San Francisco Chronicle

Big soda explodes on SF, gives $7.7 million to fight beverage tax

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If the soda tax proponents brought a supersoaker to the November ballot showdown, the soda industry brought a tsunami. New campaign finance reports filed today [Mon/6] show the soda industry gave $7.7 million dollars to shoot down the sugary beverage tax in San Francisco, and no, this does not count money spent in Berkeley against our sister city’s beverage tax. 

That number is completely off the charts. In San Francisco local politics, journalists have written screeds against local tech angel investor Ron Conway for throwing $50,000 at an Assembly race, for a point of reference. It may not be record setting though. In 2008, PG&E spent nearly $10 million to take down a clean energy initiative, Proposition H. Still, $7.7 million is simply an absurd amount of money in terms of San Francisco politics, and rarely seen.

And the American Beverage Association still has the entire month of October to outspend PG&E.

“It makes your eyeballs pop,” said Sup. Scott Wiener, a co-author of San Francisco’s sugary beverage tax, along with Sup. Eric Mar. “The rule of thumb is, if you can raise $1 million in San Francisco, you’re in good shape. I don’t even know what you’d do with $7 million.”

The money spent also bests the record set in nearby Richmond. The failed beverage tax was defeated handily with $2.6 million spent against it. It’s that frightening amount that spurred Wiener and Mar to start a grassroots campaign for the sugary beverage tax a year early. The San Francisco measure, on this November’s ballot, would levy a 2-cents-per ounce tax on sugary drinks sold in containers. The money would go directly into health and wellness programs in schools and city recreation centers. 

But the sugary beverage tax proponents have only raised about $225,000 so far, which is nowhere near the ballpark of the $7.7 million mark. San Francisco is awash in carbonated dollars.

Even more staggering is who the money is from. Most campaign finance forms show a long list of donors. Maybe a few firefighters kick in $500 here, maybe a retiree kicks in $100 there. This form has one, single campaign donor: the American Beverage Association, which is primarily funded by Pepsi Co. and Coca Cola. 

What does all that money buy? Well, for starters, a whole lot of political ads. The expenditures listed against Proposition E, the soda tax, list over $3,750,000 spent with GCW Media Services, who make slick campaign ads like the one below.

It also goes toward paying those oh-so-pleasant mailed ads, you know, the ones trying to link the soda tax with the rising cost of living, and evictions? The US Postal Service alone netted $3,500 to send those off.

The Young Democrats, who endorsed No on the Sugary Beverage Tax, got a whopping $20,000 for their troubles. And notably, Chile Lindo, whose owner repeatedly came out to testify against the sugary beverage tax, was paid $812. 

And let us not forget our friends at BMWL and Partners, paid over $161,000 by the American Beverage Association so far. No wonder Chuck Finnie, a flack at BMWL, got so testy with us when we questioned claims by the ABA.

“I was a journalist for 20 years, and this is bullshit,” the ex-San Francisco Chronicle investigative reporter told us. “The gloves are off.”

They certainly are. Big soda isn’t sparing a solitary dime when it comes to flooding our TV stations, our radio airwaves, our streets, and our billboards with a straightforward message: to vote against the sugary beverage tax. 

But the real message behind that effort is much easier to see, now that we know how much money they’ve spent.

They’re scared. 

Sugary beverages contribute much to obesity and diabetes rates in San Francisco and beyond, studies have shown, and the showdown with the soda industry in San Francisco and Berkeley could ripple across the country. Big soda’s big lobbyists are running astroturf campaigns we’ve exposed in previous coverage, and this $7.7 million show just how seriously the big soda companies consider these new taxes a threat to their livelihoods.

The only question is, will their big money succeed in hoodwinking San Francisco?

We’ve embedded the campaign filing below, which you can read for yourself or download.



Lawsuit alleges Lee campaign accepted illegal donations from undercover agent

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By Max Cherney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadly gamble

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joe@sfbg.com

As BART management and unions were locked in dysfunctional contract negotiations that would result in two strikes and two deaths last year, the district and the media scoffed at workers safety concerns and waged a media campaign demonizing the unions. Now, a new report commissioned by the district calls that strategy a horrible mistake.

The report from independent investigators Agreement Dynamics Inc., “Bay Area Rapid Transit Collective Bargaining Report and Recommendations,” reveals BART management perceived the Bay Area as anti-union. This guided its decision to hire Tom Hock as a contract negotiator and adopt a union-bashing public relations strategy that was then amplified by most local mainstream media outlets.

“In interviews, Tom Hock said he believed the strike would be very short and the unions would have to come back and reach an agreement,” the report, which was based on more than 200 hours of interviews of 60 BART employees, managers, and contractors, found. “He said media reports also heavily favored the management perspective.”

The San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News attacked BART’s workers in their news and editorial pages, stoking the flames of anger. “As to union claims that this is all about safety — how stupid do they think the public is?” the Merc opined in a July 2013 editorial. The Chronicle struck a similar tone in its Oct. 18 editorial, blaming workers and writing “the walkout is the height of irresponsibility.”

The unions warned management not to run the trains during the second strike, but those safety warnings went unheeded. A contract deal was reached only after two men working on the tracks during the strike, Laurence Daniels and Christopher Sheppard, were accidentally run down during what was later revealed as a replacement driver training exercise — warnings be damned.

“Some in management believed they had a good media strategy that put the public on their side,” the report found. Therefore, “the public was angry with the unions for demanding too much in their contracts.”

BART approved a contract from big-time public relations firm Singer Associates in April last year. Sam Singer and his firm are well-known for pulling the strings of local journalists and using scorched-earth tactics. As a result, articles highlighted riders woes and selected employee salaries while discounting safety and other concerns raised by workers.

But BART management and its board had longstanding CAL-OSHA violations, some of which were the subject of labor negotiations leading up to the strike. Notably, BART’s now-defunct “simple approval” policy, by which workers verbally notified management they would be working on the tracks, was one that both workers and state regulators long urged the district to change. The two deaths were linked to that controversial practice, which BART has since ended (see “Tragedy follows strike,” 10/23/13).

State regulators have fined BART for that fatal misjudgment and a final report from the National Transportation Safety Board is expected in the coming months. Only The Nation, East Bay Express, and Bay Guardian covered BART safety concerns with any depth or gravity before the two workers’ deaths. It’s hard to tell who led the dance — did the mainstream media embolden management, or did management lead on the media? Either way, safety was not a priority for BART managers during negotiations.

“Key points made about safety in bargaining sessions, as reported to us, fell on deaf ears,” the report’s authors noted. “Management thought the unions were just posturing, and the unions thought management was refusing to engage.”

The unions, the report found, “voiced frustration that they have raised these issues repeatedly, and management was not responsive…The ‘simple approval’ policy was seen as indicative of management’s unwillingness to deal with safety concerns until two workers were killed during the second strike in 2013.”

BART’s next contract negotiation is set for 2017. The transit agency has much work to do to repair its lingering culture of distrust, but so-called unbiased media need to cop to their anti-union slants. It took two deaths to show how relevant safety concerns really were.

Bombshell BART report slams hiring of union-busting negotiator Tom Hock

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Independent investigators analyzing BART’s recent turmultuous, rollercoaster-ride labor negotiations issued their report yesterday, concluding that last year’s pair of damaging strikes could and should been avoided. The opinions that the analysts collected from the unions, management, and BART’s Board of Directors covered a wide spectrum, but there were a couple of common themes. 

First, the strikes and the death of two BART workers who were killed on the tracks when BART management ran scab-run trains while the workers were on strike, were devastating to the district and its personnel.

“We just walked out of a war,” one anonymous BART employee (or manager) told the report authors. Other anonymous quotes follow a similar theme: “It was like Vietnam… Labor massacare… The bloodiest strike ever… He was our hired gun… They threw bombs.” 

The second thing everyone agreed on, from management to the unions, was that hiring union-buster labor consultant Tom Hock as a negotiator was a bad idea

I think a lot of the stakeholders involved and unions have identified that Tom Hock was the problem,” Tom Radulovich, a BART board director, told the Guardian. “This (report) validates my concerns. They talked to everybody.”

Agreement Dynamics Inc., who conducted the investigation on behalf of the BART board, did in-depth interviews with a multitude of BART union representatives, employees, managers, and labor negotiators. Through the report, Agreement Dynamics found a culture of distrust between labor and management that they described as entrenched and multi-generational. On top of that already potent powder-keg, Hock was hired as a negotiator. Seven board directors cast “aye” votes to hire Hock, including Radulovich. Directors Fang and Murray were absent from the room at the time of the vote.

According to the report, Hock came in with guns blazing. Mixing that attitude with what the report describes as BART General Manager Grace Crunican’s lack of experience in labor negotiations, and there was a perfect recipe for conflict. 

“When Tom Hock took over as chief negotiator, Grace had become hard line,” one source told Agreement Dynamics. “There wasn’t enough trust built… Tom Hock thought a strike was inevitable. I don’t know how we thought we could win. We did not even have the whole board supporting this.”

But despite the lack of groundswell support, Hock perpetuated a strategy to push the unions to strike, according to the source. 

“Tom pushed it to strike because Grace would not budge financially,” the source said. “So Tom said to Grace, ‘You will have to strike with your position.’ Management thought we could win the PR battle and the unions would cave. But the unions had politicians. The press can turn on a dime. They did and our strategy backfired.”

Two managers told Agreement Dynamics that lack of planning exacerbated this problem.

“We did not have a Plan B to prevent a strike,” one manager told the investigators. Another told them, “This strike was not productive. We never did a course correction and then there was another strike. Two people got killed. We spent millions to end up getting creamed, and engendering hate.”

In interviews with the investigators, Hock told them he believed the strike would be very short and the unions would “have to come back and reach an agreement” before management would have to give in. He based this on the Bay Area’s sentiment against the unions, the report wrote. He told investigators that media reports also heavily favored management’s perspective. (The report also outlines how management believed their ‘good strategy’ helped sway big media, like the San Francisco Chronicle, to take their side. Good job, guys.)

The negotiators were told by Hock that a number of factors led to the strike, as he tried to deflect blame. But the report’s analysis said “the conditions cited by Tom Hock (elected board, politically strong unions, ineperience in labor negotiations) have existed in prior negotiations when no strike resulted.” 

So Hock pushed the unions to strike, the same strike that led to two workers’ deaths, the report seemingly implies. But that was not his only misstep, according to the report. He also didn’t read the contract he signed off on.

After labor negotiations concluded, BART management brought celebrations to a screeching halt. For those that remember, a provision on family medical leave, section 4.8 of the labor contract, was disputed by BART management. They said they never signed that provision, which could cost BART upwards of $40 million in sick leave, if approved. 

BART management said it signed the provision due to a “clerical error,” which BART board director Zachary Mallet confirmed to the San Jose Mercury News. “The cause of this incident has been confirmed as a miscommunication-based clerical error during the write-up of a tentative agreement,” Mallet told the Merc. 

But Hock and district negotiators Paul Oversier and Rudy Medina all told Agreement Dynamics that they signed it without reading it. “If Tom Hock had read it before he signed it, 4.8 would not have happened,” one BART staff member told the investigators. 

But as much as Hock comes under fire in this report, the report also found that he came at a time of deep division between labor and management. The report shows a way out for that: leadership from the BART Board of Directors. Radulovich told the Guardian he agrees. The board must take the reins in righting the historic bad blood between all sides at BART. 

A lot of it is the culture of your organization,” he said. “When I was a baby BART director, [employees and management] were complaining about things that happened back in 1979. You do feel like you’re walking in on a fight going on long before you got there, and going on long after you leave.”

“That antagonism has been there from the beginning,” he told us. “The question I ask myself is: how can I change that?”

Tomorrow morning at a press conference at 9am, some of the BART board will present the report and talk about its findings. Maybe we’ll find those answers then. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report. 

Tom’s legacy

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steve@sfbg.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

LIFE OF THE CAPITOL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

SPARKING CHANGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

FLOOR SHOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

COMING OUT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

WHAT’S NEXT

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about Ammiano’s own political future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Did Big Soda swing a key endorsement by a progressive democratic club?

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Did the soda industry buy a prominent progressive political endorsement? Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle raised the question in a story by Heather Knight, who goes on to air a number of rumors propagated by the soda tax supporters against the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club.

First things first: the sugary beverage tax already has a lot of progressive support. Unions, health groups, and loads of other San Franciscans have backed the two cents per ounce tax on sugary beverages, Proposition E, which is slated to appear on this November’s ballot. The endorsement of “No on E” by the Milk Club is certainly a bit out of left field, and rightfully raised eyebrows in political circles.

That’s the argument Knight uses in her Sunday article, using a few quotes from the soda tax’s paid public relations’ people to take a big swing at Sup. David Campos, alleging this is a big ole scheme he’s orchestrated in order to get Coca Cola’s money to fund the Milk Club’s slate card, which would also feature Campos, giving him a boost in his Assembly race against Sup. David Chiu.

It’s a seemingly convincing scenario, and we’re not soothsayers. Maybe it’s true. But there are a number of reasons to not believe the hype.

First, we at the Guardian heard those same rumors and whispers too, but that wasn’t all we heard. One politico told us the beverage industry might be funding the Milk Club with $300,000 in campaign funds for their November ballot fliers. Our reaction was “um, what?!”

That’s more money than techie-billionaire Ron Conway spent backing Mayor Ed Lee’s major pet projects on the June ballot. Hell, it’s more money than some candidates raise in their entire races. That should’ve been the first red flag for the “soda milking the Milk Club” theory, but it wasn’t the last.

Second, though the club did accept money from the American Beverage Association, it wasn’t anywhere within spitting distance of $300,000. Tom Temprano, co-president of the Milk Club, told us they accepted $5,000 from the beverage industry to put on their annual gala. For context, SEIU Local 1021 donated $4,000 to the dinner. This is all data that would come out publicly in a few months through ethics filings anyhow, but long after the rumor of big beverage industry money would’ve caused its damage.

“All you get for sponsoring our dinner is a mention in the program and a plug on the stage,” Temprano told us. “If the [beverage industry] paid us anywhere near what the rumors are, I would’ve flown out Elton John to serenade [Assemblymember] Tom Ammiano in person.”

Though the $5,000 is not chump change to the Milk Club, its leadership doesn’t make endorsement decisions, which are enacted by a vote of the club’s members. In a heated exchange last week, Milk Club political wonks batted soda tax points back and forth like a beach ball. There was hardly a consensus on the matter.

“They didn’t vote the way I wanted but the process was very democratic,” Sup. Eric Mar told us. Mar was one of the authors of the soda tax, and even he doesn’t believe the Milk Club’s palms were greased by big soda’s big money.

“I feel that there are rumors being spread to undercut the integrity of the Harvey Milk Club, the strongest progressive voice and political leadership in the city right now,” he said. “I stand behind them even though they voted no on [the soda tax].”

Laura Thomas, co-president of the Milk Club, told us she is actually in favor of the soda tax. It’s easy to see why. As Deputy State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, she has day-to-day experience with public health, and she sees the far reaching affect of soda’s loads of sugar on San Francisco’s kids.

“I do support [the tax], and I’ve spoken passionately for it in our meetings,” Thomas told the Guardian. “I’d say it’s something we’re passionate on all sides about.”

The last stickler in the money-influence theory is a bit trickier. Many we talked to traced some of these rumors back to Chiu’s campaign spokesperson, Nicole Derse. When we spoke to her, she pounced on the subject like a hyena on carrion.

“The Harvey Milk Club has sold out to the soda industry,” she told us. “What would Harvey Milk think of this gross display of hypocrisy? David Campos needs to answer some serious questions on his position on the soda tax and his campaign.”

Notice how she shifted the Milk Club assertion, which we asked her about, straight into a Campos critique. She’s affable, she’s smart, but in that moment, Derse also sounded gleeful.

We then asked Derse if the rumor about the Milk Club and Campos came from her.

“I am not the person that started this rumor. But do you really think it’s a coincidence David Campos is broke and needs a vehicle to fund his campaign? I think it speaks for itself, if it happens,” she said. “If the Milk Club does not take hundreds of thousands of dollars from the American Beverage Association, I will happily be wrong.”

Actually, when it comes to spreading rumors through news outlets, being right or wrong doesn’t really matter. All you need to do is raise the question of impropriety, proof or no. It’s grandma’s classic recipe for a good political smear, as old as the hills, and very, very easy to do.

Update [8/26]: This story stirred up quite a bit of controversy, and folks called, emailed, Facebooked and Tweeted at us with one point: sure the Milk Club didn’t take all that much money from the American Beverage Association for the gala, but what about the future? Would they take a large sum from the ABA? Tom Temprano answered: “I find that completely unlikely. I’m going to say that’s not a situation we’re going to be in. But I haven’t had a conversation with anyone with anybody about money yet. Our entire board and PAC chair make decisions on fundraising.”

So there you are. If a donation in the tens of thousands of dollars should land on the Milk Club’s doorstep, Temprano is now on the record.

Alerts: August 20 – 26, 2014

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THURSDAY 21

 

Forum on Keystone XL Pipeline

The Commonwealth Club of California, 595 Market, SF. 6pm, $20 non-members, $12 members, $7 students (with valid ID). Join David Baker, energy reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle, and John Cushman, author of Keystone & Beyond and former New York Times reporter in this discussion on a controversial national pipeline project that’s given rise to one of the biggest political fights over energy in decades. With American oil production increasing and domestic demand in decline, does it make sense to build the Keystone XL pipeline?

 

 

Global Justice and Anti-Capitalism Party

Dr. Teeth & the Electric Mayhem, 2323 Mission, SF. tinyurl.com/globalhappyhour. 5:30-10:30pm, free. Ten percent of bar sales will be donated to Global Exchange. “Global Justice and Anti-Capitalism” might sound like a strange name for a party, but hey, that’s just what happens when you’re partying with international human rights organization Global Exchange.

 

FRIDAY 22

 

March against police violence

Alex Nieto Memorial, Bernal Heights Park, north side, SF. justice4alexnieto.org. Noon, free. Family and supporters of Alex Nieto, a Latino youth killed by the San Francisco Police Department earlier this year after his Taser was mistaken for a firearm, will march in his memory on the five-month anniversary of his death. In the wake of the Mike Brown shootings, the ongoing events in Nieto’s memory seek to inspire a new civil rights movement in the Bay Area against police violence. The march will proceed to the San Francisco Federal Building, 450 Golden Gate, where activists will hold a rally at 3pm.

 

SATURDAY 23

 

El Tecolote’s 44th Anniversary

Cesar’s Latin Palace, 926 26th St., SF. eltecolate.org. 8pm, $20. Celebrate 44 years of coverage with the San Francisco community newspaper El Tecolote. Featuring food, a raffle, and music from John Santos, Roger Glenn, Tito Gonzalez and Anthony Blea. All proceeds to benefit El Tecolote and community journalism.

SUNDAY 24 350 East Bay celebration and picnic Lake Merritt Amphitheater, Lake Merritt Blvd., Oakl. 350bayarea.org. Noon-3pm, free. Concerned about global warming but unsure how to make a difference? Drop in for 350 East Bay’s Climate Connection Celebration and get involved with a volunteer organization that’s dedicated to reducing carbon pollution in the Bay Area and beyond.

Lee and Pelosi talk middle class jobs in unequal SF

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-SF) joined Mayor Ed Lee at a press conference yesterday [Tue 12] at Yerba Buena across from the construction site of a Central Subway station. It was billed as an event highlighting how “San Francisco has been in the lead” on creating middle-class jobs, investing in transportation, and ensuring fair wages for workers.

But as these words in the press advisory leapt out at us, we at the Bay Guardian responded with raised eyebrows. Really? It has?

The point of this media appearance, we learned upon arrival, was to promote House Democrats’ newly unveiled Middle Class Jumpstart agenda – a legislative package floated to bolster the middle class, in advance of the upcoming midterm election. Pelosi and Lee also sought to highlight the Central Subway as a transportation infrastructure project that’s spurring middle-class job creation (The $1.6 billion Central Subway project has also spurred mystifying questions as to how the money is actually being spent, but that’s a different story).

Creating middle class jobs

The message was clear: San Francisco Democrats are here to support the middle class. But that’s a tough sell. Everyone knows that the middle class is vanishing from San Francisco as skyrocketing property values make it increasingly untenable for middle-income earners to reside here.

Instead, recent studies have shown that what’s really on the rise is income inequality: Even the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out that the city’s own customized Gini Coefficient, a formula used to measure wealth distribution, puts San Francisco on par with Rwanda in terms of its economic inequality.

Earlier this year, a Brookings Institute report found that the income gap between the city’s rich and poor is growing faster than in any other US city.

We asked Lee about that growing income inequality trend at the press conference.

Here’s what he said in response: “These union jobs – and [Building Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer] Mike Theriault knows this better than anybody else here – are middle class jobs for all workers that just want to earn their way forward. And I think the more projects that we have that are infrastructure related, that are transportation related, that are water infrastructure related … are all part of reestablishing and making sure that we don’t lose that middle class. … I think in San Francisco, we simply need to do more, and part of my responsibility is to build enough housing aimed at that sector, along with helping our low-income families.”

So if you want to be on a public-works construction crew, there may be hope. Except if you live in the Bayview, where unemployment stands at a stark 17 percent as compared with the citywide level of 4.5 percent, where it appears these opportunities still aren’t resulting in job creation.

That Lee mentioned building new housing is interesting, too, given that he recently came under fire by for intervening to weaken an affordable housing measure proposed by Sup. Jane Kim for the November ballot. His agenda has sought to advance a goal of building 30,000 new housing units, but Kim’s proposal would have further strengthened the city’s commitment to building affordable housing.

Investing in transportation 

Central Subway construction may well have created union jobs – but the decision to emphasize transportation funding as a solution for saving San Francisco’s middle class seems to ignore Lee’s backlash against San Francisco Sup. Scott Wiener for advancing a ballot measure to automatically increase funding for Muni in correlation with population growth, a significant public transit investment.

As the Guardian previously reported, Lee went so far as to issue memos calling for possible budget cuts as payback for Wiener’s bid to increase transit funding. But when we asked the mayor what his position was on the measure, which will appear on the ballot as Proposition B, he said he didn’t have a position on it.

“My big focus on transportation is trying to get the $500 million Proposition A because that requires two-thirds, which his does not, and I need to focus my full attention on passing that transportation bond,” Lee told us. “I’m not going to spend a whole lot of time on Proposition B, to be quite candid with you. … At this point, I’m not prepared to [take a position] because I don’t want it to be confusing for the public … and in a few months, I think you’re going to see some departments have to come back with revised budgets, to the non-delight of nonprofits, and programs that we had all agreed to fund.”

Ensuring fair wages for workers

Throughout the press conference, Lee and Pelosi repeatedly trumpeted a November ballot measure that seeks to raise the city’s minimum raise to $15 an hour by 2018. But it should be noted that this measure is a watered-down version of an earlier proposal put forward by a progressive coalition that hoped to get workers $15 an hour a year earlier.

It was scaled back after Lee convened a stakeholder dialogue to hash out a “compromise” measure, ostensibly to avoid a ballot battle between the bolder progressive measure and a competing proposal that business interests had contemplated rolling out to thwart the passage of a wage hike they deemed unacceptable. Technically, the measure headed to the ballot still holds the promise of designating San Francisco as having the highest nationwide minimum wage. But as a point of comparison with other cities where minimum-wage hikes are moving forward, median rent in Seattle is $1,190 – while median rent in San Francisco is $3,200. 

Pelosi: “Income inequality is a reality”

Finally, in response to our question on income inequality, Pelosi also decided to weigh in, delivering a very depressing history lesson.

“The income inequality is a reality, it’s a growing gap, it’s something that must be addressed,” she said, mentioning a proposed change to the federal tax code that would prevent CEOs from taking tax write-offs if they increased CEO pay by $1 million annually without also increasing workers’ wages.  “What’s happening now, it’s important to note, this is structural,” Pelosi said. “It’s not anecdotal. It’s real. Go back 40 years ago, the disparity between the CEO and the workers was about 40 times. … And as productivity rose, CEO pay rose, and workers’ pay rose. … That was called stakeholder capitalism.

“Somewhere around a dozen or so years ago, or maybe nearly 20, it became shareholder capitalism, which only had one thing: The bottom line. And that means that now, as productivity rises, workers’ wages stagnate and the CEO’s goes up like this.” Here Pelosi made a gesture indicating a sharp upward increase. “Now it’s about, I say 350, others say 400 times, the CEO pay versus the worker. It’s a right angle going in the wrong direction. It must be addressed.”

So there you have it, straight from Pelosi: CEOs who used to make 40 times their workers’ pay now earn 10 times more than that, while wages stagnate and the cost of living continues to rise. And leading San Francisco politicians are standing in front of the Central Subway construction site to say that projects like this, coupled with a provision to encourage CEOs to remember the little people when they get million-dollar raises, will restore the middle class.

Thank goodness the Democrats are looking out for the vanishing middle class in San Francisco and other cities. Don’t you feel better?

Article details bullying and retribution by the Mayor’s Office

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People are talking about this article from Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle about how much three fall ballot measures will cost the city, but many progressives and political outsiders are more focused on the juicy details lower down in the article about the spiteful, bullying political tactics practiced by the Mayor’s Office these days.

Mayor Ed Lee and his top aides are said to be “fuming” that Sup. Scott Wiener and five of his colleagues placed a measure on the fall ballot that would give Muni more money as the city’s population increases — and that “the mayor’s office seems to be hinting that it will target programs important to the six supervisors who voted to place Wiener’s proposal on the ballot.”

The measure is retroactive to 2003, the last time Muni had an increase in its funding from the city General Fund, so it would mean an immediate funding bump of $20 million or more, which the mayor is disingenuousnessly casting as budget buster. Keep in mind this same mayor unilaterally ended Sunday meters this year, costing Muni about $10 million a year, and supports corporate welfare programs that cost the city $17 million last year.

This spiteful and retaliatory approach to public policy by Lee, the elected official with the most control over the city’s pursestrings, and his minions was also a big factor in Sup. Jane Kim’s capitulation to the Mayor’s Office on her housing balance measure. Sources tell the Guardian that affordable housing advocates were threatened with reduced city funding from the Mayor’s Office if they continued to push for Kim’s original measure.

The Chronicle article was based largely on a Controller’s Office memo claiming the three ballot measures — the Muni measure, a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2018, and reauthorization of the Children’s Fund — would be the “largest voter-directed increase in general fund spending in a single election in city history,” costing $104 million by 2018.

More than half of that is from the minimum wage increase, which will increase the city’s cost of contracting low-paid nonprofit workers to perform public services. But in this increasingly expensive city, does anyone really think $15 per hour is an unreasonable wage? Should the city itself be exploiting workers?

After the city recently slashed building and planning fees charged to developers, and in a city that continues to coddle big corporations and landlords rather than tax them fairly, the Mayor’s Office ire over policies that help low-wage workers and Muni riders is particularly telling of its values and priorities.  

Exposing PG&E’s other “cozy relationship,” with Mayor Ed Lee

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News outlets from Sacramento to Los Angeles are crowing about Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s alleged “cozy relationship” with the utlity that oversees it, the California Public Utilities Commission.

At least 41 emails obtained by the city of San Bruno reveal an intimate, friendly arrangement between the monopolistic power company and the regulators that are supposed to keep them in line. Where the public would expect a separation as hard and fast as church and state, the emails reveal a buddy-buddy relationship.

This is of no surprise to long-time Guardianistas, who may remember Rebecca Bowe’s cover story three years ago “The secret life of Michael Peevey, [5/11]” chronicling the CPUC president’s extravagant trips to Madrid, Spain and Germany with top energy officials, as well as other activities that may seem strange for an official who’s supposed to be a watchdog against PG&E malfeasance.

But if world-trekking trips to pricey hotels aren’t enough to raise eyebrows about the relationship between PG&E and its regulators, now we have suspicious emails to add to the pile.

As the San Jose Mercury News revealed:

In an April 2013 email, Carol Brown, chief of staff for Commissioner Peevey, wrote to PG&E executive [Laura] Doll and offered advice about how to handle one of the proceedings related to the San Bruno explosion. In the email, Brown said she had talked to one of the PUC administrative law judges about the matter.

“Send back a sweet note” to the PUC about the matter “and then wait for them to throw a fit” was part of Brown’s advice. Brown also said she was “happy to chat” about the matter with PG&E to help guide company officials through the PUC process.

Doll replied to Brown, “Love you. Thanks.”

Even Peevey himself emailed PG&E, offering them public relations advice. It’s like an umpire sneaking around between innings to coach a first-baseman — unseemly, and totally strange.

All of this should ring alarm bells in The City. The city of San Bruno obtained the emails through settlement of a lawsuit, which are now revealing potential corruption at top levels of the CPUC. But here in San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee flouts public records laws and, as we revealed, drafted a policy allowing him to delete his own emails.

There’s no way we can check what Lee is saying to PG&E in emails, making exposing any alleged “cozy relationship” much more difficult than PG&E’s alleged romance with the CPUC.

And the consequences for The City are very real, as well as potentially fatal. As we’ve covered before, there are PG&E pipelines aplenty in San Francisco (including one right along Bernal Hill). When San Bruno’s pipeline exploded, eight lives were lost and many more homes destroyed.

As the San Francisco Chronicle reported last month (and as we’ve said for years), Lee already has suspiciously close ties with PG&E.

From the Chronicle:

However, multiple city officials say that Lee’s administration has consistently, and quietly, raised objections about legislation and policies that PG&E opposes. They also point to the utility’s charitable giving to the city and some of Lee’s pet projects as an example of how PG&E tries to exert its influence.

Critics of Lee’s relationship with PG&E extend from the political left to at least five current and former high-level city officials. In some cases, several of the sources said, that relationship appeared to be inappropriate. PG&E officials regularly went to the mayor’s office when they were unhappy with city staff members, said the sources, who requested anonymity because of their relationship with the mayor.

“They were in his office all the time, meeting with either the mayor or his staff, and seemed to directly intervene in city decisions,” said one official. “It isn’t normal for most businesses in the city to always have meetings with the mayor.”

Lee, in several interviews, dismissed the idea that he was doing PG&E’s bidding as “a little off base.”

“I look at PG&E like any other company in the city,” Lee said. “I don’t think I have any special relationship with them.”

But in the case of the mayor, we may never know how close he is with the utility, as long as his off-kilter public record laws allow him to delete any paper trail. The CPUC is discovering what Lee long ago learned from former-Mayor Willie Brown: The “E” in e-mail stands for “evidence.”

tearing up emails

SF and UC systems dragging their feet on fossil fuel divestment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond the bros

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EDITORIAL

San Francisco’s rapid economic growth is increasingly being framed in reference to the Tale of Two Cities, and signs of its staggering wealth gap are ubiquitous. Luxury retailers are gravitating to the South Bay to cater to the tastes of newly minted millionaires, the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported, while low-wage workers on opposite sides of the Bay are charging forward with campaigns to increase the minimum wage, since soaring rents and a rising cost of living have made it tricky to achieve basic economic survival.

And while sidewalk graffiti delineating “real San Franciscans” from “techies” has raised some eyebrows, a stark and growing disparity does exist between the abundant tech sector and the day-to-day struggle of lower-paid residents to maintain a foothold. When it comes to the youth being raised in the economic margins — including the thousands in San Francisco public schools — that contrast has disturbing implications. Can the kids who weren’t born into wealth hope to someday raise families of their own in San Francisco?

Some tech companies have signaled that they wish to do the right thing — or at the very least, they’ve taken seriously their commitments under a deal with the city that requires community givebacks in exchange for a sweetheart tax break. Zendesk, which unveiled its newly renovated, plush corporate headquarters July 9, has promised to welcome Mid-Market residents into its palatial building for community dinners and events, with an emphasis on youth programming.

But to create real opportunities for up-and-coming generations to sustain themselves, the thriving tech industry needs to go a lot farther than welcoming the poor kids into the gleaming office space. If tech wants to coexist in harmony with the community members who are bearing the brunt of this dramatic economic shift, then tech needs to act like a community member.

That doesn’t mean spreading wealth around here and there, to placate local anger. Nor does it mean checking a box to fulfill obligations. It means seeking community partnerships, finding ways to hire local, racially diverse applicants, and partnering with educational institutions to carve out reliable pathways for disadvantaged youth to connect with decent-paying jobs.

This week’s cover story turns its gaze upon the “brogrammer,” that stereotypically white tech-sector worker perceived as self-absorbed, clueless about sexism, and unaware of his fantastic privilege. The “brogrammer” is the boastful, misogynistic brat who has it all, thanks to his connections and his programming skills.

In the current climate, the “brogrammer” may as well represent the aristocracy in San Francisco’s own version of the Tale of Two Cities. But if tech manages to grow up a bit and make a concerted effort to solve its own diversity problem, the industry could open a new chapter in its relationship with San Francisco.

 

Treasure Island development plans moving forward after lawsuit rejected

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Construction on the first 1,000 of up to 8,000 new homes planned for Treasure Island could begin as soon as next year after the State Appeals Court this week rejected a challenge of the project’s environmental impact report by Citizens for a Sustainable Treasure Island, a grassroots group led by former supervisor Aaron Peskin.

The group challenged the project’s unanimous 2006 approval by the Board of Supervisors after its terms were modified the next year by the developers, Wilson Meany and Lennar Urban, to increase the number of homes and decrease their affordability. The project Peskin helped approve was 6,000 homes, 30 percent of them affordable, but now it’s up to 8,000 homes, 25 percent affordable.

More recently, stories by the Center for Investigative Reporting/Bay Citizen, San Francisco Chronicle, and others have also found evidence of lingering radiological contamination on the island from its days as a US Navy base, something that Peskin told us should raise concerns about the project.

“Obviously, we are disappointed in the court ruling and are very concerned it ignores the now widely reported news that Treasure Island is much more contaminated, by radiologically contamination, than we knew,” Peskin told us. As for whether his group intends to appeal the case to the California Supreme Court, he said, “We are assessing our options.”

Wilson Meany principle Chris Meany didn’t immediately return Guardian calls for comment (we’ll update this post if and when we hear back), but in a press release, he said, “After several years of unnecessary and costly litigation, we can finally begin building more homes for people who want to live in San Francisco.”

In addition to the homes, the project includes up to 500 hotel rooms, 450,000 square feet of retail space, 100,000 square feet of office space, and 300 acres of open space. To compensate for projections that rising seas caused by global warming would inundate the artificial island by the end of the century, its height will be raised substantially, with the EIR noting there will be about 100,000 trucks of landfill coming over the Bay Bridge during construction.

Traffic generated by the project has been a major concern of transportation officials from the beginning. San Francisco Transportation Authority Executive Director Tilly Chang said the challenge was, “How do you keep the Bay Bridge flowing and not muck up traffic?”

The plan calls for expanded bus and shuttle service to Treasure Island, new ferry service from the Ferry Building, and both expensive parking on the island for non-residents and a toll for driving onto the island, most likely set at $5, Chang said. The ferry service is set to launch around when the first phase of housing construction is complete, probably in 2018.

Meanwhile, work has already begun on a project to replace and improve the freeway ramps at adjacent Yerba Buena Island and the bridge that connects them to Treasure Island. SFTA Deputy Director for Capital Projects Lee Sage said the ramps will give much more time for cars to slow down or accelerate as they enter or exit the freeway there.

“It’s going to be very complicated, but we’re on target,” he said, estimating the eastside ramps will be done in 2016 and the westside ones a few years later.

Just last month, the Board of Supervisors approved terms accepting Treasure Island from the US Navy. Later this month  assuming that the issue of radiological contamination doesn’t derail the transfer — the city and project developers are scheduled to pay the Navy $55 million for Treasure Island and complete the deal.

But Peskin’s group and its attorney Keith Wagner, objected to the transfer in a June 25 letter to the Navy, calling for more studies on the substantially increased density of development on the island and more thorough testing and cleanup of contamination.

Wagner wrote, “In summary, the Navy’s 2003 EIS, on its own terms, did not evaluate the true nature of the City’s far more expansive contemporaneous development plans/proposals, let alone the even more expansive development plans that were ultimately devised and approved by the City in 2011; in the decade since the 2003 EIS was finalized, the Navy has developed significant and substantial new information indicating the nature, scope and severity of radiological and hazardous materials across NSTI that could impact the City’s 2011 development plans.”

It’s a trap

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joe@sfbg.com

As City College of San Francisco struggles to loosen the noose around its neck, this week its accreditors are slated to offer the college a new way out. But some skeptics are sounding the alarm: it’s a trap.

The Accrediting Commission of Community and Junior Colleges is scheduled to vote on and announce a newly revised version of its “restoration policy,” which some journalists have called City College’s salvation.

Huge CCSF Win: College Won’t Close,” one San Francisco Chronicle headline read. Bay Area TV stations and others echoed the jubilant headline, saying City College was saved. Chancellor Art Tyler told the Chronicle he would “absolutely” apply for restoration status. But many are calling the restoration policy a poor choice for the college’s future.

“Rumors of City College being saved are premature,” Alisa Messer, political director for the American Federation of Teachers Local 2121, told us.

The college’s faculty union isn’t the only one worried. A report released this month by the California State Auditor shows ACCJC has operated against its own bylaws and without full transparency in threatening CCSF’s accreditation.

“To allow community colleges flexibility in choosing an accreditor,” the state auditor’s report wrote, “the chancellor’s office should remove language from its regulations naming the commission as the sole accreditor of California community colleges while maintaining the requirement that community colleges be accredited.”

In the staid and stuffy bureaucratic language, the auditor essentially wrote the accreditor group was so dysfunctional it should be closed. The 75-plus page report scathingly tears down ACCJC staff, board selection, decisions, and policies. There are few areas in which they did not find fault.

“The report draws conclusions about accreditation without the necessary context and facts related to institutional evaluations,” ACCJC President Barbara Beno told the Guardian via email. “ACCJC is reviewed and approved by the United States Department of Education and its recognition was renewed in January 2014. That is the appropriate body to review the ACCJC’s practices.”

The DOE found many faults with the accreditors as well, but the scope of its review was limited to complaints made by the unions. The auditor viewed the accreditors in a fuller context, alleging the ACCJC decided to terminate CCSF’s accreditation “after allowing only one year to come into compliance,” while simultaneously allowing 15 other colleges two years and another six institutions to up to five years to reach compliance.

Such accusations of bias are also alleged in City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s lawsuit against ACCJC, charging CCSF was targeted with harsher penalties due to its political views.

Meanwhile, a closer look at restoration status shows it’s less like a lifeline and more like a tightrope suspended over flames.

The policy would give CCSF two years to come into compliance with all of the so-called “defects” ACCJC identified. If the college addresses these issues in two years, the commission would rescind the notice to terminate the college’s accreditation.

But buried in the legalese is a frightening clause noting that if CCSF isn’t found to comply with everything, “the termination implementation will be reactivated and the effective date will be immediate,” with “no further right to request a review or appeal in this matter.”

Beno said she heard the college community’s concerns around these clauses, during a two-week public comment period regarding the proposed policy that ended June 25.

“The Commission received a good deal of feedback,” she wrote, saying a revised “final version” of the restoration policy has been sent to the commissioners, who will vote remotely over the next week. “If it is approved, the ACCJC will post the final policy on its web page, the policy will be effective immediately.”

But the auditor found Beno hasn’t followed existing bylaws. This has long been an open secret in the community college world that’s referenced to in a 2010 public letter from the former California Community College Chancellor Jack Scott to the Department of Education. His immediate successor, Brice Harris (who also served on the ACCJC as a commissioner for seven years), did not heed this knowledge. He trusted Beno.

He met her for coffee, he talked to her on the phone. These interactions led him to believe replacing the college’s leadership would appease Beno, he said in his declaration (under penalty of perjury) in Herrera’s lawsuit against the ACCJC.

So on July 3, 2013, Harris released a video announcing he stripped the college’s elected Board of Trustees of all of its powers and promoted Special Trustee Bob Agrella to take its place. The college community was in an uproar, but Harris maintained publicly it was the right thing to do.

Privately, he received an email from Beno. “Dear Brice, Beautiful job,” she wrote to him, about his decision to whack the board. “The college may survive, with the right leadership.”

Harris wrote in his declaration: “Based on this email, which was consistent with all my prior interactions with Dr. Beno, I believed that City College could maintain its accreditation… if City College took extraordinary steps to comply with the ACCJC’s recommendations.”

But the accreditors did just the opposite. Just this month, it denied CCSF’s accreditation appeal, telling the college they it not review any evidence of progress it made after they voted to terminate its accreditation. This took Harris by surprise.

“If I had known on July 8, 2013, that the rules of the commission were later going to be interpreted to preclude any progress made by City College after June 2013,” he wrote in his declaration, “I would not have asked the Board of Governors to take the extraordinary step of setting aside the locally elected Board of Trustees.”

Harris was burned by the ACCJC. Now City College faces the choice to trust Beno and the accreditors again.

 

Above, California Community Colleges Chancellor Brice Harris explains why he pushed state entities to remove the City College’s Board of Trustees and replace them with Special Trustee Bob Agrella. Should City College of San Francisco trust the ACCJC?

City agencies defend their slow response to Airbnb’s illegal rentals

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More information has been coming out about how Airbnb is used to convert San Francisco apartments into tourist rentals — including an interesting study reported by the San Francisco Chronicle last weekend — in advance of next month’s hearings on legislation to legalize and regulate short-term rentals.

But questions remain about why the city agencies in charge of regulating such “tourist conversions,” which have long been illegal under city law, have done so little to crack down on the growing practice. For more than two years, we at the Guardian have been publicly highlighting such violations, which have finally caught fire with the public in the last six months.

Even Mayor Ed Lee — who has helped shield Airbnb from scrutiny over its tax dodging and other violations, at least partially because they share an investor in venture capitalist Ron Conway — has finally said the city should pass legislation to regulate the company, as Sup. David Chiu is trying to do.

But attorney Joseph Tobener, who has represented clients evicted to facilitate Airbnb rentals and has brought a number of such lawsuits on behalf of San Francisco Tenants Union, still can’t get city departments to issue notices of violation even for the most egregious offenders that he’s suing, an administrative prerequisite to filing a lawsuit.

“The Department of Building Inspection and the Department of Planning need to start shutting these violators down by enforcing the existing laws, or we need stricter laws that allow us to pursue our claims without City approval.  Two months ago, we sent our requests to pursue landlords on behalf of the SFTU.  Then, radio silence.  Two months of utter inaction. Someone in charge does not want to see us close the loophole that is allowing landlords to take units out of our housing stock,” Tobener said.

The Chronicle investigation found that in San Francisco, 1,278 Airbnb hosts in San Francisco were managing multiple properties (Chiu’s legislation would limit hosts to their primary residence for just 90 rental nights per year), including 160 entire homes that tourists appear to be renting out full-time. Overall, the paper counted 4,798 properties for rent in San Francisco through Airbnb, 2,984 of which were entire homes, belying the “shared housing” label favored by the company and its supporters.

And even though groups like the San Francisco Apartment Association and SFTU say they have been actively trying to get the city departments to crack down on such illegal uses over the last year, representatives for DBI and the Planning Department say they’ve received few complaints and therefore issued few violations, while also saying they need more resources to regulate the problem, something Chiu’s legislation would begin to help address.

“Our enforcement process is complaint based and we investigate each complaint that is received by our Department (more than 700 per year).  Complaints regarding short term rentals that result in the loss of housing are prioritized for enforcement,” Planning Department spokesperson Gina Simi told the Guardian.

She said that property owners are given the opportunity to correct a violation before being cited, something that she said happens in about 80 percent of cases.

“A case is opened for every complaint received. Since March 2012, we have had approximately 120 enforcement cases for Short Term Rentals.  In each case, notices were sent to the property owner and approximately half (54) have been abated and half (66) are active cases.  Many of these (approximately 30) were received since the beginning of April 2014,” she told us when we inquired about the issue last month.

As for Tobener’s charge that city agencies are dragging their feet and making it difficult for his clients to pursue relief from the courts, she said, “The ability for interested parties to pursue the matter through civil action (for injunctive or monetary relief) following the filing of a complaint and determination of a violation is a process outlined in Chapter 41A, which is enforced by the Department of Building Inspection.  Enforcement under the Planning Code does not allow for interested parties to seek civil action.”

But DBI spokesperson William Strawn said his department hasn’t received many complaints, claiming to have gotten just three total through the end of last year.

“A few weeks ago, per Mr. Tobener, we did receive seven complaints, with documentation, that the Housing Division is still reviewing; and, per [DBI Chief Housing Director Rosemary] Bosque, we also recently received an additional seven complaints – for a current total of 14 – that also are under review and being scheduled for administrative review hearings, as required by Chapter 41A,” Strawn told the Guardian.

But he also pointed his finger back at the Planning Department as the agency that should be handling problems related to the short-term stays facilitated by Airbnb.

“Given that these ‘duration of stay’ issues are Planning Code matters – a point we have made to Supervisor Chiu, and which I know you discussed with the Planning Director {John Rahaim] during Supervisor Chiu’s media availability on this issue a few weeks ago – the role of the Building Department in the enforcement of these types of complaints in our relatively new Internet Age will require guidance from the City Attorney,” Strawn told us.

Indeed, in response to a Guardian question about why the Planning Department seems to have ignored violations facilitated by Airbnb, Rahaim said that his department hasn’t had the resources, tools, and authority to address the problem, even though, “This is an important issue we’ve been hearing about for quite some time.”

Supervisors consider affordable housing half-step

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While the Board of Supervisors today considers placing a measure on the fall ballot that would slow market rate housing projects when affordable housing development drops below 30 percent of total production, it is also slated to quietly approve another item showing San Franciscans actually need more than double that amount of housing.

The 30 percent ballot measure by Sup. Jane Kim is covered by the San Francisco Chronicle this morning, an article that includes Chicken Little quotes from developers and their biggest cheerleaders, who fear the sky will fall if the current flood of luxury housing development is slowed even a little bit.

But those fears are unlikely to materialize given that Kim seems to have steadily weakened her measure since its introduction last month, responding to allies who deceptively warn of a “housing civil war.” The measure doesn’t create the moratorium that many affordable housing advocates have called for, simply a bit more paperwork for developers, and even then it exempts projects with less than 25 units and those bigger developers who file applications by the end of this year.

That sort of tepid approach to building the housing that current San Franciscans actually need belies the official city policy of seeking to build more than 60 percent of new housing for those earning 120 percent of the area median income or below, as spelled out in the Housing Element of the city’s General Plan.

Ironically, the board is scheduled to re-adopt the 2009 version of that plan today. Its approval of that plan in June 2011 was challenged in court by neighborhood groups, and in December the court ruled that the city needed to shore up its analysis of alternatives to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act. That work is now done, so the board today will repeal its 2011 action and re-approve the 2009 Housing Element.

The changes weren’t terribly significant — and besides, the city seems to essentially ignore its Housing Element anyway, even though cities and counties are required by state law to complete them and build their fair share of the affordable housing needed in their region. In rare cases, cities and counties can be fined by the state for not doing so, as was the case with Folsom many years ago when it built only market rate housing.

“Plan for the full range of housing needs in the City and County of San Francisco, especially affordable housing,” reads Policy 1.1 of the Housing Element.

Later in the plan, it spells out just how much housing that should be in San Francisco, based on the Regional Housing Needs Assessment done by the Association of Bay Area Governments: “A total of about 18,880 units, or 61 percent of the RHNA target, must be affordable to households making 120 percent of the area media income (AMI) of less.”

So the supervisors probably shouldn’t stretch too far in patting themselves on the back for a loophole-ridden half-step toward meeting its affordable housing obligations, although we’re happy to see at least some progress in the right direction. 

Chiu mailer highlights Guardian praise, despite our Campos endorsement

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Politics is dirty business, and I should never underestimate the willingness of politicians to turn any editorial praise they receive into an electoral advantage, distorting the context as needed, a lesson that I was reminded of this week.

Several Guardian readers have called me this week to complain about a mailer dropped on voters by the David Chiu for Assembly campaign, which includes long quotes from Chiu’s endorsements by the San Francisco Chronicle and Bay Area Reporter, as well as positive quotes from the Bay Guardian and San Francisco Examiner.

Although neither the Guardian nor the Examiner has endorsed Chiu — we enthusiastically endorsed David Campos in that race, while the Examiner is waiting until the fall rematch to do endorsements — our readers said the flyer left the impression that we had.

Chiu campaign spokesperson Nicole Derse disputes that view. “It definitely did not leave that impression,” she told me. “We were very clear about who has endorsed.” She said the Examiner and Guardian were included because “it’s important to highlight objective sources like newspapers.”

The Guardian quote was from a July 23, 2013 blog post in which I indeed wrote, “It is Chiu and his bustling office of top aides that have done most of the heavy legislation lifting this year, finding compromise solutions to some of the most vexing issues facing the city.”

It was certainly true at the time, although I received a lot criticism for what I wrote from the progressive community, which pointed out how Chiu had maneuvered himself into the swing vote position on key issues such as condo conversions and CEQA reform. And the compromises Chiu forged actually allowed fiscal conservatives to erode San Francisco’s standing as a progessive city while burgeoning his own political resume.

So I ran another blog post to air those concerns, and then we ran a hybrid of the two in the next week’s paper that closes with this line, “In the end, Chiu can be seen as an effective legislator, a centrist compromiser, or both. Perspective is everything in politics.” BTW, in that original post, I also noted that the Airbnb legislation Chiu was working on should challenge his political skills and reputation, and indeed it took many more months to introduce and has been met by a storm of criticism, becoming the marquee political fight of the summer at City Hall.

After that first post, I also heard from Campos and his supporters predicting that the Chiu campaign would use my well-meaning praise to convey support from the Guardian in a misleading way, a prophecy that has now proven prescient.

But I also think that Campos has done a good job at undermining Chiu’s greatest strength in this election, that of being an effective legislator, by hammering on the reality that things have gotten worse for the average San Francisco because Chiu and his allies have been most effective on behalf of the tech companies, landlords, and other rich and powerful interests that are undermining the city’s diversity, affordability, and progressive values.

“Effective for whom? That’s what’s important,” Campos told us during his endorsement interview, noting that, “Most people in San Francisco have been left behind and out of that prosperity.”

Chiu’s campaign counters by overtly and in whisper campaigns saying that progressives can’t be effective in Sacramento, blatantly overlooking the fact that the incumbent he’s running to replace, Tom Ammiano, has been both a consistent, trustworthy progressive, and an effective legislator who has gotten more bills signed than most of his colleagues, even as he takes on tough issues like reforms to Prop. 13 and prison conditions.

And Ammiano hasn’t just said good things about David Campos, his chosen successor — Ammiano has actually endorsed Campos.