiatives. Through a network of regional coordinators, they hire independent contractors who are paid by the signature to stand on the street with clipboards soliciting voters’ support.

The firms take in millions of dollars from each campaign, but for circulators who carry half a dozen petitions at once, the work comes in temporary bursts and moves from state to state. Paid signature gatherers who spoke with the Guardian said that being blacklisted could spell disaster — a hefty pay cut or being frozen out of a job completely.

Attorney Steven Miller, who works with the firm Hanson Bridgett and is representing Repair California, sent a cease and desist letter to at least three of the six major firms Feb. 2, a first step toward possible litigation. Miller told the Guardian that the firms’ activities constitute an illegal boycott and a violation of antitrust laws. Their tactics also interfere with rights guaranteed in the California Constitution to circulate petitions and place initiatives on the ballot. “Nothing surprises me anymore, but this really surprised me,” he said.

While Miller didn’t say exactly which firms he sent letters to, the three names that came up in various off-record conversations on this matter were Kimball Petition Management, run by Fred Kimball; National Petition Management, run by Lee Albright; and Arno Political Consultants, run by Michael Arno.

Grubb formerly served as a spokesperson for the Bay Area Council, a business group based in San Francisco and the primary force behind Repair California. The council’s push for a Sacramento shakeup generated a buzz last November when Clint Reilly, a renowned San Francisco political consultant who sits on the board of the Council, emerged from retirement to helm the campaign.

Repair California envisions the convention as a rare opportunity for Californians to reshape certain aspects of state government. After an extensive meeting, convention delegates would ask voters to approve suggested tweaks to California’s constitution. Proponents say issues begging for reform include the Legislature’s two-thirds majority vote requirement to pass a budget, government efficiency, the election process, and the initiative process itself.

“In California today … you basically need to get 1 million signatures in 150 days or less” to get an initiative on the ballot, Grubb said. “And the only way to do that is with several million dollars in your checking account, which is something most average citizens don’t have. That means that the initiative process has in effect been captured by special interest groups — moneyed interests.”

Therein lies the rub. It would be virtually impossible for Repair California to get a call for a constitutional convention on the November 2010 ballot without paying people to collect signatures — but many paid signature gatherers are afraid of putting themselves out of business by circulating the petition. Some are worried about getting blacklisted by major firms, while others are concerned that the entire industry could be overhauled as a result of a constitutional convention.

Given the serious allegations and potential lawsuit surrounding this matter, only Grubb and Miller were willing to be quoted for this story. Yet sources on both sides of the issue did speak with the Guardian on condition of anonymity.

Grubb said that Repair California never sought contracts from the big signature-gathering firms, preferring instead to amass its own force of clipboard-wielding petitioners. “We never had the intention of going to them,” he said.

But an industry insider told the Guardian that the nonprofit did approach two of the major companies to sign a contract, but got turned down due to a consensus that the petition would lead to an overhaul of the industry. This person also suggested that the pending lawsuit was way off the mark, and speculated that Repair California was concocting it to try and win money, media attention, and public support.

Another person familiar with the industry put it this way: “None of the petition people wanted to carry it because it would slit their own throats. They all agreed not to do it — it could kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

So far, the campaign for a constitutional convention has gathered only about 100,000 of the 1.1 million signatures needed by the end of April to qualify for the November ballot. It will have to spend an estimated $1 million more than anticipated, Grubb said, because many of the paid petition circulators are being brought in from outside California’s initiative-industry network.

Despite the extra cost, Grubb says he feels confident the campaign will be a success. “Popularity hasn’t been a problem,” he said, “except for with the signature gathering firms.”

The “jobs” shell game


Written with Nima Maghame


While many San Francisco city officials have been trying to figure out how to close a projected budget deficit of more than $520 million, Mayor Gavin Newsom has spent the last month trying to make that spending gap even larger by aggressively pushing a variety of business tax cuts that economists say will do little to improve the local economy and could actually make it worse.

Newsom first proposed his so-called “local economic stimulus package” a year ago during his ill-fated run for governor, just as President Barack Obama was pushing his own economic stimulus plan. But unlike the federal government’s $787 billion plan, about a third of which involved tax cuts demanded by conservatives, Newsom proposed to cut local business taxes while also deeply slashing local government spending and laying off hundreds of city workers.

Most economists say that’s a terrible idea. In fact, a report issued at the time by Moody’s Investor Services made it clear that every dollar of direct government spending adds about $1.60 into the economy (or $1.73 if it’s on food stamps, the most stimulative spending government can make), whereas business tax cuts add only about $1 to the economy for every dollar spent.

We clashed with the Mayor’s Office at the time on our Politics blog (see “Mayor Newsom doesn’t understand economics,” 2/13/09), with Newsom’s spokesperson telling us the mayor was relying on the input of City Economist Ted Egan. But when we interviewed Egan about the issue, he agreed that it’s a bad idea to slash government spending to pay for tax cuts.

“We were in no way saying you should cut taxes to stimulate the economy, particularly if it means reducing government spending,” Egan told us then. And when we asked directly whether it’s better for San Francisco’s economy for the city to directly spend a dollar on payroll or to give that dollar away in a private sector tax break, he told us, “The consensus among economists is that most of the time government spending stimulates the economy more.”

The Board of Supervisors basically ignored Newsom’s proposal. But he revived it last month, expanding the proposals with even more private sector subsidies and making them the centerpiece of his Jan. 13 State of the City speech, publicly pushing it since then with a series of public events at businesses located in the city.

And this time — with the local economy still slow, projected city budget deficits bigger than ever, and little serious talk about how the city can bring in more money — it appears the proposals will be the subject of a series of hearings before Board of Supervisors’ committees in the coming weeks.

Newsom’s tax cut proposals include a proposal to waive the 1.5 percent payroll tax (the city’s main business tax) for all new hires; extend and expand the payroll tax exemption for biotech companies (see “Biotech’s bonanza,” p. 12); give small businesses tax credits for their spending on health plans; and allow developers to pass one-third of their affordable housing in-lieu fees onto future homeowners.

Newsom and his Press Secretary Tony Winnicker have spoken euphorically about the proposals, saying they’re desperately needed to spur the local economy. “We believe that enacting these tax incentives, particularly the payroll tax credit for new hires, is one of the single biggest things we can do for economic growth,” Winnicker said.

Despite repeated questions about the economists’ concerns over financing tax cuts with government spending cuts, we couldn’t get them to address the tradeoff directly. “The mayor will support critical public services,” was all Winnicker would say about the deep cuts that Newsom is expected to announce in his June 1 budget.

Sup. John Avalos, who chairs the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, expressed more skepticism about the mayor’s proposals. “Do tax breaks have the intended effect of stimulating the economy? As we underfund government services, are we getting a net gain or are we getting something taken away? For the very small businesses in my district, it’s going to be trickle-down economics. It’s very unrelated and unmeasurable in benefit,” he told us.

David Noyola, board aide to President David Chiu, said his boss is supporting the biotech tax credit but reserving judgment on the rest. “It’s going to be a cost-benefit analysis,” Noyola said. “When we’re talking about jobs, we’re talking about public and private sector jobs, always.”

While Egan’s economic analysis predicts tax cuts will encourage some economic growth, even he is circumspect about the good it will do, particularly without finding a way to avoid deep cuts in city spending. “The truth of the matter is that our stimulus efforts are small because the city has relatively small power to affect the local economy,” Egan told us.

That’s the consensus economic opinion. Huge federal spending can help a national economy a little bit, but local economies are just different animals that local governments are largely powerless to really alter, particularly through tax cuts.

“I agree with Egan: city government has little power over the local economy,” Mike Potepan, an urban development economist at San Francisco State University, told the Guardian.

Both economists agree that tying tax cuts to job creation or development stimulus is better than general tax cuts, but that neither is good if it means laying off more city workers.

“Research shows that by cutting taxes you have more business activity where studies show it is likely to effect employment,” Potepan said. “On the other side, you have to think about revenue. Cities are going to have to balance their budgets, which could mean a cut in services.”

Author Greg LeRoy expresses a more critical perspective in his book The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation (1995, Berrett-Koehler), amassing evidence from economic studies and CEO surveys that corporate tax breaks, even those tied to new job creation, have almost no effect on private companies’ decisions about where to locate and whether to hire.

“How can companies get away with this? Because the system is rigged. Corporations have it down to a science. They have learned how to chant ‘jobs, jobs, jobs’ to win huge corporate tax breaks — and still do whatever they wanted all along,” LeRoy writes. “That’s the Great American Jobs Scam: an intentionally constructed system that enables corporations to exact huge taxpayer subsidies by promising quality jobs — and lets them fail to deliver. The other benefit often promised — higher tax revenues — often proves false as well.”

While proposing to forgo collecting millions of dollars in payroll taxes (the Controller’s Office is still working on a projected total for the tax cut package), the Mayor’s Office also wants to spur development of new housing with a proposal that would delay collection of needed affordable housing money by more than a decade.

After hearing mostly from a large crowd of desperate developers and construction workers during a Jan. 21 hearing on the proposal, the Planning Commission approved the package on a 4-3 vote, with the mayor’s appointees in agreement and the board’s appointees in dissent. It will be considered by the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee sometime after Feb. 12.

The most controversial part of the fee reform package involves reducing the fee developers pay to support affordable housing by 33 percent, then charging a 1 percent transfer tax to subsequent buyers of those homes. Egan estimates developers would save almost $20,000 per housing unit, and that it would take an average of 16 years for the city to recover that money. But for high-rise luxury condos, the city would eventually recover about $27,000 per unit.

“It’s a classic make-an-investment-now-to-get-more-later strategy,” Michael Yarne, who crafted the policy for the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development at Newsom’s direction, told the Guardian.

“If it makes it feasible for projects to be started, then it is worth passing,” Tim Colen, a representative of San Francisco Housing Action, said at the Planning Commission hearing, expressing hope that it will help create desperately needed construction jobs and new market rate housing.

But affordable housing advocates and some progressives criticize the policy as completely backward, saying that affordable housing development is desperately needed now, during these tough economic times, rather than a policy that encourages more market rate housing and bails out bad investments made at the height of the real estate bubble.

“What the city needs to do is directly build affordable housing, for which there is a demand,” affordable housing activist Calvin Welch told us. “The problem is that the banks don’t want to lend these guys money because they know nobody can afford to buy houses at the prices that these guys are demanding.”

Debra Walker, who is running for supervisor from District 6 and voted against the proposal when it came before the Building Inspection Commission (the sole vote on a commission dominated by mayoral appointees), agrees.

“The whole argument is that it stimulates development, but it doesn’t,” Walker said, arguing that the incremental gains (about 25 housing units per year, Egan estimates) will be offset by delayed affordable housing construction. “There would be more economic stimulus by using the fee to build more affordable housing.”

Instead, it simply shifts resources to favored entities: from home owners to developers, in the case of the affordable housing fees, or in the case of the tax credits, from the public to the private sector. But Newsom’s office just doesn’t see it that way.

“The Guardian believes in protecting public sector employees over private sector employees,” was how Winnicker formulated our understanding of what the economists are saying. “Most people don’t work for the city, and if we can support private sector jobs, that adds to sales tax revenues and benefits the economy. Despite a short-term impact of the tax credit, that’s a benefit.”

Adam Lesser contributed to this report


Biotech’s bonanza


By Adam Lesser


It’s difficult to measure the value a biotechnology company receives from locating in San Francisco. Most measures are qualitative: scientists talk about synergy with other biotech companies in the area, the intellectual community that thrives at the University of California-San Francisco, and support offered at the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3).

But the quantitative costs are easier to calculate, beginning with rents that often are two to three times higher than in the East Bay or South Bay. Add San Francisco’s 1.5 percent payroll tax, and companies can begin to attach a dollar figure to the premium of being in San Francisco.

To incentivize biotech companies to locate in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom is asking the Board of Supervisors to extend the six-year-old Biotech Payroll Tax Exemption. The exemption allows any new biotech company to get a full 7.5 years without paying local business taxes as long as it files for the exemption by Dec. 31, 2014.

At a time when San Francisco city officials are struggling to close a budget deficit of more than $500 million — for which Newsom hasn’t offered any significant revenue proposals to help bridge the gap — some are questioning why the city should continue giving millions of dollars in tax breaks to the thriving biotech industry.

The core question of whether the payroll tax credit has worked in bringing more biotech companies to San Francisco is complex. While Newsom boasted of attracting 54 new biotech companies in the last five years during his Jan. 13 State of the City address, analysis of the credit by Ted Egan, the city’s chief economist, indicated that only eight companies had applied for the credit by the end of 2008.

The thriving research environment at UCSF-Mission Bay and the establishment of the state taxpayer-funded California Institute for Regenerative Medicine have played significant roles in creating a favorable environment for young biotech companies. The last five years also have seen broad growth in biotech as scientific discoveries have accelerated. Would biotech companies have come to San Francisco regardless of the payroll tax exemption?

The city’s Office of Economic Analysis looked at the question of how effective the payroll tax exclusion actually has been in spurring biotech growth. Because the size of the incentive — an exemption from paying a 1.5 percent tax on its total payroll — is relatively small, Egan felt that there could not be a conclusive link between the exemption and biotech growth. But he did feel there was some benefit, writing in his analysis that “in fact, the primary worth of the incentive may lie in its marketing value and how it signals to the industry that San Francisco is a credible location for biotechnology.”

Between 2004 and 2008, the biotech tax credit cost the city $1.2 million. If costs stay on pace with 2008, the existing Biotechnology Tax Exclusion will cost at least an additional $2 million. There are no cost estimates yet on extending the credit to give all biotech companies the full 7.5 years of payroll tax exclusion.

The extension faces opposition. Sup. John Avalos, chair of the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, has expressed concern about the effectiveness of tax credits.

“I’m not sure the city is going to be able to show a direct connection between taxes and the growth of the biotech industry. The verdict is still out for me,” Avalos told the Guardian. “We’ve created the whole infrastructure for the industry around Mission Bay. That could have a lot to do with companies coming to San Francisco.” The city donated a portion of the land the UCSF-Mission Bay campus was built on.

Allopartis Biotechnologies is a small biotech startup in QB3 at UCSF-Mission Bay that has received venture capital funding. It saved $3,670 in 2009 by qualifying for the payroll exclusion. Allopartis has six employees and focuses on developing technologies to convert biomass into sustainable fuels.

“You pay a premium to be in the city, and it’s worth it,” said Robert Blazej, cofounder of Allopartis. “We’d like to stay close to this nexus of innovation and collaborators. But it’s going to be challenging with the cost of square footage.”

Interviews with other growing San Francisco businesses showed that their biggest concern was the cost and availability of commercial real estate. Zynga, a social gaming company in Potrero Hill, plans to add 800 jobs over the next two years. Newsom has asked for an additional waiver on payroll taxes for all new hires over the next two years, regardless of industry.

“We considered moving out of San Francisco for a couple reasons. One is the availability of commercial real estate. The other is the payroll tax,” said Chief Financial Officer Mark Vranesh. “The large blocks of space we would be looking for are hard to find.”

But as the city tries to plug gaps in dwindling city services, concerns are mounting about how much the city can give away to companies under the premise that tax credits create new jobs. In the debate about the biotech tax credit, objections have been raised about the fundamental fairness of giving a tax break to one industry while others still pay their share. Similar next generation industries with large up-front research and development costs such as solar energy or fiberoptic Internet do not receive payroll tax waivers.

Economists such as the Tax Foundation’s Patrick Fleenor are quick to point out that there are no political advantages to taxing everyone equally. “The problem is a political one. If you tax everyone the same, there aren’t politicians creating little fiefdoms. There aren’t ribbon-cutting ceremonies,” he said.

Avalos has equated judging the effectiveness of tax credits at creating jobs to looking into a crystal ball. But the price tag of each tax credit is borne in the present as the city contemplates laying off hundreds of city workers.

Adding to the political infighting have been public complaints by Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier that Newsom is trying to take credit for the biotech payroll exclusion, which she originally proposed and helped legislate in 2004. She requested an extension for the biotech tax credit in November. Her office has defended the bill. “We’re creating a hub so that other biotech companies can come to San Francisco,” said Bill Barnes, Alioto-Pier’s legislative aide. “When she was courting biotech, she was hearing that the payroll tax was an impediment.”

But other cities charge local business taxes comparable to San Francisco’s payroll tax. And if there was ever an industry that has been heaped with support from the public sector, it is biotech.

Proposition 71 passed with 59 percent voter support in 2004 and established the CIRM, which provides grants and loans for stem cell research. Stem cell research is an area within biotech that has seen significant political support, particularly since the time of the Bush administration, when federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was heavily restricted.

But appearing to be doing something about the economy remains politically important, even if the actual benefits are somewhat dubious.

“It’s a big political game that the mayor is playing. He wants to paint progressives as anti-jobs, which is ridiculous, and paint himself as the mayor for jobs,” Avalos told us. “We would be cannibalizing government services for the private sector.”

Newsom has been vague about whether he accepts that tradeoff or even understands its implications to city coffers and the local economy. Newsom Press Secretary Tony Winnicker recently told us, “He thinks it’s good policy to spur private sector job growth.”

Later, he added: “While not every company has taken advantage of it, we feel extending it sends the right message,”

DEIR in the headlights


GREEN CITY Public comments on the city’s draft environmental impact report (DEIR) for Lennar Corp.’s massive redevelopment proposal on Candlestick Point and the Hunters Points Shipyard includes complaints that the comment period was too short (see “The Candlestick Farce,” 12/23/09), concerns that the city violated state requirements to notify the Ohlone Tribe, and frustration that the city’s preferred plan represents the most significant and substantial impacts of any of the five scenarios analyzed in the DEIR.

These and many other concerns about the impacts of the 10,500-home project will need to be addressed in the final EIR, which Mayor Gavin Newsom and other project proponents expect to be completed by June.

Some object that the city is considering an early transfer of the shipyard and would undertake activities that are currently the Navy’s responsibility (see “Eliminating Dissent,” 06/17/09), saying the final EIR should prominently reference Proposition P, which voters approved in 2000, establishing community acceptance criteria for the cleanup.

Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, submitted his organization’s comments “under protest for the inadequate extension of the public comment period, which we believe unfairly penalizes the public review of the draft EIR.”

Land use attorney Sue Hestor called the public comment submission schedule “abusive” in comments submitted for POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights). “The schedule is being driven by an insane desire to have the final EIR certified and all local approvals done by June,” Hestor said.

Ohlone chairperson Ann Marie Sayers and Neil MacClean of the Ohlone Profiles Project wondered why the Planning Department did not contact anyone on the city’s list of official Ohlone representatives. “We want the SF Planning Department to follow Senate Bill 18, which requires them to include Ohlone people in the planning process,” MacClean said, noting that there are at least four Ohlone villages within the proposed development area.

Jaime Michaels, coastal program analyst for the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission, expressed concerns about the DEIR’s proposal to make a 23.5 acre reduction in existing state park boundaries (see “Can I buy your park?” 08/12/09).

Project proponents, Michaels said, “would need to demonstrate that the decreased area would not compromise or reduce its value as a park/beach facility.” Michaels also worries about the impact of adding a minimum of 1.7 acres of fill in the bay to accommodate a bridge at Yosemite Slough, a plan she described as “a significant amount of coverage, particularly for a facility where the large majority of its coverage is needed to serve vehicles accessing the new stadium only 12 days a year.”

Michaels expressed concerns that the project’s plans to address sea level rise would negatively affect bay views and public access to the shoreline.

The project includes a 9.6-mile trail and a variety of other public amenities directly adjacent to the shoreline. Proposed building structures located away from the immediate shoreline would accommodate a 36-inch sea level rise by 2075, and the DEIR promises to employ adaptive management strategies along the perimeter beyond 2050.

“Unfortunately, partly due to illegibility and the scale of the drawings, it is difficult to assess precisely how these adaptations would appear,” Michaels observed. “However, it can be assumed that over time levees would need to be raised and likely widened at the base, thereby partly or entirely obstructing the public’s view of the bay from inland areas, encroaching on and reducing the area devoted for public use and impacting the overall public access experience.”

Arc Ecology discussed the DEIR’s failure to provide a comprehensive sustainability plan, address adjacent development projects, justify a 49ers stadium on the shipyard, or evaluate the potential for the development of port-related heavy industrial activities.

“The city is determined to get this project passed right now, and the developer is afraid that if someone else comes along as mayor and District 10 supervisor, they may not be as sympathetic,” Bloom said. “But the project — as outlined in the DEIR and the city’s way of approaching the deal — is against the interests of San Francisco.”

Buzz kill


GREEN CITY Everyone loves a juicy red tomato. But who knew that the burgeoning hothouse tomato industry, which now accounts for 17 percent of the U.S. fresh tomato supply, imports millions of loudly buzzing commercially reared bumble bees to pollinate its crops? And that pathogen spillover from Bombus impatiens, a bumblebee reared commercially on the East Coast, could be decimating wild bee populations in California and Oregon?

These concerns are outlined in a petition filed with the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to regulate the movement of commercially reared bumblebees.

“Bumblebees are excellent crop pollinators and serve as an insurance policy for farmers when honeybees are in short supply,” the Jan. 12 petition states. It’s signed by Robbin Thorp, professor emeritus of UC Davis’ entomology department, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Recent research by Thorp and Xerces established that four species of formerly common North American feral bumblebees have experienced steep declines and two species are teetering on the brink of extinction.

“The most dramatic decline in North American bumblebees is most likely caused by introduced disease from commercial bee-rearing and movement,” the petitioners state. They believe commercial bees spread pathogens by escaping into the wild where they forage for nectar on flowers visited by feral bees. And they want APHIS to prohibit the movement of bumblebees outside their native range, which the petitioners define as “the state line closest to the side of the 100th meridian,” which runs, roughly, from Texas to North Dakota.

USDA’s Larry Hawkins said APHIS is examining petitioners’ claims. “We need to evaluate whether there is a need, whether it’s practical, and whether the pest is so widely distributed to make that infeasible,” Hawkins said.

James Strange, a USDA-APHIS researcher, acknowledged that “a couple of scientists from Canada put out pretty convincing papers suggesting that something is happening to wild bumblebees that live in the close vicinity of commercial greenhouse operations that use commercial bumblebees to buzz-pollinate their crops.”

But he doesn’t believe Thorp and the Xerces Society have convincing proof that what’s happening to feral bumblebees in California and Oregon is related to commercially reared escape artists.

“They are basing their conclusions on anecdotal stuff,” Strange said. “The idea that the greenhouse tomato growers use of commercially reared bumblebees is what’s causing population declines in the wild is not a good connection because we found the pathogen in natural forests, too.”

Strange noted that the Xerces Society’s petition could be disastrous for some agricultural sectors, if such a rule became hard and fast tomorrow. “But if it’s phased in over the next five years, it could give the industry time to find an alternative,” he said.

Bumblebees are more effective pollinators than honeybees for plants like hybrid sunflowers, watermelon, squash, tomatoes, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, and peppers. Their thick, tundra-adapted fur helps them survive cold, foggy conditions and their loud buzz, which sounds like someone blowing a raspberry, helps them pollinate plants like tomatoes by shaking pollen out of the flowers’ anthers and onto their velvety pelts.

But bumblebees don’t form permanent colonies, and hothouse tomato growers were forced to pollinate crops with handheld electric vibrators until R. De Jonghe, a Belgian veterinarian, figured how to trick pregnant queens into laying eggs year-round.

Today the four major U.S. hothouse tomato growers use commercially reared bumblebees to pollinate crops. A single greenhouse can be as large as 20 acres and contain 200,000 plants and 23,000 commercially reared bees. According to a hothouse tomato industry report, growers spend up to $2,000 per acre on importing bumblebees. In 2001, 309 million pounds of hothouse tomatoes were grown on 718 acres nationwide.

Strange is trying to find ways to raise local species of bumblebees in captivity so agriculture can use locals instead of the East Coast imports, a technique that involves tricking pregnant bumblebee queens into ending their winter hibernation early.

So far, he has managed to trick one West Coast species into nesting this way. “So it seems like it is possible,” Strange said.

Saving ocean ecosystems


GREEN CITY In the spring and summer months, pacific leatherback sea turtles arrive just outside the Golden Gate to feast on jellyfish. The turtles, which can weigh up to 1,200 pounds and live as long as a century, are some of the oldest reptiles in existence.

In a single year, a leatherback may swim 6,200 miles as it encircles the Pacific Ocean, migrating from nesting grounds as far away as Indonesia to feed off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. The leatherback was listed as a federally endangered species in 1970, and scientists now worry that the turtles could go extinct in as little as 10 years.

The ancient reptile may be rare, but its vanishing act is becoming common for marine creatures. Jackie Dragon, a campaign organizer with Pacific Environment, told us large fish populations, including bluefin tuna, Atlantic cod, marlin, and certain sharks, have declined by 90 percent since the advent of industrialized fishing in the 1950s. Meanwhile, ocean acidification due to rising carbon dioxide levels has imperiled key species, threatening to alter the food web with potentially drastic implications.

Recently, San Francisco’s ocean conservationists have displayed rare optimism, however, as historic new protections for ocean ecosystems and the leatherback seem within reach.

A coalition of local environmental organizations staged a Jan. 13 event at City Hall to rally for the creation of a new, comprehensive ocean-protection policy at the federal level. Dubbed Wear Blue for Oceans Day, the event drew a crowd of around 75 who donned blue in support of the federal policy, put forth by President Barack Obama last June.

Under the current regulatory system, there are 140 different laws relating to ocean management, and more than 20 disparate agencies, according to Dragon. “They have varying purposes and often conflicting mandates,” she explained. “Right now, it’s inconsistent with a healthy future for the ocean to have a piecemeal approach. And it’s absolutely necessary to appreciate that ecosystems in the ocean depend on a kind of management that takes into consideration the fact that these habitats … need to be looked at from a broader perspective.”

According to an interim report drafted by a 23-member task force convened by Obama to make suggestions for crafting a federal policy, the new approach would place ecosystem protection at the heart of regulatory decisions. Environmentalists hope it will improve the overall health of oceans.

The task force is scheduled to submit its final recommendations to Obama in early February, and the president is expected to announce the creation of the new policy shortly afterward. “The importance of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems cannot be overstated,” the report notes. “Simply put, we need them to survive.” Climate change and ocean acidification are named as top priorities.

A second regulatory victory seems imminent for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, a San Francisco-based environmental organization that joined Oceana, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Turtle Island Restoration Network in pressing for expanded critical habitat designation for the pacific leatherback turtles in 2007.

The groups sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for failing to take action for two years. Following a settlement, the agency finally submitted its proposal Jan. 5 for a new protection zone. The critical habitat area would span some 70,000 square miles of open waters along the West Coast.

Chris Pincetich, a campaign organizer with the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, called the designation “a long overdue action by federal agencies.” However, the proposal doesn’t limit commercial fishing, which Pincetich notes is one of the greatest threats to the leatherbacks, because they can become ensnared in gillnets. Nor does it cover habitat areas in Southern California, where turtles have been known to migrate, Pincetich said. NMFS will accept public comments on the proposal until March 8.

Although it’s a major step forward, changes won’t be implemented until January 2011 at the earliest.

For the leatherback, with about a decade to fight for survival, time is of the essence.

The truth about San Francisco’s budget


“San Francisco,” SF Weekly recently proclaimed, “is arguably the worst-run big city in America.” That’s a hell of a claim — the levels of corruption and mismanagement in urban America are legendary. But the Weekly’s Benjamin Wachs and Joe Eskenazi set out to prove their case — with a series of mostly anecdotal points that looked at the usual targets: Nonprofits. Unions. And one senior Newsom administration staffer who pretty much everyone agrees was a horrible manager.

We were tempted to just let it go. Sure, there’s plenty of incompetence and waste in the Newsom administration. There’s a need for more accountability in some of the nonprofits that get city money. The police union got too big a raise in 2007.

That pattern also exists in a lot of other big cities. You wanna make a big headline by claiming SF is the very worst? Whatever.
But the heart of the Weekly’s factual analysis was a chart that purports to show that San Francisco spends vastly more per capita than other “comparable” cities. That’s a claim we hear all the time, one that the more conservative political forces constantly use to argue against higher taxes (and in favor of big spending cuts).

So it’s worth exploring a little further. Because when you look at all the facts, the Weekly analysis is just wrong.

Comparing cities is a complex task — urban areas in America are governed in very different ways. You can’t, for example, compare San Francisco to any other city in California because San Francisco is the only combined city and county. Get arrested in Berkeley, and the Alameda County sheriff locks you up, the Alameda County district attorney prosecutes you, the Alameda County public defender takes your case, and the Alameda County courts adjudicate it. And if you win, you ride home on AC Transit — a separate system that isn’t in the budget of either the city or the county.

In San Francisco, all those things are in the same city budget.

But Wachs and Eskenazi decided to get beyond that. “Any time someone tries to point out that San Francisco has serious systemic problems, the response (from the Mayor’s Office, from city bureaucrats, and sometimes even from city activists) is that ‘San Francisco is both a city and a county,’ as if that explained everything,” Wachs told us in an e-mail. “So the comparison was already being made as part of the city’s defense: San Francisco is a city-county, and what appear to be systemic problems are actually just features of being a city-county.

“We proved that isn’t the case: San Francisco’s per capita spending is significantly out of line even when compared to other large city-counties.”
Actually, it’s more than just the city-county distinction. The large cities-counties SF Weekly chose are so dramatically different in the services they do — and don’t — provide that the comparison comes close to being meaningless. Ken Bruce, a partner in the Harvey Rose Accountancy Firm, which serves as San Francisco’s budget analyst and does similar work in other cities, is no fan of wasteful spending. But he told us he wasn’t impressed with the Weekly chart: “I have yet to see a rigorous analysis done comparing San Francisco to other cities,” he said.

And the way the Weekly added up the numbers was, at best, misleading.

For starters, San Francisco runs (and includes in its city budget) an airport, port, public transit system, county hospital, and skilled nursing facility (Laguna Honda), for a total of more than $2 billion. None of the comparison cities do all those things. Or rather, some do those same things — but they aren’t in the local budget.

In Philadelphia, for example, the public transit system is a regional agency. Philly chips in $63 million from its general fund to help the Southeast Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA). SF pays almost three times that much to run its own Muni, because the overhead costs are included in the local budget. Philly taxpayers spend much more than $63 million on SEPTA — it just comes out of a different budget and funding stream, so it isn’t in the figures the Weekly used. Denver’s transit system is regional too, and thus not in the city-county budget.

In Indianapolis, the city transit system, Indygo, is far less complicated than ours. Jenny Brown, a spokesperson for Indygo, told us she was amazed her city was being compared to San Francisco: “Our transit system is not in the same league as yours,” she said.

Philadelphia also does not pay for a county hospital or include its port or airport in its budget. Neither does Denver.

There’s also a difference in most municipalities between the general fund (locally allocated spending) and the total budget, which includes federal and state money, self-sustaining departments, etc. In Philadelphia that’s a big distinction — more than $3 billion a year — but the Weekly compared Philly’s general fund to SF’s total budget (something Wachs admitted to us was his mistake).

So we took this a step further. First, in Chart A, we compare apples to apples — general funds to general funds. It turns out SF and Philly are relatively close in per capita spending. Then we adjusted the budgets to account for the fact that SF includes in its budget a lot of services other cities and counties budget somewhere else. That makes all the comparison cities a lot closer.

But can you really compare San Francisco — with its diverse and complex population and urban problems — to Indianapolis or Nashville? Even Denver? If even the folks in Indianapolis think that’s kind of bogus, we figured we could do better. So we set out to find some cities that make a more fair comparison. We included Philadelphia, but added Los Angeles and Chicago (New York, by the way, is so big, so complex, and has so many counties, boroughs, and budget items, that it’s not fair to compare that city to any other — even though is would help our case). To account for the city-county issue, we added to the L.A. and Chicago city budgets a percentage of the L.A. County and Cook County, Ill. spending equal to each city’s percentage of the county population. (Not a perfect yardstick, but pretty close).

As Chart C shows, all four big cities are within about 30 percent of each other in terms of per capita spending.

But there’s another big factor — cost of living. The vast majority of the budgets of these cities goes to employee pay and benefits — and it stands to reason that a city with a higher cost of living would have to pay its employees more. And San Francisco has by far the highest cost of living (according to the latest figures from the Council for Community and Economic Research’s ACCRA Cost of Living Index) of all the cities in this chart.

So we adjusted per capita spending by the cost of living index (SF = 169, L.A. 145.4; Philadelphia, 124.1; and Chicago, 110.8) and discovered that in fact all four big cities spend roughly the same per capita — although San Francisco spends the least.

So is San Francisco a service-rich city (like L.A., Philadelphia, and Chicago)? Absolutely. Is SF’s spending far out of whack with what other similar municipalities spend? No, not at all. All things considered, it’s a little low.

PS: The Weekly spent much of its article attacking the lack of accountability in the city’s $500 million’ worth of nonprofit spending. That’s a huge issue, but oddly, the Weekly didn’t quote a single person who supports the system San Francisco uses to distribute services through nonprofits.

We’ve been critical of many individual nonprofits, and some are over-funded, wasteful, and of dubious value. But overall, as labor activist Robert Haaland told us: “The fact that an individual nonprofit isn’t performing up to standard doesn’t mean that the services aren’t needed.”

And there are many who say the San Francisco model is, in fact, a national standard. Margaret Brodkin, former director of the Mayor’s Office for Children, Youth, and Families, helped develop the current system of nonprofit accountability in that office. She has been invited to speak all over the country about the standards and data system they developed. “Others have replicated the data system we had in place. It’s held up as a national model, the data system as well as the standards,” she explained.

So it’s not so simple — and to use a few anecdotes and some inaccurate and misleading figures to call San Francisco the worst managed city in the nation is, well, a bit of a stretch. To say the least.

PG&E attack mailer puts City Hall on defensive


GREEN CITY On a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. conference call in late October, with top PG&E executives and analysts from Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, and other prominent investment firms on the line, PG&E president Chris Johns explained how a company-sponsored ballot initiative could save millions of dollars for the utility.

“We have faced potential takeovers multiple times over the last several years and we have had to expend significant resources to oppose these efforts,” Johns explained, referring to attempts by public agencies to set up independent electricity programs that threaten to compete with PG&E. “The success of this initiative, if placed on the ballot, could significantly reduce the need for taxpayers and utilities to oppose these local government takeover attempts.”

His comments appeared in a transcript from an earnings call posted on a financial Web site called SeekingAlpha.com. When pressed by an analyst about how PG&E had come up with the idea, company CEO Peter Darbee chimed in. “What occurred to us was we were repeatedly faced with this, and we were spending significant amounts of money year after year,” Darbee said, according to the transcript. “So we asked ourselves: what would be something that could discourage this over the longer term?”

What surfaced was a proposal for a statewide ballot initiative that would amend the state constitution to require a two-thirds majority vote at the ballot before any local government could develop its own electricity program. With such a high hurdle in place, efforts to move forward with publicly-owned power programs would essentially come to a standstill. But with San Francisco’s own stab at it expected to get underway long before the proposed initiative is placed on the ballot, PG&E is back to its default tactic of pouring millions into an opposition campaign.

San Francisco’s community choice aggregation (CCA) initiative, called CleanPowerSF, took a leap forward last month when a request for proposals (RFPs) went out to potential electricity service providers. The program aims to provide 51 percent renewable electricity by 2017, a meaningful step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

But on the heels of this milestone, a wave of mailers bearing PG&E’s name in fine print crashed into San Francisco homes and businesses, screaming “Business Beware” in 1.5-inch type and proclaiming CleanPowerSF to be a “costly energy scheme.” The mailer cites a city controller’s report projecting that customer bills could be 24 percent higher under CCA.

But the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), which is working in partnership with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to craft the emerging power program, responded in a press statement that this claim is misleading, since a fee structure has not yet been nailed down. While the controller’s report also noted that it was too early to say just what the pricing structure would be, it’s been a primary goal of the city’s CCA all along to offer customer billing rates that meet or beat PG&E prices.

Meanwhile, the city appears ready to fight back — and questions have already been raised about whether it was legal to distribute the attack mailer. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who chairs LAFCo, announced at the Dec. 15 Board of Supervisors meeting that he was requesting that the city attorney examine whether PG&E had violated state law by distributing the mailer. According to the state law that laid the groundwork for CCAs to exist, investor-owned utilities are required to “cooperate fully” with the public power efforts of cities. “PG&E has blanketed this city … with mailers that distort and misrepresent what CCA is doing,” Mirkarimi said. “I believe this is a potential violation of California Public Utility Commission law.”

Several days before Mirkarimi’s announcement, the Guardian received confirmation from City Attorney Dennis Herrera that his office is looking into the matter.

The mailer included a link to the Web site CommonSenseSF.com, launched by an entity called the “Coalition for Reliable and Affordable Electricity.” A call to Townsend, Raimundo, Besler & Usher, a Sacramento public-relations firm that has worked with PG&E in the past, revealed that this coalition is one of the firm’s clients, and that the person handling that client is Bob Pence. The proponent listed on the statewide ballot initiative is Robert Lee Pence — evidently the same person. The Guardian left a message for Pence inquiring who, besides PG&E, the coalition members are (the mailer claims there are 50,000), but he did not return the call. Multiple calls to PG&E were not returned either.

Meanwhile, the Guardian has received a handful of anecdotal reports that when clipboard-wielding signature gatherers were out on the streets circulating a petition in support of the PG&E-backed ballot initiative, people were fed some fishy stories about what the proposed constitutional amendment would actually do.

A voter who lives in Bakersfield contacted the Guardian to say she’d signed the petition because she was told that the ballot initiative would limit PG&E expansion — but she later did some research and found that PG&E was the primary force behind it, so she called the Registrar of Voters to have her name struck from the list.

Mark Toney of the Utility Reform Network told the Guardian that he’d also been misinformed. But as someone familiar with the issue, he knew better. “I ran across signature gatherers in Emeryville. They told me that if I signed the petition, I’d be supporting a two-thirds majority vote to raise PG&E rates,” Toney said. “I said, ‘Well that’s interesting. The language here doesn’t say PG&E at all.

John Srebalus of Pasadena wrote in an e-mail that he was also misled by a signature gatherer. After he signed a petition to legalize marijuana, he said the woman with the clipboard flipped a few pages and asked him to sign again, as if in duplicate. But there was a rubber band securing the top half of this second page, hiding the text. When he peeled it back, he found that it was actually PG&E’s ballot initiative, which he had already refused to sign once before.

According to a source familiar with the campaign who asked not to be named, the petition was a particularly hard sell for signature gatherers, many of whom stake their entire livelihoods on earning less than $2 per signature. According to this individual, the erratic sales pitches caught on like wildfire because without a compelling hook, it was nearly impossible to convince random passersby to support something that came off as convoluted and wonky. This person said PG&E became alarmed when it caught wind of all the distorted representations and tried to put a stop to them.

Campaign spokesperson Greg Larsen told the Guardian he hadn’t heard anything about that, but he did emphasize the importance of the signed document, as opposed to the signature gatherers’ pitch. “The hope is that you read what you’re signing,” he said. “That’s really what the issue is — it’s what’s on this piece of paper.” Larsen added that the campaign had submitted 1.1 million signatures, “far in excess of the number of required certified signatures” to have the initiative placed on the ballot.

Pedaling forward



GREEN CITY San Francisco’s top elected and appointed officials made the city a little greener — literally — Dec. 3. And they say the recent removal of restrictions on bicycle-related improvements will make San Francisco a lot greener over the long term.

A festive mood was in the air when officials and activists gathered at the intersection of Oak and Scott streets to paint the city’s first green bike box (marking a safe spot for cyclists to wait in front of cars at intersections) and celebrate the first bike lanes to be created in more than three years.

In the week since Superior Court Judge Peter Busch partially lifted an injunction that had banned all projects mentioned in the city’s Bicycle Plan — the court ruled that they needed to be studied with a full-blown environmental impact report, which the city completed earlier this year, although it has been challenged by another lawsuit set for trial in June 2010 — city crews worked at a blistering pace on bike improvements.

They created three new bike lanes (of the 10 Busch is allowing to move forward before the trial, holding up another 50 for now) and installed barriers between the bike and car lanes on Market Street near 10th Street. "So now we have the first separated bike lane in San Francisco," San Francisco Bicycle Coalition director Leah Shahum told the Guardian, happy over a safety improvement that encourages children and seniors to ride.

The crews also have been installing about five new bike racks and 20 shared traffic lane markings (known as "sharrows") each day. Mayor Gavin Newsom praised the rapid implementation and told the crowd, "You’re going to see more than you’ve seen in years be done in the next few months. The goal is to get from 6 percent of commutes in San Francisco up to 10 percent of all commutes by bicycle — and I think that is imminently achievable in the next few years."

Also on hand were Sups. Ross Mirkarimi, Bevan Dufty, and Sophie Maxwell, Department of Public Works head Ed Reiskin, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) board chair Tom Nolan, and SFMTA director Nat Ford, who declared the goal of making "San Francisco the preeminent city for bicycling in North America."

Mirkarimi, the only elected official to ride a bicycle to the event, told the crowd: "This is a delightful day…. We are all unified in the mission statement of making San Francisco bike-friendly."

Dufty, who chairs the Transportation Authority and pushed for the rapid implementation plan, said, "There’s a really great community here. First, my hat’s off to the Bicycle Coalition and all of their thousands of members who really keep the city honest and keep us moving forward."

Nolan also praised bike activists who pushing his agency to prioritize bike projects and prepare for the end of the injunction: "It was a very effective campaign. You did such a great job at making your case."

While anti-bike activist Rob Anderson, who sued the city along with attorney Mary Miles, regularly derides the "bike nuts" as a vocal minority pushing an unrealistic transportation option, the event showed almost universal support for bicycling at City Hall.

"I can say this is the best relationship we’ve had for years with the advocacy community, with the Bicycle Coalition," Newsom said. "We’ve begun to strike a nice balance where this is not about cars versus bikes. This is about cars and bikes and pedestrians cohabitating in a different mindset."

Bicycling in San Francisco has increased by 53 percent in the last three years, so Shahum said the plan’s projects and the growing legion of bicyclists will help the city in myriad ways in coming years.

"We know we can do this," she said. "We know the climate change goals this city has laid out, the public health goals, the livability goals that the city has laid out, will not be met without shifting more trips to bicycling, walking, and transit. And that’s why this day is so important."

Or as Maxwell said, "This is a great opportunity for San Francisco to finally take its place among world cities that recognize that cars are not the only mode of transportation."