Mom and pop lose their voice

Pub date January 28, 2009
WriterRebecca Bowe


Bank of America and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. are quite the opposite of mom-and-pop operations, yet two of the seven members appointed to San Francisco’s Small Business Commission hail from these corporations, much to the chagrin of true small business leaders.

In a heated e-mail fired off to an assortment of City Hall staffers Jan. 13, Small Business Commissioner Michael O’Connor criticized the Mayor’s Office for diluting the commission — which was set up to go to bat for the little guy — with big business appointees.

Meanwhile, funding for the Small Business Assistance Center was almost eliminated last month by the Board of Supervisors. And a report that was supposed to streamline the unwieldy permitting process for small businesses, which the administration was required to complete under the 2007 measure Proposition I, never materialized.

At a time when small businesses are struggling in the face of a dour economic landscape, strong advocacy on their behalf is needed now more than ever. But even as former Small Business Commissioner David Chiu ascends to the presidency of the Board of Supervisors, small business leaders are decrying their lack of support in City Hall.

The Small Business Commission is a seven-member body composed of three members appointed by the Board of Supervisors and four appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom. Set up to serve as an advocate for the small business community, the commission was also chartered to oversee the Office of Small Business, a branch of the city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

Last May, the office opened its Small Business Assistance Center, created to lend startups a helping hand with navigating the bureaucratic maze of permits, fees, licenses, and other hoops to be jumped through to legitimately set up shop in the city.

Regina Dick-Endrezzi, acting director of the Office of Small Business and one of four people staffing the center, says there’s a real need for the service. She said that about 99 percent of all San Francisco businesses fall into the category of "small," which she defines as having fewer than 100 employees, making it one of the most important sectors of the city’s economy.

Since the center opened, more than 1,300 small business clients have received assistance there, according to Dick-Endrezzi. Many lack the resources and capital that larger enterprises might have at their disposal, so SBAC case managers act as counselors for people who are trying to get a new business off the ground.

Entrepreneurs have sought help with things like obtaining a permit to open a vegan taco truck, acquiring a license to start a cleaning business, or filing for tax credits for an organic baby food business, to name a few examples. "This is something we really need," Dick-Endrezzi told the Guardian, "and this is something politics shouldn’t get in the way of."

Nonetheless, the center and the commission haven’t been spared from controversy. In December, the Board of Supervisors considered slashing SBAC funding. The $800,000 annual budget was ultimately granted, but it weathered midyear budget cuts of around 10 percent.

Now a new issue of contention has emerged: O’Connor has sounded the alarm that the SBC is becoming weakened by mayoral appointees who represent the large corporate interests that are often quite different from those of small businesses.

The conflict went public at the Jan. 12 SBC meeting when it came time to elect a new vice president. Richard Ventura, who heads a consulting firm and serves as executive director of the downtown-based Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, had just won commissioners’ approval to serve as president. Before a second round of votes were cast, O’Connor — who served as president for two years but declined to try for the post again — voiced his fervent opinion that "an actual small business owner" should be chosen for the other leadership slot.

"I think we need the balance of a small business owner in either the presidency or the vice-presidency position," said O’Connor, who owns the Independent music venue in the Western Addition. "If we have a president and a vice president that both come from downtown, and if three out of the four mayoral appointees on this commission are from downtown, I will be incredibly embarrassed to be on this commission. And I’m sorry, this is nothing personal — I like everybody on this commission — but small business is in a fight for its life, in this building and in City Hall."

Despite his plea, Commissioner Irene Yee Riley — a retired Bank of America executive — was elected. Although not a small business owner, Yee Riley told commissioners that she was qualified to serve as vice president thanks to her "many years of experience working with small business owners as a banker."

"I’m retired, and I have time, so I want to use this opportunity to give back to the community," she added.

Yee Riley won after receiving one vote more than Commissioner Janet Clyde, a bartender and general managing partner of Vesuvio Cafe in North Beach. "I live in the Mission District in a solid working-class neighborhood that is rapidly changing," Clyde told the other commission members during her pitch. "I know the challenges of small businesses operating far from the power and economic center of San Francisco, and I intend to work to recommend their interests … even in this difficult budgetary time."

The following morning, a dismayed O’Connor vented his frustration in an e-mail to mayoral staffers, typing "Small Business Commission … or … Big Business Commission" into the subject line. Installing commissioners with ties to large corporations rather than direct small business experience constitutes "a neutralization of the only real voice small businesses have in San Francisco," he charged.

The most recent mayoral appointee to the SBC was Darlene Chiu (no relation to David Chiu), a spokesperson for PG&E who formerly served as deputy director of communications for the Mayor’s Office. When the Guardian queried the Mayor’s Office last March on what qualifications a PG&E spokesperson brought to the Small Business Commission, Press Secretary Nathan Ballard responded with this statement: "Darlene has first hand knowledge of the challenges facing small businesses in San Francisco. She grew up working in her family’s … retail businesses in Chinatown, managing nine to l5 employees. She will also bring her knowledge of city government and communications to the commission, which will be important to the successful operations and promotion of the assistance center." (See "Newsom to small business: drop dead!" March 18, 2008 Bruce Blog.)

But since her appointment last March, public records show that Chiu has missed four of the monthly meetings. Excessive absenteeism at city commission meetings briefly emerged as an issue in September 2006, prompting Newsom to introduce a new standard with a working goal of 100 percent attendance for commissioners.

Meanwhile, not everyone agrees with O’Connor’s assertion that "San Francisco’s Office of Economic Development seems to believe small business is just an annoying little rock in its shoe."

"The Office of Economic Development is incredibly committed to keeping this commission strong," counters Jennifer Matz, managing deputy director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, who played a role in starting the Small Business Assistance Center. "Michael is very disappointed about what happened, but I don’t think it reflects a lack of commitment to small business on the part of the city or the Mayor’s Office."

Matz said the challenge to the SBAC came from the Board of Supervisors — not the Mayor’s Office — when they considered revoking the center’s funding. She also contends that the Small Business Commission’s voting record doesn’t demonstrate a downtown vs. small business split.

From January 2008 to this January, commissioners voted unanimously 34 out of 38 times, the record shows. But it’s on the divisive issues where small and big businesses differ that can have the most impact.

Sup. Chiu served on the Small Business Commission before being elected to the Board of Supervisors. He said commission members usually saw eye-to-eye on most items that came before the commission regardless of whether they were board or mayoral appointees. But for him, the frustration was that "it didn’t feel that either the mayor or the Board of Supervisors were focused on small business."

In his new capacity as board president, he said measures that aid small businesses will be moving up on the list of priorities. For example, he has asked for a hearing on why the report on streamlining small business regulations, which Prop. I required the Office of Small Business to complete by 2007, was never done.

Although doubts about the commitment to small business seemed to be cast on all sides, everyone we spoke with seemed to agree on one point: in these stormy economic times, San Francisco’s small businesses need all the help they can get.

Two reports released in December by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Automatic Data Processing (ADP) provide some insight into the challenges facing small businesses nationally. BLS reported that 524,000 jobs were lost during December, bringing the 2008 total to 2.6 million lost jobs — the highest since 1993.

The ADP report showed that 281,000 jobs had been shed from companies with fewer than 50 employees. This signifies a drastic increase in job losses from this sector: between October and November, small businesses cut just 79,000 employees, according to ADP, and between September and October, they let go of 25,000 employees.

"That was the first time since 2002 that small businesses had net job losses," says Scott Hauge, president of Small Business California. What’s frightening, he says, is that the small business sector traditionally acts as an economic stabilizer.

During the battles it the mid-1980s over accelerating downtown office building construction, the Guardian commissioned a study from noted MIT economist David Birch that found that small business accounted for most net job creation in San Francisco, and that catering to corporate demands downtown actually cost the city jobs.

Yet now, with the small business community sometimes serving as a political football tossed between downtown and City Hall, the city’s economic base is in trouble and hoping for help from political leaders who are now contemputf8g deep budget cuts.


Here’s a list of all the small business commissioners:

Commissioner Darlene Chiu
Occupation: Communications, PG&E
Appointed by: mayor

Commissioner Janet Clyde
Occupation: General managing partner / bartender, Vesuvio Cafe
Appointed by: Board of Supervisors

Commissioner Kathleen Dooley
Occupation: Florist / owner, Columbine Design
Appointed by: Board of Supervisors

Commissioner Gus Murad
Occupation: Owner, Medjool (restaurant) and Elements (hotel)
Appointed by: mayor

Commissioner Michael O’Connor
Occupation: Co-owner, The Independent (music venue)
Appointed by: Board of Supervisors

Commissioner Irene Yee Riley
Occupation: Retired senior vice president and market executive, Bank of America
Appointed by: mayor

Commissioner Richard Ventura
Occumpation: Executive director, San Francisco Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Appointed by: mayor


Previous Guardian coverage:

>>Volume 20.02 (PDF) An exclusive Bay Guardian study in 1985 challenges the convention wisdom that downtown development creates jobs. Instead, our study by an MIT economist shows that small business have created virtually all the new jobs in San Francisco since l980.

>>Volume 21.02 (PDF) Our updated study in l986 shows that as highrises have gone up, downtown San Francisco has lost jobs. In fact, all the net new jobs in the city have come from new and small businesses in light industrial areas and the neighborhoods

>>October 1, 2003 (PDF) The Guardian’s small business agenda for San Francisco