Home Top Stories Mayor Lee

Mayor Lee

Money for Muni

0

news@sfbg.com

STREET FIGHT San Francisco’s November ballot is crowded. With 12 local measures and seven state measures, sifting through them can be daunting. Three local measures, Propositions A, B, and L, involve transportation and have great bearing on the city’s future.

Not to belittle the other ballot measures, some of which address critical health and housing problems, these three transit-related measures say a lot of how the city is addressing — and failing to address — the need for a sustainable transportation system.

 

TRANSPORTATION BOND

Prop. A is the most important of the three transportation measures on the ballot, but also the most difficult to pass because it requires approval from two-thirds of voters.

It would provide $500 million for Muni, street repaving, and pedestrian and bicycle safety projects. That’s a modest sum compared to the $10 billion the city should really be spending, but it would help make 15 of the city’s busiest transit routes 20 percent faster and more reliable.

Portions of the funds would go to modernizing Muni’s maintenance shops, which need upgraded ventilation, fueling, and washing facilities and to new elevators and passenger platforms to make Muni more accessible to the elderly and disabled. Prop. A’s campaign also touts $142 million going towards pedestrian, bicycle, and motorist safety in corridors where the most death and injury have occurred.

Prop. A should really be thought of as two parts, one good, one not so good. The first part involves up to $55 million in annual revenue coming from property assessments. Since Prop. A simply replaces retiring city debt, it does not raise property taxes, but rather it sustains existing rates.

This links property values to what makes property valuable in the first place — public investment in infrastructure. As long as Prop. A is used for those 15 Muni corridors and safer streets, it is sound public policy.

The second part of Prop. A involves bonds, or borrowing money and paying interest to financiers. This is a long-used method of infrastructure finance, and was in fact how Muni got started in 1909 when voters approved creating public transit. The taxation will pay off the capital debt.

But bonds are a funding scheme that involves interest and fees that go to Wall Street — not the most progressive approach to infrastructure finance. While no one can say for sure, some critics suggest up to $350 million in debt would be incurred over the life of the bond scheme, which means Prop. A is really an $850 million package.

Ultimately, this is a regressive approach to transport finance and needs to be replaced by a more pay-as-you-go approach.

We are stuck between a rock and a hard place on Prop. A. Floating this bond now would bring in money very quickly, improving everyone’s commute, especially lower- and middle-income transit passengers. If approved it will also leverage state and federal matching funds, such as new cap-and-trade funding, hastening shovel-ready projects that many San Franciscans are clamoring to get done.

Getting transportation projects going now is less expensive than waiting while construction costs climb. Prop. A funds vitally important transportation infrastructure projects and it deserves support.

 

GROWTH AND MUNI

While Prop. A deals with streets and capital projects for Muni, it can’t be used to fund acquisition of new vehicles or Muni operations. This is where Prop. B comes in because it specifically involves an annual set-aside of about $22 million from the city’s General Fund to provide new vehicles and operating funds.

Prop. B is a well-intentioned linkage of population growth to transit capacity. The money goes towards Muni capacity expansion, based on population growth over the past decade, would increase with population growth in future years, about $1.5 million per year based on past trends.

There’s no doubt that transportation is failing to keep up with San Francisco’s boom. New housing and offices are coming into neighborhoods where buses are already jam-packed and streets saturated with traffic. But there are a couple of problems with Prop. B.

First, Prop. B is promised as a short-term measure because the mayor can end this general fund set-aside if a local increase in the vehicle license fee is approved by voters in 2016. The VLF, which was gutted by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003, would bring in about $75 million to the city annually.

That the mayor would voluntarily (and it is the mayor’s discretion) sunset B in two years is a big “if” and voters are notoriously forgetful.

In the meantime, Prop. B does not come with a revenue source to account for this increasing set-aside for Muni, so something else in the General Fund must give. What that would be, nobody can say, but advocates for social service and affordable housing fear more vulnerable San Franciscans will be hurt in the 2015 city budget.

Given the incredibly slow city response to the gentrification and displacement crisis, their fears may be warranted.

 

GLOOMY REALITY

My hesitation about Prop. B and tepid support for Prop. A stem from a gloomy reality in San Francisco’s politics of mobility. Today, it is easier for politicians to raise transit fares on the working poor, divert funds from social services and housing, or incur massive debt through bonds than it is to raise taxes on downtown commercial real estate and charge wealthier motorists for their detrimental impact to the city and society — both of which would be fairer ways to finance transportation.

Twenty years ago, it was estimated that a modest tax assessment on downtown offices and their impact to the transportation system would bring in $54 million a year. Today, that would likely be well over $100 million annually. But with land-owning elites and tech barons calling the shots in City Hall, there is a de facto gag order on what would be the most progressive approach to Muni finance.

Meanwhile, had Mayor Ed Lee not pandered to wealthier motorists, Sunday metering would be providing millions annually in Muni operating fees. Sup. Scott Wiener, the author of Prop. B, and his colleagues on the board, were shamefully silent about blowing that $10 million hole in Muni’s budget. They were also silent or complicit in stopping expansion of SF Park, which is smart management of our streets and would provide millions more in operations funding for Muni without needing to dip into the city General Fund to plug gaps.

Meanwhile, congestion pricing — or charging drivers to access the most traffic-snarled portions of the city during peak hours — could bring in up to $80 million annually. Together with a reestablished VLF, that would simultaneously erase the need to do Prop. B and reduce our need to incur more wasteful debt.

Instead of bonds, Prop. A’s $55 million could be coupled with an annual downtown property assessment, an annual VLF, a congestion charging zone, and revenue from an expanded SF Park, the city could borrow less, manage traffic wisely, and keep transit capacity at pace with population growth. We could avoid raiding the General Fund to subsidize Muni operations and could reduce debt simultaneously.

Transit advocates are right to cry foul when other revenue sources have been removed from consideration, mostly because of gutless reluctance to challenge wealthy landowners and motorists. This is the crux of why transit advocates, backed into a corner by Mayor Lee’s repeal of Sunday meters and the VLF, are supporting Prop. B. The “B” in Prop. B basically stands for backfilling broken promises.

But ultimately, all of the supervisors, including Wiener, are complicit in the mayor’s mess. Why didn’t the supervisors speak up when Sunday metering was repealed? Why didn’t the supervisors insist on placing the VLF on this year’s ballot? With a two-thirds vote of the board, it would be on the ballot now. And unlike Prop. A, the VLF only needs a simple majority to pass.

And now, because the mayor and supervisors have pandered to motorists to the umpteenth degree, a small group of them feel even more emboldened and entitled to grab more. That takes us to Prop. L.

 

TRANSIT-LAST

Prop. L, which seeks to reorder transportation priorities in San Francisco, is awful. It comes from an angry, spiteful, ill-informed, knee-jerk lack of understanding of the benefits of parking management (which makes parking easier and more sensible for drivers). It is a purely emotional backlash that seeks to tap into anyone angry about getting a parking ticket.

Although a nonbinding policy statement, the basic demand of Prop. L is that the city change transportation priorities to a regressive cars-first orientation. It calls for freezing parking meter rates for five years while also using parking revenue to build more parking garages. The costs of these garages would dwarf parking revenue, and these pro-car zealots don’t say where these garages would be built, or that it would ultimately siphon more money from Muni.

Prop. L demands “smoother flowing streets,” which is a deceitful way of saying that buses, bikes, and pedestrians need to get out of the way of speeding car drivers who believe they are entitled to cross the city fast as they want and park for free. It conjures up a fantasy orgy of cars and freeways long ago rejected as foolish and destructive to cities.

Proponents on this so-called Restore Transportation Balance initiative don’t really care about “transportation balance.” When you consider the origins and backers of Prop L, it’s mainly well-to-do motorists with a conservative ideology about the car. These are the very same people who have opposed bicycle lanes on Polk, Masonic, Oak, and Fell streets, and throughout the city.

These are the very same people who decried expansion of SF Park, thus making it harder, to find parking, not easier. These are the same people who complain about Muni but offer zero ideas about how to make it better. These disparate reactionaries have banded together around their animosity toward cyclists and Muni.

In the 1950s, when the love affair with cars was on the rise, San Francisco had about 5,000 motor vehicles per square mile. To accommodate more cars, planners required all new housing to have parking, made it easy to deface Victorians to insert garages, and proposed a massive freeway system that would have eviscerated much of the city.

Thankfully, neighborhood and environmental activists fended off most of the freeways, but San Franciscans failed to really take on the car. So by 1970, despite the freeway revolts and commitment to BART, automobile density rose to over 6,000 cars per square mile.

By 1990, San Francisco had almost 7,000 motor vehicles per square mile, even as population leveled off.

The current density of cars and trucks — now approaching 10,000 per square mile — is one of the highest in the nation and in the world. To put that into context, Los Angeles has less than 4,000 cars per square mile, and Houston less than 2,000 per square mile, but these are largely unwalkable cities with notorious environmental problems.

Do San Franciscans want to tear apart their beautiful city to be able to drive and park like Houstonians?

If proponents of Prop. L were truthful about “restoring balance” they would instead advocate a return to the car density of the 1950s, when San Francisco had just under 5,000 motor vehicles per square mile, Muni was more stable due to fairer taxes, and many of the streets in the city had yet to be widened, their sidewalks yet to be cut back.

Prop. L is tantamount to hammering square pegs into round holes. Jamming more cars into San Francisco would be a disaster for everyone. Don’t be misled, Prop. L would make the city too dumb to move. It would deepen and confuse already vitriolic political fissures on our streets and it would do nothing to make it easier to drive or park, despite its intention.

Prop. L must not only lose at the ballot, it must lose big, so that maybe our politicians will get the message that we want a sustainable, equitable, and transit-first city.

Lawsuit alleges Lee campaign accepted illegal donations from undercover agent

0

By Max Cherney

Mayor Ed Lee has been named in a civil lawsuit that alleges he conspired to accept bribes in the form of illegal campaign contributions from an undercover FBI agent involved in the far-reaching federal corruption and racketeering probe into State Sen. Leland Yee, Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, and 26 other defendants. The lawsuit is being leveled by an attorney working on Shrimp Boy’s behalf.

Filed yesterday [Thu/18] in San Francisco Superior Court, the lawsuit ties a $500 donation toward Lee’s 2011 successful bid for mayor to a man named Michael Anthony King, who the lawsuit claims was the same undercover federal agent referred to as UCE 4773 in the complaint against Yee.

King’s $500 donation was a part of more than $20,000 that the federal agent illegally contributed to the mayor’s campaign, according to the lawsuit. Individual contributions over $500 to the same candidate are against the law in San Francisco.

“From what we can tell, undercover agents have illegally been putting money into politicians’ pockets,” attorney Cory Briggs, who filed the lawsuit on Chow’s behalf, told us. In June, Briggs filed a public records request with the city of San Francisco, seeking documents associated with the campaign donations and additional cash allegedly contributed through individuals “involved in government” who were working for Lee’s campaign.

“What we want to know, is that when I asked on Raymond’s behalf about this, which we defined to include the transfer and payment of money to campaigns, why did the mayor not produce records of King’s donation? The public is entitled to an answer.” Cory Briggs is the brother of Curtis Briggs, who, along with Gregory Bentley, and famed civil rights attorney J. Tony Serra, represent Shrimp Boy in the criminal case.

Since individual donations totaling more than $500 are prohibited in San Francisco, the remaining $19,500 to an unnamed San Francisco elected official’s political campaign was allegedly spread out among dozens of straw donors, by two campaign staffers and political consultant Keith Jackson — also indicted by the feds — in an illegal attempt to mask the source of the funds, according to court documents in the Yee case.

According to the feds, the undercover agent was encouraged “by Individuals A and B to make donations to the elected official in excess of the lawful limit,” a motion filed by the feds in Sept. reads. “Each spoke plainly about the fact that they would have to break up UCE-4773’s donations among straw donors. UCE-4773 initially made a $10,000 donation in the form of a check made payable to Individual B and a $500 donation in the form of a check made payable to the elected official’s campaign.”

Despite rumors swirling that the $20,000 went to Ed Lee, the feds haven’t publicly stated which politician the funds went to. Nor have the feds released the alias that Undercover Employee (UCE-4773) used to make the contributions, or the names of the campaign staffers allegedly involved in the conspiracy — who were “involved in government” at the time, according to the feds’ motion.

Mayor Lee’s campaign is aware of King’s $500 donation, according to Kevin Heneghan, who served as campaign treasurer. The campaign sent a letter to the US Attorney’s Office seeking to verify whether or not the donation indeed came from a federal agent, Heneghan noted, but hasn’t yet received a response. The campaign hired a law firm to vet the campaign donations after the US Attorney’s Office announced the sprawling indictment that now includes racketeering charges.

Both the FBI and US Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the lawsuit, or the alleged connection between Michael King and the campaign donations to Mayor Lee’s campaign. Several emails to King were also not returned.

Many details contained in the far-reaching federal corruption probe match what the Bay Guardian has learned about King. US Attorney William Frentzen’s court filings in the Yee corruption trial stated that after being introduced to two campaign staffers, UCE 4773 contributed $500 to the campaign with a personal check.

Michael A. King of Buford, Georgia donated $500 to Leland Yee’s mayoral campaign on Sept. 22, 2011, San Francisco campaign contribution records show. King contributed another $500 to Ed Lee for Mayor on Mar. 15, 2012, months after Lee had been elected. At the time, Lee had approximately $300,000 in campaign debt, according to filings with the San Francisco Ethics Commission.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported in August, an unnamed source told the newspaper that a man with the surname “King” appeared in the Bay Area in the fall of 2011 looking to invest in Bay Area real estate projects.

To secure Bay Area real estate investments and other business contracts, UCE 4773 posed as an Atlanta, Georgia-based real estate developer seeking political favors from Yee, and an unnamed San Francisco elected official, according to court documents. Another undercover agent in the case, known as UCE 4599 — posing as a member of the La Cosa Nostra crime syndicate — introduced UCE 4773 to political consultant Keith Jackson after Jackson allegedly repeatedly asked UCE 4599 to donate to Sen. Yee’s campaign.

According to court documents, UCE 4773 met with the unnamed San Francisco official after he contributed the cash. Prior to the meeting, the campaign staffers, identified by the feds as “Individuals A and B” told UCE 4773 not to mention the donation scheme to the elected official.

The King Funding Group, which is controlled by M.A. King and Associates — the company listed on Michael King’s $500 donation to Mayor Lee’s campaign — also donated $500 to Leland Yee’s bid for Mayor, according to donation records. With Jackson’s help UCE 4773 also donated tens of thousands of dollars to Sen. Yee’s campaign, including a personal check for $500 to the campaign written in Yee’s presence.

According to court filings the government has made in the far-reaching corruption and racketeering investigation, the unnamed San Francisco elected official wasn’t the target of the investigation. Instead, the government focused on Keith Jackson and various members of the Chee Kung Tong organization, which Chow, aka “Shrimp Boy,” was allegedly leader of.

However, the feds did look into other politicians in San Francisco. Sups. London Breed and Malia Cohen both met with an undercover FBI agent using the name William Joseph on several occasions, according to records obtained by the Bay Guardian. The meetings didn’t amount to anything, and Breed dismissed Joseph as a hustler, according to a Chronicle report.

Mayor Lee: Welcome Fleet Week, prepare for disaster UPDATED

0

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee’s daily announcement of public events today included a strange pairing for tomorrow [Wed/10]: the Blue Angels will return to perform dangerous maneuvers over this densely populated city…and we need to prepare for a disaster.  

More specifically, his Press Office wrote: 

11:00 AM

Mayor Lee to kick off return of Fleet Week to San Francisco Bay Area & announce events, activities & disaster preparedness exercises.

Marines Memorial Club Library, 11th Floor

609 Sutter Street

Well, as the editor of a newspaper that has long raised concerns about Fleet Week, we’re happy to see Mayor Lee raising the issue and we’ll be there tomorrow to see what he says. Check back. 

UPDATE: So now that I attended the press conference, I’ve learned that Fleet Week isn’t just about displaying this country’s military might, celebrating soldiers as defenders of our “freedom,” or having the Blue Angels do dangerous stunts over a densely populated city — it’s really about disaster preparedness.

Or as Mayor Lee said, “Fleet Week is not only a time when we pay tribute to our women and men in uniform, but it is also an opportunity to improve the way we provide humanitarian assistance and educate ourselves about disaster preparedness.”

Lee told the Guardian that “the show” is less important than all the multi-agency training exercises that happen in the run-up to Fleet Week (which is Oct. 6-13), and he dismissed any danger that the Blue Angels pose by telling us “everyone practices very carefully” and that our safety concerns are “like saying that Muni presents a disaster.”

Police Chief Greg Suhr told us the emphasis on disaster preparedness has “always been so,” and that celebrating the military is important because “they are owed our appreciation.”

Marine Brigadier General Joaquin F. Malavet also reassured us that the maneuvers were safe, that “we’re very sensitive to the type of training events that we practice,” and that Fleet Week is important to San Franciscans: “We want them to be exposed to who we are, what we do, and the capabilities that we have.”

So if one of these babies crashes, as they sometimes do, we can all rest assured that the resources are here to deal with that or other disasters. Don’t you feel better?

Developers lobby hard to slash payments promised to Transbay Terminal and high-speed rail

0

Will the San Francisco Board of Supervisors let developers of the biggest office towers proposed for San Francisco renege on promises to help pay for the Transbay Terminal reconstruction, extension of rail service to that site, and other public amenities? Or will Willie Brown successfully use politicians that he helped get into office — most notably Mayor Ed Lee and Sup. Jane Kim — to let the developers keep hundreds of millions of dollars in excess profits?

The answers to those questions will become clearer tomorrow [Tues/9] as the board considers a complex yet crucially important agenda item. It involves creation of a special tax district around the Transbay Terminal, where office tower developers have been awarded huge upzonings — including the Transbay Tower, which would be the tallest building on West Coast at more than 1,000 feet — in exchange for paying for public works projects to serve the area.

But those developers, including Hines, Boston Properties, TMG, and others (it’s not clear whether all six upzoned parcels are participating in the current lobbying effort and threatened lawsuit), are now objecting to paying about $1 billion in special taxes and seeking to get that amount lowered to about $400 million. And to do so, they’ve already paid Brown at least $100,000 just this quarter, kicking off a lobbying effort so intense that Brown has finally registered as a lobbyist after questionably resisting it for many years.

Leading the charge against that effort is Sup. Scott Wiener, who said the promised payments are crucial to paying for about $200 million in work on the Transbay Terminal and paying for the first $450 million of the $2.5 billion project of bringing high-speed rail and electrified Caltrain trains into the facility, as well as a promised public park on top of the terminal.

“The downtown extension is one of the most important transportation projects we will deliver in the foreseeable future. It’s a legacy project with huge benefits for San Francisco and the entire state,” Wiener told us. “We have to go to the mat to get it built, and a reduction in this assessment will significantly undermine our ability to deliver the project and get the train downtown. The last thing we need is a very expensive bus station with no train service.”

The developers and their spokespeople (including the San Francisco Chronicle’s Matier & Ross, who announced Brown’s involvement in the project this summer) argue that their fees have gone up substantially since the plan was first hatched in 2007 and fleshed out in the 2012 Implementation Document (which relied on 2007 land values).

That’s true, but that’s mostly because the value of the properties have shot up in recent years (incidentally, so have the costs of bringing the trains downtown), which also makes the projects far more lucrative for the developers. And Adam Alberti, who represents the Transbay Joint Powers Agency, notes that the tax rate hasn’t changed: it’s still the same 0.55 percent of assessed value that it’s always been.

“The rate is exactly the same, 0.55 percent, but the difference is the land valuations,” Alberti told us.

When the rates were formally set this year by the Rate and Method of Appointment (RMA) document, based on detailed studies of the properties and the district, it did charge the tallest buildings a little more than the shorter ones, under the logic that penthouses are more profitable (for example, the Saleforce lease of most of the Transbay Tower is rumored to be the largest commercial office deal in city history).

But the paper trail of documents and conditions for the four projects that have so far been awarded their entitlements always indicated such details would be hashed out by RMA. Indeed, when the city responded to the developers’ legal threats with a 14-page letter on July 14, it meticulously dismantled the convoluted claims by the developers that there’s been some kind of bait-and-switch here.

Still, the developers have been aggressively working the corridors of power in City Hall trying to get their fees reduced.

“Having not received any of the relief that the the Land Owner sought, the Land Owner is now forced to formally protest the formation of the CFD [Community Financing District], the levying of special taxes pursuant to the RMA, and the incurrence of bonded indebtedness in the CFD,” Boston Properties (which has not returned our calls for comment) wrote in a Sept. 2 letter to the city, which prompted Kim, the district supervisor, to continue the item for one week.

The decision to employ Brown upped the ante on this power struggle, given that Brown (who also didn’t return our calls) helped engineer Mayor Lee’s appointment to office in 2011 and worked behind-the-scenes to help Jane Kim beat progressive challenger Debra Walker the year before. Since then, Kim (who didn’t return our calls for comment) has helped do Brown’s bidding a couple of times and made misleading statements about their relationship.

Kim will be a central figure in this unfolding drama, given that it’s taking place in her supervisorial district. Her predecessor, Chris Daly — who says that he’s already been burned once by Hines (which also wouldn’t comment), which he said broke a promise for another $100 million in fees to the TJPA — said the current lobbying effort is essentially a raid on the public coffers that endangers an important project.

“The last redeeming thing about Willie Brown was his unwavering support for Transbay Terminal,” Daly told us, “and now that’s gone too.”

Unfortunately, the complexities of this deal might make it difficult for the general public to digest just how it changes, particularly as they are engineered by Brown, a legendary political dealmaker who spent decades as speaker of the California Assembly before becoming mayor of San Francisco.

But Daly said this project is crucially important for Kim’s district, and it’ll be intriguing to see what happens: “I don’t think she can make a bad vote, but behind the scenes, I’m not sure how much she can stand up to Willie Brown.”  

If the board approves the special tax district and the RMA tomorrow, then the affected property owners will vote on whether to create this Mello-Roos District in December, with a two-thirds vote required for passage. The projects can’t proceed with their current entitlements unless such a district is created, so the effort now is to slash the payments that such a district would require.

“Smart development means, among other things, making sure that development pays for supporting infrastructure,” Wiener told us. “The creation and upzoning of this district were explicitly linked to to funding the transit center and the downtown train extension. By upzoning these properties, we provided the developers with massive additional value and, in fact, the properties have exploded in value. The transit assessment needs to reflect those current property values, not values from the bottom of the recession.” 

[UPDATE: Sup. Kim returned our calls this evening and said this was a difficult issue, but that she wants to defend the city’s stance. “At this point we’re in a legal dispute, an impasse,” Kim told us, noting that she supports the fee structure from the RMA rather than earlier estimates. “The city was very clear those rates were illustrative.”

She said this isn’t simply about getting more money for the Transbay Terminal projects, but holding developers accountable for the upzoning they received. “The question isn’t what is the most money we can extract from the developer,” she said. “The question is: What did we agree to?”

Kim said she has met with Willie Brown about the issue, but she isn’t feeled pressured by him or the developers he’s representing. “Are they making threats? No,” she said. “I didn’t feel pressure at the meeting.”

But she did say she’d always be willing to hear out Brown’s side of the story. “He can just pick up the phone and call me,” she said.

Tomorrow’s meeting will include a closed session discussion of the issue, given its potential for legal actions. As for whether she and other supervisors may be swayed by the legal threat to settle on a lower fee amount, she told us, “That’s what the closed session is for.”

Kim indicated she intends to support the fees the parties originally agreed to. “I think the rates were set clearly,” she said. 

But we may have to take that promise with a grain of salt. Kim has sometimes talked tough, only to compromise later on, as she did with her Housing Balance legislation. After tomorrow’s closed session, we’ll see if her vote is as fiery as her rhetoric. ]

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report. 

Tom’s legacy

0

steve@sfbg.com

At a moment when San Francisco politics has slid toward the slippery center — when one-time progressives align with business elites, the political rhetoric seems hollow, and the vaunted value of “civility” in City Hall increasingly looks more like a deceptive power grab by the Mayor’s Office — it feels so refreshing to talk with Tom Ammiano.

For one thing, he’s hilarious, always quick with quips that are not only funny, but often funny in insightful ways that distill complex issues down to their essence, delivered with his distinctive nasally honk and lightning timing. Ammiano developed as a stand-up comedian and political leader simultaneously, and the two professional sides feed off each other, alternatively manifesting in disarming mirth or penetrating bite.

But his humor isn’t the main reason why Ammiano — a 72-year-old state legislator, two-time mayoral candidate, and former supervisor and school board member — has become such a beloved figure on the left of state and local politics, or why so many progressives are sad to see him leaving the California Assembly and elected office this year for the first time since 1990.

No, perhaps the biggest reason why public esteem for Ammiano has been strong and rising — particularly among progressives, but also among those of all ideological stripes who decry the closed-door dealmaking that dominates City Hall and the State Capitol these days — is his political integrity and courage. Everyone knows where Tom Ammiano will stand on almost any issue: with the powerless over the powerful.

“Don’t make it about yourself, make it about what you believe in,” Ammiano told us, describing his approach to politics and his advice to up-and-coming politicians.

Ammiano’s positions derive from his progressive political values, which were informed by his working class upbringing, first-hand observations of the limits of American militarism, publicly coming out as a gay teacher at time when that was a risky decision, standing with immigrants and women at important political moments, and steadily enduring well-funded attacks as he created some of San Francisco’s most defining and enduring political reforms, from domestic partner benefits and key political reforms to universal health care.

“He has been able to remain true to his values and principles of the progressive movement while making significant legislative accomplishments happen on a number of fronts,” Sup. David Campos, who replaced Ammiano on the Board of Supervisors and is now his chosen successor in the California Assembly, told the Guardian. “I don’t know that we’ve fully understood the scope of his influence. He has influenced the city more than most San Francisco mayors have.”

So, as we enter the traditional start of fall election season — with its strangely uncontested supervisorial races and only a few significant ballot measures, thanks to insider political manipulations — the Guardian spent some time with Ammiano in San Francisco and in Sacramento, talking about his life and legacy and what can be done to revive the city’s progressive spirit.

 

 

LIFE OF THE CAPITOL

Aug. 20 was a pretty typical day in the State Capitol, perhaps a bit more relaxed than usual given that most of the agenda was concurrence votes by the full Senate and Assembly on bills they had already approved once before being amended by the other house.

Still, lobbyists packed the hall outside the Assembly Chambers, hoping to exert some last minute influence before the legislative session ended (most don’t bother with Ammiano, whose name is on a short list, posted in the hall by the Assembly Sergeant-at-Arms, of legislators who don’t accept business cards from lobbyists).

One of the bills up for approval that day was Ammiano’s Assembly Bill 2344, the Modern Family Act, which in many ways signals how far California has come since the mid-’70s, when Ammiano was an openly gay schoolteacher and progressive political activist working with then-Sup. Harvey Milk to defeat the homophobic Briggs Initiative.

The Modern Family Act updates and clarifies the laws governing same-sex married couples and domestic partners who adopt children or use surrogates, standardizing the rights and responsibilities of all parties involved. “With a few simple changes, we can help families thrive without needless legal battles or expensive court actions,” Ammiano said in a press statement publicizing the bill.

Ammiano arrived in his office around 10am, an hour before the session began, carrying a large plaque commending him for his legislative service, given to outgoing legislators during a breakfast program. “Something else I don’t need,” Ammiano said, setting the plaque down on a table in his wood-paneled office. “I wonder if there’s a black market for this shit.”

Before going over the day’s legislative agenda, Ammiano chatted with his Press Secretary Carlos Alcala about an editorial in that morning’s San Francisco Chronicle, “Abuse of disabled-parking program demands legislators act,” which criticized Ammiano for seeking minor changes in a city plan to start charging for disabled placards before he would sponsor legislation to implement it. The editorial even snidely linked Ammiano to disgraced Sen. Leland Yee, who is suspended and has nothing to do with the issue.

“I’ve had these tussles with the Chronicle from day one. They just want people to be angry with me,” Ammiano told us. “You stand up for anything progressive and they treat you like a piñata.”

He thought the criticism was ridiculous — telling Alcala, “If we do a response letter, using the words puerile and immature would be good” — and that it has as much to do with denigrating Ammiano, and thus Campos and other progressives, as the issue at hand.

“Anything that gets people mad at me hurts him,” Ammiano told us.

But it’s awfully hard to be mad at Tom Ammiano. Even those on the opposite side of the political fence from him and who clash with him on the issues or who have been subjected to his caustic barbs grudgingly admit a respect and admiration for Ammiano, even Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who told the Guardian as much when we ran into him on the streets of Sacramento later that day.

Ammiano says he rarely gets rattled by his critics, or even the handful of death threats that he’s received over the years, including the one that led the San Francisco Police Department to place a protective detail on him during the 1999 mayor’s race.

“You are buoyed by what you do, and that compensates for other feelings you have,” Ammiano said of safety concerns.

Finally ready to prepare for the day’s business, he shouts for his aides in the other room (“the New York intercom,” he quips). The first question is whether he’s going to support a bill sponsored by PG&E’s union to increase incentives for geothermal projects in the state, a jobs bill that most environmental groups opposed.

“That is a terrible bill, it’s total shit, and I’m not going to support it,” Ammiano tells his aide. “It’s a scam.”

As Ammiano continued to prepare for the day’s session, we headed down to the Assembly floor to get ready to cover the action, escorted by Alcala. We asked what he planned to do after Ammiano leaves Sacramento, and Alcala told us that he’ll look at working for another legislator, “but there would probably be a lot more compromises.”

 

 

SPARKING CHANGE

Compromises are part of politics, but Ammiano has shown that the best legislative deals come without compromising one’s political principles. Indeed, some of his most significant accomplishments have involved sticking to his guns and quietly waiting out his critics.

For all the brassy charm of this big personality — who else could publicly confront then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at a Democratic Party fundraiser in 2009 and tell him to “kiss my gay ass!” — Ammiano has usually done the work in a way that wasn’t showy or self-centered.

By championing the reinstatement of district supervisorial elections and waging an improbable but electrifying write-in campaign for mayor in 1999 (finishing second before losing to incumbent Willie Brown in the runoff election), Ammiano set the stage for progressives to finally win control of the Board of Supervisors in 2000 and keep it for the next eight years, forming an effective counterbalance to Gavin Newsom’s pro-business mayoralty.

“I just did it through intuition,” Ammiano said of his 1999 mayoral run, when he jumped into the race just two weeks before election day. “There was a lot of electricity.”

After he made the runoff, Brown and his allies worked aggressively to keep power, leaning on potential Ammiano supporters, calling on then-President Bill Clinton to campaign for Brown, and even having Jesse Jackson call Ammiano late one night asking him to drop out.

“That’s when we realized Willie really felt threatened by us,” Ammiano said, a fear that was well-founded given that Ammiano’s loss in the runoff election led directly into a slate of progressives elected to the Board of Supervisors the next year. “It was a pyrrhic victory for him because then the board changed.”

But Ammiano didn’t seize the spotlight in those heady years that followed, which often shone on the younger political upstarts in the progressive movement — particularly Chris Daly, Matt Gonzalez, and Aaron Peskin — who were more willing to aggressively wage rhetorical war against Newsom and his downtown constituents.

By the time the 2003 mayor’s race came, Ammiano’s mayoral campaign became eclipsed by Gonzalez jumping into the race at the last minute, a Green Party candidate whose outsider credentials contrasted sharply with Newsom’s insider inevitability, coming within 5 percentage points of winning.

“I just bounced back and we did a lot of good shit after that,” Ammiano said, noting how district elections were conducive to his approach to politics. “It helped the way I wanted to govern, with the focus on the neighborhoods instead of the boys downtown.”

Perhaps Ammiano’s greatest legislative victory as a supervisor was his Health Care Security Ordinance, which required employers in San Francisco to provide health coverage for their employees and created the Healthy San Francisco program to help deliver affordable care to all San Franciscans.

The business community went ballistic when Ammiano proposed the measure in 2006, waging an aggressive lobbying and legal campaign to thwart the ordinance. But Ammiano just quietly took the heat, refused to compromise, and steadily lined up support from labor, public health officials, and other groups that were key to its passage.

“Maybe the early days of being a pinata inured me,” Ammiano said of his ability to withstand the onslaught from the business community for so long, recalling that in his 1999 school board race, “I really became a pinata. I got it in the morning from the Chronicle and in the afternoon from the Examiner.”

Ammiano kept Newsom apprised of his intentions and resolve, resisting entreaties to water down the legislation. “I kept talking to him and I told him I was going to do it,” Ammiano said. “Eventually, we got a 11 to zip vote and Newsom couldn’t do anything about it. That was a great journey.”

In the end, Newsom not only supported the measure, but he tried to claim Ammiano’s victory as his own, citing the vague promise he had made in his 2007 State of the City speech to try to provide universal health care in the city and his willingness to fund the program in his 2007-08 budget.

But Ammiano was happy with the policy victory and didn’t quibble publicly with Newsom about credit. “I picked my battles,” Ammiano said, contrasting his approach to Newsom with that of his more fiery progressive colleagues. “I tried to go after him on policy, not personality.”

Ammiano isn’t happy with the political turn that San Francisco has taken since he headed to Sacramento, with the pro-business, fiscally conservative faction of the city controlling the Mayor’s Office and exerting a big influence on the Board of Supervisors. But San Francisco’s elder statesman takes the long view. “Today, the board has a moderate trajectory that can be annoying, but I think it’s temporary,” Ammiano said. “These things are cyclical.”

He acknowledges that things can seem to a little bleak to progressives right now: “They’re feeling somewhat marginalized, but I don’t think it’s going to stay that way.”

 

FLOOR SHOW

Back on the Assembly floor, Ammiano was working the room, hamming it up with legislative colleagues and being the first of many legislators to rub elbows and get photos taken with visiting celebrities Carl Weathers, Daniel Stern, and Ron Perlman, who were there to support film-credit legislation

“Ron Perlman, wow, Sons of Anarchy,” Ammiano told us afterward, relating his conversation with Perlman. “I said, ‘They killed you, but you live on Netflix.’ I told him I was big fan. Even the progressives come here for the tax breaks.”

When Little Hoover Commission Chair Pedro Nava, who used to represent Santa Barbara in the Assembly, stopped to pose with Ammiano for the Guardian’s photographer, the famously liberal Ammiano quipped, “You’ll get him in trouble in Santa Barbara. Drill, baby, drill!”

Ammiano chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee, where he has successfully pushed prison reform legislation and helped derail the worst tough-on-crime bills pushed by conservatives. “We have a lot of fun, and we get a chance to talk about all these bills that come before us,” Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, told the Guardian when asked about Ammiano. “You can see how these bad bills get less bad.”

Ammiano gave a short speech when his Modern Family Act came up for a vote, noting that it “simplifies the law around these procedures,” before the Assembly voted 57-2 to send it to the governor’s desk, where he has until Sept. 30 to act on it. “I think he’ll sign it,” Ammiano told the Guardian, “even though it’s about reproduction and naughty bits.”

“He’s a hoot,” Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) said of Ammiano, whose desk is right behind his own. Jones-Sawyer said that he’d love to see Ammiano run for mayor of San Francisco, “but he’s waiting for a groundswell of support. Hopefully the progressives come together.”

Jones-Sawyer said Ammiano plays an important role as the conscience of a Legislature that too often caters to established interests.

“There’s liberal, progressive, socialist, communist, and then there’s Tom,” Jones said. “As far left as you can go, there’s Tom, and that’s what we’re going to miss.”

Yet despite that strong progressive reputation, Ammiano has also been an amazingly effective legislator (something that might surprise those supporting the campaign of David Chiu, which has repeatedly claimed that ideological progressives like Ammiano and Campos can’t “get things done” in Sacramento).

Last year, Ammiano got 13 bills through the Legislature — including three hugely controversial ones: the TRUST Act, which curbs local cooperation with federal immigration holds; the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights; and a bill protecting transgender student rights in schools, which was savaged by conservative religious groups — all of which were signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“A lot of it is personal relationships, some is timing, and some is just sticking to it,” Ammiano said of effectiveness.

Some of his legislative accomplishments have required multiyear efforts, such as the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which was vetoed in 2012 before being signed into law last year with only a few significant changes (see “Do we care?” 3/26/13).

“Tom Ammiano was so incredible to work with,” Katie Joaquin, campaign coordinator for the California Domestic Workers Coalition, for whom the bill had long been a top priority, told the Guardian.

The large grassroots coalition backing the bill insisted on being a part of the decision-making as it evolved, which is not always easy to do in the fast-paced Capitol. But Joaquin said Ammiano’s history of working with grassroots activists made him the perfect fit for the consensus-based coalition.

“That’s difficult to do in the legislative process, and working with Tom and his office made that possible,” Joaquin told us. “He wanted to make sure we had active participation in the field from a variety of people who were affected by this.”

When the bill was vetoed by Gov. Brown, who cited paternalistic concerns that better pay and working conditions could translate into fewer jobs for immigrant women who serve as domestic workers, Joaquin said Ammiano was as disappointed as the activists, but he didn’t give up.

“It was really hard. I genuinely felt Tom’s frustration. He was going through the same emotions we were, and it was great that he wanted to go through that with us again,” Joaquin told us. “Sometimes, your allies can get fatigued with the long struggles, but Tom maintained his resolve and kept us going.”

And after it was over, Ammiano even organized the victory party for the coalition and celebrated the key role that activists and their organizing played in making California only the second state in the nation (after New York) to extend basic wage, hour, and working condition protections to nannies, maids, and other domestic workers excluded under federal law.

“He has a great sense of style,” Joaquin said of Ammiano, “and that emanates in how he carries himself.”

 

 

COMING OUT

Ammiano came to San Francisco in 1964, obtaining a master’s degree in special education from San Francisco State University and then going on to teach at Hawthorne Elementary (now known as Cesar Chavez Elementary). He quickly gained an appreciation for the complex array of issues facing the city, which would inform the evolution of his progressive worldview.

“In teaching itself, there were a lot of social justice issues,” Ammiano said. For example, most native Spanish-speakers at the time were simply dumped into special education classes because there wasn’t yet bilingual education in San Francisco schools. “So I turned to the community for help.”

The relationships that he developed in the immigrant community would later help as he worked on declaring San Francisco a sanctuary city as waves of Central American immigrants fled to California to escape US-sponsored proxy wars.

Growing up a Catholic working class kid in New Jersey, Ammiano was no hippie. But he was struck by the brewing war in Vietnam strongly enough that he volunteered to teach there through a Quaker program, International Volunteer Service, working in Saigon from 1966-68 and coming back with a strong aversion to US militarism.

“I came back from Vietnam a whole new person,” he told us. “I had a lot of political awakenings.”

He then worked with veterans injured during the war and began to gravitate toward leftist political groups in San Francisco, but he found that many still weren’t comfortable with his open homosexuality, an identity that he never sought to cover up or apologize for.

“I knew I was gay in utero,” Ammiano said. “I said you have to be comfortable with me being a gay, and it wasn’t easy for some. The left wasn’t that accepting.”

But that began to change in the early ’70s as labor and progressives started to find common cause with the LGBT community, mostly through organizations such as Bay Area Gay Liberation and the Gay Teachers Coalition, a group that Ammiano formed with Hank Wilson and Ron Lanza after Ammiano publicly came out as a gay teacher in 1975.

“He was the first public school teacher to acknowledge that he was a gay man, which was not as easy as it sounds in those days,” former Mayor Art Agnos told us, crediting Ammiano with helping make support for gay rights the default political position that it became in San Francisco.

San Francisco Unified School District still wasn’t supportive of gay teachers, Ammiano said, “So I ran for school board right after the assassinations [of Mayor George Moscone and Sup. Harvey Milk in 1978] and got my ass kicked.”

Shortly thereafter, Ammiano decided to get into stand-up comedy, encouraged by friends and allies who loved his sense of humor. Meanwhile, Ammiano was pushing for SFUSD to name a school after Milk, as it immediately did for Moscone, a quest that dragged on for seven years and which was a central plank in his unsuccessful 1988 run for the school board.

But Ammiano was developing as a public figure, buoyed by his stand-up performances (which he said Chronicle reporters would sometimes attend to gather off-color quotes to use against him in elections) and increased support from the maturing progressive and queer communities.

So when he ran again for school board in 1990, he finished in first place as part of the so-called “lavender sweep,” with LGBT candidates elected to judgeships and lesbians Carole Migden and Roberta Achtenberg elected to the Board of Supervisors.

On the school board, Ammiano helped bring SFUSD into the modern age, including spearheading programs dealing with AIDS education, support for gay students, distribution of condoms in the schools, and limiting recruiting in schools by the homophobic Boy Scouts of America.

“I found out we were paying them to recruit in the schools, but I can’t recruit?” Ammiano said, referencing the oft-raised concern at the time that gay teachers would recruit impressionable young people into homosexuality.

As his first term on the school board ended, a growing community of supporters urged Ammiano to run for the Board of Supervisors, then still a citywide election, and he was elected despite dealing with a devastating personal loss at the time.

“My partner died five days before the election,” Ammiano said as we talked at the bar in Soluna, tearing up at the memory and raising a toast with his gin-and-tonic to his late partner, Tim Curbo, who succumbed to a long struggle with AIDS.

Ammiano poured himself into his work as a supervisor, allied on the left at various points in the mid-late ’90s with Sups. Sue Bierman, Terrence Hallinan, Leland Yee, Mabel Teng, Angelo Alioto, and Carole Migden against the wily and all-powerful then-Mayor Brown, who Ammiano said “manipulated everything.”

But Ammiano gradually began to chip away at that power, often by turning directly to the people and using ballot measures to accomplish reforms such as laws regulating political consultants and campaign contributions and the reinstatement of district supervisorial elections, which decentralized power in the city.

“People frequently say about politicians, when they want to say something favorable, that they never forgot where they came from,” Agnos told us. “With Tom, he never forgot where he came from, and more importantly, he never forgot who he was…He was an authentic and a proud gay man, as proud as Harvey Milk ever was.”

And from that strong foundation of knowing himself, where he came from, and what he believed, Ammiano maintained the courage to stand on his convictions.

“It’s not just political integrity, it’s a reflection of the man himself,” Agnos said, praising Ammiano’s ability to always remain true to himself and let his politics flow from that. “A lot of politicians don’t have the courage, personal or political, to do that.”

 

 

WHAT’S NEXT

Ammiano’s legacy has been clearly established, even if it’s not always appreciated in a city enamored of the shiny and new, from recent arrivals who seem incurious about the city’s political history to the wave of neoliberal politicians who now hold sway in City Hall.

“Tom has carried on the legacy of Harvey Milk of being the movement progressive standard bearer. He has, more than anyone else, moved forward progressive politics in San Francisco in a way that goes beyond him as an individual,” Campos said, citing the return of district elections and his mentoring of young activists as examples. “He brought a number of people into politics that have been impactful in their own right.”

Campos is one of those individuals, endorsed by Ammiano to fill his District 9 seat on the Board of Supervisors from among a competitive field of established progressive candidates. Ammiano says he made the right choice.

“I have been supportive of him as a legislator and I think he’s doing the right things,” Ammiano said of Campos, adding an appreciation for the facts that he’s gay, an immigrant, and a solid progressive. “He’s a three-fer.”

Ammiano said that Campos has been a standout on the Board of Supervisors in recent years, diligently working to protect workers, tenants, and immigrants with successful efforts to increase tenant relocation fees after an eviction and an attempt to close the loophole that allows restaurants to pocket money they’re required to spend on employee health care, which was sabotaged by Chiu and Mayor Lee.

“I like his work ethic. He comes across as mild-mannered, but he’s a tiger,” Ammiano said of Campos. “If you like me, vote for David.”

But what about Ammiano’s own political future?

Ammiano said he’s been too busy lately to really think about what’s next for him (except romantically: Ammiano recently announced his wedding engagement to Carolis Deal, a longtime friend and lover). Ammiano is talking with universities and speakers bureaus about future gigs and he’s thinking about writing a book or doing a one-man show.

“Once I get that settled, I’ll look at the mayor’s race and [Sen. Mark] Leno’s seat,” Ammiano said, holding out hope that his political career will continue.

Ammiano said the city is desperately in need of some strong political leadership right now, something that he isn’t seeing from Mayor Lee, who has mostly been carrying out the agenda of the business leaders, developers, and power brokers who engineered his mayoral appointment in 2011.

“Basically, he’s an administrator and I don’t think he’ll ever be anything but that,” Ammiano said. “We are so fucking ready for a progressive mayor.”

If Ammiano were to become mayor — which seems like a longshot at this point — he says that he would use that position to decentralize power in San Francisco, letting the people and their representatives on the Board of Supervisors have a greater say in the direction of the city and making governance decisions more transparent.

“I don’t believe in a strong mayor [form of government],” Ammiano said. “If I was mayor, all the commission appointments would be shared.”

But before he would decide to run for mayor, Ammiano says that he would need to see a strong groundswell of public support for the values and ideals that he’s represented over nearly a half-century of public life in San Francisco.

“I don’t want to run to be a challenger,” Ammiano said. “I’d want to run to be mayor.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mayoral meltdown

95

joe@sfbg.com

When he launched an unexpected mayoral bid in 2011, Mayor Ed Lee campaigned on a platform of changing the tone of San Francisco politics. The appointed mustachioed mayor claimed he put the civility back in City Hall, marking a sharp departure from the divisive tone of city politics as progressives battled former Mayor Willie Brown, followed by Mayor Gavin Newsom.

“We’ll continue the high level of civility in the tone we’ve set since January, and solve the problems with civil engagement,” he told Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, then his mayoral opponent, at a 2011 debate.

Yet over the past two weeks, Mayor Lee has started swinging hard against supervisors who have introduced measures that go against his own priorities. So much for civility at City Hall.

 

COMPROMISE EVERYTHING

When asked about the outcome of her newly revised affordable housing measure, Sup. Jane Kim did not sound enthusiastic.

“It was definitely a compromise,” Kim said. But compromise is a word you use when you find a middle ground. By most accounts, Mayor Lee weakened the measure by hammering the right pressure points.

Kim crafted a novel solution to the city’s housing affordability crisis for the November ballot. Her initial Housing Balance Requirement would have established controls on market-rate housing construction, requiring a reevaluation whenever affordable housing production falls below 30 percent of total construction. The goal was to ensure that a certain amount of affordable housing would be built — but it was unpopular with housing developers.

Lee immediately drummed up a ballot measure in opposition to Kim’s, the Build Housing Now Initiative. The nonbinding policy statement asked the city to affirm his previously stated affordable housing goals. So what was the point?

It contained a poison pill which would have killed Kim’s Housing Balance Requirement. If Lee’s measure was approved, Kim’s would fail. The two politicians were in heated negotiations, trying to diffuse this ballot box arms race up to the very moment Kim’s measure went before the Board of Supervisors for approval at its July 29 meeting.

By the end of that process, Kim’s measure had been gutted.

Mirroring the mayor’s Build Housing Now Initiative, the new Housing Balance Requirement is a nonbinding policy statement asking the city to “affirm the City’s commitment” to support the production or rehabilitation of 30,000 housing units by 2020, with at least 33 percent of those permanently affordable to low or moderate income households.

Kim said she’d won funding pledges and promises for a number of affordable housing projects from the mayor. But Lee did not sign any agreement.

Essentially, the revised measure is a promise to promise, a plan to plan. Kim told us flatly, “We didn’t get the accountability we wanted.”

Political insiders told us the Mayor’s Office put pressure on affordable housing developers, who backed the original measure but later asked Kim to revise it to reflect the mayor’s wishes. The Mayor’s Office allegedly threatened to cut their funding next year, or divert projects to other affordable housing organizations.

Everyone acknowledged the mayor was pissed.

Tenants and Owners Development Corporation, an affordable housing developer in SoMa, sat in on the negotiations. The city paid $170,961 in contracts to TODCO last year, according to the City Controller, and over $250,000 the year before. John Elberling, president of TODCO, and Peter Cohen, co-director of the Council of Community Housing Organizations, denied the mayor influenced them to ask Kim to revise her measure.

“I didn’t hear my phone ringing saying we’ll pull funding for affordable housers if you don’t do X, Y and Z,” Cohen told us. Yet he acknowledged the mayor “brought certain leverages to bear” in the closed-door negotiations to “compromise” on Kim’s ballot measure. Then everything changed.

“Yes,” Cohen said, “we then convinced the lead supervisor to change her position.”

Despite being labeled as a “compromise,” many observers read this as a sign that Lee had prevailed. Now the same hammer is coming down on Sup. Scott Wiener.

 

BALLOT BATTLE

“I agree with the mayor on many things,” Wiener told us. But the mayor is targeting Wiener’s new Muni funding ballot measure, hoping to knock it off the ballot.

“It’s not personal,” Wiener said. “It’s a policy disagreement.”

The mayor has a transportation bond on the ballot, asking voters to pony up $500 million to fund Muni. But Lee already blew a $33 million hole into Muni’s proposed budget when he decided to pull a Vehicle License Fee measure off the ballot. When that measure began to poll badly, he got cold feet, and withdrew it.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s budget outlined a doomsday scenario if the funding ballot measures failed to pass. It would be impossible to improve transit travel time, reliability, or to fund pedestrian and bike safety projects, the SFMTA staff noted in recent budget presentations.

Seeing the potential fallout due to the mayor pulling the VLF measure, Wiener placed his own measure on the ballot, tying expansion for Muni funding to the city’s growing population. If passed, Muni could see a $22 million bump just next year.

Openly, the mayor told reporters he would hold the supervisors who supported Wiener’s ballot measure “accountable.” Lee then initiated a conversation about slashing funding to city programs, signaling that supervisors’ favored projects could be jeopardized.

“Last week, the Board of Supervisors sent a measure to the ballot that the budget does not contemplate,” Kate Howard, the mayor’s budget director, wrote in a memo. She directed departments to cut their budgets by 1.5 percent, and asked for “contingency plans” including a “revisit” of hiring plans and scaling back existing programs and services.

Wiener issued a statement describing the move as “an empty scare tactic.”

“For whatever reason,” he wrote, “the Mayor’s Office felt the need to issue these emergency instructions now — a full year before the fiscal year at issue, in the middle of an election campaign, without even knowing whether the measure will pass.”

John Elberling, president of TODCO, recalled when then-Mayor Willie Brown used the same schoolyard-bully tactics to ensure his favored measures passed.

“The punchline is there were competing ballot measures, one from our side and one from Willie’s side,” Elberling told the Guardian. “There was an effort to reach a compromise, but that failed. I was in the meeting where he shot it down.”

“He said ‘I will make the decisions,’ quote unquote. ‘There is no compromise unless I say there’s a compromise.’ That was quite memorable,” Elberling recalled.

When things didn’t go his way, “Willie Brown took a housing project away from us,” Elberling said.

But Mayor Lee’s bluster and anger is new, and Elberling said it should be taken with a grain of salt. “Is it a bluff? That’s always a question. Real retaliation like Willie did, that’s a real thing. But huff and puff, that goes on all the time.”

 

SF and UC systems dragging their feet on fossil fuel divestment

56

The San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System and University of California Board of Regents — two local entities targeted by campaigns urging them to divest of their fossil fuel investments — remain resistant to the change despite official statements of support.

In April of last year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to push SFERS to divest from fossil fuels. Now, more than a year later, sponsoring Sup. John Avalos questioned Mayor Ed Lee during the July 15 Board of Supervisors meeting about what needs to happen to move toward divestment. Groups such as Fossil Free SF and 350 SF are asking the same question since the issue of climate change is nearing a critical threshold.

Kimberly Pikul and Jed Holtzman of 350 SF told the Guardian that now is the time for action. “There is only so much carbon that we can release before we cook the planet beyond a level to which we can adapt,” Holtzman told the Guardian.

Pikul and Holtzman explained that carbon reserves owned by publicly traded fossil fuel companies represent five times what would be required to “cook the planet.” Only 20 percent of owned reserves can actually be used without massive environmental consequences, so they say stock in a fossil fuel companies is overvalued, making it a risky investment.

“To protect the long-term financial health of the pension fund and the benefits of city workers and retirees, it is a certainty that SFERS needs to divest from its fossil fuel holdings,” said Holtzman.

Despite the unstable investments and risk of environmental change, Mayor Lee seemed more concerned with jobs and green projects when Avalos questioned him about the Retirement Board’s progress at the Board of Supervisors meeting.

Lee told Avalos: “Our commitment of $4.5 million a year to GoSolarSF will continue to create local green collar jobs and … contribute [to] the creation of locally produced 100 percent green energy. These are the kinds of meaningful investments that actually deploy dollars, create jobs, and move the needle on green energy.”

Despite SF’s support of green jobs, Avalos, Fossil Free UC and 350 SF see divestment as one of the pathways toward long-term environmental change and more sustainable energy projects.

But, as Avalos pointed out, the Retirement Board has “yet to take any steps to divest from fossil fuels or limit the retirement fund’s exposure to the financial risks posed by climate change.”

The only step taken so far is to initiate “Level 1” shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies. Pikul and Holtzman explained that Level 1 engagement “is largely cosmetic and only calls for SFERS to vote their proxies on climate-related shareholder votes.” The next step is Level 2: shareholder advocacy and engagement with fossil fuel companies. The ideal is Level 3, or investment restriction/divestment.

SF isn’t the only city to seek divestment. Oakland and Berkeley are also pursuing the cause, as are Portland and Seattle. The University of California has also been deliberating the issue and plans to vote on divestment in September.  

But the UC Board of Regents seems skeptical, despite the push from students. UC President Janet Napolitano told the Daily Bruin, “Using divestment as a tool is something that should be done rarely, if at all.”

An open letter from faculty to the UC Regents, posted on Fossil Free UC’s website, bases the argument for divestment on students’ well-being: “Current students will be at the peak of life in 2050, identified by numerous studies as a point at which the global community will have either adequately responded to climate change, or will be suffering horribly from it.”

When Harvard rejected divestment in 2013, University President Drew Faust told the San Francisco Chronicle that she found “a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.”

Stanford University had a similar dependence issue, which is why it compromised by divesting from coal companies, instead of all fossil fuel companies. Before divestment, the university received $19 billion from coal-related investments, money that will now be invested in other things.

While the partial divestment is a step in the right direction, Fossil Free UC student organizer Silver Hannon said, in a press release following July 16 Regents meeting, “While partial divestment could stigmatize the dirtiest energy source, we need to see the Regents take a real leadership position on the issue by adopting a comprehensive fossil-free investment strategy.”

As for SF, Mayor Lee promises that divestment will happen after the Retirement Board has considered the consequences. Since there doesn’t seem to be a study currently underway, the best course of action is to keep Lee and other officials accountable for SF’s climate and clean energy goals, said Pukil and Holtzman.

Lee seems confident that SFERs will divest, even if the timeline is currently unclear.

“I know the commission does seriously consider the fiscal consequences of divestment, and sometimes they decide the benefits outweigh the costs,” Lee told the supervisors. “I trust the Retirement Board and staff to make the right decisions in this regard.”

Supes to vote on Avalos’ “Let’s Elect Our Elected Officials” measure

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote tomorrow (Tue/15) on whether to submit a charter amendment to the ballot that would require a special election in the event of a vacancy on the Board of Supervisors or in the mayor’s office.

As things stand, the mayor holds the power to appoint someone to fill a vacant seat on the board. But Sup. John Avalos’ proposed ballot measure, unofficially dubbed “Let’s Elect our Elected Officials,” would shift that decision-making power to the voters. The measure needs six votes to pass.

If it wins voter approval, the measure would also likely have a significant impact on the city’s political landscape in the immediate future.

Sup. David Campos, who is co-sponsoring the initiative, is currently vying for a seat in the 17th Assembly District against Board President David Chiu, a narrow race that will leave a vacancy on the Board one way or another. If Campos, one of the board’s most progressive members, is elected, Mayor Ed Lee would presumably appoint someone to his seat with a rather different political bent.

The ballot needs an additional three votes (beyond its three sponsors) to reach the necessary six votes necessary for approval by the Board, and “it’s sort of up in the air at the moment,” according to Jeremy Pollock, Avalos’ legislative aide.

Some supervisors are reluctant to go against Lee by limiting mayoral power. Opposition from Sup. Katy Tang, herself a beneficiary of the current rules when she was appointed by Mayor Lee in February 2013, has also had an effect of the amendment’s approval.

But supporters of the bill are hoping the overall benefits of the measure will lead the supervisors to approve it.

“John sees this as a good government reform that takes some power away from the mayor and the Board and gives it to the voters,” Pollock said, with the hope that it would also work to discourage backroom deals.

Another potential issue raised over the approval of the measure is the cost of special elections, though it appears to be a relatively minor concern. According to the San Francisco Department of Elections, a special election for supervisors costs roughly $300,000 (a drop in the ocean given the city’s multi-billion dollar budget) and around $3.5 million for a citywide election, a substantial sum but also a relatively minor worry given the rarity of vacancies in the mayor’s office. Some might argue that given the importance of the mayor’s duties, that’s a small price to pay to allow the voters to have a say.

In addition to its main rule change, the measure includes a few other provisions, such as making an exception for the proposed rule if a regularly scheduled election would be held within 180 days of the vacancy.

It would also provide “that the Mayor appoints an interim Supervisor to fill a supervisorial vacancy until an election is held to fill that vacancy,” with the key addition that the interim supervisor would be ineligible to compete in that election.

That’s no small stipulation, given the sweeping historic success of incumbents in board re-elections. (Since 2000, when district elections returned, Christina Olague is the only incumbent who failed to gain re-election after being appointed.) Avalos appears set on plugging all holes with his proposed legislation, and it’s now up to the board to place it on the November ballot.

Taxing speculators

18

steve@sfbg.com

Political tensions over evictions, displacement, real estate speculation, and rapidly rising housing costs in San Francisco are likely to heat up through the summer and autumn as a trio of November ballot measures are debated and combated by what’s expected to be a flood of campaign cash from developers and other real estate interests.

Topping the list is a tax measure to discourage the flipping of properties by real estate speculators. Known generally as the anti-speculation tax — something then-Sup. Harvey Milk was working on at the time of his assassination in 1978 — it was the leading goal to come out of a citywide series of tenant conventions at the beginning of this year (see “Staying power,” 2/11/14).

“To be in a position to pass the last thing Harvey Milk worked on is a profound opportunity,” AIDS Housing Alliance head Brian Basinger told us, arguing the measure is more important now then ever.

The measure has been placed on the ballot by Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, Jane Kim, and Eric Mar and is scheduled for a public hearing before the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on July 10 at 2pm.

“It’s an absolutely key issue for San Francisco right now. Passing this measure will create a seismic shift in what we’re seeing with evictions and displacement in the city,” Sara Shortt, director of the Housing Rights Committee, told the Guardian.

The measure creates a supplemental surcharge on top of the city’s existing real estate transfer tax, a progressive rate ranging from a 24 percent tax on the sale of a property within one year of its purchase to 14 percent if sold between four and five years later.

In addition to levying the tax, the measure would also give the Board of Supervisors the power to waive that tax “subject to certain affordability-based restrictions on the occupancy of the real property,” giving the city leverage to expand and preserve deed-restricted affordable housing.

Meanwhile, there’s been a flurry of backroom negotiations surrounding the City Housing Balance Requirement measure sponsored by Sup. Jane Kim, which would require market rate housing projects to get a conditional use permit and be subjected to greater scrutiny when affordable housing falls below 30 percent of total housing construction (with a number exemptions, including projects with fewer than 24 units).

That measure is scheduled for a hearing by the Rules Committee on July 24 and, as an amendment to the City Charter, it needs six votes by the Board of Supervisors to make the ballot (the anti-speculation tax is an initiative that requires only the four supervisorial signatures that it now has).

Mayor Ed Lee and his allies in the development community responded to Kim’s measure by quickly cobbling together a rival initiative, Build Housing Now, which restates existing housing goals Lee announced during his State of the City speech in January and includes a poison pill that would invalidate Kim’s housing balance measure.

Together, the measures will draw key battle lines in what has become the defining political question in San Francisco these days: Who gets to live here?

 

COMBATING SPECULATORS

In February, Mayor Lee and his allies in the tech world, most notably venture capitalist Ron Conway, finally joined housing and other progressive activists in decrying the role that real estate speculators have played in the city’s current eviction and displacement crisis.

“We have some of the best tenant protections in the country, but unchecked real estate speculation threatens too many of our residents,” Lee said in a Feb. 24 press release announcing his support for Sen. Mark Leno’s Ellis Act reform measure SB 1439. “These speculators are turning a quick profit at the expense of long time tenants and do nothing to add needed housing in our City.”

The legislation, which would have prevented property owners from evicting tenants using the Ellis Act for at least five years, failed in the Legislature last month. So will Lee honor his own rhetoric and support the anti-speculation tax? His Communications Director Christine Falvey said Lee hasn’t yet taken a position on the measure, but “the mayor remains very concerned about real estate speculators.”

Peter Cohen of the Council of Community Housing Organization said Lee and his allies should support the measure: “It seems so clearly aligned with the same intent and some of the same mechanics as Ellis Act reform, which had the whole city family behind it.”

“I think it would be very consistent with their position on Ellis Act reform to support the anti-speculation tax,” Shortt told us. “If the mayor and tech companies went to bat for the anti-speculation tax, and not against it, that would show they have real concern about displacement and aren’t just giving it lip service.”

Conway’s pro-tech group sf.citi didn’t returned Guardian calls on the issue, nor did San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association, but their allies in the real estate industry strongly oppose it.

“As Realtors, our goals are to increase housing availability and improve housing affordability,” San Francisco Association of Realtors CEO Walk Baczkowski told the Guardian. “We don’t believe the proposal from Sup. Mar, which is essentially a tax on housing, will accomplish either of those goals.”

But supporters of the measure say real estate speculation only serves to drive up housing costs.

“We have been successful at bringing people around on the issue of real estate speculation,” Basinger told us. “But of course, there will be financed opposition. People will invest their money to protect their interests.”

“We know it’s going to be a fight and we’ll have to put in a lot of resources,” Shortt said, adding that it’s a fight that tenant activist want to have. “Part of what fuels all of this [displacement] is the rampant real estate speculation. We can’t put profits above people.”

 

MAYOR’S MEASURE

Falvey denies that Lee’s proposal is designed simply to negate Kim’s measure: “Build Housing Now specifically asks the voters to adopt as official city policy the Mayor’s Housing Plan to create 30,000 new homes by 2020 — the majority within reach of low, moderate, and middle income residents. This is not a reaction, but a proactive measure that lets voters weigh in on one of the mayor’s most important policy priorities.”

Yet the most concrete thing it would do is sabotage the housing balance measure, an intention it states in its opening words: “Ordinance amending the Planning Code to prohibit additional land use requirements such as conditional use authorizations, variances or other requirements on housing projects…based on a cumulative housing balance ratio or other similar criteria related to achieving a certain ration of affordability.”

Beyond that, it would have voters validate Lee’s housing goal and “urge the Mayor to develop by December 31, 2014 a Housing Action Plan to realize this goal.” The measure is filled with that sort of vague and unenforceable language, most of it designed to coax voters into thinking it does more than it would actually do. For example, it expands Lee’s stated goal of 30 percent of that new housing being affordable by setting a goal of “over 50 percent within reach of low and middle income households.”

But unlike most city housing policies that use the affordable housing threshold of those earning 120 percent of area median income (AMI) and below, Lee’s measure eschews that definition, allowing him and his developer allies to later define “middle income households” however they choose. Falvey told us “he means the households in the 50-150 percent of AMI range.”

The measure would also study the central premise of Mayor Lee’s housing policy, the idea that building more market rate housing would bring down the overall price of housing for everyone, a trickle-down economic argument refuted by many affordable housing advocates who say the San Francisco housing market just doesn’t work that way because of insatiable and inelastic demand.

“Within 60 days of the effective date of this measure, the Planning Department is directed and authorized to undertake an economic nexus analysis to analyze the impact of luxury development on the demand for middle income housing in the City, and explore fees or other revenue sources that could help mitigate this impact,” the measure states.

Shortt thinks the mayor’s measure is deceptive: “It’s clever because for those not in the know, it looks like a different way to solve the problem.” But she said the housing balance measure works well with the anti-speculation tax because “one way to keep that balance is to make sure we don’t lose existing rental stock.”

And advocates say the anti-speculation tax is the best tool out there for preserving the rental housing relied on by nearly two-thirds of city residents.

“It’s the best measure we have going now,” Basinger said of the anti-displacement tax. “Mayor Ed Lee and his tech supporters were unable to rally enough support at the state level to reform the Ellis Act, so this is it, folks.”

Protect light industrial businesses from Big Tech sprawl

15

[Editor’s Note: With the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee scheduled on Monday, July 7, to act on a proposal to allow the new owner of the San Francisco Design Center to evict existing tenants to accommodate tech company Pinterest, Jim Gallagher of Garden Court Antiques, one of those tenants, wrote the following guest editorial for the Guardian.]

The San Francisco Design Center has been a doing business at 2 Henry Adams street for the last 40 years.  During that time it has created thousands of good paying jobs in the city.  We are currently at risk of losing the majority of the building to tech office space.  The building is zoned for PDR-Design but a loophole in the law is being exploited by the new owners, a Chicago based investment firm.  This would lead to the loss of SF based small businesses and the jobs that they create.

 We have worked with countless interior design firms, architects and contractors as a resource for their projects.  In addition, we are an intrinsic part of a network of the PDR(Production, Distribution and Repair) businesses here in San Francisco.  These are the upholsterers, fabrication workrooms, cabinet makers, finishers, metal workers, installers and movers that make up our industry.  This industry offers above average paying jobs to a variety of people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds that don’t necessarily have college degrees.  These jobs and those that work at them are being squeezed out of this city and when they are gone, we lose yet another piece of the soul of San Francisco.

There is no question that PDR space is being lost in San Francisco.  A recent study of PDR space in SF, showed that we currently have the lowest available PDR space of any major American city at less than 7 percent.  Mayor Lee along with Supervisors Cohen and Campos introduced legislation at the end of last year to expand the amount of PDR space and shore up the manufacturing and light industrial sector in the city.  Why then, would the Board of Supervisors even consider giving up a quarter of a million square feet of PDR space that is currently 90% occupied with viable PDR businesses?

The sad reality is that it is a simple matter of corporate greed.  The new owners of the Showplace Building at 2 Henry Adams bought the building as a PDR building, knowing the use limitations of designated PDR building and immediately began to find ways around the laws.  The loophole that they discovered was the Landmark designation.

The Landmark designation was an exception put into the PDR protections in order to help with the cost maintaining some of the historic architecture that is often found in these PDR buildings.  The idea being that PDR rents do not always bring in enough income to retrofit and maintain these old buildings.  The Landmark status would allow the owners of PDR buildings to rent out part of the building as higher paying office space in order to offset the retrofit and maintenance cost.  This sounds like a good idea until you bring in the greed factor.  This Landmark exception has become the favorite loophole for corporate investors and greedy landlords to move out PDR businesses all over the city.

In the case of the Showplace Building, it is currently 90 percent occupied by PDR-Design businesses.  According to the building owers, there are approximately 262,000 square feet of rentable space in the building.  The Common Area Maintenance or CAM fees that tenants of the building pay beyond their monthly rent is $1.25 per square foot per month.  This would mean that the owners of the Showplace building are currently bringing in nearly $3,500,000 just in Common Area Maintenance fees annually.  In what universe is this not enough money to maintain a building that was fully retrofitted 15 years ago and is only five stories high?

The idea that this building needs to granted Landmark status from the city in order to create enough revenue to maintain the building just does not pass the smell test!  This is a case of simple greed on the part of a Chicago based investment company.  They believe that they can skirt the laws that are in place to protect San Francisco based small businesses and San Francisco workers.  They do not have the best interest of our city or our workers in mind.  They simply want to exploit this Landmark loophole in the PDR protections to line their own pockets.

I would hope that the members of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Ed Lee do not let this happen.  Please consider the consequences to our city.  Do not choose to allow a Chicago based investment company to skirt our laws and exploit this loophole.  Do not allow this greed to put several San Francisco small businesses out of business. 

This building is 90 percent full of viable PDR businesses.  We pay nearly $3.5 million dollars a year to maintain this building.  This is the perfect example of what a well-run PDR building should look like.  This building is this beautiful and well-maintained because of us.  Please don’t allow the exploitation of the Landmark status to kick us out.  We built our businesses here because we love this place and we want to continue to work and thrive here.

Google Bus sewers

131

STREET FIGHT With most city officials supporting the accommodation of private transit in some form, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is now vetting where tech workers should board and egress the private corporate commuter buses that ply the 101 and I-280 between San Francisco and Silicon Valley suburbs. A list of proposed bus stops was circulated in June, and the first round of bus stop proposals is set for approval in August.

Short of a proper environmental study, which is the subject of ongoing litigation, the list deserves more scrutiny and deliberation because certain areas of the city — such as Hayes Street in the Western Addition and 18th Street in the Mission — might be effectively made into Google Bus sewers.

I hope SFMTA is open to reconsidering some of these proposed bus stops.

Rather than jamming oversized interstate highway-scale coaches on human-scaled, walkable, and bikeable streets with important Muni routes, SFMTA ought to steer them where they are more appropriate: on the wider, car-oriented streets that bifurcate the city.

For example, the current proposal for private commuter buses in the Western Addition is to have these mammoth and incongruent buses running on Hayes Street using Muni stops at Clayton, Steiner, Laguna, and Buchanan.

This is bad news for passengers on the 21-Hayes, a key neighborhood-serving electric trolley bus that has gotten short shrift in the city planning process. With 12,500 boardings daily, the 21-Hayes is often at capacity every morning before it crosses Van Ness.

Just last week, I was on a packed 21 that was blocked (illegally) by a huge corporate bus on Hayes. With an already dense and slow traffic situation, this added at least 30 seconds to the trip before the 21 could access its stop. Repeat that multiple times in the morning and afternoon and you can see that this will be a mess. It’s not worth the dollar the SFMTA collects for such stops, that’s for sure.

Concentrating the private buses on the 21 line (or the 33 in the Mission) will block Muni where Muni is already slow, unreliable, and overcrowded. It will also diminish walkability and bicycle safety on Hayes and other streets identified in the current list (including the commercial corridors on Divisadero and 18th Street in the Mission.)

Rather than streets such as Hayes, SFTMA should redirect the private buses to the multilane, one-way couplet on Fell and Oak streets, only one block south. Along the corridor, SFMTA could collaborate with the private systems to establish new bus stops (red paint) at Clayton, Masonic, Divisadaro, Fillmore, and near Octavia. This scheme would limit clunky turn movements onto neighborhood streets by oversized buses and contribute to traffic calming.

In the mornings, the buses would pick up passengers on Oak Street, starting along the Panhandle, then travel towards Octavia Boulevard before swinging onto the freeway southbound. In the evenings the buses would exit the freeway at Octavia, and stop at drop-off hubs on Fell, between Octavia and Laguna, and then stop incrementally toward Golden Gate Park.

Additionally, the city needs to consider a space for the underpaid, nonunionized drivers to pull over and rest before and after long segments of freeway driving. We want these buses to be safe.

Similar arrangements should be made to spare 18th Street in the Mission from reverting to a Google bus sewer, with emphasis on private corporate bus stops on South Van Ness or Guerrero-San Jose. Surely there are other examples in other parts of the city.

The urgent affordable housing crisis aside, this could be a win-win from a transportation perspective. Tech workers would no longer get blamed for blocking Muni and they can know that while waiting for their bus, they are contributing to calming erstwhile hazardous streets.

There’s a lot of opportunity to combine these new bus stops with traffic calming at dangerous intersections such as Fell and Masonic or Oak and Octavia, all without mucking up Muni or diminishing the walkable human scale of nearby neighborhood commercial streets. And hey, since this is all a “pilot program,” no pesky and expensive EIR is needed — right?

Thinking long-term, this scheme could be a template to jumpstart making this ridiculous private transit system into a regional public bus system modeled on AC transit or Golden Gate Transit, a service open to all. Our car-centric streets are ripe for express bus service and this would help relieve parallel lines like the N-Judah, while enabling the city to attain its aspiration of 30 percent mode share on transit.

And for Mayor Ed Lee and pro-tech-bus members of the Board of Supervisors, it helps with their “vision zero” rhetoric of increasing pedestrian safety because placing the buses on car-centric one-way couplets can help calm traffic.

With a little cajoling by the mayor, he could get his tech sponsors to underwrite streetscape and beautification at the bus stops along these kinds of streets.

After all, Mayor Lee needs to find the money, because last month he betrayed pedestrian and bicycle safety and Muni when he abandoned support for increasing the Vehicle License Fee locally this fall, all the while misleading the public about the important role of Sunday metering. Perhaps it’s time for a tax or license fee on the ad hoc private transit system?

SLOWING DOWN

Speaking of vision zero, Sup. Eric Mar deserves hearty thanks for proposing to reduce speed limits citywide. This is one of the most effective ideas to come from the progressive wing of the Board of Supervisors in a long time and should be implemented yesterday. Higher speeds maim and kill, and the faster cars go the more voracious the appetite for both fuel and urban space.

With reduced speed, the motorist would still be able to drive, just more slowly, perhaps with less convenience than now. But over time the options of cycling, of walkable shopping, and improved public transit would synchronize more seamlessly as car space is ceded to separated cycletracks and transit lanes.

My suggestion is to make the city navigable by car at no greater than 15 miles per hour, a speed deemed not only to be comfortable on calmed pedestrian streets, but also to minimize injury and fatalities when there are collisions. Ultimately, our efforts to curb global warming, reduce injury and death from automobility, and make the city more livable obliges us to slow down, so looking at speeds is a step forward.

Street Fight is a monthly column by Jason Henderson, a geography professor at San Francisco State University and the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco.

Civil Grand Jury report highlights gifts made on mayor’s behalf

A major real-estate firm contributed $1 million to the America’s Cup Organizing Committee at the behest of Mayor Ed Lee, right around the time it sought city approval to expand a downtown tech office building that was already under construction.

Kilroy Realty, the developer of a 30-story building that will house more than 400,000 square feet of office space for Salesforce.com, won approval in August of 2013 to add an additional six floors to its 350 Mission commercial office space project. That building is one of three in the Transbay area that will house Salesforce.com offices.

Kilroy sent one check for $500,000 to the America’s Cup Organizing Committee on June 24, 2013, and a second one for the same amount on Jan. 31 of this year.

While it’s impossible to say for sure whether the generous gifts had anything to do with the request for approval for a major building expansion, the “behested payment” reports documenting the transactions did draw the attention of the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury, which included them in a report titled “Ethics in the City: Promise, Practice, or Pretense?”

In another example highlighted in the report, Mayor Lee accepted travel funds for a trip to China and Korea last October. Contributors who provided more than $500 apiece for that trip included Uber and Airbnb, both tech-based companies whose businesses stand to be directly impacted by city policies.

Uber has been sparring with the San Francisco International Airport over its drivers’ unauthorized passenger drop-offs as of late, while Airbnb long skirted its responsibility to pay the city’s hotel tax and is now the subject of legislation regulating short-term housing rentals. It’s interesting that each of these companies felt compelled to donate toward the mayor’s travel fund, given the city’s attempts to regulate them.

The Civil Grand Jury report highlights the shortcomings of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, an agency tasked with ensuring that government operations aren’t tainted by conflicts of interest or official misconduct.

Citizen watchdogs of San Francisco government have sought to eliminate pay-to-play politics for years.

Back in 2000, San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure seeking to bar elected officials from accepting campaign donations or gifts from corporations or individuals who had received city contracts or “special benefits.”

Known as Proposition J, that measure sought to eliminate the undue influence of deep-pocketed, well-connected players in local government.

It was popular and won by a landslide: No ballot arguments were registered against it, and the measure won with 82.66 percent of the vote.

Nevertheless, the Civil Grand Jury report noted, Prop. J was “amended out of existence” – through an effort led by none other than the Ethics Commission.

“The Ethics Commission proposed repealing Proposition J at their April 2003 meeting,” the report notes.

That proposal was part of an effort to “recodify conflict of interest laws,” the Civil Grand Jury found. Some laws were amended. Others were tweaked so that amendments could be made in the future, without voter approval.

After winning approval from the Board of Supervisors, that package of legislative changes became Proposition E on the 2003 ballot. “In 2003, voters approved Proposition E that recodified the ethics laws; however, it also had the undisclosed effect of deleting Proposition J language,” the Civil Grand Jury noted. “Thus, the concept of regulating public officials’ relations with those who receive ‘public benefits’ from them (Proposition J’s intent) was totally eliminated from San Francisco law.”

The report also takes the Ethics Commission to task for being too lax when it comes to addressing potential conflicts of interest.

It goes so far as to recommend that the agency hand over control of its major enforcement investigations to the Fair Political Practices Commission, a state agency with a more robust team of investigators who might produce better results.

“The Ethics Commission lacks resources to handle major enforcement cases,” the Civil Grand Jury notes. “These include, for example, cases alleging misconduct, conflict of interest, violating campaign finance and lobbying laws, and violating post-employment restrictions.”

The full report can be found here.

Elderly assisted living facility residents face eviction

A San Francisco-based assisted living facility for the elderly is slated for eviction July 10, a jarring and unexpected turn of events for families who are concerned about their loved ones’ health and wellbeing. However, concerned families and the facility’s board of trustees are working in tandem with city officials to craft a solution, so a different outcome may still be in the works.

Just before Mother’s Day, residents received 60-day eviction notices announcing the pending closure of University Mound Ladies Home. Residents were told that the facility would be closing its doors due to insurmountable debt, and that they would have to vacate by July 10.

“The current residents had expected to spend the rest of their lives there, in peace,” said Sandra Parker, whose mother Alice Parker, 89, has been a resident there for nearly three years. “They do not want to move.”

Located in San Francisco’s Portola District, University Mound – which houses men as well as women – has been at its current location since 1884. As a charitable organization, its mission has always been to provide an affordable community-based assisted living option.

University Mound provides housing and care for 52 residents, with licensing to care for up to 72, including 60 who are unable to walk without assistance. Many are in their late 80s or early 90s, making an abrupt move a difficult and potentially dangerous prospect.

Bill Brinkman of Jigsaw Advisors, a crisis management consultant, was hired to assist the troubled elder care center. The Bay Guardian was unable to reach Brinkman to ask what had led to the dire financial straits, or what possible resolutions were being contemplated.

“They’re saying the debt is based on a broken business model. In 2006 or 2008 the community stepped in, and somehow kept it going,” explained Parker, noting that Brinkman and the board of trustees had told family members that the nonprofit’s debt amounted to $600,000. “I don’t think they did due diligence to keep them financially sound.”

Sup. David Campos, whose District 9 includes the facility, has initiated a process to try and work with the elder care facility to stave off the pending displacement and identify some solution to prevent immediate closure. However, as of June 11, Campos’ legislative aide Laura Lane informed us that despite attending meetings and approaching University Mound to find out what viable options might be available, the elder care center had yet to identify a workable solution.

Campos and affected family members also enlisted the help of Mayor Ed Lee to try and secure emergency funding for University Mound, with Parker noting that a figure of $300,000 had been floated in meetings as a requested amount. Christine Falvey, a spokesperson for Mayor Lee, did not return calls seeking details about that possibility.

Meanwhile, a property records search revealed that the University Mound entered into a deed of trust with three corporate shareholders on May 27, more than two weeks after the eviction notices were issued.

Under a deed of trust arrangement, a borrower transfers their interest in real property – in this case, the stately 1932 brick building that houses the elder care home at 350 University Street – to a neutral trustee, who holds the interest until a debt is repaid. It appears this was done in exchange for a loan of $1.7 million, provided by three lenders: Rubicon Mortgage Fund, a limited liability company based in Lafayette; Pacific BVL Corporation, a San Francisco-based corporation; and Daniel Weiss, named as trustee, whose company is described as The Weiss Company, Inc., a 401(K) Profit Sharing Plan.

If University Mound defaults on the loan, the the property could revert to the trustee. According to an automated report from the San Francisco Assessor / Recorder’s office, the building is valued at $2.1 million, not including the land, which is valued at $840,000.

It is unclear why University Mound, under Brinkman’s interim leadership, opted to take on more debt and enter into a deed of trust after sending out eviction notices to its residents and announcing the facility’s pending closure. This could be a strategy for paying off existing debt, or it could be a sign that the facility is trying to find a solution for staying in operation beyond July 10. If Brinkman responds with more information, we will update this post.

When we dialed a number listed online that corresponded to Weiss’ company, and to the address listed on the deed of trust, the person who answered the phone said he wasn’t Weiss, but that he did not believe Weiss had any involvement with such a deal. Pressed for more information, the person said, “I’m just here fixing a computer. I just picked up the phone.”

The University Mound Board of Trustees was scheduled to meet last night, June 12, and again on June 17. At this juncture, it seems there have been no updates as to whether the current residents will be granted an extension or if they will be forced to move by July 10.

“Because we have been kept in the dark as to the financial situation is at UMLH, and how the situation has developed, we do not have confidence that every avenue and creative solution has been explored and considered to keep UMHL open and not displace the current residents,”  said Parker.

Shaw’s “housing civil war” is really about influence peddling

158

I’m always wary of the BeyondChron stories by Tenderloin power broker Randy Shaw, who uses the website as a propaganda tool for his interests and those of the politicians who he helped get into office, including Mayor Ed Lee and Sup. Jane Kim, as I wrote in last week’s paper.

Sure, they can be a great way to understand what the Mayor Lee and his business community allies are up to, as Shaw floats his little trial balloons that try to frame the city’s political dynamics in the interests of his allies. And now, he’s got San Francisco (aka Modern Luxury) Magazine amplifying those efforts.

For example, did you know that we’re in the midst of a “housing civil war” in San Francisco? No, me neither. But that’s what Shaw declared this week, a declaration that the folks at downtown-friendly Modern Luxury amplified today by reprinting that story.

The tone of the story is a little more even-handed than usual, given that Shaw is being careful not to hurt his close relationship with Kim. But it’s also clearly a shot across her bow on behalf of Lee and the pro-development crowd that Shaw has cozied up to in recent years.

Kim already engages in a delicate balancing act between the progressive community that helped her get elected (which is increasingly restive about the gentrification and displacement that have been fed by economic policies she supported after winning the race in 2010) and the political establishment surrounding Mayor Lee, whom she regularly lavishes praises upon.

Apparently, it’s a dance that she’s performed pretty well, given her lack of serious challengers as she runs for reelection this year. But Shaw’s piece seems to be a subtle public warning to remember where her political bread is buttered, and to not go too far with her proposal to limit luxury condo development when it exceeds 70 percent of the total housing construction.

As with any legislation, the devil is in the details on this one, and Shaw seems to be trying to have a big say in influencing those details by declaring a “war” without identifying any of its combatants or battlefields. Then again, this piece doesn’t seem intended for a general audience, but for those in the back rooms where Shaw truly exercises his power.   

New minimum wage proposal less ambitious, has broader support

San Francisco bears the unfortunate distinction of having the fastest-growing income inequality nationwide. At the same time, the city may retain its more progressive status as having the highest nationwide minimum wage — if voters approve a November ballot measure unveiled today by Mayor Ed Lee and 10 members of the Board of Supervisors.

The consensus measure would increase the minimum wage for all San Francisco employees to $15 an hour by 2018. Currently, the city’s lowest-paid workers earn $10.74 per hour under the existing minimum wage ordinance.

The proposed increase, announced at a June 10 press conference held in Mayor Lee’s office, calls for minimum wage workers to earn $12.25 per hour by May Day of next year, followed by paycheck increases amounting to $13 an hour in 2016, $14 an hour in 2017, and $15 an hour in 2018.

Crafted by representatives from labor, business, and the nonprofit sector in conjunction with Mayor Lee and Sup. Jane Kim, this November ballot measure proposal is less ambitious than an earlier minimum wage increase floated by the Campaign for a Fair Economy, although both guarantee workers an eventual $15 an hour.

The earlier proposal, backed by a coalition that included city employee union SEIU Local 1021, the Progressive Worker’s Alliance, San Francisco Rising, and other progressive organizations, sought to increase the minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2015, $14 by 2016, and $15 by 2017.

So at the end of the day, the newly unveiled consensus proposal would leave minimum wage earners with $0.75 less per hour in 2015 and $1 less in 2017 than what the Campaign for a Fair Economy originally called for, but the broader support for this measure might mean brighter prospects for lowest-paid workers in the long run. The consensus proposal also eliminates the idea of an enforcement committee tasked with holding employers to the mandatory wage increases, yet continues to allocate resources for this purpose.

Shaw San Liu of the Campaign for a Fair Economy, who was part of the negotiations for the consensus measure, noted that this piece was especially important: “It is meaningless to raise the minimum wage if they’re not going to enforce it,” she said. The Office of Labor Standards and Enforcement, tasked with upholding the minimum wage, is currently experiencing a backlog due to case volume.

Shaw San Liu speaks about the importance of the proposed wage increase.

Moderates’ strong opposition to the more ambitious wage increase posed the threat of having two competing measures going to voters in November. Now that a single unified measure is headed to the ballot, there may be less of a risk that workers will end up with an inadequate increase or none at all.

The across-the-board increase to $15 an hour makes this a stronger proposal than a similar wage increase moving forward in Seattle, although that city has a lower cost of living than San Francisco, so the wage will stretch a lot farther. San Francisco has a notoriously high cost of living; former Mayor Willie Brown once famously quipped that anyone earning less than $50,000 simply shouldn’t try to live in the city, and rents were much lower then. Under this proposal, minimum wage workers can hope to earn $31,200 before taxes by 2018, with wages continuing up from there in correlation with Consumer Price Index adjustments.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce was adamantly opposed to the earlier ballot measure proposal, but is now on board. “We think that with consensus built up around this measure, which residents will be voting on, we’ve reached that compromise,” Wade Rose, co-chair of the Public Policy Committee of the SFCOC, said at the press event.

However, the SFCOC played a minimum role in the negotiations, with the key players being labor leader Mike Casey, Liu of the Progressive Workers Alliance, Sup. Kim and her staff, and Mayor Lee and his staff, with input from a variety of minimum wage earners, employers, and other stakeholders.

Kim called the measure “the most progressive and strongest minimum wage proposal in the country,” and later clarified that unlike a similar proposal in Seattle, this measure guarantees a $15 wage across the board regardless of business size or additional benefits. “There will be no tip credit or health care credit – this will be pure wages that San Francisco workers will be bringing home to their families,” Kim said. “Despite setting a successful precedent in 2003, which set the highest minimum wage in the country then, in the last years in particular we’ve been seeing a widening income gap between our lowest paid workers and our highest paid workers. In times of economic prosperity, no one should be left behind.”

“We’ve heard input from all of the different affected sectors of our community – earners, and people who pay the minimum wage, we’ve heard from nonprofits as well as small businesses and large businesses,” Mayor Lee said at a June 10 press conference. “And today, with the current minimum wage at $10.74, there’s been an across the board agreement that that just doesn’t cut it; that’s not enough.”

Lee emphasized that with the unveiling of the consensus proposal, “there are no two measures. There is one measure,” destined for the November ballot. He added that in the course of negotiations between opposing sides, “there was reality that needed to be checked in on all sides.”

Transportation funding faces key test after Mayor Lee flips on VLF increase UPDATED

31

Facing a deadline of tomorrow’s [Tues/10] San Francisco Board of Supervisors meeting to introduce measures for the November ballot, advocates for addressing the city’s massive long-term transportation funding gap still hope to introduce an increase in the local vehicle license fee, even though the once-supportive Mayor Ed Lee has gotten cold feet.

While Lee and all 11 of the supervisors support a $500 million general obligation bond that would mostly go toward capital improvements for Muni — a measure almost certain to be approved by its July 22 deadline — the local VLF was originally presented by Lee as a companion measure to fund Muni, street resurfacing, and bike and pedestrian safety improvements.

But when Lee got spooked by a poll in December showing 44 percent voter approval for increasing the VLF and the need to actually do some campaigning for the measure, he withdrew his support and left cycling, streets, and safety all severely underfunded. A report last year by the Mayor’s Transportation Task Force pegged the city’s transportation infrastructure needs at $10.1 billion over 15 years, recommending just $3 billion in new funding to meet that need, including the embattled VLF measure.

“It’s important for us to move forward with the local VLF,” Sup. Scott Wiener, who has taken the lead on ensuring local term transportation funding, told the Guardian. “If this is not the right election, then we have to say which election we will move this forward.”

But so far, Wiener hasn’t gotten a commitment from the Mayor’s Office, with which he says he’s still in active talks. The Mayor’s Office also hasn’t returned Guardian calls on the issue. If Wiener doesn’t get an assurance that the VLF will go before voters, then he says that he’ll push another fall ballot measure that he introduced May 20, which would increase the city General Fund contribution to Muni as the population increases, retroactive to 10 years ago (thus creating an initial increase of more than $20 million annually).

“It would be in lieu of the VLF, not in addition to it,” Wiener said the rival measure, noting that he prefers the local VLF, a stable and equitable funding source that wouldn’t cut into other city priorities. [UPDATE 6/10: Wiener said he received a commitment from Lee to place the VLF increase on the 2016 ballot, so he is dropping his measure to increase Muni funding as the population increases].

Sen. Mark Leno spent about 10 years winning approval for the authorizing state legislation that authorizes San Franciscans to increase the VLF, enduring two governors’ vetoes along the way before getting Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it into law last year.

Wiener notes that the measure would increase the VLF in San Francisco to 2 percent, restoring it its longtime level before Arnold Schwarzenegger used a VLF reduction as a campaign issue to get elected governor, slashing it to 0.65 percent in 2003.

“That action by Gov. Schwarzenegger has deprived California of about $8 billion per year,” Wiener told us. “This is not some newly minted fee, it restores the VLF to what it was going back to the ‘50s.”

San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Director Leah Shahum said she was disappointed that Lee didn’t follow through on his commitment to fund bike and pedestrian safety improvements through the local VLF, but she said there is wide support on the board for the measure.

“Tomorrow is the big day, but we’re hearing real strong support for the measure,” Shahum told us. “I feel strongly there will be eight supervisors committed to introducing the measure.”

That two-thirds vote threshold is part of the legislation that enabled San Francisco to increase its VLF, but Shahum said she believes there is that level of support on the board for doing the VLF increase this year, which the SFBC would actively campaign for.

“The whole idea was these things would go as a package,” Shahum told us. “This is a huge deal for us. Give the voters a chance to vote for safe and smooth streets.”   

Lee’s abandonment of the VLF comes in the wake of his SFMTA appointees’ repeal of Sunday parking meters, which Lee said was driven by a desire to win over car-driving voters for his transportation measures. Last month on Bike to Work Day, Lee and other city officials also touted the measures as important for bike project, although Shahum said the general obligation bond does little for cyclists, except for an allocation for renovating Market Street. 

“There is not a desigination for bike safety and infrastructure, that was goign to be all in the VLF measure,” Shahum said. 

Wiener cited the long road that Leno traveled to give San Franciscans that opportunity as a reason to move forward with increasing the VLF, a progressive tax that charges more for luxury cars than old beaters used by the working class, but Leno was a bit more circumspect about the situation.

“If it taught me anything, it’s patience,” Leno told us about the long road to let San Francisco authorize a higher VLF. “As with anything in the world, timing is everything.”

Leno said support from labor, the business community, and all of City Hall’s top leaders are all necessary to win voter support for increasing the VLF, so it’s crucial that everyone is enthusiastically on board. “I think we may only have one shot, so when we go to the ballot, we need to have our coalition intact.”

Without commenting on the wisdom of delaying the vote this year, Leno said that if that happens, it’s crucial to get everyone to commit to passing it in 2016, a position Wiener also supports.

“There are times when we need to have a long view,” Leno told us. “But one way or the other, we have to get serious about identifying dedicated revenue to invest in Muni or we will all pay a serious price.”

 

To participate in a public forum on this and related matters, please join us this Thursday evening for “Bikes, Buses, & Budgets: How to create the transportation system San Franciscans needs.” This Bay Guardian community forum, from 6-8pm at the LGBT Center (1800 Market), will feature Wiener; SFBC community organizer Chema Hernandez Gil; Jason Henderson, an urban geography professor at SFSU who writes the Guardian’s monthly Street Fight column; and others, moderated by yours truly. It’ll be fun, informative, and one lucky attendee will leave with a A2B electric bike as part of a free raffle at this free event.    

Citizen Agnos comes on strong for Proposition B in support of his Athenian oath

3

By Bruce B. Brugmann  (with the complete  text of Art Agnos speech  to the  May 21 dinner of San Francisco Tomorrow)

When Art Agnos was sworn in as mayor in 1988, he used the Athenian Oath that was taken by young men reaching the age of majority in Athens 2000 years ago.  He shortened the oath (as many did) to say: “I promise…upon my honor…to leave my city better than I found it.”

For Agnos, a Greek steeped in Greek traditions, the oath was a serious matter. “At the heart of our vision,” Agnos said in his inaugural address, “ is a refusal to let San Francisco become an expensive enclave  that locks out the middle class, working families and the poor. At the center of our strategy is a belief in the basic right of people to decent jobs and housing.”  

Twenty-six years later, Citizen Agnos was working hard  in private life to leave his city better than he had found it. He led a citizens’ movement that stopped the monstrous 8 Washington project, knocked the Warriors off the piers, forced the Giants to lower their  highrise expectations,  and promoted Proposition  B that would stop  the Wall on the Waterfront and require a public vote on any increases  to current height limits on port property.

 And Agnos is having the time of his life doing all this, as he made clear in his remarks to San Francisco Tomorrow, the one organization in town that has been manning the barricades in every major Manhattanization battle all these years  on the waterfront and everywhere else.  He enjoys taking on Mayor Lee and “the high tech billionaire political network that wants to control city hall and fulfill their vision of who can live here and where.” And he must relish  the Chronicle’s C.W.Nevius and the paper’s editors and their self-immolating bouts of hysteria.  

Agnos gave a splendid speech and confirms that he really is our best ex-mayor. I particularly liked his point about the “power to decide” on development. “Today that power to decide is in a room In City Hall. I know that room. I have been in that room. 

“You know who is in there? It is the lobbyists,..the land use lawyers…the construction union representatives..the department directors..and other politicians. You know who is not in that room. You.Prop B changes that dynamic and puts you in the room that matters. No more ‘advisory committees’ that get  indulged and brushed off. No more ‘community outreach’ that is ignored. It will all matter.”

Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes, on B and stopping the Manhattanization of the waterfront. b3

Agnos remarks to San Francisco Tomorrow 

I am delighted to speak to the members and friends of SFT about the waterfront tonight…and a special shout out to Jane Morrison as one of the pioneer professional  women in the media… and one of the  finest Social Service Commissioners in our City’s history. I also welcome the opportunity to join you in honoring tonight’s unsung heroes…Becky Evans with whom I have worked closely over the past year and half …Tim Redmond  the conscience of the progressive community for the past 35 years…Sarah Short and Tommi Avicolli Mecca from the Housing Rights Committee who stand up every day for poor and working people who need a voice in our city.

Twenty-four years ago in 1990, I made one of the best decisions of my mayoralty when I listened to the progressive environmental voice of San Francisco and ordered the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway. That freeway was not only a hideous blight but also a wall that separated the city from its waterfront. Hard to believe today…but it was a very controversial decision back then… just 3 years before…in 1987 the voters had defeated a proposal by Mayor Feinstein to demolish it. The Loma Prieta Earthquake gave us a chance to reconsider that idea in 1990. Despite opposition of 22,000 signatures on a petition to retrofit the damaged freeway… combined with intense lobbying from the downtown business community led by the Chamber of Commerce, North Beach, Fisherman’s Wharf and especially Chinatown…we convinced the Board of Supervisors to adopt our plan to demolish the freeway… by one vote.

And the rest is history…until today. 

After a period of superb improvements that include a restored Ferry Building…the Ball park… new public piers where one can walk further out into the bay than ever before in the history of this city… the 
Exploratorium…the soon to be opened Jim Herman Cruise Ship terminal…Brannan Wharf Park…there is a new threat. Private development plans that threaten to change the environment of what Herb Caen first called “our newest precious place” …not with an ugly concrete freeway wall…but with steel and glass hi-rises that are twice as tall.

Today…the availability of huge amounts of developer financing …combined with unprecedented influence in city hall and the oversight bodies of this city…the Waterfront has become the new gold coast of San Francisco. Politically connected developers seek to exploit magnificent public space with hi-rise, high profit developments that shut out the ordinary San Franciscan from our newest precious place. We love this city because it is a place where all of us have a claim to the best of it…no matter what our income…no matter that we are renter or homeowner…no matter what part of the city we come from.

And connected to that is the belief that waterfront public land is for all of us…not just those with the biggest bank account or most political influence. 

That was driven home in a recent call I had from a San Franciscan who complained about the high cost of housing for home ownership or rent…the high cost of Muni…museum admissions…even Golden Gate Bridge tours and on and on. When he finished with his list, I reminded him I was mayor 23 years ago and that there had been 4 mayors since me,  so why was he complaining to me?
“Because you are the only one I can reach!” he said.

Over the past few weeks…that message has stuck with me.  And I finally realized why. This is what many people in our city have been seeking… someone who will listen and understand. Someone who will listen…understands… and acts to protect our newest precious place…our restored waterfront. You see…it was not just about luxury high-rise condos at 8 Washington last year…It was not just a monstrous 
basketball arena on pier 30-32 with luxury high-rise condos and a hotel across the street on public land. It’s about the whole waterfront that belongs to the people of San Francisco…all 7 and half miles of it… from the Hyde Street Piers to India Basin. And it must be protected from the land use mistakes that can become irrevocable. 

This is not new to our time…8 Washington and the Warriors arena were not the first horrendous proposals…they were only the latest. Huge… out of scale… enormously profitable projects… fueled by exuberant boosterism from the Chamber of Commerce… have always surfaced on our waterfront. 50 years ago…my mentor in politics…then Supervisor Leo McCarthy said, “We must prevent a wall of high rise apartments along the waterfront…and we must stop the filling in of the SF bay as a part of a program to retain the things that have made this city attractive.” That was 1964…

In 2014…Former Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin said it best this way…”It seems like every 10 years…every generation has to stand up to some huge development that promises untold riches
  as it seeks to exploit the waterfront and our public access to it.” Public awareness first started with the construction of the 18 stories of Fontana towers east and west in 1963. That motivated then Assemblyman Casper Weinberger to lead public opposition and demand the first height limits… as well as put a stop to 5 more Fontana style buildings on the next block at Ghirardelli Square. This was the same Casper Weinberger who went on to become Secretary of HEW and Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan.

In 1970 the Port Commission proposed to rip out the then “rotting piers” of piers 1 – 7 just north of the Ferry Building. They were to be replaced with 40 acres of fill (3 X Union Square) upon which a 1200-room hotel and a 2400 car garage would be built. It passed easily through Planning and the Board of Supervisors. When the proposal was rejected on 22 to 1 vote by BCDC, Mayor Alioto complained, “We just embalmed the rotting piers.” No… we didn’t …we saved them for the right project…and if one goes there today… they see it…the largest surviving renovated piers complex with restaurants, walk in cafes, port offices, free public docking space, water taxis and complete public access front and back. 

In 2002… that entire project was placed on the U.S. National Historic Register. But my favorite outrageous proposal from that time was the plan to demolish another set of “rotting piers” from the Ferry Building south to the Bay Bridge. And in place of those rotting piers… the plans called for more landfill to create a Ford dealership car lot with 5000 cars as well as a new Shopping center. That too…was stopped.

So now it’s our turn to make sure that we stop these all too frequent threats to the access and viability of our waterfront.

In the past 2 weeks…we have seen momentum grow to support locating the George Lucas Museum on piers 30-32 or the sea wall across the Embarcadero.I love the idea…but where would we be with that one be if a small band of waterfront neighbors and the Sierra Club had not had the courage to stand up to the Warriors and City Hall 2 years ago. Once again they used the all too familiar refrain of “rotting piers” as an impending catastrophe at piers 30-32.

Proposition B will help prevent mistakes before they happen. Most of all… Prop B will ensure protection of the port on more permanent basis by requiring a public vote on any increases to current height limits on Port property.All of the current planning approval processes will stay in place…Port Commission…Planning commission…Board of Permit Appeals…Board of Supervisors…will continue to do what they have always done. But if a waiver of current height limits along the waterfront is granted by any of those political bodies…it must be affirmed by a vote of the people. Prop B does not say Yes or No…it says Choice. It is that simple. The people of SF will make the final choice on height limit increases on port property. 

The idea of putting voters in charge of final approval is not new. In the past the people of San Francisco have voted for initiatives to approve a Children’s budget…a Library budget…retaining neighborhood fire stations… minimum police staffing… as well as require public authorization for new runway bay fill at our airport. And at the port itself… there have been approximately 18 ballot measures to make land use and policy decisions.

So…we are not talking about ballot box planning…we are talking about ballot box approval for waivers of existing height limits on public property. Opponents like Building Trades Council, Board of Realtors, 
and Chamber of Commerce are raising alarms that we will lose environment protections like CEQA by creating loopholes for developers. 
Astonishing! 

Prop B is sponsored by the Sierra Club…Tonight we honor Becky Evans of the Sierra Club who sponsored Proposition B. That same set of opponents are joined by city bureaucrats issuing “doomsday” reports stating that we will lose thousands of units of middle class housing… billions of dollars in port revenues…elimination of parks and open space on the waterfront. Astonishing!

These are the same bureaucrats who issued glowing reports a couple of years ago that the America’s Cup would mean billions in revenue for the port and the city. And they wanted to give Oracle’s Larry Ellison 66-year leases to develop on 5 of our port piers for that benefit! Now…how did THAT work out? So far…city hall will admit to $11 million dollars in known losses for the taxpayers.

Another opponent… SPUR says any kind of housing will make a difference and there are thousands in the pipe line… so don’t worry.
Astonishing!

We have not seen one stick of low income or affordable housing proposed on the waterfront since the 80s and 90s when Mayor Feinstein and I used waterfront land for that very purpose. Hundreds of low-income housing dwellings like Delancey Street and Steamboat Point Apartments…affordable and middle class housing like South Beach Marina apartments and Bayside village comprise an oasis of diversity and affordable housing in the midst of ultra expensive condos. For me…that was part of an inaugural promise made in January 1988…I said, “At the heart of our vision is a refusal to let San Francisco become an expensive enclave that locks out the middle class, working families and the poor. At the center of our strategy is a belief in the basic right of people to decent jobs and housing. 

Yes…that was the commitment on public land on the waterfront by 2 mayors of a recent era… but not today. Indeed…San Francisco has been rated the #1 least affordable city in America…including NY Manhattan. That is one of the many reasons we see middle class  people…as well as working poor…being forced to leave San Francisco for Oakland and elsewhere in the bay area. That reality was reinforced in the February 10, 2014 issue of Time Magazine…Mayor Lee said, “I don’t think we paid any attention to the middle class. I think everybody assumed the middle class was moving out.”

Today…An individual or family earning up to $120,000 per year …150 per cent of the median in this city… do not qualify for a mortgage and can’t afford the rent in one of the thousands of new housing units opening in the city. The Chronicle reported a couple of weeks ago that a working family of  3 who have lived in a rent-controlled studio apartment in the Mission is offered $50 K to leave. That is what the purely developer driven housing market offers. And that philosophy is reinforced by a planning commission whose chair was quoted in December 2013 issue of SF Magazine saying, “Mansions are as just as important as housing.”

Prop B changes that dynamic by putting the Citizen in the room with the “pay to play” power brokers. That is what it is all about my friends. Power.

Former SF city planning director and UC School of City Planning Professor…Alan Jacobs recently related what he called the Jacobs Truism of land economics: “Where political discretion is involved in land use decisions…the side that wins is the side with the most power. And that side is the side with the most money.” Prop B will ensure that if developers are going to spend a lot of money to get a height waiver on port property …the best place to spend it will be to involve, inform, and engage the citizen as to the merit of their request…not on the politicians.

Today that power to decide is in a room in City Hall. I know that room…I have been in that room. You know who is there? It is the lobbyists…the land use lawyers…the construction union representatives…the departmental directors… and other politicians. You know who is not in the room? YOU. The hope is that someone in that room remembers you. But if you really want your voice to be heard…you have to go to some departmental hearing or the Board of Supervisors…wait for 3 or 4 hours for your turn… and then get 2 minutes to make your case. Prop B changes that dynamic and puts you in the room that matters. No more “advisory committees” that get indulged and brushed off. No more “community outreach” that is ignored. 

It will all matter. That is why today there is no opposition from any waterfront developer…They get it. We are going to win. It is easy to see how the prospect of Prop B on the ballot this June has changed the dynamics of high-rise development along the waterfront. The Warriors have left and purchased a better location on private land in Mission Bay. The Giants have publicly announced that they will revise their plans with an eye to more appropriate height limits on port land. Forest City is moving with a ballot proposal to use Pier 70 to build new buildings of 9 stories…the same height as one of current historic buildings they will preserve on that site for artists.

The Pier 70 project will include 30 percent low-income…affordable and middle class housing on site… along with low-tech industries, office space and a water front promenade that stretches along the entire shoreline boundary. A good project that offers what the city needs will win an increase in height limits because it works for everybody. A bad one will not. My friends…I have completed my elected public service career. There will be no more elections for me.

And as I review my 40 years in public life…I am convinced of one fundamental truth. The power of the people should… and must… determine what kind of a city this will be. It must not be left to a high tech billionaire political network that wants to control city hall to fulfill their vision of who can live here and where. It starts with you… the people of this city’s neighborhoods… empowered to participate in the decisions that affect our future. You are the ones who must be vigilant and keep faith with values that make this city great. This city is stronger when we open our arms to all who want to be a part of it…to live and work in it…to be who they want to be…with whomever they want to be it with. Our dreams for this city are more powerful when they can be shared by all of us in our time…

We are the ones …here and now… who can create the climate to advance the San Francisco dream to the next generation. And the next opportunity to do that will be election day 
June 3. Thank you.

B3 note: The full Athenian oath: “We will never bring disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the City’s laws and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus, in all ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted back to us.”  The National League of Cities publishes the oath and says it “was recited by the citizens of Athens, Greece, over 2,000 years ago. It is frequently referenced by civic leaders in modern times as a timeless code of civic responsibility.” 

(The Bruce blog is written and edited by Bruce B. Brugmann, editor at large of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. He is the former editor and co-founder and co-publisher of the Guardian with his wife Jean Dibble, 1966-2012. He can be reached at Bruoe@sfbg.com)