Real Estate

Stop the Cow Palace land grab


EDITORIAL Technically, the Cow Palace isn’t in San Francisco, but it’s part of the larger city’s history. It was the site of two historic political conventions, a string of historic concerts, and lots of less memorable smaller events. It’s home to the Grand National Rodeo. For a lot of people who care about links to the city’s past, it’s a treasure. For the half-million or so folks who pass through the doors every year, and the dozens of promoters who use the cavernous hall for expositions, shows, and performances that don’t fit anywhere else, it’s an invaluable part of the local cultural scene.

For people who worry about earthquakes and catastrophes, it has immense appeal — the place could serve as a gigantic shelter, with beds, showers, a huge parking lot for staging, and room to land helicopters in the event of a disaster.

To real estate developers, it’s a potential gold mine. And to Daly City, where the Cow Palace sits, it’s an opportunity to create a huge new complex of condos and retail stores that would bring in millions in new taxes.

So when state Sen. Leland Yee introduced a bill that would force the state to declare the Cow Palace surplus property and sell it to Daly City, the battle lines were drawn. A front-page story in the San Francisco Chronicle suggested that the venerable place could be razed for redevelopment. Supporters have come forward to talk about its role in the community and its value as a venue. The Daly City manager, Pat Martel, argued that the place gives her city nothing whatsoever in terms of taxes and hosts some events — like a gun show and the Exotic Erotic Ball — that her constituents find offensive.

What’s missing from most of this debate is the fact that this is 68 acres of prime real estate that’s still publicly owned. Declaring it surplus would almost certainly lead to the privatization of an immense block of potentially priceless urban land.

Yee’s bill, SB 1527, is just the latest chapter in a battle over the Cow Palace that goes back several years. The board that oversees the facility, which reports to the state Department of Agriculture, has been negotiating with Daly City to lease 13 acres of parking lot and underused land for development. That would allow the city to build some new housing, seek a supermarket that the neighborhood badly needs, and add to the local tax base. But the talks have stalled — and after Daly City hired powerhouse lobbyist and former assemblymember Bill Duplissea to take the case to the Legislature, and Daly City’s council asked for help, Yee stepped up.

SB 1527 mandates that the state sell the property to Daly City, with the proceeds going to pay off some of the debt the state incurred through the governor’s misguided deficit-recovery bonds. Yee argues that the state needs the money in this brutal year to save public education, and we understand how powerful that message can be — but selling off public land to cover budget shortfalls is almost always a terrible idea.

There’s little doubt what the endgame is here: Daly City doesn’t have the cash to buy 68 acres that will be worth hundreds of millions of dollars at fair market value. All the small municipality will be is a conduit — the land will be quickly flipped and sold (or leased for very long terms) to private developers.

The Yee bill is designated an "urgency measure," which means it could be approved as early as April. That’s ridiculous; there is no urgency here. This is a huge decision, and needs a lot more public discussion and debate.

We suspect that there’s a way to meet Daly City’s needs for development without turning over the entire 68 acres. There’s almost certainly a way for the Cow Palace to remain and for some of its land to be used for housing and retail.

But we haven’t even seen a template for what sort of project would go on the site. How much of the housing would be affordable? How much of the retail would serve the community? Would this become another chain-store-and-luxury-condo site with gated homes in an economically depressed area? What will the San Francisco neighborhoods that border on the site get out of it? Will there be any new parkland or open space? How will a large commercial complex there affect traffic, noise, pollution, displacement, and other environmental factors in the surrounding areas?

How on earth can you talk about selling off such a huge chunk of public land without even talking about how it will be used?

This is nuts. Yee’s bill needs to be defeated, and all the parties (including the San Francisco city planners and supervisors) need to start cautious, long-term discussions about the Cow Palace, its land, and the needs of the public. Otherwise this will appear — with justification — to be nothing but a sellout of gargantuan proportions.

Murder, revisited


Editor’s note: The Chauncey Bailey Project just won a major national award, the Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. The award honors “outstanding reporting covering organized crime or other criminal acts” According to the IRE press release, tho award went to A.C. Thompson, Thomas Peele, Josh Richman, Angela Hill, Mary Fricker, G.W. Schulz, Cecily Burt, Bob Butler, Paul T. Rosynsky and Harry Harris for “The Chauncey Bailey Project.” Thompson works with New American Media, Peele, Richan, Burt, Rosynsky, Hill and Harris are from the Bay Area News Group. Fricker is a retired reporter from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Bob Butler is a freelance radio reporter. Schulz works for the Bay Guardian. The coordinator of the project is Robert Rosenthal, director of the Center for Investigative Reporting. “These stories would have been difficult to pursue under any circumstances,” the organization noted, “but it took extreme dedication to get at the truth following the assassination of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey. In the tradition of the Arizona Project, this coalition of Bay area journalists delved into questionable real estate deals and contracts involving the owners of Your Muslim Bakery in Oakland. The reporters raised questions about the thoroughness of a police investigation into the group before Bailey’s murder. They probed the interrogation and confession of Bailey’s alleged killer. And they carried on the work that Bailey intended to pursue before his death. (IRE is providing data analysis and computer services for the project). “ —————————————————————- SANTA BARBARA – Police here, responding to inquiries by the Chauncey Bailey Project, have re-opened an investigation into the unsolved 1968 shooting deaths of a couple affiliated with a mosque that was the forerunner to Your Black Muslim Bakery. Detectives could arrive in Oakland as early as this week to question Abdul Raab Mohammad, 71, formerly known as Billy X Stephens. He is the brother of late Your Black Muslim Bakery patriarch Yusuf Ali Bey, who was born Joseph H. Stephens. In the mid-1960s, the brothers converted to Islam in this seaside city 90 miles north of Los Angeles and founded a now-defunct mosque, planting the seeds of what eventually became the Bey organization, its Oakland bakery and a culture of African-American defiance and self-reliance. But just as those aspects of the bakery began in Southern California, so too did allegations of intimidation and crimes ranging from fraud to murder. On Aug. 17, 1968, two members of the Santa Barbara mosque, Birdie Mae Scott, 33, and her husband, Wendell Scott, 30, were slain with a 30.30 rifle as they slept in an apartment they shared with her two children, ages 13 and 10. Though he was never named as a suspect, records show the police investigation at the time focused largely on Billy X Stephens, who was the organization’s top leader as minister. Joseph Stephens served as its secretary. No arrests were made in the case. Police reports were copied to microfilm, archived and remained untouched for decades. Nearly 200 pages of documents about the Scott killings released by Santa Barbara police to the Chauncey Bailey Project show that detectives in 1968 focused on internal mosque disputes as the motive in the Scott killings. Wendell Scott, according to police documents, had written a letter to Nation of Islam leaders in Chicago complaining that he had been forced to burn two cars belonging to the Stephens brothers’ mother so insurance money could be collected. Billy Stevens learned of the letter and suspended the Scotts from the mosque, the documents said. The couple was killed weeks later. Documents also show similarities to the Aug. 2 killing of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey, who was investigating the bakery’s finances and internal disputes. A handyman at the bakery has been arrested and charged with murder in connection with the shooting. The handyman, Devaughndre Broussard, 20, told authorities he shot Bailey because he wanted to be a “good soldier” for bakery leaders; he has since recanted that confession. In both the Scott and Bailey cases, police have theorized the slayings were carried out to silence critics of the Stephens/Bey family and their organizations. Another look Santa Barbara police said they will investigate the Scott killing again. “There has been some recent information from some cases up in Oakland that have some similarities,” said Santa Barbara Police Lt. Amando Martel. Detectives will “see maybe if there are any connections with the case in Oakland and the one here in 1968.” Billy X Stephens, in a telephone interview from his home in Oakland, denied last week having anything to do with the double slaying in Santa Barbara. “I didn’t do it. I don’t know who did it, nor did I know beforehand that it was going to happen,” he said. “I don’t have anything to hide.” He said the shooting had nothing to do with the mosque and that “outsiders” committed the crime. In their 1968 reports, Santa Barbara police wrote they suspected Wendell Scott was targeted because of his complaints about Billy and Joseph Stephens. Police noted that Birdie Scott’s brother, Toby Jackson, told them Wendell Scott was “trying to drop out” of the organization. “In those days … the only way you left the Black Muslims was feet first because you were privy to information that may have involved possible criminal activity,” said retired Santa Barbara officer Keene Grand, who worked on the case. In investigating the Scotts’ killing, police found a pattern of intimidation and fear within the mosque’s members. The mosque was a closed group that resolved its own problems and had little contact with outsiders, especially police, records show. “There were a lot of discussions and rumors (in 1968) of the potential of a connection (between the killings and) the mosque and some of (its) leaders,” Martel said. “People were reluctant to talk.” Detectives also ran into a tangle of family intrigue – Birdie Scott was the sister of Billy X Stephens’ former wife, Mary. Documents show that detectives believed Mary Stephens, who still lives in Santa Barbara, may have known more about the killings than she said at the time. In a brief telephone interview last week, Mary Stephens said she would welcome justice for her late sister but declined to discuss the slaying. “It’s been 40 years and I’ve put it out my mind and I don’t want to put my mind back on it,” she said. Five weeks after the killings, Billy and Mary Stephens married for a second time. Police reports note that several people told detectives the couple remarried because Billy X Stephens believed Mary could not be forced to testify against him if she was his wife. The couple divorced again in 1976. The early investigation Much of the investigation in 1968 focused on Billy X Stephens and a phone call he made to police the night of the shooting – a call that other mosque members told police was in direct violation of Stephens’ stringent policy against bringing outsiders into mosque affairs, according to police reports. Stephens, however, said no such policy existed. “There was no rule about not calling the police,” he said last week. “You wouldn’t do it if it was a family disturbance. Any time I hear a gunshot I call the police.” Documents show that Stephens phoned police at 2:30 a.m. Aug. 17, 1968, but didn’t report hearing gunshots from the Scotts’ apartment, which was directly above his in a shoebox-shaped complex Stephens managed just yards from U.S. Highway 101. Stephens “said he just finished a business phone call and had gone to bed and was just in ‘twilight’ sleep when he heard what sounded like a door slam,” a detective wrote. Stephens told police he called the Scotts’ phone several times to inquire about their welfare and became worried when no one answered, records show. Police found the Scotts’ apartment door kicked in and the couple dead in their bed. Each was shot twice. The children in the next room were unharmed. Police began an aggressive canvas of the neighborhood at dawn. At least six people interviewed said they’d heard four gun shots roughly 20 minutes earlier than Stephens’ call to police, the reports said. One man, who lived about 75 yards away, told detectives the shots came during the climactic scene of a movie he was watching on television. The detectives contacted the Los Angeles television station that broadcast the movie and found the scene the man described aired about 2:10 a.m. Other people who lived nearby told police they also heard the shots, followed by a more dull, cracking sound, and police speculated that the gunman may have entered the apartment with a key and kicked in the door when leaving to make it look as if entry was forced, according to documents. Police noted that Stephens managed the apartment complex. Stephens said he never heard any shots and suggested the killer used a rifle with a silencer attached. “I didn’t hear any shots,” he told the Chauncey Bailey Project. “I heard them rumbling down the stairs.” There is no reference in the police reports to Stephens telling police he heard anyone on the stairs. When detectives confronted Stevens with the time discrepancy and other questions, he became angry and refused their request to take a lie detector test, according to reports. Last week, Stephens said he didn’t take the lie detector test because a woman phoned him anonymously and told him police would use the results to arrest him. “They were trying to build a case against me,” he said. Another person named in police reports in 1968 was a former U.S Army soldier named Ermond Givens. He is a retired school janitor, now 70, who changed his name to Ali Omar and lives in Alameda. He served as the mosque’s lieutenant and was responsible for what he described in a recent interview as “training the Muslim soldier.” In an interview at his Alameda home, Omar first said there were never any problems at the Santa Barbara mosque during his tenure there. When reminded of the double killing, he remembered that police had never solved the case but said he knew little about it. Police reports show that a woman named Ida Hamilton, who was also a member of the mosque, told detectives that Omar was among those closest to Billy X Stephens. Omar said last week he had no information about the shooting. Birdie Scott’s daughter, Audrey Hazelwood, who was 13 the night of the killing and in the next bedroom, cannot recall hearing the fatal shots. She said her family deserves to know who killed her mother and stepfather. “Of course we do,” said Hazelwood, now 53 and living in Santa Barbara, “My (late grandmother) always said that she would live to see the day” when the case would be investigated again. “But I guess it’ll be in my lifetime.” Investigation hits a dead end Police continued to investigate through the end of 1968, documents show, but hit a dead-end when 30.30 shell casings found in the Scott’s bedroom didn’t have any fingerprints on them. In the days before DNA testing, police were left with little physical evidence. Martel, the Santa Barbara police lieutenant, said any breaks in the case will have to come from someone with knowledge of it who talks to detectives. Detectives, he said, will question people in both Santa Barbara and Oakland, where the Stephens brothers moved in 1970 with orders from a Nation of Islam leader to open another mosque. A year later, the brothers split – Billy X became Abdul Raab Mohammad and stayed with the Nation of Islam. He served as a minister in the organization for 44 years and is now living in Oakland. Joseph Stephens took the name Yusuf Bey and broke away from the Nation of Islam. He started his own organization, which became Your Black Muslim Bakery and served as a center of empowerment and employment for African Americans in Oakland. It was one of the few places where ex-convicts could find work. Cracks in the bakery’s respectability began to appear in 1994 when four of its associates were charged with assaulting and torturing a man over a real estate deal. Bey died in 2003 while awaiting trial on statutory rape charges, and the bakery soon descended into chaos. Yusuf Bey’s hand-picked successor, Waajid Aliawwaad, 51, soon disappeared and was found five months later in a shallow grave. Another of Bey’s protégés left town after several men opened fire on him as he left his house for work. Police suspected other members of the organization were involved in both crimes, which remain unsolved, largely because police have found no one willing to provide them with information, a decades long pattern of silence that apparently began in Santa Barbara. Bob Butler is a freelance journalist. Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group. Contact Butler at and Peele at The Chauncey Bailey Project is a consortium of news organizations dedicated to continuing the reporting that Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post, was pursuing when he was killed Aug. 2. For information, contact Dori J. Maynard of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education at 510-684-3071. E-mail tips to

Where’s Otto?



ISBN REAL Graphic novels, obviously, aren’t just movies with a lot of missing frames. In the hands of artists like David B. or Craig Thompson, the elastic potential of their subjects, and of the panels that hold them, is realized in a manner entirely at odds with the medium of film.

From the perspective of screenwriters, however — particularly ones beaten repeatedly over the head with the knotty stick of the studio system — that’s nothing that can’t be worked out over a cup of coffee. More and more frustrated writers and directors are reviving their dead film and television projects in the form of comics and graphic novels, either as a last, affordable option or as a way of seeing an original vision make it through the production process intact. Joss Whedon could follow his and not the WB’s muse with the illustrated-only eighth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and certainly no one was knocking down Richard Kelly’s door to film the six-part prequel to Southland Tales.

Alex Cox, writer and director of the 1984 cult classic Repo Man, also has seen the light. His sequel to that film, Waldo’s Hawaiian Holiday (Gestalt Publishing, 164 pages, $19.95), is finally coming out, after more than a decade in the drawer, as a graphic novel. The script, written for the screen in the mid-1990s, was presented unsuccessfully to Universal and then later was the source material for an unfinished independent venture. So Cox posted the screenplay on his Web site, as well as dozens of others he has written or cowritten, with the open offer of a yearlong license to anyone interested in making a film.

Comics artist Chris Bones responded with a graphic novel proposal. The finished version, with artistic contributions by Justin Randall, is a richly drawn and smartly assembled festival of scuzz.

Waldo, as one might expect, answers the questions Repo Man raised with equivocation and deferment, and adds a couple of revelations that are quite cool if I understand them right.

You’ll recall that Repo Man left our hero, Otto, as he was shooting off into space in a glowing green 1964 Chevy Malibu. What we are kinda informed of right off the bat in the sequel is that Otto, now calling himself Waldo (presumably in a legal sidestep), has come back from a 10-year stint on Mars, maybe, though he thinks he’s only been gone for the night. Expecting to find his numskull parents where he left them on the couch, he shows up at their door only to discover he owes rent to a couple of bachelors (one "confirmed") now living there in meticulously rendered squalor.

Waldo more or less shrugs off his situation and proceeds to hop from one doomed job to the next, each of them overseen by the same mysterious man, though under different names. All the while, he abuses the trusting nature of the Russian Shopping Network and makes several attempts to use free tickets to Hawaii he earned by sitting through a real estate pitch. (I’m still not sure what was glowing in the Malibu’s trunk in Cox’s movie.)

Of course, there are more aliens and whatnot, but the strangest thing is Otto-now-Waldo’s change in temperament. The edgy, snotty Emilio Estevez of Repo Man is nowhere in sight. Waldo is a gentle, courteous kind of punk who says things like, "I’ll just redouble my efforts … buy a printer, get these job applications out, find another job ASAP." Waldo must have learned the word "redouble" in space, where he also picked up a considered cheeriness that could have been mistaken for maturity if it weren’t so apparent that Cox is up to something.

It helps to know that Cox is not one to shy away from the polemical, particularly at the expense of economic imperialism. The introduction to X-Films: True Confessions of a Radical Filmmaker (Soft Skull Press, 304 pages, $17.95), an upcoming book about his experiences as a filmmaker, is only a few angry pen strokes shy of a screed, and his 1987 film Walker lampooned — not very elegantly, really — the 19th-century American mercenary William Walker’s overthrow of the Nicaraguan government. Amongst Cox’s movies, Three Businessmen, a 1998 love child of the gospel according to Luke and Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), presents the closest echoes of Waldo. Its characters share Waldo’s aimless, profligate compliance with the dictates of modern capitalism.

And that’s really what Waldo’s Hawaiian Adventure is about, probably.

Would you finance that movie?

Freedom of Information: Battleship metadata



On Valentine’s Day, Assemblymember Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana) introduced Assembly Bill 1978, legislation that seeks to define computer mapping systems and make them available to commercial interests at a fee — a one-two punch that freedom of information advocates fear constitutes a serious blow to the California Public Records Act.

Noting that computer mapping systems, computer programs, and computer graphic systems do not constitute public records under current law, Solorio’s bill seeks to amend the CPRA to define computer mapping systems to include "assembled model data, metadata, and listings of metadata, regardless of medium, and tools by which computer mapping systems are created, stored, and retrieved."

AB 1978 would also allow "commercial interests, who are most benefited by these systems, to obtain the portion of these systems developed by a public agency, at a fee designed to offset the agency’s cost of maintenance for the computer mapping systems."

But Oakland-based Bruce Joffe, who works as a geographic information consultant to cities, counties, and state agencies in California, warns that AB 1978 would allow public agencies to charge the public more for this data than the cost of duplication.

"It would severely weaken the CPRA and reduce the public’s access to government records," said Joffe, noting that as the law currently stands, CPRA requires state and local agencies to make their records available and, upon request, to provide copies on payment of any applicable fee.

Solorio aide Hazel Miranda told the Guardian that the intent of the bill is to protect software, not to restrict access to information.

"Our intent is to protect the software, not to restrict the information that is given out on it," Miranda said, noting that the bill’s sponsor is the government of Orange County. "The concern was that a lot of corporations were taking this information — and when the information is given out, you have to give out the software, too — and using it to their own benefit."

Joffe, who was the California First Amendment Coalition’s technical advisor when CFAC successfully sued Santa Clara County over access to the county’s tax maps, disagrees.

"When you give information out, you are not giving out software, you are giving out data in export format," said Joffe, who believes Solorio wants to change the law so that AB 1978’s sponsor, Orange County, which has sold its tax maps for $400,000 in the past, can continue to sell its data.

Holly Fraumeni, the AB 1978 lobbyist with the well-connected firm Putf8um Advisors, deferred questions to Bruce Matthias of Orange County’s legislative affairs, who told us, "The County of Orange has never disagreed on sharing public data. We are not trying to hide data down here. If you want it on a disk, we charge 25 cents. All we are doing is updating language in the bill. Our exclusive intent is to protect the software we’ve developed." Records show Orange County paid Putf8um Advisors $60,000 between October 1 and December 31, 2007.

CFAC executive director Peter Scheer believes AB 1978 is an attempt to take the information that CFAC has tried to make freely available and put it back under lock and key, so that it is proprietary information that can be sold.

Recalling how, years ago, the only way you could see a county’s tax maps was as an engineer’s rendering on paper, Scheer observed that when this data is computerized and made publicly available, "individuals and businesses can create all kinds of valuable tools or simply post the raw data on the Internet."

Blair Adams, chief consulting officer at San Francisco’s Department of Technology and Information Services, says the city’s GIS data has been publicly available for five years.

"We have no intent to change that," Adams said. "Our motto is ‘Go have it, and help us make it better.’<0x2009>"

But while San Francisco treats this data as a public record and copies it for the price of a blank DVD, Santa Clara and Orange counties have treated it as a revenue generator.

"They charge an arm and a leg, and another arm and leg, and whatever other appendages they can think of," said Scheer, noting that Santa Clara County charges $100,000 for a full base map of its real estate parcels — data that can be used to determine whether properties are assessed correctly, and whether pothole repairs are carried out equitably.

"Likely clients willing to purchase this data would be utilities, phone companies, and developers, who can’t do without it," Scheer said. "But public health and safety departments need access to it, too."

Joffe agrees, and it’s something he has plenty of experience with. He helps cities and counties create geographic information systems that allow ambulances to take the most efficient routes, the Department of Public Works to carry out better capital improvements, and the police to conduct better crime analysis.

"Every department uses it, and because it’s in the government system, therefore it is a public record, and the public has the right to access those records at no more cost than it takes to duplicate them," Joffe said. He added, "If AB 1978 passes, we’ll lose considerable access."


Freedom of Information: 2007 James Madison Award winners


Click here for details on the First Amendment Awards Dinner.

Norwin S. Yoffie Career Achievement Award


If journalists were the subjects of trading cards like baseball players, the Dan Noyes rookie card would be just as impressive as a 2008 career highlights card. Think Reggie Jackson: a long, impressive career, spanning multiple organizations and a propensity to come out swinging big at the end of a hard-fought battle.

Over a career spanning 30 years, Noyes has pursued serious investigations, some lasting as long as a year, into everything from questionable Liberian timber imports to illicit gun trafficking from United States suppliers to the Nuestra family gang. Journalism first interested Noyes during the crucial investigative reporting that sparked Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.

In 1977 Noyes cofounded the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), an independent news organization which produces in-depth stories and documentaries for all major news outlets. In 1979, reporting for the ABC News program 20/20, CIR broke a story on a swindling United Nations charity organization and its connections to international drug trafficking.

More recently, Noyes has done a series of print and broadcast pieces concerning gang violence in California and its effect on the lives of those surrounding the lifestyle. Noyes still holds an executive position at the CIR and continues to contribute to the world of investigative journalism.

Beverly Kees Educator Award


Cliff Mayotte sees his Advanced Acting Class at Lick-Wilmerding High School as one that merges students’ "consciousness and awareness as young adults with their skills and energies as performance artists."

The subtitle of the course is "Theatre as Civic Dialogue," and the eight students enrolled during the 2007 spring semester used all their abilities to pull off a notable show.

After an introduction to Documentary Theatre — a form he described as "oral history turned into performance" — the group selected a topic that was important to them, giving birth to the "Censorship Project."

The students interviewed their peers, teachers, and administrators to gather perspectives on the ways in which expression and opinion can be muted or altered, both voluntarily and involuntarily. They reached out to organizations such as Project Censored, the First Amendment Project, and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. They transcribed interviews and studied subjects in order to capture statements, word patterns, and mannerisms of interviewees, then shaped the themes into a 60-minute performance.

Professional Journalists


"Being a high school sports guy, I don’t get to do this very often," the Modesto Bee‘s Will DeBoard said of his first major foray into investigative reporting. He had gotten a tip that the California Interscholastic Federation was investigating recruiting violations by the football program at Franklin High School in Stockton, which competed with schools in his area. DeBoard asked the school and CIF about recruiting violations, but the football coach flatly denied the allegations and the CIF wasn’t much more helpful.

So DeBoard decided to make formal requests for public records with the help of business reporter Joanne Sbranti, and after fighting through some initial denials, he obtained hundreds of pages of investigatory documents from CIF showing how the school was recruiting players from American Samoa. "It really was a treasure trove of great stuff. We got two weeks’ worth of stories out of these documents," DeBoard said. "It really showed us that what the school was telling us just wasn’t true."

The documents detailed the recruiting scheme and gave DeBoard tons of leads for follow-up stories, including the address of "a home owned by the coach where there were all these gigantic Samoan linemen living there." DeBoard called the effort an "adrenaline rush" better than that caused by the best game he’s covered and a high point of his journalism career.


Contra Costa Times investigative reporter Thomas Peele has a long history of battling for public records access on behalf of both reporters and private citizens. Peele, who helps with projects for all the newspapers under the Bay Area News Group-East Bay ownership, helped ensure the recovery of thousands of e-mails from the Oakland mayoral tenure of Jerry Brown when he left office to become the state’s attorney general in 2006. Peele also helped conduct a statewide audit of Public Records Act compliance by law enforcement agencies with the nonprofit Californians Aware, which revealed glaring inconsistencies in how police across the state make information about their activity available to the public. And he’s been a major figure in helping the Chauncey Bailey Project pry out new information about Bailey’s murder last year and it’s connection to Your Black Muslim Bakery. He began his career in 1983 at a small weekly in Bridgehampton, N.Y., and moved from there in 1988 to the Ocean County Observer in New Jersey before joining the CCT in 2000.


KTVU-TV producer Roland De Wolk is leading the investigative team of photographer Tony Hedrick and video editor Ron Acker in a quest to get the names of drivers who regularly use FasTrak lanes but don’t pay anything. But to date, says De Volk, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission has been blocking his team’s quest.

De Wolk told the Guardian that his team filed a California Public Records request when the MTC wouldn’t provide information on the amount of money it was losing thanks to drivers who don’t pay tolls when they use FasTrak lanes.

"We asked MTC for specific numbers last summer and got little information. That makes a reporter’s antennae quiver," said De Wolk.

But when he and his team asked for the numbers of people obstructing their plates, the MTC started acting squirrelly, De Wolk said.

"Finally, after six to eight weeks of asking we got an answer: a photo of a car whose plate was blank," fumed De Wolk, whose team continues to push for the names of the 10 most frequent FasTrak violators.

Broadcast News Outlet


When KGO-TV reporter Dan Noyes and producer Steve Fyffe asked Muni to turn over records of public complaints against its drivers, they were ready for some bureaucratic foot dragging. But they never expected the yearlong grudge match that followed. First, the union representing Muni drivers sued to keep the records sealed. Then Muni’s parent department, the Municipal Transportation Agency, made a backroom deal with the union and released a blizzard of confusing and heavily redacted paperwork that would have made the Pentagon blush.

"It was essentially a big document dump," Fyffe told us. "There was no way to tell one form from another or which driver was which."

Noyes and Fyffe convinced their bosses at KGO-TV to file a lawsuit for full access to the records. The station prevailed, after which Noyes and Fyffe received over 1,200 pages of public complaints about 25 drivers. Recently, the station went back to court after Muni refused to release surveillance tapes of the drivers. As in the previous case, the judge ruled that the public had a right to the materials and forced the transit agency to hand the tapes over.

Fyffe said he sees KGO’s legal successes as small victories in a much larger fight. "I hope in the future that this case will make Muni and other city departments more [responsive] to records requests … these kinds of incremental victories hopefully lead, little by little, to a more open government."

Print News Outlet


The Sacramento Bee operates in a city run by top-tier politicians and their spinmeisters, so the editors and reporters there have placed increasingly high value on using documents to support their stories.

"We’ve always used public records here. Being in a state capital, we’re a little more aware of the necessarily of that," managing editor Joyce Terhaar said. "You just need to be able to tell a story about what’s really happening."

Yet she said that in recent years, the Bee has made a concerted effort to hire public-records experts and to have them share their knowledge with the paper’s staff through regular workshops. And last year, those efforts paid off with a string of big, impactful investigative stories.

Among them was Andy Furillo’s look at how much the state was spending to fight inmate care lawsuits, Andrew McIntosh’s exposé on the lack of oversight for paramedics and emergency medical technicians, and stories by John Hill and Kevin Yamamura on misconduct by the state’s Board of Chiropractic Examiners.

In selecting the Bee, Society of Professional Journalists judges recognized these individual efforts as well as the Bee‘s "institutional support of reporters and their use of public records for numerous stories."

Community Media


One of the only ways to uncover corporate wrongdoing is to dig through court records, and it’s the job of the press to report what it discovers, said Becky O’Malley, executive editor for the Berkeley Daily Planet. She was convinced that a prior court order violated the public’s constitutional rights to see court documents, so the small daily newspaper sued and won in a California appeals court last year, making public 15,000 pages of records from a class-action suit filed against Wal-Mart in 2001.

The documents included allegations that the company had denied rest breaks to its workers and deleted hours from paychecks. In the Planet‘s freedom of information suit, the appeals court judges agreed with the paper’s attorneys that the case could set a dangerous precedent where the public would have to prove its right to access court records. "It’s becoming more of a trend for judges to grant permanent seals on court records," said O’Malley. That’s unfortunate, she added, since "the only way the public finds out about bad things going on in society is through court records."

Special Citation Award


After Oakland journalist Chauncey Bailey was murdered last August, a large group of Bay Area media organizations formed a rare coalition to investigate his death and the activities of Your Black Muslim Bakery, a long-time East Bay institution believed by police to be involved in the killing. Since then, the group has produced several stories complete with audio, video, and photo presentations, the most recent of which is a series by retired Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reporter Mary Fricker detailing the sexual assault allegations made by young women once in the custody of Yusuf Bey Sr., founder of the bakery. Fricker received help from independent radio journalist Bob Butler, investigative reporter A.C. Thompson, and MediaNews staff writers Cecily Burt, Thomas Peele and Josh Richman. Other stories have reported allegations of real estate fraud against bakery associates, explored potential coconspirators in Bailey’s death, and examined the bakery’s ties to several prominent politicians. More about the project — the first of its kind since a group of journalists investigated the murder of Don Bolles more than 30 years ago in Arizona — can be found at, or at

Public Official


It was a staff member, Kathryn Dresslar, who told Assemblymember Mark Leno how horrible state agencies had become at complying with the California Public Records Act. Dresslar served on the board of Californians Aware, a group that advocates for open government, and she described to her boss how a 1986 audit by the organization had given every one of the 33 agencies in California government a failing grade.

Ryan McKee, then a high-school student and the son of CalAware board president Rich McKee, had visited each agency and asked for a few simple things. He wanted to see each agency’s guidelines for public access, and he requested some basic information, including the salary of the agency director. Agency after agency refused to follow the law.

So Leno introduced legislation that would have mandated that every agency post its access guidelines on the Web — and included stiff fines for agencies that violated the Public Records Act. "It put some teeth into the law," Leno told us. "And I got 120 of 120 members of the state Legislature to vote for it.

That wasn’t enough for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who vetoed the bill, saying it wasn’t needed. The governor insisted that he had already ordered state agencies to fix the problem.

"It was a great eye-opener for me, and showed me the resistance this administration has to allowing public access to state government," Leno said. "Without that access the public is at a great disadvantage."



It might be hard to believe, but in 1949 the University of California Regents, a bastion of higher education, rode the wave of anticommunist fervor and McCarthyism, forcing all UC employees to take a loyalty oath. The Board of Regents adopted the rule that UC administrators pushed forth: denounce communism and swear loyalty to the state, or face losing your job.

As could be expected, people resisted and 31 faculty, workers, and student employees lost their jobs. They appealed the case to the California Supreme Court and eventually were reinstated in 1952, but the controversy cast a pall over the UC’s reputation and divided campuses. With the help of a grant from UC President Emeritus David Gardner, archivists from UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and other researchers painstakingly compiled 3500 pages of text, many audio statements, and photos from four UC collections.

The online collection, which went live in December 2007, serves as primary source material for students and researchers who want to understand how UC administrators got embroiled in and came to terms with the McCarthy-era tensions that rocked the country.

Legal Counsel


Electronic data is the new frontier for public-records law, and Rachel Matteo-Boehm, a lawyer with Holme, Roberts and Owen, last year won a key case preserving the public’s right to access to what some public agencies have tried to claim was proprietary data.

The county of Santa Clara produced a digital map showing property lines, assessors parcels and other key real-estate data, and that became the basis for a geographic information system tool. The GIS would allow users to plot everything from property taxes to street repairs, public investment, political party registration, school test scores and other trends. But Santa Clara wasn’t giving it out to the public: The database cost more than $100,000, which meant only big businesses could use it.

Boehm went to court on behalf of the California First Amendment Coalition to argue that the data was public, and must be made available without high charges. "As information begins to be collected in electronic form, and governments choose to put information in sophisticated electronic formats, you can run into real public-access problems," Boehn told us.

Boehm convinced a Santa Clara Superior Court judge that the data was indeed covered under the California Public Records Act. Now Santa Clara must make the map available to the public — and other counties with similar data, seeing the results of the suit, are following that rule.

The decision was a key one, Boehm said: "One day we’re going to wake up and all there will be is electronic records," she noted. And if governments can apply different rules to those documents, "you can kiss the Public Records Act goodbye."



When Dan Cooke shared details of an alleged sewage spill on Alcatraz Island with the Guardian, the health of the national park — where he’d been working as an historical interpreter for over a decade — was foremost on his mind. But he lost his job after the story was published — apparently for taking a proactive role in noting details of the spill in the island’s log book and speaking candidly to the press about what he’d seen. Wanting nothing more than a return to his job leading educational tours of the island, he filed an administrative claim with the US Department of Labor against the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy and the National Park Service. And he called the Guardian. We reported his firing. The next time Cooke called, it was to happily report he was back on the job.



SuperBOLD has accomplished something entirely different from what it set out to do. Originally, the small group of devoted Berkeley public library users organized to oppose the installation of RFID tags in books. "In the process of going to library board of trustees meetings, we discovered they were vioutf8g the Brown Act," said Gene Bernardi, who heads SuperBOLD’s steering committee with Jane Welford, Jim Fisher, and Peter Warfield. They found, among other things, that certain documents were only made available to trustees and a lottery system was employed in selecting speakers during public comment. They took their complaints to the Berkeley city attorney and joined up with the First Amendment Project, which threatened a lawsuit. Things have changed, though it’s still not perfect — city council meetings only allow 10 speakers and the library trustees still play the lottery for public comment, but marginal improvements portend better days.

"Now you can speak more than once," said Bernardi. "Now you can speak on consent calendar and agenda items. So there are more opportunities to speak … if the Mayor [Tom Bates] remembers to call public comment."

Electronic Access


For years, web pioneer Carl Malamud has sought ways to use the Internet to connect average citizens with their government. His new Web site helps that cause by excavating buried public domain information and posting it online. Though still in its early stages, the site already allows users to tap into hard-to-find records from places like the Smithsonian, Congress, and the federal courts system.

Even though most government records are part of the public domain, fishing them out from the bureaucratic depths can be a daunting and expensive task, even for someone like Malamud. During a lecture at UC Berkeley last year, he related his recent difficulties in acquiring a simple database from the Library of Congress. Instead of turning over the materials, officials at the Library cited dubious copyright protections and presented Malamud with a bill for over $85,000 — all for access to supposedly public information.

Thanks to Malamud’s Web site, that database and millions of other documents are now available with the click of a mouse. Ultimately, Malamud hopes will help bring about an age of "Internet governance," in which every last byte of public data winds up online for all to see, free of charge.


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Sunshine in the digital age


EDITORIAL The California Public Records Act needs an update. So does the state’s Brown Act, which mandates open meetings of government bodies, and the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance. These are the landmark laws that keep government from operating in secret — but all were written long before the explosion of information technology profoundly changed the way city, state, and local agencies compile, sort, process, present, and preserve information.

And now, with agencies at every level trying to use information technology to hide data from the public and courts struggling with laws that didn’t anticipate the modern era, open-government advocates need to be working on every level to protect and expand access.

As we point out in this issue, technology can be used to spy, to hide, and to obfuscate — but it can also be used to make the operations and processes of the public sector far more open and accessible. Properly used, today’s information technology can vastly improve the way governments work — and it’s neither difficult nor expensive to make that happen.

The state Legislature, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and the Sunshine Task Force should be looking at ways to make sure that computers don’t increase secrecy — and to take advantage of the opportunities modern technology offers.

The Brown Act, passed in 1954, forbids public agencies from meeting in secret, except in very limited circumstances. The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance goes further. The laws have been interpreted to mean that the members of a board or commission can’t use e-mail to discuss pending business; that would amount to a closed-door meeting. That same interpretation ought to apply to members participating in discussions on, say, a Yahoo! news group. Deliberations on a policy matter would be taking place outside of public view.

But what if the public was invited? What if a virtual discussion took place before or between traditional meetings — and any member of the public could log in from anywhere (work, home, the public library, terminals in City Hall) and watch? What if people — who are now allowed only a minute or two to comment in public meetings — were able to post longer, more detailed comments that policymakers would see during online discussions? What if the entire record of that meeting were instantly available on the Web, in a searchable form?

Would that be an increase in public access? What about the large number of people who still don’t have computers or Web access — would they be left out?

That’s just one of the questions sunshine advocates are talking about. Legislators need to be addressing the issues, too.

As Kimo Crossman reports on page 14, increasing public access doesn’t have to be difficult or expensive — in fact, there are ways to save the city money. One obvious idea: almost every document that’s produced by a city employee, including e-mail, is already considered a public record. Why not simply program the computers to make an instant copy of everything and post it to a public Web site? That way someone looking for memos from, say, the Public Utilities Commission addressing solar energy could simply search that site with those key words and come up with all of the records quickly.

That would save time for journalists and citizen watchdogs who now have to request those records from the agency — and it would save money for the city. If the documents were all searchable for anyone, there would be no need to spend time and money responding to public-records requests.

It wouldn’t be hard at all to add a "possibly confidential" key to records, preventing documents that really should remain secret from going into the public file. And the computers could automatically generate a list of the documents being withheld, so the public could find out what records are remaining out of view.

Over time, old paper records could be scanned and put on the site, too. And with electronic storage so cheap these days, there’s no reason why all public records can’t be preserved in an accessible form and location.

The County of Santa Clara a few years back began putting together a valuable data trove that included all of the county’s real estate and property ownership records. That allowed for the creation of a geographic information system that could be used to track property sales, taxes, crime rates, building permit applications, and much more. A wonderful public service — except that the county didn’t offer it to the public. The data was for sale, for more than $100,000 a license.

It took a lawsuit by the California First Amendment Coalition to force the county to back off and make the data public. But that’s just an example of a trend that’s cropping up all over the country: governments are developing ways to make more use of information — and then are trying to copyright it, sell it, and make money.

The problem with that, as attorney Rachel Matteo-Boehm, who handled the CFAC case, points out, is that it segregates access to information by wealth. The rich get the tools of technology to understand and use public data; the poor don’t.

It’s a dangerous trend and the Legislature should address it right away. Information created by public agencies using public data should be public — no excuses, no exceptions. And if the software that makes it easy to process that information is created by the public sector (or under contract to the public sector) the public needs free access to it.

The Legislature also needs to shoot down a series of attempts by the secrecy lobbyists to cut off access to new types of data. A bill now before the Assembly, AB 1978 by Assemblymember Jose Solorio (D-Anaheim), would exempt certain types of information from the Public Records Act. The bill appears to be aimed at overturning the Santa Clara decision but could also address an issue that has come up in San Francisco: that of so-called metadata in public documents.

Metadata is embedded information that may be in a file that doesn’t appear when the file is printed out. The City Attorney’s Office has been arguing that metadata isn’t public. That’s nonsense — it’s part of a public document, created at public expense by public employees. The Legislature needs to reject this bill — and instead pass a law that would specifically require agencies to release any internal data that’s created as part of a public record.

The San Francisco Sunshine Task Force is in the process of updating and improving the city’s landmark law, and it should seek to incorporate some of the suggestions above.

The Task Force also needs to be sure that the amendments to the law give that oversight body the teeth it needs to enforce public-access requirements. Far too often, city officials simply ignore task force findings, and, as Sarah Phelan reports on page 17, the Ethics Commission and the district attorney rarely follow up with sanctions.

For starters, the task force should have the right to subpoena documents and witnesses (without first asking the supervisors for approval — a cumbersome process). The panel should have its own full-time legal counsel. It should also have increased enforcement power: while giving the task force the right to levy fines and sanctions is politically tricky, a provision that allows the task force to order the release of documents — backed up with the full support of the City Attorney’s Office — ought to be part of the final package.



OPINION It seems that everyone, from current politicians to former friends and lovers of Harvey Milk, is scrambling to serve as a spokesperson for the new Hollywood movie about the life of Milk, the first openly gay elected official in a major United States city.

Milk joined the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, only to be assassinated (along with then-mayor George Moscone) one year later by Dan White, another member of the board.

Cleve Jones, who worked as a student intern in Milk’s City Hall office (and later started the AIDS Memorial Quilt), is now serving as a consultant for the Gus Van Sant film. At the Castro Theatre on Feb. 4 he encouraged a crowd of extras gathered to re-create the candlelight march that took place after Milk’s murder by saying, "We made history on these streets, and we’re gonna do it again tonight."

But remaking historical moments from the pain and glory days of the past is hardly the same thing as making history in the present. In the 1970s queers fled abusive and stifling families and places of origin to move to San Francisco by the thousands and join dissident subcultures of splendor and defiance. Of course, queers still flee similar conditions; it’s just that the hypergentrified San Francisco of 2008 barely offers the space to breathe, let alone dream.

The excitement around reenactment obscures the reality that some of the same smiling gay men who came to San Francisco in the 1970s have consistently fought misogynist, racist, classist, ageist battles — from carding policies to policing practices to zoning and real estate wars — to ensure that their neighborhood (Milk’s Castro) remains a home only for the rich, white, and male (or at least those who assimilate to white middle-class norms).

Check out a quote from Dan Jinks, one of the producers of the movie, in the Dec. 27, 2007, Bay Area Reporter: "Our great hope is this will revitalize this district and make it a major tourist destination."

Revitalize the Castro, where you’re lucky if you can rent a flat for less than $4,000 or buy property for less than $1 million? Everyone who’s ever set foot in the Castro knows it’s filled with tourists from around the world!

Oh, I know what Jinks means: straight tourists. Some gay people are so anxious to participate in their own cultural erasure.

After White’s 1979 trial, at which he was convicted of manslaughter instead of murder and given a lenient sentence, rioting queers torched police cars and smashed the windows and doors of City Hall. Later that night vengeful cops went to the Castro and destroyed the windows of the Elephant Walk (now Harvey’s), entered the bar to beat up patrons and trash the place, and swung their batons into anyone they encountered.

I’m wondering if the new Van Sant film will end at the candlelight march, thus avoiding talk about such market-unfriendly issues as systemic police violence and property destruction as a political act.

Unfortunately, San Francisco is now more of a playground for the wealthy than a space for the delirious potential of dissidence. But there are still plenty of reasons to protest. Got housing? Got health care? Got citizenship? Nope, we’re just getting milked.

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore

Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore ( is the editor, most recently, of Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity (Seal Press, 2006) and an expanded second edition of That’s Revolting! Queer Strategies for Resisting Assimilation (out in June from Soft Skull Press).

Solo budgeting



Mayor Gavin Newsom is giving his department heads until Feb. 21 to draw up a list of services and positions to be reduced and eliminated, but Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin notes this isn’t how city government is supposed to work.

"Technically, things aren’t being cut," Peskin told the Guardian. "Instead, the mayor is signaling that he is refusing to spend the money that has been appropriated by the board in the budget that was voted on and signed last year."

Last summer the Board of Supervisors used the add-back process to appropriate funds the mayor hadn’t sought, thus funding services such as the Workers Compensation Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital and Buster’s Place, the city’s only 24-hour homeless shelter, until the end of fiscal year 2007–08.

But now these same services are being targeted midyear. The mayor announced last November, shortly after he was reelected, that the city faces a projected $229 million budget, so he was demanding an immediate hiring freeze and across-the-board cuts.

As mayoral spokesperson Nathan Ballard reportedly told the San Francisco Chronicle last fall, "Although he wants to trim the fat, the mayor made it abundantly clear he doesn’t want to see a reduction in people sweeping streets or police officers walking beats."

But while city department heads spent the past few months trying to tighten belts, the mayor apparently expanded his, according to budget analyst Harvey Rose’s Feb. 13 report, which details the monetary impact of changes to Newsom’s staff — changes the mayor first announced Jan. 4.

"Don’t think that the irony of the revelations that have been made over the past few weeks has been lost on anyone," Peskin told us, referring to how Newsom added two entirely new positions, increased the pay of senior staff and newly appointed department heads in the Mayor’s Office, and raided the budgets of other agencies to pay for it all.

According to Rose’s report, the budgetary impact of Newsom’s staff changes amounted to an increase of $553,716, with other city departments funding about $1.34 million in annual salaries and benefits for 10 positions assigned to the Mayor’s Office.

These include two newly created jobs — namely, the mayor’s climate change director, Wade Crowfoot, and the mayor’s homelessness policy director, Dariush Kayhan.

Peskin admits that the spending Rose identified is a relative drop in the bucket, compared to the city’s $229 million deficit. "Yes, it’s not enough to significantly close the gap or save a significant number of services, but it’s symbolic," Peskin said, noting that even as homeless shelters are being fingered for elimination, the Human Services Agency is paying $169,624 annually for the mayor’s new homelessness policy director.

"And when voters approved more money for Muni, the mayor used it to hire people to pound out messages about climate change, when the best way to reduce greenhouse gases is to get people out of their cars," Peskin said, referring to Newsom’s new climate change director, hired at an annual cost of $130,112, using the Municipal Transportation Authority’s Safety and Training funds.

"It’s very frustrating and unfortunate," Peskin said, further noting that the $401,392 to terminate Susan Leal without cause as general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission will come from the city’s water fees.

"This is indicative of the misplaced priorities of the mayor," said Peskin, who doesn’t deny that spending control is required in the face of a looming deficit but resents how the mayor has been trying to do it unilaterally and not in cooperation with the board.

"The budget, by design, is a two-way street," Peskin observed.

Sup. Chris Daly claimed the services being targeted for Newsom’s midyear elimination are "a who’s who of the board’s priorities…. These are human and health services that the mayor has proposed be cut multiple times."

Daly’s legislative aide, John Avalos, who is running for District 11 supervisor, notes that while Daly wanted $33 million for affordable housing, a onetime amount, the mayor took a budget surplus and used it for multiple years, with the police, firefighters’, and nurses’ contracts accounting for his biggest expenditures.

Asked why the city’s deficit has ballooned by $144 million — from the $85.3 million the Controller and Budget Analyst’s offices identified in March 2007 to the $229 million that Newsom’s administration was suddenly projecting last fall — Tom DiSanto, budget and revenue manager for the Controller’s Office, cites an extra $82 million in salaries and benefits.

These include the four-year contracts that nurses and police and fire departments secured last summer, along with five extra police academies, said DiSanto, who also listed $7 million in police crime laboratory debt service, $7.4 million for sheriff inmate housing (required by last year’s Supreme Court order that prisoners can’t sleep on floors), and the $29 million transit set-aside that voters approved last November when they passed Proposition A.

But as DiSanto explains, the city’s budget problem is due not to lack of revenue but to baseline funding and rainy-day reserve requirements, not to mention the political process.

"Right now, with baselines and reserves, 96¢ out of every dollar goes into set-asides, and we’re required to adopt a balanced budget," DiSanto said. "That’s where the cuts come in. If we could access all the city’s revenues, we wouldn’t have a $229 million projected deficit," he added, noting that revenues are up, property taxes are higher than budgeted, and the hotel tax continues to be strong.

Ken Bruce, senior manager at the Budget Analyst’s Office, notes that unlike the federal government, the city of San Francisco has to balance the budget. He also says the current deficit projection comes from the Controller’s and the Mayor’s offices, not the Budget Analyst’s Office.

"In mid-March we get to do a joint forecast," Bruce told the Guardian. "It may paint a better picture, less of a doomsday scenario, but it still leaves us facing difficult policy choices. [The deficit] won’t drop from $230 million to $100 million."

Peskin envisions several long-term solutions, hopefully including positive changes in the White House this fall.

"With every passing year, as the federal government has abandoned the cities, we’ve taken more of a burden, and labor and capital costs have increased," says Peskin, who is mulling changes to the real estate transfer tax and closing a loophole whereby lawyers and accountants in limited liability partnerships have escaped paying payroll taxes.

That said, Peskin sees no easy fixes in the city’s upcoming budget hearings:

"It’s a fluid situation, and it’s all bad."

Money for nothing



Nedir Bey, a close confidant of the late Your Black Muslim Bakery founder Yusuf Bey, received public funds for his anemic 2002 run for the Oakland City Council but faced little scrutiny from election officials for suspect political contributions and spending.

The discovery appears to be one more example of the Bey empire’s alleged scams and schemes uncovered by the Chauncey Bailey Project since the eponymous journalist’s August 2007 murder, which law enforcement sources have linked to the bakery.

For five years the Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento sat on a request to investigate alleged campaign finance irregularities committed by Nedir Bey — who owes the city of Oakland $1.5 million in another matter — then dropped the probe because too much time had elapsed.

Bey ran for the Oakland City Council’s District 4 seat in March 2002 but got only 268 votes. He received $14,178 in public matching funds for his campaign despite questions raised by the head of Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission about the sources of the candidate’s contributions.

In August 2007, however, the FPPC sent a letter to Bey announcing it would not be taking any action against him, “given the age of this case and our current enforcement priorities.” Bey refused to comment on any of the main points in this article.

FPPC spokesperson Roman Porter said he could not say why the investigation lagged as long as it did, other than to say that a former enforcement official refrained from pursuing the case. Porter said the official closed a large number of cases to decrease a backlog, but Bey’s wasn’t one of them.

A new chairman and enforcement team came on board last year, but by that time the statute of limitations had already expired on two of the matters contained in Oakland’s complaint and there wasn’t enough time left to investigate the third matter before the statute of limitations ran out, Porter said.

Oakland’s Public Ethics Commission executive director, Dan Purnell, passed the case to Sacramento instead of completing the investigation locally. City law gives the Public Ethics Commission the sole authority for civil enforcement of the Limited Public Financing Act, which contains regulations for disbursing matching funds.

Purnell suspected irregularities in Bey’s campaign expenditures as early as January 2002, 10 months before he asked the state FPPC to initiate an investigation.

The March 2002 election was the first in Oakland to offer public financing to candidates who agreed to abide by voluntary spending limits. Candidates in the election could qualify for up to $14,700 in matching public funds from a special account established by the city to help defray the cost of running for office.

Matched contributions had to be $100 or less. The Committee to Elect Nedir Bey reported it had raised a total of $14,517, of which $14,178 was eligible for matching funds. The campaign reported it spent a total of $39,741 on the election.

Documents obtained from the FPPC through a public records request show that of 145 contributions, 123 were made with $99 money orders with sequential numbers, all apparently purchased from the same location over a four-day period between Jan. 14 and 18, 2002. Only 22 donations to Bey’s campaign were written on personal checks.

Purnell asked Bey prior to disbursing the matching funds if the money orders were purchased at the same time in bundles and if anyone other than the donor had purchased them. Bey declined to comment for this story, but he explained to Purnell at the time that the donors were transported to the store en masse to buy the money orders, and he promised no one else had obtained them for the donors.

Bey also assured Purnell that the listed contributors were adults who gave their own money, as required by law, although 26 donors listed their addresses as either 5832 or 5836 San Pablo, locations used at that time by Your Black Muslim Bakery.

Once Bey got the money, he stopped filing required campaign finance statements with the city. When he eventually filed them in September 2002, the forms offered no detailed accounting of the $39,741 worth of expenditures. Nor did Bey explain the gap between the amount spent on his campaign and the contributions received, which came to $28,695, including the public matching funds.

Often the bulk of election costs come from fees paid to consultants, printed campaign materials, fundraising events, and office rental. Bey’s committee paid all but $500 to a person by the name of Vaughan Foster, who provided no address or further identification. Foster reportedly received $27,000 for salary, $11,000 for circuutf8g petitions, $241 for voter registration, and $1,000 for phone banking.

Bey’s birth name is Victor Foster.

The Public Ethics Commission received a complaint and ultimately voted in August 2002 to forward the matter to the state FPPC after a stormy hearing during which Bey told the commissioners he was “not a professional politician,” as the Contra Costa Times reported. He also told the commission he “would not bow down to [them].”

In an Oct. 10, 2002, letter to state authorities, Purnell wrote, “The commission believes this matter is important because the commission relies on the content and accuracy of campaign statements to help administer its matching fund program.”

The FPPC has moved to subpoena bank records and other materials during the intervening years. But in August 2007, nearly five years after Purnell’s initial request and four years after he forwarded hundreds of pages of documentation from the campaign to Dan Schek, an FPPC investigator, Bey received a letter declaring the case closed.

Jean Quan, the District 4 incumbent who ran against Bey in 2002, said she didn’t recall him stumping widely or knocking on doors in the area’s neighborhoods. She was surprised he raised $15,000 from private donors to begin with and said he didn’t appear to spend much of it on campaign signs.

“I ran into a few fliers of his,” she said, “but nothing that would cost $30,000.”

According to the city’s municipal code governing elections, the Public Ethics Commission is supposed to “promptly advise” the city attorney in writing, as well as the “appropriate prosecuting enforcement agency,” of any evidence of criminal violations.

The law states, “any person who knowingly or willfully misrepresents his or her eligibility for matching funds … is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

The law also gives the local commission broad latitude to recover the funds, including penalties and fines not to exceed $1,000 per violation, and authorizes the commission to sue the candidate.

But none of that was done in Bey’s case, Purnell said. The matter was referred to the state because the Ethics Commission does not have the authority to enforce state elections laws, which at that time appeared to be Bey’s most obvious violation, Purnell said.

“To make a criminal complaint we have to prove intent,” Purnell said.

He said he was never pressured by anyone to refer the matter to the state instead of local authorities. Back then he had no idea who Bey was, that he was connected to Your Black Muslim Bakery, or that he had defaulted on a $1.1 million economic revitalization loan from the city of Oakland just a few years before running for the Oakland City Council, Purnell said.

“I didn’t know Nedir Bey from Adam,” Purnell said, adding that he later learned of Bey’s background from a November 2002 article in the East Bay Express.

“What I recall him telling me was that it was a big grassroots effort on his part, that many of his contributors were poor and lived in a complex and he organized them to go down there [to buy the money orders],” Purnell said. “It sounded plausible.”

The city’s original public financing ordinance was less restrictive regarding matching contributions than it is now, partly because of the Bey case. Contributions made by money order are no longer eligible for matching funds and now must be made on two-party checks drawn on the bank account of the contributors.

In the past, Bey has represented himself as a “spiritual adviser” to the late Antar Bey, who was briefly head of Your Black Muslim Bakery. Other bakery associates face numerous criminal charges in Alameda County, including torture, kidnapping, real estate fraud, and the Aug. 2, 2007, killing of Oakland journalist Bailey, who was working on stories about the Bey empire.

Most recently Nedir Bey served as president of the school site council for Fruitvale Elementary School.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said the understaffed FPPC couldn’t investigate every small-time municipal election.

But, he said, “when the ethics commission realized the FPPC wasn’t acting on the case quickly, then Oakland really should have begun looking at it.”

Cecily Burt is a staff writer for MediaNews, one of the Guardian‘s partners in the Chauncey Bailey Project. For more information and to read past stories, go to

How Oakland’s fearful politicos enabled waste: Part III


In 1996, Your Black Muslim Bakery lieutenant Nedir Bey had a wealth of ammunition with which to lobby city leaders for a $1.1 million loan to fund his health care company, E.M. Health Services.

The previous year, the city of Oakland had agreed to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the Oakland Raiders back from Los Angeles, a deal that quickly soured and has cost the city and Alameda County taxpayers more than $20 million a year ever since.

The developers of a new downtown ice rink had defaulted on $11 million in bonds just three months after the facility opened.

The city had also given plenty of money to other businesses, most white-owned. As a result, the City Council was getting a relentless drubbing from bakery members and black business associates who lined up at meetings to speak on behalf of E.M. Health Services and its efforts to obtain the loan.

They argued that white business owners had an easier time obtaining credit, unsecured loans and support from the city while black-owned businesses endured undue scrutiny. Elected officials endured hints and outright accusations of racism if they dared ask questions about the company or collateral for the loan.

Some of those accusations occurred during the June 4, 1996, council meeting where the officials discussed giving E.M. Health an interim start up loan of $275,000 in city funds. The loan was needed because the company’s application for a $1.1 million share of federal Housing and Urban Development funds for job training programs had not yet been distributed to the city of Oakland.

During the meeting, Shannon Reeves, then-president of the NAACP Oakland chapter, accused the city’s black elected officials of forgetting where they came from.

“It’s time to deliver for the people in the community…,” Reeves said. “We need those who look like us to advocate for us.”

Beth Aaron, executive director of the Bay Area Black Contractors Association also testified at the meeting that night. She said the record proved that white-owned businesses had a much easier time getting Oakland to open its purse strings.

“Those who are white or friends of friends get things done very quickly,” she charged. “Those of us who are of color… do not.”

Even Nedir Bey got into the act.

“A few years ago we wouldn’t have been able to come here and ask for anything without getting run out,” he said. “Cut us a check on Friday for $275,000. Compare us to other projects that you have passed.”

A decade later, E.M. Health is just an unpaid debt on the city’s books, its license suspended by the California Franchise Tax Board. Principal payments first due in May 1998 never materialized, and by the time city staff knocked on its doors in October 1999, the offices had been cleared out.

But the story of how the business, a subsidiary of the now-bankrupt Your Black Muslim Bakery, received the money despite a flawed business plan and a disturbing criminal incident in Nedir Bey’s past illustrates the extent politics and pressure played in officials’ decision to approve the loan.

Bakery members have also been linked to several violent incidents, including the shooting death of journalist Chauncey Bailey, as well as alleged real estate and welfare fraud and child rape. ‘Intimidation factor’

“In reality it was political pressure that got them the loans,” said now-City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who was a councilmember at the time. “Deep down inside everybody knew it was bull—. No business plan, no records anyone could show. … And they kept saying they were failing because they didn’t get the city’s money soon enough.”

Retired councilmember Dick Spees, who is white, remembers how heated those meetings were, of being accused of racism because he dared question the business plan or ask about collateral or a missing business license. Bakery members would line up along the wall and refuse to sit, he recalled.

“It sounded good (on paper), this training program to help black people who were not getting opportunities,” Spees said recently. “But there was this intimidation factor, it just didn’t feel comfortable.”

Spees said he grew suspicious when Nedir Bey started racking up ineligible expenses even before federal government lenders had determined E.M. Health’s job training program met its criteria for financing.

Spees said he ended up voting for the loan and for several thousand dollars in advances from city coffers after he was assured by city staff on more than one occasion that HUD would approve the loan and that Bey had put up collateral.

De La Fuente, now council president, said he understood that the HUD money was intended for riskier loans, but that was no reason to cave in to pressure and give the money without trying to protect the city’s resources.

“I never got their support,” he said, referring to his black council colleagues, Nate Miley, Dezie Woods-Jones, Elihu Harris and Natalie Bayton.

Kidnap, torture

The city gave Nedir Bey money despite a disturbing incident that occurred on March 4, 1994, when Qiyamah Corporation, E.M. Health’s nonprofit parent company was still in its infancy.

On that date, Nedir Bey and Abaz Bey, another spiritually adopted son of bakery founder Yusuf Bey, were arrested and charged with abducting, assaulting, torturing and robbing a man they believed had cheated them on a real estate transaction.

Abaz Bey and other members of the bakery lived in an apartment building on 24th Street in North Oakland, the same one Nedir Bey wanted to buy with his very first request for city money, that ultimately was reduced in scope. The owner had hired the bakery to provide security after being sued by tenants fed up with rampant drug dealing and other crime.

According to police and court records, three men, led by Nedir Bey, beat the man with a flashlight and burned him with a hot knife. The arrests sparked a tense, full-scale standoff between more than 40 police officers and a similar number of male bakery members.

According to news reports, then-Mayor Elihu Harris agreed to meet the demand of bakery patriarch Yusuf Bey to discuss the standoff and the arrests.

Nedir Bey pleaded no contest to one felony count of false imprisonment. He was sentenced to three years’ probation after a veteran Oakland police officer and members of the community wrote a support letter on his behalf.

The probation report noted that two other prominent Oakland residents acted as character references for Nedir Bey: Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson and Larry Reid, then aide to Mayor Harris. However, Reid, now an Oakland city councilmember, said he never wrote a letter or served as a reference for Nedir Bey.

When Tribune reporters Diana Williams and Paul Grabowicz questioned whether the the arrest should impact his loan application, Nedir Bey said such details were irrelevant.

“Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, and he was respectable enough to become president of South Africa,” he was quoted as saying in a June 1996 Oakland Tribune article.

Unapologetic support

Alameda County Supervisor Nate Miley, who was an Oakland council member and pushed hard for the E.M. Health loan, said recently that he never knew about Nedir Bey’s felony conviction or other clashes between bakery members and the police.

“Then-police chief Richard Word and I chaired the Public Safety committee and I didn’t know about it,” Miley insisted. “Clearly, I had a sense that the police had some concerns (about bakery members), but not how it’s been depicted recently.”

Miley is unapologetic about his unflinching support of E.M. Health during his time on the council. He wasn’t overly concerned when the company defaulted, he told his colleagues at the time, because the federal money was intended to fund higher-risk ventures.

He recalled in a recent interview that African-Americans had good reason to believe black businesses weren’t getting a fair share of city contracts or loans. Oakland’s leaders had poured millions in public money into bringing the Raiders home from Los Angeles and bailing out the Ice Center, Miley said, and African-Americans never let them forget it.

It’s also possible that city staff and some council members were intimidated by the accusations of racism, he added.

“I think we were very sensitive (about accusations) of being racist and Uncle Toms,” said Miley, who is African American.

“When E.M. came in to get a loan … on the face of it that looked like very worthy cause, something that would serve the public. So we decided to give them a chance,” Miley said, adding that there was some concern over the money being used for a car and consultants.

“We gave them some technical assistance and guidance rather than pulling the rug out from under them completely,” Miley recalled. “Still, even if it’s federal money they got, it’s still public taxpayer dollars down the toilet.”

Miley said he admired Yusuf Bey and the way he preached self-reliance, spirituality and discipline. Oakland was suffering record homicides and here was someone who was reaching out to ex-cons or those who might otherwise get caught up in the cycle of violence and helping them turn their lives around and earn money legitimately for their families, Miley said.

In February 1996, a smiling, soft-spoken Nedir Bey stood before the City Council and told them as much.

“This is an excellent program and it will target men and women who are not working presently and have no job skills,” Bey said. “We can train them in the home health care field and start them on a better way of life.”

‘Brilliant’ concept

Redevelopment Agency Director Gregory Hunter said the company’s goals were hard to turn down even if E.M. Health’s promises lacked details.

“The concept was brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” he said, adding that the business proposal drew applause from as far away as Washington, D.C. “Unfortunately, the execution fell somewhat short of the expectations the city had.”

Elihu Harris, now the chancellor of Peralta Community College District, was reluctant to discuss the matter recently because he said he did not recall many details. Harris said his dad received home health care from employees of E.M. Health, but it was his mother who handled the contract.

He added that a community loan advisory committee _ a body the federal lenders required _ had voted to fund E.M. Health, and the council debated that recommendation back and forth for many months. He said the council was not provided with a lot of details about the company.

“The (loan committee)… had really done the research,” Harris said. “The council was between a rock and a hard place.

“(E.M. Health) had made some mistakes and they were going to try and rectify those mistakes,” Harris said. “There was a lot to be concerned about, but they had strong community support.”

One supporter who turned out early and often to lobby for Nedir Bey was Theodora Marzouk, an administrator for Oakland-based Community Care Services, Inc.

She testified more than once about the shortage of training programs for nurses’ aides and said her own company couldn’t supply enough of them. She urged Oakland’s leaders to fund E.M. Health.

But Marzouk ended up on E.M. Health’s payroll for the last two quarters of 1996 earning more than $20,000, city records show.

Marzouk refused to comment for this story, but she sounded surprised to hear that she’d once been listed as an employee.

In any case, by 2000, the company’s business license was suspended, and by 2003, Alameda County records show, state and federal tax officials during the intervening years had imposed tax liens on the company’s assets totalling nearly $200,000.

But today, E.M. Health’s motto “Big enough to serve, small enough to care” is little more than a failed promise.

MediaNews investigative reporters Thomas Peele and Josh Richman, KQED reporter Judy Campbell, and radio reporter Bob Butler contributed to this report. Cecily Burt is a MediaNews staff writer. G.W. Schulz is a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

How Oakland’s fearful politicos enabled waste: Part II


E.M. Health Services, a home health care company founded by a high-ranking member of Your Black Muslim Bakery, opened for business in July 1996, flush with a $1.1 million loan from the city of Oakland.

But shortly over a year later, signs of trouble already plagued the business — and a review of documents shows that the founders of the struggling company paid themselves lavish salaries, and lucrative consulting contracts went to bakery associates and family members.

More than a decade later, the city hasn’t received one penny in repayment for the loan, and questions remain over why city officials granted the loan in the first place.

Under the terms of E.M.’s loan, the company wasn’t scheduled to make principal payments for two years — until 1998 — but just 15 months after getting the money, CEO Nedir Bey asked to defer repayments until 2000.

The city, which had already questioned several invoices submitted by the company, did not approve the extension. Instead, officials responded by requesting an audit of E.M.’s books.

In his request for an extension, Bey did not mention that in May 1997, E.M. Health had applied to the California Department of Insurance for a $2 million loan to purchase a 4,000-square-foot office building on 17th Street in downtown Oakland.

In his application to the state, Bey cited Oakland’s loan approval as proof of his good reputation, even though by then the city was already questioning tens of thousands of dollars in operating expenses claimed by his company.

The $1.1 million loan agreement called for E.M. Health to begin repaying monthly interest and principal payments of $19,692 on May 1, 1998, the date the company was projected to have enough billable clients to break even.

But May came and went with no payments.

And, documents show, E.M. Health would ask for more.

But the story of how the business, a subsidiary of the now-bankrupt Your Black Muslim Bakery, received the money despite a flawed business plan and a disturbing criminal incident in Nedir Bey’s past illustrates the extent politics and pressure played in officials’ decision to approve the loan.

Bakery members also have been linked to several violent incidents, including the Aug. 2 shooting death of journalist Chauncey Bailey, as well as alleged real estate and welfare fraud and child rape.

Details of the company’s financial growth were outlined in correspondence between Nedir Bey and various city staff who reviewed documentation to support the original $1.1 million loan application, as well as documents surrounding Nedir Bey’s later attempts to obtain a $2.5 million loan that was never granted.

In a January 1997 letter to the city, E.M. Health said it had contracts with 13 patients between October and December 1996, which should have generated more than $23,000 in revenues for the three-month period.

The same letter said seven would-be home health aides had graduated from a training program run by a different company. Those aides could not be sent out to care for Medicare/MediCal patients until they passed their certification exams that month, the letter said.

The letter also reveals that E.M. Health had a goal of generating $1.2 million in income in 1997 by providing services to 50 clients. The company instead reported large losses in 1996 and 1997.

It started to pull in more revenue early the following year, according to a letter from former Economic Development Chief Bill Claggett addressed to then-City Manager Robert Bobb.

Clagget’s letter stated that the company had a net profit of $30,068 for the first two months of 1998, but was still experiencing delays in receiving reimbursements for its Medicare/MediCal clients.

By June 17, 1998, Nedir Bey stated in a letter to city loan department manager Teri Robinson-Green that E.M. was “doing about $80,000 a month.” In another letter listing E.M.’s achievements, Bey claimed the company had hired 55 people, trained 30 people and served more than 200 patients.

But still no loan payments.

E.M. Health’s agreement with the city stated that the company and its employees, many of whom were also trusted bakery associates and family members, would not profit from the business. Any extra income after expenses would be funneled back into Qiyamah, a nonprofit organization founded by the bakery to further Yusuf Bey’s community work. Qiyamah was E.M. Health’s parent company.

But the salaries, car lease and billing rates charged by bakery members who moonlighted as consultants to E.M. Health coupled with too few billable clients and delays in reimbursements by Medicare and MediCal all but ensured there wouldn’t be enough money left over to pay back the city’s loans.

“It’s interesting how that millionaire from the skating rink got $12 million and declared bankruptcy and never paid the city back,” Nedir Bey said, referring to the builders of Oakland’s downtown ice rink, who defaulted on an $11 million loan before E.M. Health Services was funded. The city took possession of the rink. “Is the city calling him and trying to ask him those kind of questions?

“The bottom line for me, I’m trying to move forward with my life. Everything that you’re discussing is in my past,” Bey said.

A popular message

E.M. Health’s business model resonated with Oakland’s black politicians who were eager to even the playing field for black businesses that had not gotten an equitable share of city contracts and loans. They lauded the accomplishments of Yusuf Bey — the controversial but charismatic founder of Your Black Muslim Bakery — and viewed the health care proposal as a continuation of his good works.

The plan also resonated with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and appeared to meet its criteria for loan funding. E.M. Health’s $1.1 million loan came from a $44 million pot of money the federal agency offered Oakland to fund start-up organizations that sought to provide jobs in low-income communities.

Still, in a June 4, 1996, letter to Kofi Bonner, Oakland’s then-director of community development, local HUD director Steven Sachs wrote that “E.M. Health Services business plan is still being developed …” with many “issues still to be worked out.”

Sachs urged the city to consider “providing a much smaller amount of financial assistance to this start-up business.”

That same night, despite Bonner’s warning that Nedir Bey had not yet provided several documents the city required for the loan, nor procured a provisional license from state health officials, the council voted to give the company a $275,000 advance on the $1.1 million HUD loan.

In fact, even though E.M. Health was $63,000 in arrears in its business taxes, the company ended up getting $538,000 in interim loans from the city of Oakland over the next six months, before HUD officials reimbursed Oakland for the money in April 1997.

Nedir Bey relied on that type of sentiment when he approached the city in February 1998 and asked for an additional $2.5 million — half loan, half grant — to buy a shopping center in West Oakland to house a new urgent care clinic, in addition to funds he sought unsuccessfully from the state department of insurance.

The shopping center plan lacked numerous financial details and included no downpayment or personal investment by Nedir Bey.

Nonetheless, he lined up his supporters and produced letters of recommendation from well-respected medical experts, including David Kears, director of the Health Care Services Agency for Alameda County; Michael Lenoir, president of the Ethnic Health Institute at Alta Bates/Summit Hospitals; and H. Geoffrey Watson, president of the Golden State Medical Association, which represents 2,000 African-American physicians in California.

Claggett said he would have loved to have someone revitalize that blighted shopping center, but nothing about E.M.’s finances by then suggested it could support a new business venture. City records show that E.M. Health incurred losses of $425,000 during 1996 and $343,000 in 1997.

E.M. Health was already three months behind on the payments for the $1.1 million loan, and a mere six months later, E.M. Health’s parent, the Qiyamah Corporation, would default on a

$100,000 bank loan originally signed by Saleem Ali Bey, also known as Darren Wright.

‘I don’t think they ever gave up’

Nedir Bey nonetheless again pressured the city into rushing the review of his new loan request. By July 1998, he sought direct backing from then-Mayor Elihu Harris, whose father was an E.M. Health patient for a short time, according to company records on file with the city.

“Staff should be more inform (sic) on the procedures and policies of the city of Oakland as opposed to me having to check with the mayor and then letting you know what you can and cannot do,” Bey said in a July 1998 letter to Gregory Hunter, now Oakland’s redevelopment agency director, apparently unhappy that the request had not yet been forwarded to the loan review committee.

Kears recalls Nedir Bey first approached him for a letter of recommendation, but that evolved into a request for money to finance outreach efforts for new patients. The county wound up giving Bey a $25,000 contract, the most it could provide without approval from the Alameda County Board of Supervisors. Kears said he doesn’t know whether E.M. Health ever submitted invoices to use any of the money.

The $2.5 million loan application eventually stalled as Nedir Bey failed to produce documentation requested by the city related to the first infusion of cash, the repayment of which was falling further and further behind.

By the time the city sent its first default letter to E.M. Health in December 1998, the payments were eight months past due and the company had crumbled.

City employees would later discover that the company’s offices had been cleaned out, office furnishings and computer equipment pledged as collateral gone.

Claggett said that not long afterward, he was questioned by the FBI about E.M. Health and Nedir Bey. The FBI’s San Francisco office did not return a call seeking comment about the probe.

No way to collect

The Oakland city attorney sued E.M. Health

in December 2000 in an attempt to recover $1.45million in loan funds and $98,600 in unpaid interest. The city won a default judgment, but no one could collect on it, in part because there was no personal guarantee made when the loan was awarded.

City Attorney John Russo said recently that it is up to the city’s Finance Department to collect on the $1.5 million judgment, which remains unpaid today.

The city wasn’t the only one left holding worthless paper when E.M. Health deteriorated. Orthopedic and Neurological Rehabilitation, Speech Pathology Inc. of Los Gatos sued Nedir Bey and Cecil R. Moody, an E.M. Health agent listed among business registration records, in 2000 to recover $8,700 worth of services it provided to the company’s patients over a two-month period. According to the lawsuit, E.M. Health billed MediCal and Medicare but never reimbursed the company.

In May, Daulet Bey, a Muslim wife of Yusuf Bey and mother of current bakery CEO Yusuf Bey IV, 21, and her daughter Jannah Bey filed papers to revive Qiyamah’s state business license. It’s not clear whether bakery associates plan to use Qiyamah to attempt a new business venture.

The license was promptly suspended again by the state Franchise Tax Board for failing to file an information report in 2005, according to spokeswoman Denise Azimi.

Nedir Bey’s costly experiment was finished and thousands in unaccounted for public funds were left in his wake.

MediaNews investigative reporters Thomas Peele and Josh Richman, KQED reporter Judy Campbell, and radio reporter Bob Butler contributed to this report. Cecily Burt is a MediaNews staff writer. G.W. Schulz is a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

How Oakland’s fearful politicos enabled waste: Part 1


Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series examining a $1million city loan to a Your Black Muslim Bakery affiliate that was never repaid.

It was a noble cause: Train welfare recipients as home health aides and put them to work caring for homebound sick and elderly clients.

A decade ago, while Your Black Muslim Bakery founder Yusuf Bey enjoyed unwavering support and adulation from black businesses and politicians, his spiritually adopted son, Nedir Bey, pressured and shamed city leaders into giving him a $1.1 million loan to help finance the promise of black entrepreneurial independence.

But the venture, E.M. Health Services, swiftly collapsed. The failure of CEO Nedir Bey to repay a dime of the loan made headlines at the time and prompted most to assume the company’s demise was caused by a combination of poor business decisions, bureaucratic hurdles and simple bad luck.

But was it?

City officials overlooked flaws in the company’s business plans and relented to black community leaders who insisted they award the loan, according to interviews, documents and other correspondence reviewed by the Chauncey Bailey Project.

The loan was granted to Nedir Bey despite his well-publicized arrest for the torture and kidnapping of a man two years earlier. Bey pleaded no contest to one felony count of false imprisonment and was sentenced to three years’ probation.

In awarding the loan to Nedir Bey, nearly every elected official lauded the accomplishments of Yusuf Bey in turning around the lives of troubled young men. Yet dozens of those men had armed themselves during a standoff with police two years earlier. And a few years later, Yusuf Bey himself would be accused of raping and fathering children with young girls who were placed in his care.

And the Chauncey Bailey Project has learned that in late 1999 and early 2000, the FBI investigated E.M. Health Services’ loan and Nedir Bey, although it’s not clear how the probe was resolved.

In the wake of reported real estate and welfare fraud allegedly committed by the wives and children of Yusuf Bey _ as well as the August arrest of a bakery member accused of the Aug. 2 shooting death of Bailey, the editor of the Oakland Post _ a deeper review of the E.M. Health Services loan reveals several questionable expenses that suggest an internal pattern of cronyism that enriched nearly every facet of the bakery empire’s inner circle including:

-Tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees paid to companies controlled by Nedir Bey and his wife, Rosemarie Boothe-Bey, as well as other bakery insiders.

-Thousands of dollars in security fees paid to yet another company controlled by Your Black Muslim Bakery and thousands more in advertising fees paid to Universal Distributors, a company operated by associates of the bakery.

-$20,000 paid to the administrator of an Oakland home health company who had urged the city to award the loan to E.M. Health Services.

-Top-end salaries paid to Nedir Bey and his wife, Rosemarie Boothe, as well as to two of the Muslim wives of bakery patriarch Yusuf Bey who are accused of receiving fraudulent welfare payments at the time, and a second woman with whom Nedir Bey fathered children. Other bakery insiders filled the company’s payroll.

-15-day loans made to E.M. Health by Nedir Bey and other bakery associates that were repaid with hefty loan fees.

The beginnings

On April 30, 1996, the Oakland City Council awarded E.M. Health conditional approval for a $1.1million federal loan to establish a training program for home health aides.

According to loan documents and internal memos, the city approved that loan despite flaws in the company’s business plan and no discernible collateral or equity to back up the debt.

The money was part of a $44 million pot — half loan, half grant — awarded to the city by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund start-up ventures or help expand existing businesses in three distressed areas of Oakland with high unemployment rates. The federal money was supposed to create jobs, and it was intended for borrowers who could not qualify for conventional loans.

E.M. Health’s share of that pot — through the leadership of then-bakery lieutenant Nedir Bey — would further Yusuf Bey’s efforts to empower poor black residents and ex-cons by giving them training and job opportunities at various bakery outlets and private security companies affiliated with the patriarch’s expanding empire.

The loan proceeds were supposed to be used for start-up costs to recruit workers and patients, establish the home health training program and provide ongoing operating expenses.

The company never lived up to its promise. Ten years have passed and still not a cent has been repaid. The equipment pledged to secure the proceeds never surfaced. The promised jobs for low-income residents, as well as the promised services for sick and elderly clients, evaporated. The Oakland city attorney sued to recoup the debt, plus interest, but the city’s finance department has not been able to collect.

Nedir Bey, whose last listed occupation is business development consultant, would not answer questions about the business operations or why the company failed to take hold, saying that was “in the past.” In a brief telephone conversation, Bey said there were other Oakland businesses that defaulted on city loans and he asked if they were receiving the same level of scrutiny. Bey remains in Oakland but says he is no longer affiliated with the bakery.

Former bakery associate and businessman Ali Saleem Bey has spent the last several months trying to save the heavily indebted bakery enterprise from liquidation. Saleem Bey said he hasn’t spoken to Nedir Bey in years, but he defended E.M. Health’s efforts to provide job training and services to poor Oakland residents.

Saleem Bey, reached by phone, said the city subjected the business to undue scrutiny compared with others seeking public money. That scrutiny also led to the company being underfunded, Saleem Bey said, and contributed to its demise.

“We really felt we were sabotaged by the city, …” said Saleem Bey, who worked alongside other bakery associates to help launch the business.

“Politically, they never wanted to give us the money … and when it came time to work with us and make it go, they made it as hard as possible,” Saleem Bey said. “They wanted to wag their fingers at us.”

But the only thing that remains today from the ashes of E.M. Health is a considerable outstanding debt to taxpayers — a debt that could have been much larger.

Big plans, big loan requests

The Qiyamah Corp., E.M. Health’s nonprofit parent company, first filed state business registration papers in October 1993. The nonprofit organization was formed to expand the bakery’s community work and job training programs, and it wasn’t long before bakery members sought the city’s help in financing a new home health care venture.

Nedir Bey originally approached the city in approximately 1994 for a $3.4million loan to buy an apartment building on 24th Street in North Oakland. That would be used, he said at the time, as a base for his home health care program.

The building purchase didn’t qualify for HUD funds, and over time it was dropped from the plan. The loan request was whittled down to the $1.1 million, which was conditionally awarded to Qiyamah’s for-profit subsidiary, E.M. Health.

The company promised to create 32 full-time jobs, more than half of which would be filled by residents of West Oakland, East Oakland or San Antonio/Fruitvale — the three economically depressed areas targeted by HUD.

The company also promised to train 120 low-income residents and welfare recipients as home health workers, who would in turn provide services to Medicare and MediCal patients and other clients who were privately insured. According to E.M. Health’s business plan accepted by the city, insurance reimbursements would be more than sufficient to repay the loan. It might have worked if Nedir Bey had started small.

Instead, he purchased expensive office furniture and loaded the payroll with bakery insiders, most of whom had no health care experience, while spending little initially on actual medical supplies, according to loan documents.

Bill Claggett, the former director of Oakland’s Community and Economic Development Agency who inherited the E.M. loan in late 1997, said he couldn’t believe the city gave the company “a dime,” let alone $1.1 million.

“They didn’t know what they were doing,” Claggett said. “The cost per person served was much higher than any other similar business. It was clear (Bey) didn’t have the kind of staffing he needed for that operation.”

E.M. Health opened its doors on July 10, 1996, in an office storefront on Grand Avenue. That first year’s tax return posted income of $6,007 and a loss of $437,802. It spent $85,886 on consultants, $10,600 on security and only $5,708 for medical supplies. It survived almost exclusively on the city loan.

The list of employees included Nedir Bey’s wife, Rosemarie Boothe; and another woman, Kathy Leviege, with whom he has two children; family associate Janet Bey; and Madeeah Bey and Farieda Bey, two wives of bakery patriarch Yusuf Bey who are alleged to have received illegal welfare payments at the time, according to civil depositions taken recently in an unrelated case.

Within three months of receiving start-up funds from the city, Nedir Bey was on track to earn $108,000 a year, a figure that was out of line with what similar agencies in the Bay Area paid their CEOs, according to a spring 1997 memo in the city’s loan files.

Quarterly wage reports filed with the state show that Nedir Bey’s wife earned $47,000 as the assistant administrator, and Yusuf Bey’s wives — whose occupations were listed as marketing director and LVN/outreach coordinator — earned nearly $60,000 each, the same as Janet Bey, a registered public health nurse. Other than Janet Bey, none of the women had nursing degrees or related licenses, according to a review of state documents. Saleem Bey said it should not seem suspicious that members of the bakery’s extended family ended up on E.M. Health’s payroll. He said they worked many different jobs to help support the bakery empire and to further Yusuf Bey’s edict to be self-reliant.

He said they also worked alongside Nedir Bey to try and make the enterprise a success. To infer otherwise would be a mistake.

“It behooved the organization to be successful, so it wasn’t as if everybody was just eyeing this money and they wanted to steal a million,” Saleem Bey said. “If the business plan was successful, by this time it would have created 10 times that amount of money and created many jobs.”

Even so, the city’s loan staff requested that the compensation for E.M.’s three top executives be reduced by 20 percent, a move Nedir Bey protested in a memo to city officials.

Other questionable expenses

There were other missteps and invoices that city officials questioned before the city received the HUD proceeds, including a lease on a Cadillac and reimbursements to a security company controlled by the bakery.

One city staffer flagged the vehicle lease, $64,000 in consulting contracts, and thousands budgeted for security as ineligible uses of the federal funds. “Staff is exploring options for recovering these costs,” reads one memo from April 1, 1997.

That same year, in addition to their salaries, E.M. Health paid approximately $40,000 in consulting fees and service payments to Nedir Bey and relatives either directly or through companies that he and other associates of the bakery controlled, according to records on file with the city of Oakland.

Bakery associates also made 15-day loans to E.M. Health to cover operating expenses and charged substantial interest fees in return. Nedir Bey earned a $750 fee for a $9,000 loan he made to the company, and Ali Saleem Bey charged $1,000 interest for a $13,750 loan. Time after time, city staff questioned the invoices E.M. Health submitted for reimbursement, asking for more details or supporting documentation. But the money was never withheld for long.

MediaNews investigative reporters Thomas Peele and Josh Richman, KQED reporter Judy Campbell and freelance radio reporter Bob Butler contributed to this report. Cecily Burt is a MediaNews staff writer. G.W. Schulz is a staff writer at the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Where is home?


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"I’ve never been inside here before. I don’t like to come in here, because I feel alienated in my own neighborhood by this place, and that is kind of what this play is about," Danny Hoch said recently. His new solo stage production, Taking Over, opens Jan. 16 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Speaking the day before he flew out West from New York to begin rehearsals with rep director Tony Taccone and looking around in half disgust, the New York–born actor-playwright was seated inside the Roebling Tea Room, a recently opened, funkily decorated but high-end restaurant directly across the street from his home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he has lived for the past 20 years.

The yuppie meeting place was Hoch’s choice, as much for convenience, it seemed, as to further emphasize the point of what his new work is all about. "Williamsburg is ground zero for gentrification not just in New York but in the country, because it has provided a blueprint for how fast and how violent displacement and economic development can happen in a short amount of time," Hoch said. "And Taking Over is about how gentrification is really masking the idea of colonialism and how everybody is kind of searching for a sense of home and disconnected from where their home is. And in the kind of neofeudalism that is the new economy of North America, people looking for home wind up displacing people who are home."

As in his previous solo plays, such as the Obie Award–winning Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop — which 10 years ago also premiered at the Berkeley Rep — Hoch channels a myriad of characters of various ages, races, and genders. Embodied with his ever-sharp dry observant wit, these include a major real estate developer, a Dominican taxi dispatcher, a French real estate agent, a revolutionary gangsta rapper, and a New York University student — a "clueless hipster" from Michigan who protests that she feels "like a homeless person" after her parents cut her monthly allowance from $5,000 to $3,000.

Another engaging character is the guy who was just released from incarceration after serving time under New York’s controversial, draconian Rockefeller drug laws. But he’s been gone so long he doesn’t recognize his old hood. "When he arrives they’re shooting a movie on his old block, and he talks to a PA on the movie set and says, ‘When I was growing up here people never came to shoot a movie. People shot things all right — like [other] people or heroin — but not a movie,’<0x2009>" Hoch explained. "And then he points to [a] woman in the window and says, ‘That’s my mother.’ And the PA asks him, ‘Oh, she doesn’t want to come down and check out the movie set?’ And he says, ‘No, she’s still afraid to go outside from the ’80s.’<0x2009>"

According to Hoch, the Bay Area has consistently been the most receptive to his work. "The Berkeley Rep is one of the only theaters, if not the only theater, that would support this kind of show from its inception. A theater in New York that needs to economically sustain itself [is] not going to commission or fund a show at this level about gentrification in New York, because it’s going to alienate their very audience." In fact, for the past 10 years Hoch has been unable to make a living as a writer or an actor in his hometown. "New York stories are no longer viable in New York City because the market is being informed by Americans. This is why you have Subway and Domino’s and Applebee’s and TCBY all over New York City — so that Americans can feel at home," he said.

"Do you know how many vintage clothing stores there are around here and stores that I can’t even identify with what the fuck it is that they are selling?" Hoch asked rhetorically. "How do you economically sustain that? You sustain that with disposable income, not income income. That is how you sustain this many bars and a tearoom like this. I tell you, this neighborhood didn’t need another tearoom. We needed more teachers. We needed a hospital. We needed better schools."


Through Feb. 10, $27–$69

See Web site for showtimes

Berkeley Repertory Theatre

2025 Addison, Thrust Stage, Berk.


Money for parks



GREEN CITY A broad coalition of politicians and activists is supporting Proposition A, the $185 million parks bond on the February ballot, with the rare unanimous support of the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Gavin Newsom.

But just how big an impact can this bond, which requires 66 percent voter approval, make? The city has spent the $110 million bond that voters approved in 2000 to repair parks and recreation centers, and an independent 2007 analysis identified $1.7 billion in backlogged park needs.

"This is one of an ongoing series of measures that we need to do every five or so years," board president Aaron Peskin told the Guardian.

The bond allocates $117.4 million for repairs and renovations of 12 neighborhood parks that were selected, Recreation and Park Department director Yomi Agunbiade told us, according to seismic and physical safety needs and usage levels.

The bond also earmarks $11.4 million to replace and repair freestanding restrooms. Noting that his department added 35 custodians in the last budget cycle, Agunbiade said, "So when we fix a bathroom, we’ll have staff to keep it open from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week."

Some aren’t keen on the bond’s inclusion of $33.5 million for Port of San Francisco land projects, including the Blue Greenway, a continuous walkway from Heron’s Head Park to Pier 43. San Francisco Community College trustee and Sierra Club member John Rizzo supports the measure but raised concerns about projects on Port land, particularly improvements at Fisherman’s Wharf.

But Peskin sees the Port lands inclusion as overdue: "For the first time there’s the recognition that the Port should not be treated as a stand-alone enterprise that has to do everything itself." As for the improvements around Pier 43, which is in his district, Peskin said, "Fisherman’s Wharf, like Union Square, is one of those geese that lay the golden egg" in terms of revenue from tourism.

The bond also earmarks $8 million for improvements to playing fields. Agunbiade said many fields are in terrible shape and in desperate need of work, "but this bond only affects about 7 percent of the city’s park land."

Some Potrero Hill neighbors are sounding environmental alarms about plans to install artificial turf at their local recreation center, but Agunbiade said there are also environmental benefits to turf, including decreased water and pesticide use.

Arthur Feinstein of the Sierra Club and San Francisco Tomorrow told us he strongly supports Prop. A, largely because it earmarks $5 million for trail restoration.

"The evidence is not in on the ill effects of artificial turf," Feinstein said, "but its ability to be in constant use frees up land for other uses, such as trail reconstruction, which makes a huge difference not just for native species and plants but people too, who need nature, especially in densely urban areas."

Isabel Wade, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, says her nonprofit supports Prop. A, and she cited its inclusion of $5 million for an Opportunity Fund from which all neighborhoods can apply for matching funds for small park projects.

"A lot of little parks are not on the list because the capital costs of seismic repairs are so great, so how do you even get a bench or a toilet? Why not leverage money?" Wade said, observing that in-kind contributions, sweat equity, and noncity funds can be matched by the Opportunity Fund.

The bond includes $4 million for park forestry, along with $185,000 to do bond audits. This last item didn’t quell the objections of the San Francisco Taxpayers Union, a small group of conservative real estate interests that filed the sole opposition argument to Prop. A, courtesy of Barbara Meskunas, former legislative aide of suspended supervisor Ed Jew.

"Prop. A is a jobs program disguised as a parks bond," Meskunas wrote, also arguing the 2000 park bond money wasn’t properly spent. "The Parks Dept. needs new management, not new tax money."

But Peskin said this opposition from conservatives is unsurprising: "The Taxpayers Union opposes every tax and bond. They have never wanted to pay their fair share."

Learn what the measure would do for the eastern waterfront by bicycling the Blue Greenway on Jan. 13 with Prop. A supporters starting at 10 a.m. at Heron’s Head Park on Hunters Point and finishing at noon at Fisherman’s Wharf. For more info, call (415) 240-4150.

Comments, ideas, and submissions for Green City, the Guardian‘s weekly environmental column, can be sent to

Polishing SPUR



Wedged among the commerce, tourism, and white-collar businesses north of Market Street is the slim entry to 312 Sutter, easy to miss unless you happen to be searching for the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. SPUR occupies the fourth and fifth floors of the building — and occupies them completely. Cubicles are close and overstuffed. Conversations compete. Space for meetings is a hot commodity. Four bicycles, ridden to work by staff members, are crammed in a side room where languish a half century’s worth of policy papers, photographs, and planning documents generated by the active public interest think tank.

It looks more like a struggling nonprofit than one of the most influential policy organizations in town, one supported by the city’s richest and most powerful interests.

"This is why we’re building the Urban Center," said Gabriel Metcalf, the youthful executive director of the 48-year-old organization, clad in a dark suit and sipping from a Starbucks coffee cup while he roams the fourth floor office space searching for any available real estate to sit and talk.

He settles on an open-faced workroom with empty seats. They circle a table covered with a thick ledger of plans for SPUR’s new Urban Center, a $16.5 million, 12,000-square-foot four-story building at 654 Mission that the group is building with more than $8 million in public money.

Plans for the center include a free exhibition space, a lending library, and an evolution of the group’s current public education program, now consisting of noontime forums, to include evening lectures and accredited classes. Though the center will house meeting rooms for SPUR’s committees and offices for its staff, the suggestion is that the new space will be a more public place.

And SPUR seems to be searching for a new public image.

For years the organization was synonymous with anything-goes development, ruinous urban renewal, and an economy policy that favored big business and growth at all costs. Today SPUR’s staffers and some board members present a different face. The new SPUR features open debate and seeks consensus; phrases like sustainability and public interest are bandied about more than tax cuts and urban renewal.

But San Francisco progressives are a tough crowd, and SPUR’s history — and, frankly, most of its current political stands — makes a lot of activists wonder: Has SPUR really changed its spurs? And can a group whose board is still overwhelmingly dominated by big business and whose biggest funders are some of the most powerful businesses in town ever be a voice of political reason?

As one observer wryly noted, "I’ve yet to see SPUR publicly denounce a development project."

SPUR considers itself a public policy think tank, a term that conjures an impression of lofty independence. But the group has, and has always had, a visible agenda. SPUR members regularly advocate positions at public meetings, and the group takes stands on ballot measures.

And it has a painful legacy. "We have a dark history," Metcalf admits, referring to the days when "UR" stood for "urban renewal," often called "urban removal" by the thousands of low-income, elderly, and disabled people, many African American and Asian, who were displaced by redevelopment in San Francisco.

That history — and the fact that SPUR’s membership is largely a who’s who of corporations, developers, and financiers — has caused some to raise questions about the public money the group has received for the new Urban Center.

"They’re not an academic institution," said Marc Salomon, a member of the Western SoMa Citizens Planning Task Force who’s butted heads with the group. "There’s no academic peer review going on here. The only peer review is coming from the people who fund them."

Yet prominent local progressives like artist and planning activist Debra Walker, veteran development warrior Brad Paul, and architect and small-business owner Paul Okamoto have joined the SPUR board in recent years. "There’s a bunch of us that have come in under the new regime of Gabriel Metcalf because there’s a real aching need for a progressive dialogue about planning," said Walker, who thinks SPUR is making concerted efforts to inform its policies with the points of view of a broader constituency. "I think SPUR is engaged in those conversations more than anyone."

SPUR defines its mission as a commitment to "good planning and good government." Though a wide range of issues can and does fall under that rubric, the 71 board members and 14 staff tend to focus on housing, transportation, economics, sustainability, governmental reform, and local and regional planning, and their agenda has a dogged pro-growth tinge.

SPUR likes to trace its history to the post–1906 earthquake era, when the literal collapse of housing left many people settling in squalid conditions. The San Francisco Housing Association was formed "to educate the public about the need for housing regulations and to lobby Sacramento for anti-tenement legislation." A 1999 SPUR history of itself places its genesis in the Housing Association, though other versions of the group’s history suggest a slightly different taproot.

According to Chester Hartman’s history of redevelopment in San Francisco, City for Sale (University of California Press, 2002), the 1950s were a time when corporate-backed regional planners were envisioning a new, international commercial hub in the Bay Area. They were looking for a place to put the high-rise office buildings, convention centers, and hotels that white-collar commerce would need. Urban renewal money and resources were coming to the city, and San Francisco’s Redevelopment Agency identified the Embarcadero and South of Market areas as two of several appropriate places to raze and rebuild.

The agency, however, was dysfunctional and couldn’t seem to get plans for the Yerba Buena Center — a convention hall clustered with hotels and offices — off the ground. The Blyth-Zellerbach Committee, "a group the Chamber of Commerce bluntly described as ‘San Francisco’s most powerful business leaders, whose purpose is to act in concert on projects deemed good for the city,’<0x2009>" as Hartman writes, commissioned a report in 1959 by Aaron Levine, a Philadelphia planner, which identified the Redevelopment Agency as one of the worst in the nation and recommended more leadership from the business community. The San Francisco Planning and Urban Renewal Association was born, funded by Blyth-Zellerbach, whose leaders included some corporations that still pay dues to SPUR, like Bechtel, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

John Elberling, a leader of the Tenants and Owners Development Corp., a group representing the people who were trying to stay in the area, was one of many activists who litigated against the city’s plan and managed to wedge some affordable housing into the developers’ vision of South of Market. SPUR, he told us, was "explicitly formed to support redevelopment issues in the ’60s and ’70s."

By 1974, when Paul began fending off redevelopment efforts around the Tenderloin and directed the North of Market Planning Coalition, "all through that period SPUR was viewed by the community as a tool for the Chamber of Commerce," he said.

In 1976, "Urban Renewal" became "Urban Research," a move away from the tarnished term. The 1999 commemoration of SPUR’s 40th anniversary is a somewhat sanitized history that never presents the faces of the people who were displaced by the program; nor does the analysis nod significantly toward the neighborhood groups and activists who were able to mitigate the wholesale razing of the area.

That’s still a soft spot for SPUR, some say. "They’re uncomfortable with questions of class. Those questions tend to be glossed over," said Tom Radulovich, executive director of Livable City and a SPUR board member from 2000 to 2004.

Metcalf doesn’t duck the issue. "If you’re a city planner, you’ve got to meditate deeply on urban renewal, even though you didn’t do it. It’s the only time in urban history that planners were given power, and that’s what they did with it," he said.

Besides a long friendship with powerful businesses, SPUR has frequently enjoyed an intimate relationship with city hall. "They morphed in the ’80s into a good-government, good-planning group, but in fact they were really tight with the [Dianne] Feinstein administration," Elberling said. "One of the ways you got to be a city commissioner was by being a member of SPUR. Feinstein’s planning and development club was SPUR."

Mayor Feinstein’s reign is often remembered as a boom in downtown development — at least until 1985, when San Franciscans for Reasonable Growth succeeded in passing Proposition M, a measure severely limiting annual high-rise development. SPUR opposed the measure and still supports increased height and density along transit corridors in the city.

"SPUR always goes with more," Radulovich said. "Sometimes there’s a trade-off between sustainability and growth, and I don’t have much confidence they won’t go with growth."

A March SPUR report, "Framing the Future of Downtown San Francisco," is one example of a cognizance of other options, weighing the pros and cons of expanding the central business district or transforming it into a "central social district": "While office uses remain, the goal of a CSD is to create a mixed-use, livable, 24-hour downtown neighborhood." Another line in the report offers a telling look at how SPUR thinks: "Economic growth in the CSD model may be diminished as the remaining sites for office buildings become used for new residential, retail, or other non-office uses."

Retail means, in fact, economic growth. A 1985 Guardian-commissioned study of small businesses in San Francisco, "The End of the High-Rise Jobs Myth," found that most of the new jobs created in the city between 1980 and 1984 were not in the downtown office high-rises but around them. Businesses with fewer than 99 employees had generated twice as many jobs as those with more employees.

While the numbers may be different today, the concept that neighborhood-serving retail keeps a local economy healthy has only grown stronger, as has public sentiment against chain stores. Yet SPUR opposed a proposition calling for conditional-use permits for formula retail, which voters approved in 2006.

Over the years SPUR’s political record has been checkered. Though the group talks the good-government talk, it opposed propositions establishing the city’s Ethics Commission and reforming the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. According to Charley Marsteller, a founder of Common Cause and a longtime good-government advocate in San Francisco, "Common Cause supported initiatives in 1995, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2005. SPUR opposed all of them."

This November, SPUR came out in favor of Proposition C, which calls for public hearings before measures can be placed on the ballot, but opposed Question Time for the mayor. The group gave a yes to the wi-fi policy statement and approved establishing a small-business assistance center — contrary to past stances.

SPUR isn’t afraid to defend its positions. "Those who disagree with a conclusion SPUR reaches object to us presenting our ideas as objectively true rather than as values based," Metcalf notes in the May SPUR report "Civic Planning in America," in which he surveys other similar organizations.

"And in truth, evidence and research seldom point necessarily to one single policy outcome, except when viewed through the lens of values. We want to stop sprawl. We want housing to be more affordable. We want there to be prosperity that is widely shared…. Perhaps it’s time to grow more comfortable with using this language of values," he writes.

Paul, who’s now program director for the Haas Jr. Fund and has served on the SPUR board for seven years, says the group is indeed changing. "Over the last six to eight years I’ve noticed a real shift on the board," he said. "We have really intense and interesting discussions about issues. People feel they can speak their mind."

Okamoto, a partner in the Okamoto Saijo architectural firm, thinks this is the result of a fundamental shift in planning tactics, due to a more recent and deeper comprehension of the coming environmental crises. "Global climate change is moving things. I think SPUR’s going in the same direction," he said. Okamoto joined SPUR "because I’d like to see if I could influence the organization toward sustainability. Now we have a new funded staff position for that topic."

And yet the fact remains that only 5 of the 71 board members — about 7 percent — can be described as prominent progressives. At least half are directly connected to prominent downtown business interests.

And a list of SPUR’s donors is enough to give any progressive pause. Among the 12 biggest givers in 2006 are Lennar Corp., PG&E, Wells Fargo, Westfield/Forest City Development, Bechtel, Catellus, and Webcor.

In the past 10 years SPUR’s staff has doubled, signaling a subtle shift away from relying mainly on the research and work of board members. One of the newest positions is a transportation policy director, and that job has gone to Dave Snyder, who helped revive the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition in 1991, founded Livable City, and spent seven years on SPUR’s board before taking the job.

Having occupied the new post for a year, he said, "If I left, it wouldn’t be because I didn’t like SPUR. The debates we have at the staff level are more open than I expected."

Proposition A, the November transportation reform measure, is one example of the group’s new approach. The group voted a month earlier than usual to endorse a measure that was directly in opposition to the interests of one of its biggest funders, Gap billionaire Don Fisher (the Gap is also a member of SPUR). According to Walker, when the SPUR board vetted the endorsements the number of no votes for Prop. A was in the single digits. "I was so surprised," she said.

SPUR opposed Proposition H, a pro-parking countermeasure largely funded by Fisher, and worked with progressives on the campaign.

Metcalf noted it was the ground troops who made all the difference. "We don’t have [that kind of] power, and there are other groups that do. We wrote it, but we didn’t make it win. The bike coalition and [Service Employees International Union Local 1021] did," he said.

Sup. Aaron Peskin, who brokered much of the Prop. A deal, called it a sign of change for SPUR. "They probably lost a lot of their funders over this."

Radulovich is still dubious. He jumped ship after witnessing some disconnects between the board and its members. Though SPUR asks members to check their special interests at the door, Radulovich couldn’t say that always happened and recalled an example from an endorsement meeting at which a campaign consultant made an impassioned speech for the campaign on which he was working.

As far as his board membership was concerned, Radulovich said, "there were times I definitely felt like a token…. Development interests and wealthy people were much better represented."

Some say that isn’t about to change. "SPUR has been, is, and I guess always will be the rational front for developers," said Calvin Welch, a legendary San Francisco housing activist. "The members of SPUR are real estate lawyers, professional investors, and developers. Its original function was to be the Greek chorus for urban renewal and redevelopment."

Welch and Radulovich agree SPUR doesn’t represent San Franciscans, and Welch suggests the Dec. 4 Board of Supervisors hearing on an affordable-housing charter amendment was a case in point. "The people who got up to speak, I’d argue that’s San Francisco, and it doesn’t look a fucking thing like SPUR."

SPUR recently applied for a tax-exempt bond capped at $7 million from the California Municipal Finance Authority to help pay the cost of SPUR’s new Urban Center. It’s a standard loan for a nonprofit — SPUR is both a 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) — but some neighborhood activists raised questions about whether SPUR’s project is an appropriate expense for taxpayer cash.

"There’s no city money going toward the Urban Center, but by using tax-exempt bond financing they’re depriving the US Treasury of tax revenues," Salomon said. "The people who are funding SPUR can afford to buy them a really nice building, with cash."

The Urban Center also received a $231,000 federal earmark from Rep. Nancy Pelosi, whose nephew Laurence Pelosi is a former SPUR board member. Another $967,500 will come to SPUR from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment, which voters set aside through Proposition 40 to fund projects that "provide a thread of California’s cultural and historical resources."

Metcalf said SPUR isn’t sitting on a pile of cash: "We’re not that wealthy. We just don’t have that level of funding." The group’s endowment is small, and according to its 2006 annual report, revenues were $1.8 million, 90 percent of that from memberships and special events. The annual Silver Spur Awards, at which the group celebrates the work of local individuals, from Feinstein to Walter Shorenstein to Warren Hellman, is one of the biggest cash cows for SPUR, typically netting more than half a million dollars.

So far most of the funds for the Urban Center have come from donations raised from board members, individuals, businesses, and foundations. Metcalf defends the use of public funds. "For a group like SPUR that needs to be out in front on controversial issues, our work depends on having a diverse funding base. The Urban Center is part of that," he said.

The new headquarters is modeled on similar urban centers in Paris and New York, places that invite the public to view exhibits and get involved in answering some of the bigger planning questions cities are facing as populations increase and sprawl reigns. According to SPUR, this will be the first urban center west of Chicago, and the doors should open in 2009.

Walker, who’s been a board member for about a year, isn’t ready to say SPUR has been transformed. "It’s in my bones to be skeptical of SPUR," she said. "I have a different perspective than most of the people who are on SPUR, but the membership is different from the people who are funding it. I still think we need to have a more progressive policy think tank as well."

Walker recruits for SPUR’s membership development committee and said some of her suggestions have been well received. "The reality is, the progressive community is really powerful here when we come together and work on stuff. You can’t ignore us. Rather than fight about it, SPUR is offering some middle ground."

Art and History vie for Presidio spot


history museum.jpg
History museum proposed by Presidio Historical Association

fisher's museum.jpg
Art museum proposed by Don Fisher

Last night at the Officer’s Club about 200 Marina residents gushed over Gap-founder Don Fisher’s plan to put a 100,000 square foot museum in the Presidio to house his art collection. For the most part they gave a demur nod to the Presidio Historical Association’s alternate proposal for a history museum. The two museums are vying for the same slice of real estate at the head of the Main Parade Ground, facing north toward the Bay where a bowling alley and tennis courts are currently located.

The historical association made a case for the site as a place where the history they’d be presenting actually went down, and said the grounds surrounding the museum would be a part of the museum itself. “The Main Post area is the most historically sensitive area,” said Gary Widman of the Historical Association. “It’s where San Francisco really started 1n 1776 and it’s an area that has buildings from almost every major period since that time.”

The only historical connection Mr. Fisher could come up with was the original plan for the Main Parade Ground, which called for a significant building at its head to anchor the site. He was firm in saying he could think of no other possible place for his museum. “This is the only location that works for us,” he said. “Nothing like that is available anywhere else in the Presidio.” In fact, he said he was planning on gifting his art to some other, already established museums until he was approached by the Presidio Trust, which suggested he consider building his own museum in the park instead.

Before the two plans were presented, Mayor Newsom offered some very diplomatic remarks suggesting a great compromise. “These don’t have to be competing projects,” he said, adding that he’d appointed a staff member (Kyri McClellan, 554-6123) to this project. “My office wants to participate in this process from the beginning.”

The plans agreed on one issue — parking would go underground. After that, they differ radically.

Behind the Bey empire


Editor’s Note: The Chauncey Bailey Project, a collaboration of local media outlets including the Guardian, is investigating the circumstances surrounding the Aug. 2 murder of Bailey, an Oakland journalist who was reporting on the financial dealings of the Bey family’s Your Black Muslim Bakery at the time he was killed. For more information, including audio, video, and updates on the case, click here.

Since 2003, Esperanza Johnson, a former key figure within Oakland’s Bey organization, and her husband, Antron Thurman, have acquired nearly $2 million worth of East Bay real estate through a string of controversial deals tainted with allegations of deceit.

In five cases those deals led to litigation. Johnson, of Antioch, who also goes by the name Noor Jehan Bey, has twice been accused of fraud. Court records indicate that one of those transactions involved falsified documents.

One sale involving Johnson, a licensed real estate broker, led to criminal charges: Alameda County prosecutors in 2006 convicted a Johnson associate on fraud charges stemming from a deal that cost an East Oakland couple their home.

A broad array of characters have tangled with Johnson and Thurman in court, including a disabled Berkeley bus porter forced from his family home, an Antioch couple now facing foreclosure, and East Bay Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds homes for the poor and struggling. Combined, they claim to have lost at least $1.77 million in property, cash and equity in the deals.

The revelations about Johnson and Thurman come as authorities scrutinize the extensive real estate dealings of the Bey family and their bankrupt business, Your Black Muslim Bakery, including Johnson’s role as the broker for an Oakland woman named Paulette Arbuckle who is attempting to buy the bakery’s San Pablo Avenue headquarters. Johnson bore four of the Bey family patriarch’s dozens of children.

Bakery CEO Yusuf Ali Bey IV, 21, jailed without bail on kidnapping and torture charges, also is charged with real estate fraud: prosecutors say he bought an Oakland property under a false identity.

And bankruptcy trustee Tevis Thompson, who is overseeing the liquidation of Your Black Muslim Bakery’s assets, has claimed in court papers that Bey IV transferred $2.28 million in bakery properties to his mother, Daulet Bey, in a bid to “defraud creditors.” The trustee has sued for those properties’ return.

Devaughndre Broussard, a 20-year-old bakery associate, is charged with the Aug. 2 shotgun slaying of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey as he walked to work in downtown Oakland. Police say Broussard made a confession – later recanted – that he killed Bailey because the journalist was working on a story about the bakery’s finances and bankruptcy case.

Johnson, whose state business registration was suspended more than a year ago for failure to pay taxes and who with Thurman has more than $1 million in state and federal tax liens recorded against them, didn’t return numerous telephone calls and emails, and didn’t answer the gate at her Antioch home on two recent occasions.

Thurman refused to speak to reporters who approached him recently in Oakland.

A Los Angeles real estate consultant who reviewed Johnson’s transactions for the Chauncey Bailey Project said the trustee and judge handling the bakery’s bankruptcy should examine Johnson’s record.

They “should be made aware that a realtor on a transaction which requires the trustee’s approval has a murky… background,” said Eric Forster.

The attorney for the court appointed bankruptcy trustee charged with liquidating the bakery said Johnson’s transaction history would be probed.

“Obviously it is of some concern to us and we’re looking into it,” Eric Nyberg, attorney for trustee Tevis Thompson, said when informed of the cases.

He also noted that Arbuckle may not, in the end, be the highest bidder for the bakery. A hearing on her offer is scheduled for Nov. 29. If the $899,999 bid of Johnson’s client, Arbuckle, is successful and Johnson is “entitled to receive the commission, then we really don’t have an issue with it,” Nyberg said.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Real Estate, Tom Pool, wouldn’t discuss the Johnson and Thurman transactions.


Markus Machado and Gail Mateo said that when they wanted to buy a newer and bigger home in 2005, they went to a real estate broker they thought they could trust: Esperanza Johnson.

A Compton native, Johnson became involved with the Bey organization, a spin-off of the Nation of Islam, at the age of 12, taking the name Noor Jehan Bey.

She’s returned to using the name Esperanza Johnson, though she’s been listed in judgments against her by banks and credit-card companies as Nellie Bey, Nuri Bey, Noojean Bey and Noor Jehan Esperanza, a review of records by the Chauncey Bailey Project shows. And, in 2005 testimony, she said she still occasionally uses the name Noor Jehan Bey.

Johnson had hired Machado, a graphic artist, to create flyers for her Signature One Mortgage and Real Estate.

In a recent interview at his lawyer’s office, Machado described her as warm and gregarious – at first, anyway. Machado said Johnson arranged what seemed like an incredible deal: the couple could sell their 50-year-old Pittsburg house and move into a spacious four-bedroom home in a verdant Antioch subdivision, an ideal place to raise their three children and grow old together.

Johnson promised they’d pay about $1,600 a month for the new home, only a little more than their mortgage at the time. Machado said Johnson even agreed to forgo her usual commissions “because we were like family.”

They said Johnson had told them their credit was poor, and talked them into selling their Pittsburg house to one of her employees, Araceli Moreno, for $350,000 while putting the new home and mortgage in Moreno’s name as well. They expected to refinance the loan in about a year, when Moreno would sign the house over to them.

It seemed perfect – until the bills arrived.

The payments were $2,700 a month and soon ballooned higher, they now say in court records. And then Johnson – who in sealing the deal had diverted almost $58,000 of equity from their old home to others, and had won large commissions for herself by getting them an unfavorable mortgage – stopped taking their calls, Machado said as his wife sat next to him weeping.

The couple had trouble making the payments almost immediately and Moreno began receiving calls from the mortgage company. She sued Machado and Mateo last year.

“The point of (Moreno’s) lawsuit was to get them to refinance to get my client’s name off the loan and for her to go ahead and salvage what of her credit picture she could,” said Moreno’s attorney, Richard G. Hyppa of Tracy.

The couple counter-sued in November 2006, naming Moreno and Johnson as defendants, claiming that Johnson defrauded them. They are now months behind on the payments and stressed to exhaustion.

“I don’t sleep. Gail doesn’t sleep,” Machado said. “I was very naive. We were led down this primrose path because I trusted (Johnson) implicitly.”

After paying off what they owed on the Pittsburg house, about $190,000 was left over that should have been used for the down payment on the Antioch house. But the suit alleges that Moreno used only $77,973 toward the down payment.

Meanwhile, court records say Johnson arranged for another $10,000 to be paid out to Moreno, and for someone named Harry Hawkins to get $45,830 as “repayment of loans.” Machado’s lawyer, Ken Koenen, said attempts to locate Hawkins have been fruitless.

The suit also claims Johnson structured the Antioch mortgage so monthly payments would increase dramatically after a year, and so Machado and Mateo would have to pay an $18,000 penalty in order to refinance – thereby earning her a much larger commission.

Machado and Mateo now are several months in arrears on the mortgage in Moreno’s name. Default notices have arrived at the house.

“It’s an extremely painful thing,” Machado said. “We have been robbed of our peace of mind. We have to make decisions about whether to put food in the refrigerator or gas in the car. We’ve not even sure we’re going to have a place to live.”

Johnson hasn’t responded to the couple’s lawsuit and will likely be subject to a default judgment, Koenen said.

Chicago D&P
Johnson and Thurman in 2004 acquired a Hercules home after a federal judge had ordered it frozen as an asset of an investment company, Chicago D&P, that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission had accused of fraud.
The property was supposed to be sold to help pay back investors – reportedly including at least 30 active-duty Marines and several churches – which had been cheated out of millions through Chicago D&P’s pyramid schemes.
The daughter of the company’s president had bought the property years earlier using a straw purchaser – a friend with better credit – as a front, according to court records.
That friend had been trying to get her name off the title for some time, and the daughter’s attorney – Githaiga Ramsey, who also worked for Thurman and Johnson on another case – persuaded her to sign the house over to them. Records shows Ramsey offered the friend $20,500 to complete the transaction but that the payment was never made.
The transfer of the house occurred after U.S. District Court Judge Charles Breyer ordered the property frozen. Thurman then turned around and sold it a month later to one of the employees of his bail bond business, Jamie Bonilla, for $460,000. Johnson filed Bonilla’s loan application.
Most of that money appears to have eventually gone to pay mortgages against the property when Thurman and Johnson acquired it for free. But first, Thurman received $60,213 from the deal’s escrow; and Ramsey got $31,000.
It remains unclear who lived in the house after Bonilla bought it.
Stephen Anderson, the receiver representing Chicago D&P’s bilked investors, wrote in April 2005 that he believed Johnson’s daughter, Nisa Bey, had lived there.
Other documents show Madeeah Bey – another mother to several of patriarch Yusuf Bey’s children – used it as her mailing address in two December 2004 real estate deals.
It’s also unclear whether Thurman and Johnson knew of the court order freezing the house when they took possession of it. But in February 2005 Breyer held Ramsey in contempt of court for defying his order.
Ramsey and Thurman both repaid the money they received from the escrow when Thurman sold the house to Bonilla.
Bonilla, within a few months, then sold the house for $625,000 – a profit of $211,690 from a property that the receiver had originally wanted to sell to help repay the defrauded investors.
Anderson said a long legal battle to regain title to the house would’ve been too costly.
“We made an economic decision,” he said. “The objective of the receiver is to return as much money as possible back to the investors, and it was not difficult to determine we were going to get more money” by taking the $91,000 from Thurman and Ramsey than by “trying to unscramble that whole mess.”
Ramsey, who surrendered his law license while facing disciplinary charges from an unrelated case, wouldn’t discuss this case or others in which he was involved with Johnson and Thurman.
“My God, am I never going to get away from this?” he said. “I’m not involved and I don’t want to be. I’m not in contact with these people anymore.”
Bonilla could not be located.
Habitat for Humanity house
Antron Thurman married a woman named Sharon Clements in December 1987. Records show they separated seven months later and eventually filed for a divorce that was never made final.

In early 2000, Clements, as a single mother, moved into a home on 105th Avenue in Oakland built by the low-income housing nonprofit East Bay Habitat for Humanity. It gave Clements a no-interest $112,000 loan with no down payment.

Clements died in April 2003, leaving no will. Usually either there’s a clear legal inheritance, or else the nonprofit passes the deed to someone qualified for low-income aid, executive director Janice Jensen said. But Clements’ son was still a minor.

Clements’ home stood vacant for three years while her estate was sorted out in Alameda County Probate Court.

Then, in mid-2006, Thurman argued he was entitled to the low-income property as Clements’ surviving spouse, records show – even as he listed his address as Johnson’s Antioch home, and other records showed that in the previous few years he had bought and sold in excess of $1 million in East Bay real estate.

“Frankly, I didn’t even know about Mr. Thurman,” Habitat’s Jensen said. “I had no idea who he was or that he even existed until the attorneys got involved. When we looked at the deed, she was the only signature, so she bought that home herself.”

Still, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Marshall L. Whitley awarded Thurman the house, which had restrictions in place to preserve its affordability for low income people.

Thurman then sold it back to Habitat for Humanity for the $13,500 in equity that had accrued during the three years Clements owned it.

Alana Conner, an attorney for Thurman at the time, said she couldn’t independently recall details of the case and declined to discuss it.


Mitzie Peters befriended Brandy Stewart in 2001, studying the Bible with her eventual victim, court records say.

Peters persuaded the cash-strapped AC Transit bus driver to deed the home at 1565 77th Ave. – which Stewart had inherited from her mother, and in which she, her husband and her three children lived – into Peters name and use Peters’ credit to get an equity loan. Peters promised to return the deed after a few days, keeping $12,000 from the loan as a fee.

“She said that because she loved me so much, she would never, ever think about doing this for anyone else, but she would help me to get the house refinanced,” Stewart would later testify.

Stewart deeded the house to Peters on March 11, 2003. But rather than sticking to the deal, Peters drained the property of all equity and gave nothing to Stewart, court records show.

Peters couldn’t have conducted the transaction without Johnson and her family.

As Peters’ broker, Johnson submitted a series of loan applications reporting Peters’ income as increasingly higher until the bank accepted the deal; she also allegedly coached Stewart in writing to the title company and falsely claiming Peters was her cousin.

Johnson’s sister, Ruquayya Jasmine Pennix, prepared Peters’ tax returns to send to the loan company, showing self-employment income that Peters later admitted was bogus; it’s unclear if Pennix knew that at the time.

Another of Johnson’s sisters – Fatima Ismail, who worked in Johnson’s office – drew up a phony lease showing Peters had derived rental income from Stewart’s house, according to court records.

Three months after she took title to Stewart’s house, Peters sold it to one of Johnson’s sons, Amir Bey. Under oath, Amir Bey later admitted he was just a straw buyer for his mother.

When arrested and charged with unrelated public benefits fraud, perjury and grand theft in July 2004, Peters made bail with Thurman’s Sinbad’s Bail Bonds.

As investigators also began probing her real estate activities, Peters gifted her Hayward condo to Johnson’s daughter, Nisa Bey, who sold it a month later for about $400,000.

Peters then lived with Nisa Bey in Pittsburg until going to prison. Because her bail had been secured with the condo, Thurman later asked a judge to exonerate the bail and return more than $50,000 – to Nisa Bey.

The Alameda County District Attorney’s office interviewed Johnson, Thurman, and their attorney, Githaiga Ramsey – who had represented Peters until just two months earlier, and who had just arranged the Chicago D&P deal for them – in September 2004.

“Johnson seemed evasive when questioned about irregularities in the loan and application process,” inspector Paul Wallace wrote in court papers.

But Johnson wasn’t charged.

“We didn’t think we could prove the case against her beyond a reasonable doubt,” Deputy District Attorney Alyce Sandbach said. “We didn’t have enough to make her on a case of fraud… of having made knowing misrepresentations.”

Among additional charges filed against Peters in November 2004 was a felony grand-theft count for equity and title to the Stewarts’ home; she pleaded no contest to that and 15 other, unrelated counts a year later, and was sentenced in February 2006.

The Stewarts got the $50,374.10 bail money Thurman had tried to direct to Nisa Bey. A judge in January ordered Peters to pay $486,083.90 in the Stewarts’ civil lawsuit, but they haven’t seen a dime, their lawyers say.

Amir Bey and Johnson tried to evict the Stewarts, court documents show, but backed off when the couple obtained free legal help.

The Stewarts then sued Johnson, Peters and Amir Bey; Johnson eventually offered to deed the house back to Stewart, but with the equity drained, the Stewarts couldn’t afford the higher mortgage payments.

A judge in September 2006 ordered Johnson and Amir Bey to pay the Stewarts $100,000 – $20,000 up front and $1,667 per month for 48 months.

Rebecca Saelao, the Stewarts’ attorney, said this civil judgment became a lien on the house, and was subordinated to massive mortgages Johnson and Amir Bey had taken on the property and eventually defaulted on. The house was sold at auction last year for $80,900, public records show.

The Stewarts got only about $5,000 from the sale of the home they’d lost. They no longer live in the Bay Area, and couldn’t be reached for comment.


Wrapped in a thin, sea-green blanket, Donald Taylor lay in a narrow bed at a Stockton nursing home recently, his frail 61-year-old body ravaged by diabetes and hypertension. His wheelchair was parked at his bedside, a walker he wants to learn to use, a few feet away.

Taylor is broke and relies on Medi-Cal, the state insurance program for the indigent, to bankroll his care and board at the Elm Haven Care Center.

His room is dingy and, fluorescent-lit with peeling blue wallpaper and a television, foil wrapped around its rabbit-ear antennae, issuing forth static-filled sound. He spends his days “just doing nothing.”

He said he wonders what his life might be like now if he never encountered Antron Thurman. “I think about it quite often, but there’s nothing I can do… I think about how they took the house from me,” Taylor said haltingly in a soft, gravelly voice that contained little emotion.

In the 1950s Taylor’s parents bought a cozy two-bedroom home on a tree-shaded street in north Berkeley. He grew up there and lived there still as an adult, while working as a bus-station porter. When his parents died, he and his sister, Loretta Alexander, inherited the house; the mortgage was paid off.

In early 2001, according to interviews and court documents, stepbrother Frederick Myers Jr., approached the siblings with a plan: He would help them form a company to manage the house and another property they had inherited, an undeveloped Lake County parcel.

Myers asked them to transfer the two deeds to the new corporation, which he would helm for them. Taylor said he agreed at his sister’s urging, believing the three of them could profit from development of the Lake County parcel.

But Myers suddenly sold the Berkeley house to Thurman, pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars and disappeared, court documents say, catching Taylor and Alexander completely off guard.

“I felt I had been cheated,” Taylor said, adding that he believes Thurman and Myers worked in concert. “Fred Jr. took the house and sold it to (Thurman) and it’s been downhill ever since. He sold it out from underneath us.”

Myers could not be located. Thurman, asked if he remembered Taylor, refused to answer as he climbed into a Cadillac Escalade outside a home in the Oakland hills.

Alexander’s son, Tony Cole, expressed disgust at the way his mother and uncle were played. “That property slipped right out from underneath them,” he said in a phone interview. “They didn’t have the business sense to know what was going on.”

Taylor and Alexander in 2004 sued to reclaim the house. Myers never appeared in court, but Thurman – represented by Githaiga Ramsey – responded by filing his own suit, claiming he had legitimately bought the property for $374,388 and demanding that Taylor pay $1,500 in monthly rent or get out.

Taylor and Alexander eventually settled the case for $55,000; it took Thurman 10 months to pay them, court records indicate. Taylor’s attorney, Frederic Harvey, refused to discuss the case.

The two-story, beige stucco house with a large garage has steadily appreciated in value. Public records show Thurman sold it in 2004 to Madeeah Bey – the same relative who used the Chicago D&P house in Hercules as her address – for $520,000; she sold it for $850,000 less than a year later. The house is now assessed at $867,000.

Alexander died last year. Taylor lost most of his possessions including photos of his mother when he left the property.

“I’d like to tell him to go (screw) himself,” Taylor said of Thurman, his legs twitching quietly under the blanket.

University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism students Lisa Pickoff-White, Robert Lewis, Nick Kusnetz, Vianna Risa Davila, Marnette Federis and Lucie Schwartz contributed to this story.

Thomas Peele and Josh Richman are staff writers for the Bay Area News Group; A.C. Thompson is a free-lance reporter working for New America Media and Bay Area News Group-East Bay; Bob Butler is a freelance reporter and president of the Bay Area Black Journalists Association.

Fisher fails



The crowd at El Rio, the Mission Street dive bar, was reaching capacity election night when Sup. Aaron Peskin climbed onto an unstable bar stool to announce a political victory that had been very much in doubt just a few weeks earlier.

“They said it could not be done. We drove a Hummer over Don Fisher!” Peskin said, referring to the Republican billionaire and downtown power broker who funded the fight against progressives in this election, as he has done repeatedly over the years.

Indeed, the big story of this election was the improbable triumph of environmentalists over car culture and grassroots activism over downtown’s money. The battleground was Muni reform measure Proposition A, which won handily, and the pro-parking Proposition H, which went down to resounding defeat.

It was, in some ways, exactly the sort of broad-based coalition building and community organizing that the progressives will need to help set the city’s agenda going into a year when control of the Board of Supervisors is up for grabs.

“I just felt it at El Rio — wow, people were jazzed,” said campaign consultant Jim Stearns, who directed the Yes on A–No on H campaign. “We brought in new energy and new people who will be the foot soldiers and field managers for the progressive supervisorial candidates in 2008.”

Maintaining the momentum won’t be simple: many of the people in El Rio that night will be on opposite sides next June, when Assemblymember Mark Leno challenges incumbent state senator Carole Migden, and they’ll have to put aside their differences just a few months later.

Downtown, while soundly defeated this time around, isn’t going to give up. And some parts of the winning coalition — Sup. Sean Elsbernd, for example, who helped with west-side voters, and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR), which helped bring more moderate voters into the fold — probably aren’t going to be on the progressive side in Nov. 2008.

But there’s no doubt the Yes on A–No on H campaign was a watershed moment. “I’ve never seen this kind of coalition between labor and environmentalists in the city,” Robert Haaland, a union activist who ran the field campaign, told us. “New relationships were built.”

During his victory speech, Peskin singled out the labor movement for high praise: “This would not have happened if it were not for our incredible brothers and sisters in the house of labor.” He also thanked the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and environmental groups — and agreed that the labor-environmental alliance was significant and unique. “This is the first time in the seven years that I’ve been on the Board of Supervisors where I have seen a true coalition between labor and the environmentalists,” he said.

It’s not clear what we can expect in 2008 from Mayor Gavin Newsom, whom the latest results show finishing with more than 70 percent of the vote, better than some of his own consultants predicted. Newsom endorsed Yes on A–No on H, but he did nothing to support those stands, instead focusing on defeating Question Time proposition E, which narrowly failed.

Will Newsom continue to pay fealty to the biggest losers of this election, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and Fisher, who funded No on A–Yes on H and became this year’s antienvironmentalism poster child?

Or will Newsom — who has said little of substance about his plans for 2008 — step to the front of the transit-first parade and try to drive a wedge in the labor-environmentalist-progressive coalition that achieved this election’s biggest come-from-behind victory?



The Yes on A–No on H campaign was a striking combination of good ground work by volunteers committed to alternative transportation and solid fundraising that allowed for many mailers and a sophisticated voter identification, outreach, and turnout effort.

“We worked the Muni a lot in the last days, particularly in areas where we thought there were a lot of young people,” Stearns said.

Polls commissioned by the Yes on A–No on H campaign showed that Prop. H, which would have deregulated parking and attracted more cars downtown, was winning by 54–39 percent as of Aug. 30. By Oct. 25 that lead had narrowed to 40–41 percent, a trend that gave the campaign hope that a big final push would produce a solid margin of victory, particularly given that more detailed polling questions showed support dropped fast once voters were educated on the real potential impacts of the measure.

Prop. A was much closer throughout the race, particularly given that both daily newspapers and left-leaning Sups. Gerardo Sandoval and Jake McGoldrick opposed it and even the Green Party couldn’t reach consensus on an endorsement.

“This could have meant a lot of arrows from a lot of directions,” Stearns said.

Campaign leaders Peskin, Haaland, and Stearns were so worried about Prop. A being defeated — and about not having the money for a big final telephone canvas in the final days — that they decided to make last-minute appeals for money.

“I’ve been a nervous wreck about this,” Haaland said of the campaign on election night.

On the evening of Nov. 3, he placed an anxious call to Peskin, suggesting that the latter make an appeal for money to Clint Reilly, a real estate investor who has often helped fund progressive efforts.

Peskin agreed and asked Stearns to help him make the pitch — and the two men drove to Reilly’s Seacliff home at 10 p.m. on Nov. 3.

“Prop. A just struck me as a nice, decent, positive message,” Reilly told the Guardian at the election night party, which he attended with his wife, Janet Reilly, a former State Assembly candidate.

Sharing Peskin and the campaign’s concerns that Prop. A was in trouble, Reilly cut a check for $15,000, which was enough to keep the phone banks going and help give the measure a narrow margin of victory.

But the money alone wasn’t enough for this mostly volunteer-run campaign.

“The push we made on the last five days of this campaign was just incredible,” campaign manager Natasha Marsh told us. “We had close to 500 volunteers on that last four days.”



The campaign also developed an extensive list of potentially supportive absentee voters — fully half of them Chinese speaking — who were then contacted with targeted messages.

Rosa Vong-Chie, who coordinated the voter outreach effort, said the messages about climate change, clean air, and Fisher’s involvement worked well with English-language voters. Chinese speakers didn’t care as much about Fisher, so campaign workers talked to them about improving Muni service.

The absentee-voter drive (and the push among Chinese-language voters) was unusual for a progressive campaign — and the fact that Prop. A did so well among typically conservative absentee voters was a testament to the effort’s effectiveness.

Elsbernd, one of the most conservative members of the Board of Supervisors, crossed many of his political allies to support the Yes on A–No on H campaign, and his involvement helped win over west-side voters and demonstrated that environmentalism and support for transit shouldn’t be just progressive positions.

“It’s great for public transit riders. It reinforces that this is a transit-first city…. Public transit is not an east-side issue,” Elsbernd told us, adding that the election was also a victory for political honesty. “It shows that people saw through the campaign rhetoric.”

The Fisher-funded rhetoric relied on simplistic appeals to drivers’ desire for more parking and used deceptive antigovernment appeals, trying to capitalize on what he clearly thought was widespread disdain for the Board of Supervisors.

“The attacks against the board didn’t work,” Peskin said, noting that in election after election the supervisors have shown that they “have much longer coattails than the chief executive of San Francisco.”

“I think it’s a pretty thorough rejection of Don Fisher’s agenda. He was not able to fool the voters,” said Tom Radulovich, director of Livable City and a BART director, who was active in the campaign. “This was about transit and what’s best for downtown. We should be very proud as a city.”



The day after the El Rio party, at the monthly Car Free Happy Hour — a gathering of alternative-transportation activists and planners — there was excited talk of the previous night’s electoral triumph, but it quickly turned to the question of what’s next.

After all, progressives proved they could win in a low-turnout election against a poll-tested, attractive-sounding, and well-funded campaign. And given that the number of signatures needed to qualify an initiative for the ballot is a percentage of the voters in the last mayor’s race, it suddenly seems easy to meet that standard.

Some of the ideas floated by the group include banning cars on a portion of Market Street, having voters endorse bus rapid-transit plans and other mechanisms for moving transit quicker, levying taxes on parking and other auto-related activities to better fund Muni, and exempting bike, transit, and pedestrian projects from detailed and costly environmental studies (known as level of service, or LOS, reform to transportation planners).

“There’s a lot of potential to move this forward,” Haaland said later. “We can talk about creating a real transit-justice coalition.”

There’s also a downside to the low turnout: downtown can more easily place measures on the ballot or launch recall drives against sitting supervisors, which would force progressives to spend time and money playing defense.

But overall, for an election that could have been a total train wreck for progressives, the high-profile victory and the new coalitions suggest that the movement is alive and well, despite Newsom’s reelection.

SF’s skatepark crisis


By Justin Juul

After attending SF360 Film+Club’s recent screening of Freedom of Space — a film about the harsh realities of enjoying an illegal sport– and then meeting some friends in a Safeway parking lot for a midnight skate-jam on some shitty ramps, the only thing I can say is: Why the fuck hasn’t anyone built a decent skatepark in this city?

All the elements have been present for over a decade: thousands of people who would come to a park if there was one, business owners who are sick of calling the cops on skateboarders, cops who are sick of wasting their time, and a huge base of high-profile companies like High Speed Productions (Thrasher, Slap, Juztapoz), DLX Distribution (Spitfire, Thunder, Anti-hero, etc.), FTC and Huf that could easily ante up some funds for a project. And why doesn’t SF have something like The Burnside Project in Portland? Are SF skaters just too lazy, or is there some force working against them? Rather than go off on an un-researched rant about the SF skate community not doing its job, I thought I’d talk to someone who’s been in the trenches for a while.

The Burnside Project in Portland

To find out more about the reality of SF’s skate park struggle I spoke to Rick Dinardo, Co-Founder of the Bay Area Skate-park Coalition.

SFBG: So Rick, my main question is: Why doesn’t San Francisco, the birth place of modern day street skating, have a decent park?

Rick Dinardo: Oh my god, how much time do you have? Before I get into it, though, you should realize that San Francisco finally is getting a good centrally-located skatepark. It’s going to be in Portrero Hill, right by the regular park that’s been there for years. As for why it’s taken the city 30 years to get off its ass and build one, well, that has to do with red tape, real estate, government corruption, lack of interest, and a whole lot of other bullshit, mostly money related.

SFBG: Well okay, I understand it’s difficult to get licenses and land and all that, but why haven’t all the huge skateboard companies, especially the ones that capitalize on their SF roots, why haven’t they gotten together and just fucking done the thing? It seems like they have enough money to at least fund a DIY project if not something as amazing as Rob Dyrdek’s deal in Kettering, Ohio.

Dinardo: First of all, I think you’re overestimating how much money these companies are making. These parks cost millions and millions of dollars, and that’s in places like Scott’s Valley where there is still open space for building. Land prices in SF are out of this fucking world. Whatever those companies chose to donate would be a drop in the bucket in a situation like this.

Also… I don’t think the companies you mentioned are very community oriented. I mean, this is capitalism we’re talking about, and they’re trying to make money, not sustain a community. I don’t think they care as much about supporting skateboarding in SF as they do about making the sport popular across the globe.




For more than a decade, the king of the hill over in Bernal Heights, restaurant-wise, has been Liberty Café, one of those marvelous places that bloomed in the city’s neighborhoods after the 1989 earthquake. The quake, by damaging roads and bridges, made it more difficult for would-be suburban diners to get to the city center and its glittering array of possibilities; it also depressed the real estate market, so that a diaspora of young chefs could afford to open places of their own in the city’s many residential villages.

Given the flow of wealth into Bernal in recent years, it was probably inevitable that a pretender to Liberty Café’s crown would emerge — and now one has, without benefit of earthquake. The restaurant is called Tinderbox, a "freestyle bistro" (per the menu card) opened by Ryan Russell and chef Blair Warsham toward the end of the summer on an easterly, sloping stretch of Cortland Avenue. The snug space is about as un-Liberty as could be; it’s spare and modern rather than neo-quaint: the walls are covered with recycled cork, the ceilings hung with light boxes of frosted glass, and the tables topped with burnished copper. There’s even a private dining room of sorts, a cozy nook (up a half flight of stairs) that resembles the captain’s mess on some clipper ship of yesteryear.

Warsham’s food is also wildly un-Liberty-like. While both kitchens bow to the gods of the local and sustainable, Tinderbox’s ethos is one of bold innovation. Warsham stops short of festooning his dishes with foams and gelées but isn’t at all shy about unlikely combinations — most of which (to perfect our theme of unlikeliness) work.

From the get-go, you are given notice of the restaurant’s bent for artful eccentricity. A basket of bread? Forget it: Your server brings you instead some popcorn, basted with a Thai-ish blend of coconut red curry, lemongrass, and galangal. You are a little wary at first but are quickly won over; the basket is soon emptied, and the server brings you another. (Extreme traditionalists will note that there is bread on the premises, and the staff will probably bring you some if you ask for it or your children insist.)

The menu offers a la carte and prix fixe options, but the latter — $35 for any appetizer, any main course, and any dessert or a glass of house wine — is too good a deal to pass up. The only excluded items are the ribeye steak, T-box tasting (a kind of appetizer sampler), and the lasagnette, a loose sandwich of saffron-chervil pasta leaves plumped out with either sautéed calamari ($15) or zucchini ($13) and dressed with a habit-forming sauce of fresh paprika pepper.

Some of the dishes, it must be said, are exemplars of austere virtue: a trio of whole grilled sardines ($11), say, on a bed of white-bean purée. Preserved Meyer lemon and thyme were said to lurk elsewhere on the plate, but what we noticed was the glistening plumpness of the fish, and that was what mattered. A rabbit hot pocket ($10) wasn’t quite austere, maybe, in its envelope of gold-fried pastry but was otherwise familiar despite the substitution of slightly exotic rabbit meat for something more quotidian, such as chicken. The halved hot pocket was plated with a luxuriantly glossy salsa verde and pitted castelvetrano (i.e. green) olives whose saltiness helped balance the blandness of the underseasoned rabbit meat.

Beets and figs, together on the same plate? A nightmare scenario for the beet-and-fig-hater, but the combination ($9) — beet coins laid atop fig coins and drizzled with beet vinaigrette — turned out to be surprisingly tasty, with an unusual harmony between the sharp sweetness of the figs and the earthy richness of the beets. Was the walnut blue cheese popper, a knobbly golf ball like a leftover from a caterer’s tray at some holiday party, necessary, or just an attempt at comic relief?

The only high-invention dish I came away with doubts about was the grilled avocado cutlet ($17). This turned out to the pitted, peeled halves of a whole avocado, grilled to a light char and filled with lightly caramelized cucumber dice. On the other side of the plate sat a beautifully browned risotto cake whose inner layer consisted of cojita and avocado cream, which lent the cake some creamy weight but made only a tenuous connection to the cutlet itself. As for the cutlet: Why grill a ripe avocado? Perhaps the thinking was that, since the grill benefits many a vegetable — many a fruit too — it would benefit the avocado. But this calculation overlooked the law of unintended consequences. A ripe avocado is already soft and doesn’t need grilling to make it softer, and it has an appealing butteriness that isn’t enhanced by grill char, no matter how pretty such char might be to the eye. A main dish concocted from avocado is a wonderful idea, but this dish isn’t it; the chef is too much with us.

Desserts, on the other hand, tend toward the extraordinary. A trio of fresh-doughnut-like raspberry beignets ($7) was simplicity itself. But a cannolo ($7) dribbled forth almond cream inflected with black pepper, and was plated amid reflecting pools of strawberry and basil oils. And a Kaffir lime panna cotta ($7), presented in what might have been a dog’s water dish as conceived by some designer in Milan, was all the more amazing — an engulfing denseness of cream, a bright muted acidity like filtered sunshine — for being a last-minute replacement to the scheduled star, a basil version. The sole holdover detail was the little chunk of honeycomb on top — the golden king of that particular hill.


Dinner: Mon.–Thurs. and Sun., 5:30–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat., 5:30–11 p.m.

803 Cortland, SF

(415) 285-8269

Beer and wine


Surprisingly not too noisy

Wheelchair accessible *

Transit or traffic


Click here for the Clean Slate: Our printout guide to the Nov. 6 election


San Francisco is at a crossroads. The streets are congested, Muni has slowed to a crawl, greenhouse gas emissions are at all-time highs, and the towers of new housing now being built threaten to make all of these transportation-related problems worse.

The problems are complicated and defy simply sloganeering — but they aren’t unsolvable. In fact, there’s remarkable consensus in San Francisco about what needs to be done. The people with advanced degrees in transportation and city planning, the mayor and almost all of the supervisors, the labor and environmental movements, the urban planning organizations, the radical left and the mainstream Democrats — everyone without an ideological aversion to government is on the same page here.

The city planners and transportation experts, who have the full support of the grass roots on this issue, are pushing a wide range of solutions: administrative and technical changes to make Muni more efficient, innovative congestion management programs, high-tech meters that use market principles to free up needed parking spaces, creative incentives to discourage solo car trips, capital projects from new bike and rapid-transit lanes to the Central Subway and high-speed rail, and many more ideas.

In fact, the coming year promises a plethora of fresh transportation initiatives. The long-awaited Transit Effectiveness Project recommendations come out in early 2008, followed by those from the San Francisco County Transportation Authority’s Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study (an unprecedented, federally funded effort to reduce congestion here and in four other big cities), an end to the court injunction against new bicycle projects, and a November bond measure that would fund high-speed rail service between downtown San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But first, San Franciscans have to get past a few downtown developers and power brokers who have a simplistic, populist-sounding campaign that could totally undermine smart transportation planning.

On Nov. 6, San Franciscans will vote on propositions A and H, two competing transportation measures that could greatly help or hinder the quest for smart solutions to the current problems. Prop. A would give more money and authority to the San Francisco Metropolitan Transportation Agency while demanding it improve Muni and meet climate change goals.

Prop. H, which was placed on the ballot by a few powerful Republicans, most notably Gap founder Don Fisher (who has contributed $180,000 to the Yes on H campaign), would invalidate current city policies to allow essentially unrestricted construction of new parking lots.

New parking turns into more cars, more cars create congestion, congestion slows down bus service, slow buses frustrate riders, who get back into their cars — and the cycle continues. It’s transit against traffic, and the stakes couldn’t be higher.

"If we are serious about doing something about global warming, it’s time to address the elephant in the room: people are going to have to drive less and take transit more" was how the issue was framed in a recent editorial cowritten by Sup. Sean Elsbernd, arguably the board’s most conservative member, and Sup. Aaron Peskin, who wrote Prop. A.

Peskin says Prop. H, which Prop. A would invalidate, is the most damaging and regressive initiative he’s seen in his political life. But the battle for hearts and minds won’t be easy, because the downtown forces are taking a viscerally popular approach and running against city hall.

The San Francisco Examiner endorsed Prop. H on Oct. 22, framing the conflict as between the common sense of "your friends and neighbors" and "a social-engineering philosophy driven by an anti-car and anti-business Board of Supervisors." If the Examiner editorialists were being honest, they probably also should have mentioned Mayor Gavin Newsom, who joins the board majority (and every local environmental and urban-planning group) in supporting Prop. A and opposing Prop. H.

The editorial excoriates "most city politicians and planners" for believing the numerous studies that conclude that people who have their own parking spots are more likely to drive and that more parking generally creates more traffic. The Planning Department, for example, estimates Prop. H "could lead to an increase over the next 20 years of up to approximately 8,200–19,000 additional commute cars (mostly at peak hours) over the baseline existing controls."

"Many, many actual residents disagree, believing that — no matter what the social engineers at City Hall tell you — adding more parking spaces would make The City a far more livable place," the Examiner wrote.

That’s why environmentalists and smart-growth advocates say Prop. H is so insidious. It was written to appeal, in a very simplistic way, to people’s real and understandable frustration over finding a parking spot. But the solution it proffers would make all forms of transportation — driving, walking, transit, and bicycling — remarkably less efficient, as even the Examiner has recognized.

You see, the Examiner was opposed to Prop. H just a couple of months ago, a position the paper recently reversed without really explaining why, except to justify it with reactionary rhetoric such as "Let the politicians know you’re tired of being told you’re a second-class citizen if you drive a car in San Francisco."

Examiner executive editor Jim Pimentel denies the flip-flop was a favor that the Republican billionaire who owns the Examiner, Phil Anschutz, paid to the Republican billionaire who is funding Prop. H, Fisher. "We reserve the right to change on positions," Pimentel told me.

Yet it’s worth considering what the Examiner originally wrote in an Aug. 2 editorial, where it acknowledged people’s desire for more parking but took into account what the measure would do to downtown San Francisco.

The paper wrote, "Closer examination reveals this well-intentioned parking measure as a veritable minefield of unintended consequences. It could actually take away parking, harm business, reduce new housing and drive out neighborhood retail. By now, Californians should be wary of unexpected mischief unleashed from propositions that legislate by direct referendum. Like all propositions, Parking For Neighborhoods was entirely written by its backers. As such, it was never vetted by public feedback or legislative debate. If the initiative organizers had faced harder questioning, they might have recognized that merely adding parking to a fast-growing downtown is likely to make already-bad traffic congestion dramatically worse."

The San Francisco Transportation Authority’s Oct. 17 public workshop, which launched the San Francisco Mobility, Access, and Pricing Study, had nothing to do with Props. A and H — at least not directly. But the sobering situation the workshop laid out certainly supports the assessment that drawing more cars downtown "is likely to make already-bad traffic congestion dramatically worse."

City planners and consultants from PBS&J offered some statistics from their initial studies:

San Francisco has the second-most congested downtown in the country, according to traffic analysts and surveys of locals and tourists, about 90 percent of whom say the congestion is unacceptably bad compared to that of other cities.

Traffic congestion cost the San Francisco economy $2.3 billion in 2005 through slowed commerce, commuter delays, wasted fuel, and environmental impacts.

The length of car trips is roughly doubled by traffic congestion — and getting longer every year — exacerbating the fact that 47 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from private cars. Census data also show that more San Franciscans get to work by driving alone in their cars than by any other mode.

Traffic has also steadily slowed Muni, which often shares space with cars, to an average of 8 mph, making it the slowest transit service in the country. Buses now take about twice as long as cars to make the same trip, which discourages their use.

"We want to figure out ways to get people in a more efficient mode of transportation," Zabe Bent, a senior planner with the TA, told the crowd. She added, "We want to make sure congestion is not hindering our growth."

The group is now studying the problem and plans to reveal its preliminary results next spring and recommendations by summer 2008. Among the many tools being contemplated are fees for driving downtown or into other congested parts of the city (similar to programs in London, Rome, and Stockholm, Sweden) and high-tech tools for managing parking (such as the determination of variable rates based on real-time demand, more efficient direction to available spots, and easy ways to feed the meter remotely).

"As a way to manage the scarce resource of parking, we would use pricing as a tool," said Tilly Chang, also a senior planner with the TA, noting that high prices can encourage more turnover at times when demand is high.

Yet there was a visceral backlash at the workshop to such scientifically based plans, which conservatives deride as social engineering. "I don’t understand why we need to spend so much money creating a bureaucracy," one scowling attendee around retirement age said. There were some murmurs of support in the crowd.

Rob Black, the government affairs director for the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which is the most significant entity to oppose Prop. A and support Prop. H, was quietly watching the proceedings. I asked what he and the chamber thought of the study and its goals.

"We have mixed feelings, and we don’t know what’s going to happen," Black, who ran unsuccessfully against Sup. Chris Daly last year, told me. "The devil is in the details."

But others don’t even want to wait for the details. Alex Belenson, an advertising consultant and Richmond District resident who primarily uses his car to get around town, chastised the planners for overcomplicating what he sees as a "simple" problem.

Vocally and in a four-page memo he handed out, Belenson blamed congestion on the lack of parking spaces, the city’s transit-first policy, and the failure to build more freeways in the city. Strangely, he supports his point with facts that include "Total commuters into, out of, and within San Francisco have only increased by 206,000 since 1960 — more than 145,000 on public transit."

Some might see those figures, derived from census data, as supporting the need for creative congestion management solutions and the expansion of transit and other alternative transportation options. But Belenson simply sees the need for 60,000 new parking spaces.

As he told the gathering, "If someone wants to build a parking lot and the market will support it, they should be able to."

The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) is generally allied with the downtown business community on most issues, but not Props. A and H, which SPUR says could be unmitigated disasters for San Francisco.

"SPUR is a pro-growth organization, and we want a healthy economy. And we think the only way to be pro-business and pro-growth in San Francisco is to be transit reliant instead of car reliant," SPUR executive director Gabriel Metcalf told me in an interview in his downtown office.

He agreed with Belenson that the free market will provide lots of new parking if it’s allowed to do so, particularly because the regulatory restrictions on parking have artificially inflated its value. "But the negative externalities are very large," Metcalf said, employing the language of market economics.

In other words, the costs of all of that new parking won’t be borne just by the developers and the drivers but by all of the people affected by climate change, air pollution, congested commerce, oil wars, slow public transit, and the myriad other hidden by-products of the car culture that we are just now starting to understand fully.

Yet Metcalf doesn’t focus on that broad critique as much as on the simple reality that SPUR knows all too well: downtown San Francisco was designed for transit, not cars, to be the primary mode of transportation.

"Downtown San Francisco is one of the great planning success stories in America," Metcalf said. "But trips to downtown San Francisco can’t use mostly single-occupant vehicles. We could never have had this level of employment or real estate values if we had relied on car-oriented modes for downtown."

Metcalf and other local urban planners tell stories of how San Francisco long ago broke with the country’s dominant post–World War II development patterns, starting with citizen revolts against freeway plans in the 1950s and picking up stream with the environmental and social justice movements of the 1960s, the arrival of BART downtown in 1973, the official declaration of a transit-first policy in the ’80s, and the votes to dismantle the Central and Embarcadero freeways.

"We really led the way for how a modern dynamic city can grow in a way that is sustainable. And that decision has served us well for 30 years," Metcalf said.

Tom Radulovich, a longtime BART board member who serves as director of the nonprofit group Livable City, said San Franciscans now must choose whether they want to plan for growth like Copenhagen, Denmark, Paris, and Portland, Ore., or go with auto-dependent models, like Houston, Atlanta, and San Jose.

"Do we want transit or traffic? That’s really the choice. We have made progress as a city over the last 30 years, particularly with regard to how downtown develops," Radulovich said. "Can downtown and the neighborhoods coexist? Yes, but we need to grow jobs in ways that don’t increase traffic."

City officials acknowledge that some new parking may be needed.

"There may be places where it’s OK to add parking in San Francisco, but we have to be smart about it. We have to make sure it’s in places where it doesn’t create a breakdown in the system. We have to make sure it’s priced correctly, and we have to make sure it doesn’t destroy Muni’s ability to operate," Metcalf said. "The problem with Prop. H is it essentially decontrols parking everywhere. It prevents a smart approach to parking."

Yet the difficulty right now is in conveying such complexities against the "bureaucracy bad" argument against Prop. A and the "parking good" argument for Prop. H.

"We are trying to make complex arguments, and our opponents are making simple arguments, which makes it hard for us to win in a sound-bite culture," Radulovich said.

"Prop. H preys on people’s experience of trying to find a parking space," Metcalf said. "The problem is cities are complex, and this measure completely misunderstands what it takes to be a successful city."

When MTA director Nathaniel Ford arrived in San Francisco from Atlanta two years ago, he said, "it was clear as soon as I walked in the door that there was an underinvestment in the public transit system."

Prop. A would help that by directing more city funds to the MTA, starting with about $26 million per year. "I don’t want to say the situation is dire, but it’s certainly not going to get better without some infusion of cash to get us over the hump," Ford told the Guardian recently from his office above the intersection of Market and Van Ness.

The proposed extra money would barely get this long-underfunded agency up to modern standards, such as the use of a computer routing system. "We actually have circuit boards with a guy in a room with a soldering iron keeping it all together," Ford said with an incredulous smile.

The other thing that struck Ford when he arrived was the cumbersomeness of the MTA’s bureaucracy, from stifling union work rules to Byzantine processes for seemingly simple actions like accepting a grant, which requires action by the Board of Supervisors.

"Coming from an independent authority, I realized there were a lot more steps and procedures to getting anything done [at the MTA]," he said. "Some of the things in Prop. A relax those steps and procedures."

If it passes, Ford would be able to set work rules to maximize the efficiency of his employees, update the outdated transit infrastructure, set fees and fines to encourage the right mix of transportation modes, and issue bonds for new capital projects when the system reaches its limits. These are all things the urban planners say have to happen. "It should be easy to provide great urban transit," Metcalf said. "We’re not Tracy. We’re not Fremont. We’re San Francisco, and we should be able to do this."

Unfortunately, there are political barriers to such a reasonable approach to improving public transit. And the biggest hurdles for those who want better transit are getting Prop. A approved and defeating Prop. H.

"It’s clear to people who have worked on environmental issues that this is a monumental election," said Leah Shahum, director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and an MTA board member. "San Francisco will choose one road or the other in terms of how our transportation system affects the environment. It will really be transit or traffic."

Shahum said the combination of denying the MTA the ability to improve transit and giving out huge new parking entitlements "will start a downward spiral for our transit system that nobody benefits from."

"We are already the slowest-operating system in the country," Ford said, later adding, "More cars on the streets of San Francisco will definitely have a negative impact on Muni."

But even those who believe in putting transit first know cars will still be a big part of the transportation mix.

"All of it needs to be properly managed. There are people who need to drive cars for legitimate reasons," Ford said. "If you do need to drive, you need to know there are costs to that driving. There is congestion. There are quality impacts, climate change, and it hurts transit."

"There are parking needs out there, and the city is starting to think of it in a more responsive way. We don’t need this to create more parking," Shahum said. "If folks can hold out and beat down this initiative, I do think we’re headed in the right direction."

Yet the Yes on A–No on H campaign is worried. Early polling showed a close race on Prop. A and a solid lead for Prop. H.

Fisher and the groups that are pushing Prop. H — the Council of District Merchants, the SF Chamber of Commerce, and the San Francisco Republican Party — chose what they knew would be a low-turnout election and are hoping that drivers’ desires for more parking will beat out more complicated arguments.

"The vast majority of San Franciscans call themselves environmentalists, and they want a better transit system," Shahum said, noting that such positions should cause them to support Prop. A and reject Prop. H. "But they’re at risk of being tricked by a Republican billionaire’s initiative with an attractive name…. Even folks that are well educated and paying attention could be tricked by this."

For Metcalf and the folks at SPUR, who helped write Prop. A, this election wasn’t supposed to be an epic battle between smart growth and car culture.

"For us, in a way, Prop. A is the more important measure," Metcalf said. "We want to focus on making Muni better instead of fighting about parking. We didn’t plan it this way, but the way it worked out, San Francisco is at a fork in the road. We can reinforce our transit-oriented urbanity or we can create a mainly car-dependent city that will look more like the rest of America."

Money and politics



The upcoming election hasn’t generated much voter interest, with only a couple of measures that seem likely to have an impact. But corporate interests in San Francisco and beyond are still spending big money — in ways that are secretive, suspicious, and sometimes contradictory — to influence the election and win the gratitude of elected officials.

Although the final preelection campaign statements were due Oct. 25, the money continues to roll in. And perhaps most ominously, many campaign committees are spending far more than they are taking in, effectively using this accrued debt to hide contributors until after the election.

And almost invariably, the person at the center of such schemes — who facilitates the most creative and unsettling spending by downtown political interests — is notorious campaign finance attorney Jim Sutton, who also serves as Mayor Gavin Newsom’s treasurer (and didn’t return our calls for comment by press time).

Political donations are supposed to be transparent and reflect popular support for some campaign. But once again, this election is showing the disproportionate influence that corporations have on local politics and the difficulties faced in trying to accurately trace that influence.

There are "No on K" billboards all over San Francisco, showing a giant image of a man’s empty pocket alongside the dubious claim that "Proposition K will cut $20 million from Muni." The signs were created and funded by Clear Channel Outdoor.

Prop. K is an advisory measure that the Board of Supervisors placed on the ballot this fall to ask whether voters want to restrict advertising on public spaces like bus stops. But it was aimed at Clear Channel Outdoor’s contract to maintain 1,100 city bus shelters and sell advertising on them, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 23. In exchange, the CCO agreed to pay the Metropolitan Transportation Authority $5 million annually, plus 45 percent of its annual revenues from shelter ad revenues.

Nonetheless, the measure would put city voters on record as opposing the CCO’s basic business model, so the company fought back. The "No on K — Citizens to Protect Muni Services" filing suggests that there is no citizen involvement in the No on K campaign. So far, No on K has only received donations from Clear Channel Outdoor, including $120,000 in cash and $55,750 in in-kind contributions of radio time and ad space.

Maybe Clear Channel really is trying to help Muni get more money, rather than pad its own profits. After all, its parent corporation, Clear Channel International, donated $20,000 to support Muni reform measure Proposition A — authored by Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin — on Oct. 15, just days before Clear Channel Outdoor won its big bus transit deal with the city.

Yet following the corporate money even further makes it clear that altruism isn’t what motivates corporate spending. No on K also benefited from independent expenditures by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce 21st Century Committee, a general-purpose committee created in 1999, which received major funding this year from the Gap ($10,000), Pacific Gas and Electric Co. ($7,500), Bechtel ($5,000), Catholic Healthcare West ($5,000), and Clear Channel Outdoor ($1,000).

The 21st Century Committee also spent $716 for newspaper ads opposing Prop. A, which would net the MTA at least $26 million per year from the city’s General Fund. Sutton — a former chair of the California Republican Party — and his associates effectively control the 21st Century Committee, which is also helping Newsom, his top client, avoid facing the Board of Supervisors in public. The committee has made independent expenditures opposing Proposition E, a charter amendment that would require the mayor to make monthly appearances before the board, something voters approved last year as an advisory measure. According to Newsom spokesperson Nathan Ballard, defeating that measure is the mayor’s top priority this election.

"I think he’s focused on his own race and also Question Time. There’s where he’s spending his resources," Ballard said when asked why Newsom isn’t campaigning or fundraising for the Yes on A and No on H campaigns, even though he supports those positions.

The 21st Century Committee has also made independent expenditures in support of Proposition C (which would require public hearings for measures that the board or the mayor places on the ballot), Proposition H (see "Transit or Traffic," page 18), Proposition I (which would establish an Office of Small Business), and Proposition J (Newsom’s wireless Internet advisory measure).

Each of these ballot measures has a committee dedicated to raising funds, but as of Oct. 25, only the Small Business Campaign (Yes on C) appeared to have no outstanding debts, or accrued funds, as they are called in campaign finance circles. Maybe that’s because the Small Business Campaign got $10,000 from the 21st Century Committee, $5,000 from PG&E, $2,500 from AT&T, $8,500 from the SF Small Business Advocates, and $1,000 from the Building Owners and Manufacturers Association of San Francisco’s political action committee.

Yes on C also got a $7,500 contribution from the Committee on Jobs Government Reform Fund, which has ties to Clear Channel, the MTA, and efforts to influence local transportation policy. Records show that on Nov. 4, 2005 — just before the election — the Committee on Jobs Government Reform Fund reported a $6,900 "loan" for radio airtime and production costs from Clear Channel to help defeat a measure that would have split the MTA appointments between the mayor and the Board of Supervisors.

Fast-forward to Oct. 3 of this year, when the Committee on Jobs, which reported its "loan" as accrued funds for almost two years, reported that this debt has now been forgiven. Which is odd, given that, as of Oct. 25, the Committee on Jobs had a cash balance of $778,000 — and had just received $35,000 from financier and Committee on Jobs board member Warren Hellman, $35,000 from AT&T, and $50,000 from the Charles Schwab Corp.

Equally interesting is the fact that the day after the Oct. 25 preelection filing deadline, the Committee on Jobs gave $25,000 to the Sutton-controlled No on E: Let’s Really Work Together Coalition. Such large late contributions require a notice to Ethics that can often escape notice by the media and voters.

The donation perhaps went to help balance the committee’s books; despite receiving $85,084 in monetary contributions, including $10,000 from attorney Joe Cotchett and society maven Dede Wilsey, No on E spent $110,244 before Oct. 25, leaving it with $26,610 in accrued debt.

No on E isn’t the only Sutton-controlled committee whose spending has outpaced donations received: as of Oct. 25 the Yes on H–No on A pro-parking committee and Newsom’s WiFi for All, Yes on J committee, not to mention the Gavin Newsom for Mayor campaign, were all registering large amounts of accrued debt.

Having these debts isn’t illegal. And it’s not unusual for a campaign to have a pile of unpaid bills at the time of its last preelection finance filing. But as Ethics Commission director John St. Croix told the Guardian, accrued funds "shouldn’t be used to hide who your contributors are. The idea of disclosure is to let voters know ahead of elections who is trying to influence their vote."

St. Croix points to the fact that committees are required to make reports every 24 hours in the 16 days before an election "so you know what they are spending on…. But if committees don’t report campaign contributions and people fundraise after the election, that could be a de facto way to hide who the contributors are."

And while Sutton has been characterized by many, including the Guardian (see "The Political Puppeteer," 2/2/04), as the dark prince of campaign finance, St. Croix says he doesn’t automatically suspect something is wrong just because a campaign has a lot of accrued debt.

"But if people suspect that to be the case and they file a complaint, Ethics investigates," St. Croix said, adding that for him, "really massive accrued funds would be a red flag."

Asked what he meant by massive, St. Croix said, "It depends on the office. You might expect a lot more to accrue in a mayor’s race or large campaigns that tend to do a lot of last-minute spending."

As of Oct. 25, Gavin Newsom for Mayor had received $1.1 million and spent $1.3 million, had a cash balance of $457,994 — and was reporting $97,548 in accrued debt, with $46,500 owed to Storefront Political Media, the company run by Newsom’s campaign manager, Eric Jaye.

Noting that Ethics’ job is "to get people to file on time and chase after those who don’t," St. Croix said that those who don’t file and are making major expenditures right before an election are the ones who will face the biggest fines. "They could face $5,000 per violation, which could be $5,000 for every contribution that was made to finance a smear campaign and wasn’t reported," he said.

The biggest fine the Ethics Commission has ever issued was $100,000 for Sutton’s failure to report until after the 2002 election a late $800,000 contribution from PG&E to help defeat a public power measure.

Compared to other years, the amounts of accrued debt in this election may look small, but former Ethics commissioner Joe Lynn points to a disturbing pattern in which Sutton-controlled committees were insolvent before the election, then raised funds later or, as in the case of the Committee on Jobs, magically saw their debts forgiven.

"If I am a candidate running for mayor, like Gavin Newsom, and I personally rake up $100,000 in debt and have a big financial statement, then that means there’s a creditor willing to advance me those funds," Lynn said. "But if the debt has been raked up by a ballot measure committee, then who is responsible? Why would vendors spend $10,000 for that committee unless they knew that debt was wired from the get-go?"

But the result is the same: voters don’t know who donated to the campaign until after the votes have been cast. A clear historical example of this debt scheme can be seen in the June 2006 No on D Laguna Honda campaign. In its last preelection report, No on D had $59,750 in contributions, $18,664 in expenditures — and $130,224 in debt.

But during the 16 days before the election, No on D suddenly got $110,000 in late contributions from the usual suspects downtown, including $2,500 from Hellman, $15,000 from Turner Construction, $10,000 from Wilsey, $2,000 from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and $2,500 from the Building Owners and Manufacturers Association of San Francisco.

As Lynn explains, campaign finance laws only require disclosure of contributions, not expenditures, made in the 16 days before an election — and only $64,000 worth of the contributions used to pay off No on D’s accrued expenses were disclosed, with $10,000 each from the California Pacific Medical Center and Kaiser Permanente trickling in on or after Election Day.

This year campaign finance watchdogs like Lynn note that the Sutton-controlled Yes on H–No on A committee has been hiding its contributors. In its first preelection report, filed Sept. 22, Yes on H showed $113,750 in contributions, $111,376.18 in expenditures, and $69,806.98 in accrued debt.

A month later it has doubled its contributions, tripled its expenditures — and had increased its accrued debt to $77,509. Lynn predicts that Yes on H’s accrued debt will be paid down by late contributions after the election or forgiven later on.

"The solution to the debt scheme is twofold," Lynn said. "Prosecute people doing the scheme and pass a law prohibiting campaigns from making more expenditures than they have contributions. Technically there is nothing illegal about reporting more debt that you have the cash or contributions to pay, but no businessperson regularly offers services in situations where it isn’t clear that they will be paid."

Since the Oct. 25 filing deadline, late contributions have continued to pour into No on E big-time, for a total of $59,500. That includes $25,000 from the Committee on Jobs, $2,500 from Jonathan Holzman, $6,000 from Elaine Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis, $1,000 from Chris Giouzelis, $1,000 from Nick Kontos, $1,000 from Farrah Makras, $1,000 from Victor Makras, $1,000 from Makras Real Estate, $5,000 from John Pakrais, $1,000 from Mike Silva, $1,000 from Western Apartments, $5,000 from Maurice Kanbar, and $5,000 from the San Francisco Apartment Association PAC.

The Yes on A committee hasn’t used the accrued debt scheme, but it has been the second-largest recipient of late contributions. It received $57,000 in late contributions, with donations from Engeo ($1,000), Singer Associates ($2,500), Trinity Management Services ($10,000), Elysian Hotels and Resorts ($5,000), Luxor Cabs ($1,000), Marriott International ($15,000), the SF Police Officers Association ($2,000), Sprinkler Fitters and Apprentices ($1,500), Barbary Coast Consulting ($2,500), and SEIU International ($3,397.14).

No on H (Neighbors Against Traffic and Pollution) received $4,500 in late contributions, with donations from Norcal Carpenters, Alice and William Russell-Shapiro, and Amandeep Jawa. And in what looks like a classic case of hedging bets, Singer Associates has made a $2,500 late contribution to both Yes on H and No on H.

Steven Mele, who is treasurer for Yes on A and No on H, told the Guardian, "There’s some people that time their contributions, but their names are out there, reported on public sites. A lot of corporate money comes in prior to the last deadline, then some afterwards. If campaigns are running with a lot of accrued debt, then those people must have an idea of what money is going to come in."

Unlike the campaigns controlled by the Sutton Law Firm, Mele’s committees, which work with Stearns Consulting, are not carrying massive loads of unpaid debt. Yes on A had received $302,452 and spent $279,890 and had $17,749 in debt as of Oct. 25. No on H had received $134,458 and spent $124,088 and had no debt as of Oct. 25.
Mele also believes that while campaign finance rules were written to make the money trail more transparent, "They’ve resulted in the public being inundated with so much information that they tend to glaze over."

Needed: a campaign against privatization


EDITORIAL It’s time for San Francisco to declare war on privatization.

The local threat is very real: as we reported in last week’s special anniversary issue, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration has moved to turn over a long list of city services — from housing for the mentally ill to the operation of the public golf courses — to the private sector. Should this happen, if history is any guide, the city would wind up losing millions, the quality of services would decline, and the economy would suffer as hundreds of well-paid, unionized employees lost their jobs.

Equally important, the public would lose control over the institutions that were and are created and run for its benefit.

Privatization is a recipe for corruption. There always has been and always will be some level of graft, corruption, and incompetence in government operations; there will always be the occasional city employee who sleeps on the job, fudges time cards, doesn’t do the job right, and somehow manages to avoid being fired. But that sort of small-time problem amounts to peanuts in comparison to what happens when large amounts of public money are turned over to the private sector.

Private companies are out to make profits — and for the most part they keep their finances secret. Many of the worst scandals in American history have involved kickbacks, backroom deals, and bribery aimed at sending taxpayer dollars into the coffers of big contractors, and these continue today. And the argument that the private sector is more efficient often turns out to be utterly false; the absolute worst waste of money in the nation’s health care system, for example, is the phenomenal overhead involved in private insurance plans. As much as 30¢ of every dollar spent on private-sector health care goes to administrative overhead and profit. The public Medicare system operates on about 5 percent overhead.

Of course, the public has no way of keeping track of where most of the private health care money goes; the insurance companies keep that information to themselves. So do most other private contractors that take public money. And even if you don’t like the way the system is managed, you don’t have much choice — insurance executives aren’t elected by anyone and aren’t accountable to the community.

San Francisco has a history of allowing private operators to take over public resources, and the results have been almost universally bad. One of the reasons the 1906 earthquake caused such devastation was that the private Spring Valley Water Co. — looking only for quick profits and not at long-term maintenance or service — failed to keep its pipes in good repair. When the city really needed water, to put out the postquake fires, it wasn’t available. That fiasco led city officials to develop a municipal water system, which now delivers some of the best, cleanest, and cheapest water in the country.

Of course, Congress gave San Francisco the right to build that water system, which uses a dam in Yosemite National Park, only on the condition that it also develop public electric power. Instead, in the greatest privatization scandal in the history of urban America, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. wound up initially controlling much of the output of the dam, and it still controls the city’s electric grid. The result: some of the highest electric rates in the nation and terrible, unreliable service.

San Francisco officials led the way to the privatization of the Presidio, turning over a national park to an unaccountable quasi-private board that operates as a real estate developer. The results: A giant commercial office complex, built with a $60 million tax break. Plans for high-end condos. Traffic problems, neighborhood problems — and a stiff bill to the city’s taxpayers, who have to subsidize private businesses that operate in a federal enclave without paying local taxes.

And if Newsom has his way, the pattern will continue: the mayor’s signature project this past year, for example, has been an attempt to let a private company control the city’s broadband communications infrastructure. Tens of millions in city contracts go every year to private nonprofits that fight like hell to avoid sunshine and accountability.

Enough is enough — San Franciscans of every political stripe need to organize to fight back. This city needs a new political coalition, a campaign against privatization.

There are all sorts of specific policies and legislation that ought to be on the agenda. For starters, privatization expert Elliott Sclar, a Columbia University economist, argues that any private business that takes city money to provide public services ought to be required to abide by open-government laws. That means every scrap of information related to that contract — including financial projections, executive salaries, profit and loss statements, and operating overhead figures — would be public record. All meetings of boards, panels, or other policy-making entities involved in managing the contract would be open to the public. If a private business doesn’t want to abide by those rules, fine; it can stick to private-sector work and stop bidding on government contracts.

Beyond that, the city needs to set up a task force to look at every private contract San Francisco hands out and determine why the city isn’t doing the work itself. If selling electricity is so profitable (and it clearly is, or PG&E wouldn’t be fighting so hard to keep its illegal monopoly), why can’t the city take over the job and bring in some revenue? If there’s money to be made building bus shelters and selling ads on them — and clearly there is, since Clear Channel Communications, a giant private company, went out of its way to get a contract with the city to do so — why can’t San Francisco make that money for the General Fund? If a private company can make money running the golf courses, why can’t the city?

Sure, there are times when it makes sense to bring in an outside contractor. We’d argue, for example, that the Board of Supervisors needs an independent budget analyst, not tied to City Hall, to monitor budgets and spending. But there are millions of dollars going out City Hall’s door every year to private outfits that aren’t accountable to the public. And there are millions of dollars that ought to be available for badly needed public services that the city is losing because some private operator is making a profit on public resources.

Organized labor has every reason to oppose privatization and ought to play a lead role in creating a new coalition. So should the public-power coalition and the folks who have been demanding sunshine for the nonprofits. But everyone who uses public services and pays taxes in San Francisco is affected when city money gets stolen, wasted, or diverted. It ought to be a broad-based coalition.

There’s an opportunity to turn things around here and make San Francisco the model city that it ought to be. There’s no time to waste.

Why Vancouver sucks


Look at all the pretty condos

I’m sick of hearing San Francisco planners, the folks at SPUR and SF Weekly columnists talk about how wonderful Vancouver is, what with all of the slender downtown condo towers that provide walkable neighborhoods, bike paths and a “new urbanist” approach to housing.

Here’s a bit of reality: The New York Times reports that housing costs in Vancouver are soaring. Guess what? All those condos haven’t brought down housing costs, or even stabilized them. The more condos, the higher the prices.

And guess what? Many of those rich condo buyers aren’t from Vancouver:

Fueling the high-end market are foreign and second-home buyers, [Helmut Pastrick, the chief economist for the Credit Union Central of British Columbia] said, though not necessarily from the United States. The weak American dollar, which for the first time in decades is worth less than the Canadian dollar, has been making real estate in Canada more expensive for Americans.

Other foreign buyers make up a significant percentage of the market, according to Ian Gillespie, the president of Westbank Projects. The company is building several residential towers downtown, including the 60-story Living Shangri-La, which will be Vancouver’s tallest building after it is completed in 2009.

“This is a very multicultural city,” said Mr. Gillespie, who cited as an example a pharmaceutical executive from the Middle East, who recently bought a 1,700-square-foot $3.65 million condo at the Fairmont Pacific Rim.


To make room for some projects, hundreds of single-room-occupancy hotel rooms for low-income residents have been lost, said David Eby, a lawyer with the Pivot Legal Society, a legal advocacy group. High prices are pushing out middle-income renters and buyers, he added.

Gee, might there be a different kind of lesson here for San Francisco?