Guardian Editorial

SF’s culture of corruption


EDITORIAL The extent of the charges in the criminal complaint against Sen. Leland Yee, political consultant Keith Jackson, and others are shocking and sensational: international arms trafficking, drug dealing, money laundering, cavorting with organized crime figures, murder for hire. But the basic allegation that Yee and Jackson practiced a corrupt, transactional kind of politics wasn’t surprising to anyone who knew how they operated.

What’s worse, they were simply a more extreme — and now, thanks to FBI wiretaps and undercover agents, a better documented — example of the political corruption that is endemic to San Francisco and some other high-stakes American cities. The city of St. Francis gets sold out to the highest bidders everyday, by politicians who value wealthy constituents over the vast majority of us who are just trying to get by — and over the interests of city finances and governance.

Part of the problem is inherent in our money-driven political system, in which politicians are constantly hustling for cash from people who want things from them. Politicians deny they take actions with political contributions in mind, but well-heeled capital and labor interests don’t spend millions of dollars on contributions out of the goodness of their hearts. These are business transactions.

We wholeheartedly support the call Senate President Darrell Steinberg made for fundamental political reform during the March 28 vote to suspend Yee and two of his allegedly corrupt colleagues. These cases aren’t aberrations, they are indicative of how power get wielded when it’s based on wealth. That’s the reality that has gotten even uglier since the Citizens United decision equated money with political speech and upped the ante for would-be public servants.

But much of the problem is particular to San Francisco, where cozy relationships between politicians and corporate interests are often feted in plain view. Former Mayor Willie Brown — a lawyer and unregistered lobbyist who won’t reveal his huge corporate client list despite having an influential weekly column in the San Francisco Chronicle — helped install his longtime City Hall functionary Ed Lee into Room 200 to guard against anyone asking too much of the rich and powerful. Yee and Lee represented rival Chinatown economic factions, both wanting to use the power of the Mayor’s Office for their interests.

In his March 22 column, Brown once again repeated a joke he’s used before, that the “e” in email stands for “evidence,” which is really only funny in a sick political culture that celebrates slick rule-breakers. And it was from Brown that Lee learned it was acceptable to brazenly give tax breaks and regulatory passes to the tech companies that his top fundraiser, venture capitalist Ron Conway, are invested in.

Megadeveloper Lennar Urban used its wealth and political connections to take control of San Francisco’s biggest tracts of undeveloped and underdeveloped land, including Hunters and Candlestick points and Treasure Island, paying off community groups and hiring Jackson and other political henchmen to get the job done.

In fact, the FBI complaint says Jackson was working on behalf of that project when he approached accused Chinatown gangster Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow for support, leading to their alleged involvement in a string of wild criminal conspiracies. Meanwhile, Chow was getting public commendations from San Francisco-based politicians including Lee, Yee, Gavin Newsom, Dianne Feinstein, Fiona Ma, and even Tom Ammiano. Chow courted political legitimacy the same way politicians seek cash, and mainstream media outlets were happy to play along.

Throughout his political career, Yee has carried water for Pacific Gas & Electric, perhaps the most corrupting contributor to political campaigns in the city’s history. PG&E’s influence at City Hall had thankfully waned in recent years as a result of overreach and deadly criminal negligence, until Lee and his appointees last year killed CleanPowerSF (see “Challenge Mayor Lee and his lies,” 9/17/13) on a pretext so thin it could only be gift to PG&E.

In many ways, San Francisco hasn’t changed. It’s still the old Barbary Coast, ruled by capitalist thugs and corrupt politicians, only with glossy modern spin created by armies of well-paid political consultants. But we all deserve better.

Yee and Jackson should go to prison if there’s even a slice of truth to the allegations against them. And maybe they’ll cut deals and take other political figures down with them, giving us more of a peek behind the curtain of political power. But it’s up to all of us to break the close ties between economic and political power and begin to restore the democratic power of everyday people.

Controlling big money campaigns


Thanks to the U. S. Supreme Court, it’s almost impossible to regulate the so-called independent expenditure committees.

EDITORIAL Big money moved into the district supervisorial races this fall. Downtown forces, working with landlords and a labor union that wants a giant new hospital on Van Ness Avenue, are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into races in Districts 6, 8, and 10, trying to alter the direction of the board by electing more conservative candidates. And while district races allow grassroots candidates without huge war chests a decent shot at winning, all this cash is going to have an impact — and might prove to be decisive in some races.


A lot of the money hasn’t been raised directly by candidates, either — it’s in the form of so-called independent expenditure committees, outside operations that, in theory, have no direct connection to any candidate. These committees can raise money without limits, spend it however they like, and ignore the limits that candidates face. And thanks to the U. S. Supreme Court, it’s almost impossible to regulate the committees. So the IEs, as they’re known, can put out attack ads, make scurrilous accusations, even lie outright — and have no accountability.

But San Francisco, which led the nation in using ranked-choice voting and has an impressive system for public financing of elections and disclosure, ought to be working to control this flood of sleaze. There are two major steps the supervisors should be looking at.

1. Respond to the money. San Francisco currently gives matching public funds to candidates who raise enough on their own to meet a threshold. That gives underfunded candidates at least a fighting chance to stay competitive. But it doesn’t address what happens when an outside group comes in and drops, say, $50,000 to promote or attack a candidate.
Unfortunately, federal law and court decisions limit the city’s ability to cap or restrict that spending. But the current system of matching public funds offers a potential alternative.

Suppose, for example, the city offered matching funds not just on the basis of what a candidate has raised — but also on the basis of what his or her opponents (including IEs) are spending. For example, if an IE spends $50,000 attacking a candidate, the city could give that candidate $50,000 (or, better, $100,000) to fight back.

That sounds like a lot of taxpayer dollars — but if the system is designed right, much of it will never be spent. Because the independent expenditure committees are only effective if the money is one-sided. Once these operators realize that all they’ve be doing by spending money against a candidate is increasing that candidate’s own resources, they’re far less likely to mount these campaigns.

The disclosure laws can be tightened too. Campaign ads and mailers have to say where the money’s coming from — but only in tiny type or in rushed voiceovers that few people notice. The federal government’s mandate that cigarette packages and ads have big, prominent statements about the health risks of smoking has been very effective. Requiring campaigns, particularly independent expenditure groups, to identify their major donors in large, visible type in prominent places on printed material and in clear language on radio or TV ads would help the voters understand the players — and the motivations — behind the campaign material.

2. Deal with the legal violations — promptly. A lot of these big-money campaigns have a tendency to skirt — or sometimes flagrantly violate — the city’s campaign law. And by the time the ethics Commission gets around to investigating (if that even happens) the election is over and it’s too late.

The supervisors ought to mandate that all credible allegations of election-law violations be investigated — and resolved if at all possible before Election Day. And if that means Ethics needs more staff, that’s a small price to pay for honest elections

A public power landmark — and the battle to come


EDITORIAL It’s been 97 years since Congress passed a landmark law mandating public power in San Francisco, 67 years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the city was violating the law by allowing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to operate a private monopoly in town, and 42 years since the Guardian first broke the story of the Raker Act scandal and launched a campaign to bring public power to the city. And now, even operating under a tight PG&E-imposed deadline, the San Francisco is moving very close to establishing a modest type of public power.

Community choice aggregation (CCA) isn’t what John Edward Raker and his supporters had in mind in 1913 when they allowed San Francisco to build a dam in Yosemite National Park, breaking John Muir’s heart. The idea — which the city explicitly accepted in a formal written agreement — was to use the dam not just for water but for electricity, specifically to create a public power beachhead in Northern California that would prevent any private company, specifically PG&E, from getting control of the electricity grid.

CCA leaves PG&E’s private grid in place and allows the investor-owned utility to continue to sell power in the region. But it also allows communities to offer an alternative — to buy cleaner power in bulk and resell it at comparable or cheaper rates to residents and businesses.

Since 2002, when the state Legislature passed a bill authorizing CCAs, the concept has slowly started to take hold. Marin County launched its CCA this spring. San Francisco last week reached an agreement with PowerChoice LLC, a vendor that will oversee the procurement of electricity, to begin service here, and the contract is headed to the SF Public Utilities Commission and the Board of Supervisors for approval.

That’s a huge step forward for public power — but the city faces a tight deadline. PG&E has placed Proposition 16 on the June 8 ballot, which would require a two-thirds vote before any local agency could get into the electricity business. That’s an almost impossible threshold (see: the state Legislature). Prop. 16 may still go down to defeat, despite PG&E’s $45 million campaign to pass it.

But even if it passes, any existing agency — that is, any community that has its CCA in place before the election is certified — will be grandfathered in.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera argues, with good authority, that San Francisco is already protected from Prop. 16. The city already has taken enough steps to implement CCA (the implementation plan has been approved by the supervisors) that the inevitable lawsuit by PG&E will probably fail. But every step the city takes to bring the process closer to completion provides more protection, and the stakes could not be higher.

With CCA, the city will have control of its own energy future, be able to offer power that doesn’t contribute to global warming — and be able, at long last, to take a step toward complying with the Raker Act. (And remember: the law says, and the Supreme Court confirmed, that the federal government can move at any time to seize the Hetch Hetchy dam and uproot the city’s entire water system for failure to comply with the 1913 agreement.)

It seems almost certain that by June 8 the city will have a contract with a vendor and state certification that defines San Francisco as a CCA. Then, whatever the outcome of Prop. 16, the city needs to move forward with the program. And if PG&E sues to block it, then every official in San Francisco will have to be prepared to wage the legal and political battle of all time. PG&E can and probably will take the city to court — and the city can immediately start talking about breaking the 1930s-era franchise agreement that gives PG&E a low franchise fee in perpetuity, and enforcing the Raker Act, and taking the corrupt utility to task on every possible front.

Russoniello has to go


EDITORIAL When you look behind the problems San Francisco has had with its sanctuary city policy — the arrest and threatened deportation of kids as young as 15, the threats to city officials trying to protect juveniles, the threats to the new policy Sup. David Campos won approval for — there’s one major figure lurking: U.S. Attorney Joe Russoniello.

He’s the same one who was behind the raids on medical marijuana clubs. He’s a Republican whose former law firm, Cooley, Godward, gets hefty legal fees from representing Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — one of the biggest federal criminals in the land. He served under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

And it’s a mystery to us why this holdover from a discredited administration is still running the Justice Department in one of the most liberal parts of the United States.

The Obama administration has been slowly replacing Bush appointees with more progressive U.S. attorneys. Some say the process has been dragging on too long — after all, Bill Clinton fired every one of the nearly 100 U.S. attorneys shortly after taking office and started putting his own people in place right away. But in many states, the process has moved forward; 20 jurisdictions have new U.S. attorneys, and nominations are pending in about 10 more.

So why is the process taking so long in California?

Choosing a top federal prosecutor isn’t entirely the job of the president. Under long-held Washington traditions, the senior U.S. senator of the president’s party has tremendous influence over the selection process, and in California, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have split up the duties. Boxer is screening candidates for the Northern District, and Feinstein is handling the Central and Southern Districts. So for all practical purposes, Russoniello’s replacement is going to be chosen by Boxer.

The senator ought to be asking all the candidates the same question San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera recently asked Russoniello: Will you promise not to prosecute individual city workers who follow the San Francisco Sanctuary Ordinance? And she should finalize her choice quickly and send that name to the White House with all due dispatch. Russoniello has to go, and his departure is way overdue.

Herrera, meanwhile, has his own Sanctuary Ordinance challenges: Sup. David Campos has asked Herrera to formally advise the supervisors on the legality of Mayor Newsom’s refusal to follow the immigration policies that a veto-proof majority of the board passed. Newsom claims that the Campos law, which overturns Newsom’s policy of mandating that all juvenile offenders be reported to immigration authorities at the time of arrest, violates federal statutes.

In a Dec. 10 letter to Herrera, Campos warned that Newsom’s move would "establish the dangerous precedent that a mayor can disregard legislation that the board has properly passed.

"To say that this would undermine the board’s authority is an understatement. This is to say nothing of the fact that it would mean that undocumented children would continue to lack basic rights in San Francisco."

So that puts the city attorney — who is almost certainly going to run for mayor himself — on the hot seat. He needs to make a clear ruling that the mayor can’t just ignore city law. And he and Newsom should both be in touch with Boxer to urge her to move rapidly on a new U.S. attorney who will be more favorable to progressive immigration policies.

Don’t rush the Candlestick EIR


EDITORIAL The Candlestick Point redevelopment project is by far the biggest land-use decision facing San Francisco today, and one of the most significant in the city’s modern history. The project, sponsored by Lennar Corp., would bring 10,500 housing units and 24,000 additional residents to the area. Those residents would need new schools, playgrounds, open space, and transportation systems. Industrial and commercial development would create some 3,500 permanent jobs, and those people would need ways to get to work. Plans calls for new roadways, including a bridge over the fragile Yosemite Slough. The 708-acre site includes areas with significant toxic waste issues.

It’s no surprise that the draft environmental impact report on the project weighs in at 4,400 pages. It took two years to review the land use, transportation, air quality, water quality, population, employment, noise, hazardous materials, and other potential issues.

And now the Planning Department and Redevelopment Agency wants all public comment to be completed in a 45-day period that includes the winter holidays. That’s crazy – and it’s a sign that the city just wants to rush this project through without adequate oversight, review, or discussion.

The EIR in a project this size is a major political battleground. It’s one of the few times that the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors will get to weigh in on the entire project and look at its local and citywide impacts. It’s quite possibly the only time prior to construction when the economic, social, and environmental issues around the project will get widespread public discussion.

And anyone who reads these reports on a regular basis can tell you that they’re thick, dense, tough to follow, and filled with minute details and arcana that add up to very big policy decisions. Among the most pressing issues:

• The housing mix. The city’s own General Plan notes that almost two-thirds of all new housing built in San Francisco needs to be available at below-market rates. Lennar won’t even meet half that target. So the project would create an even greater unmet demand for affordable housing — something the EIR, at least on first read, glosses over. The report refers to “a broad range of housing options of varying sizes, types, and levels of affordability [that would] be developed at Candlestick Point” and states that “such housing would be in close proximity to the jobs provided by the project, [so] it is likely that future employees at Candlestick Point would seek housing at the project site prior to searching for housing in the surrounding Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood. However, if future employees did seek housing elsewhere in the neighborhood, the effects would not be adverse.”

Actually, if comparatively well-paid employees at the project’s research and development facilities decided to move into the existing Hunters Point/Bayview neighborhood, it would almost certainly drive up housing prices, displacing existing residents.

• Transportation options. The project projects significant improvements in Muni service — but doesn’t say how the city will pay for them. There’s a sizable focus on cars — the EIR estimates the project will need more than 21,000 parking spaces. That’s a lot more cars on the streets of the city, a lot more traffic in the southeast — and a direct clash with the city’s transit-first policies.

• What jobs, and for whom? The 3,500 permanent jobs that would be created are badly needed in that neighborhood, which has the highest unemployment rate in the city. But a comprehensive labor pool study, and a discussion of how existing residents will be trained for projected jobs, appears to be missing from the EIR.

• Hazardous materials. The EIR broadly proclaims that “construction activities associated with the project would not result in a human health risk involving the disturbance of naturally occurring asbestos, demolition of buildings that could contain hazardous substances in building materials, or possible disturbance of contaminated soils or groundwater within one-quarter mile of an existing school.” That is — at the very least — a matter of some dispute.

There’s lots more – 4,400 pages more – and if the approval process is going to be anything other than an utter farce, the Planning and Redevelopment directors need to extend the public comment period for at least another 45 days. *

US out of Afghanistan


We knew President Obama wasn’t going to be perfect. We knew he was a lot more of a political moderate than the left — which was about getting rid of George W. Bush and voting for a candidate who was against the war in Iraq — always wanted to acknowledge. And we knew that the key to a progressive national agenda was keeping the pressure on the new president, who won on the basis of massive grassroots support and would be, we hoped, swayed be the mobilization of that same coalition on key political issues.

And now, after the biggest disappointment yet of his young presidency, it’s more important than ever for the movement that swept Obama into office to get back into the streets. Because the president’s decision to put 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan — to escalate, at great expense, a war the United States can’t win — is a disaster for the nation.

Obama was, to some extent, trapped by his own political rhetoric. Reportedly during the campaign, he chided the Republicans and their candidate, John McCain, for the morass of Iraq and argued that the real fight was in Afghanistan, where Osama Bin Laden and his terrorists were holed up. That was probably untrue back then, and it’s almost certainly untrue now: ss Harvard professor and Afghanistan expert Rory Stewart noted on Bill Moyers’ TV show Journal show Sept. 25th, al Qaeda is in Pakistan now. It’s true that the Taliban — a brutal and repressive fundamentalist sect — is gaining ground in Afghanistan, but the people under the sway of that religious movement aren’t a serious threat to U.S. national security. As Stewart noted:

“One of the things that’s a little misleading about people who say, ‘If we don’t fight the Taliban in Afghanistan, we’re going to have to fight them in the streets of the United States’ is that most of these people we’re dealing with can barely read or write…. They’re often three hours’ walk from the nearest village. The idea that they’re somehow going to turn up on the streets of the United States with a train of goats behind them in order to conduct war here is a bit misleading.”

And the president didn’t make things any better by asking the generals on the ground to tell him how many more troops they needed — without spelling out exactly what the mission was or how success would be measured. Now that the Pentagon — as usual — has asked for more troops, Obama was in a bind, and was unable to show the courage to reject that proposal and completely rethink the U.S. role in Afghanistan.

Then there’s the fact — and it’s a cold, hard fact, borne out by centuries of history — that invasions and nation-building efforts by outside military forces never succeed in Afghanistan. Everyone who’s ever tried to conquer Afghanistan — from the Mongols to the British to the Russians — has failed. It’s a rough country with little civilian infrastructure. There’s no effective national leadership — the government of Hamid Karzai is monumentally corrupt and incompetent — and most civil authority rests with tribal councils and warlords. In fact, it’s probably misleading to call Afghanistan a country; it’s never had much national government. For the past 40 years, the place has been ravaged by war. “To rebuild a country like that would take 30 or 40 years of patient, tolerant investment,” Stewart notes — and even then the result would probably be closer to a state like Pakistan, which is hardly a shining example of democracy (and is, in fact, more of a threat to our security).

So why, exactly, is the United States still there — and what possible reason could Obama have for expanding the war effort, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars that are badly needed back home to create jobs and stabilize the economy? It’s the worst mistake of his presidency and the worst threat to his legacy and the U.S. national security and any hope of brining the U.S. back into a leadership role in creating a more peaceful and stable world.

As Simon Jenkins, a columnist for the U.K. Guardian noted Nov. 17, “If militarism wins and Obama commences a 10-year battle over the mountains and plains of Afghanistan, it will spell the end of America’s status as cold war victor and putative world policeman. The complex will have him trapped. The Taliban will have him cornered, as will bin Laden. America’s democratic leadership will have been pitted against American militarism — an informal component of the republic since the founding fathers — and will have capitulated.”

The antiwar movement needs to come back to life, quickly, on every level and every front, to demand a reversal of this misguided policy, a quick withdrawl of troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan and an end to decades of failed military and foreign policy. And that movement can and should start in San Francisco, bringing pressure on Rep. Nancy Pelosi not to fund the Afghanistan war and giving support to the antiwar Democrats who will have trouble opposing the Democratic president.

This city, and this newspaper, have opposed foolish military adventures in Vietnam, Central America, and Iraq. It’s time to start beating the drums again: U.S. out of Afghanistan!

PS: The Nation has a stunning report in its Nov. 30 edition on how U.S. contractors are paying off the Taliban to protect military shipments through the country. That’s a major source of income to the fundamentalists. In other words, U.S. tax dollars are funding the U.S. enemy. That’s how screwed up this war is.

Time for serious budget reform


EDITORIAL Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, likes to say that politicians should never let a crisis go to waste — but that’s what happened in San Francisco last summer, when the mayor and the supervisors approved a budget deal that didn’t involve any real structural reform, didn’t solve any long-term problems, and didn’t even last six months.

Now there’s a new crisis, one that, if anything, is worse. Cutting almost a half-billion dollars from the city budget last year was absolutely brutal. But cutting another half-billion, which is what the controller is now talking about, seems almost inconceivable.

It’s time to quit with the patches, quit with the one-time solutions and fee hikes. And with the mayor missing in action, the supervisors simply have to take the lead here and begin working on major systemic changes that shift the way the city is financed and the way money is spent.

The biggest problem with last summer’s deal was the lack of any serious attempt at bringing in new revenue. Newsom and his advisors all said that tax hikes weren’t looking good in the polls and probably wouldn’t get voter approval, but election results around the Bay suggest otherwise: In city after city, voters approved new taxes to fund essential public services.

And Newsom never gave the revenue side of the equation a fighting chance. He never made any personal effort to lobby the three supervisors he had appointed to the board, who were all reluctant to put emergency tax measures on the ballot. He just let the idea die.

And now the city is paying the price. Everyone with any sense knew last summer that the recession wasn’t going to magically end in time to make this budget work. It was clear that property tax and sales tax revenue would drop even further — and that the only way to avoid brutal midyear cuts was to look for new sources of money. Now the mayor and the board have to slice close to $50 million to keep the red ink at bay, and next year’s deficit is pegged at 10 times that much.

The other glaring problem with the mayor’s budget approach is that it sought to cut only from the front lines. But the highest-paid workers, the folks who make way more than $100,000 a year, the management ranks that have become very well staffed in recent years, were largely untouched. And frankly, there are a lot of people in that category who don’t do much of anything that’s essential to the functioning of the city.

During the dot-com boom, when Willie Brown was mayor and the city was awash in cash, the ranks of the politically appointed managers grew dramatically. Some of those folks are still around. Newsom has added his own. And the structure of management and organization in this city has never been a model of efficiency. So if the mayor wants another round of deep cuts — 20 percent from every department — he should start with a management audit of some of the biggest departments and take a hard look at exactly what all those senior employees do all day — and whether their work might be less important than, say, nurse aides who take care of the sick elderly.

As a simple show of good faith, Newsom shouldn’t replace Nate Ballard, the press secretary, or Kevin Ryan, his criminal justice advisor. There are still four other people in the mayor’s press office, more than any mayor in modern history has ever needed. And the city already has a police chief, police commission, district attorney, and sheriff. Why the mayor needs his own criminal justice office is a mystery to us.

There are other policy issues that need to be examined. The current budget shortfall memo from the city controller notes that some departments are already over budget — the Sheriff’s Office, for example, needs an additional $2.7 million dollars. The public defender and the courts need and additional $4.9 million. Why? Well, one reason is the new police chief’s crackdown on drug sales in the Tenderloin — which is packing the jails. "We’re defiantly looking at a lot of new drug cases," Sheriff Mike Hennessey, who has had to open three new housing units to fit all the prisoners, told us. The crackdown may be good public policy (or not) — but there was never any discussion of how much it would cost. And the mayor and the chief never asked the supervisors to authorize adequate spending for it.

So as a matter of policy, the mayor apparently thinks it’s worth $7 million to arrest drug dealers — but not worth $7 million to keep public-health workers who save lives every day on the job. That’s a policy decision that was made arbitrarily — and that kind of discussion needs to happen on a dozen or more fronts.

The mayor told his department heads Nov. 19 to expect 20 percent cuts — and to prepare for as much as 30 percent. But that’s not going to happen across the board. Unless the police stop arresting people, for example, the sheriff won’t be able to cut 20 percent of his budget without letting prisoners go. The mayor won’t take the political heat for cutting that much from cops and fire. So the burden will fall on public health, Muni, human services, recreation and parks, and other smaller departments. And the level of cuts will render those agencies unable to provide basic services.

So let’s be honest: there is simply no way to close a deficit this large without new taxes. That’s just reality, and anyone who denies it is refusing to face facts. San Francisco can’t survive with basic services — like police, fire, and public health — intact on the amount of money the controller projects the city will collect in the next year.

Newsom will be guilty of destroying the entire social service infrastructure in this city if he refuses to push tax hikes. And he’ll be damaging the local economy if he does it piecemeal.

We’ve been clamoring for years for an overhaul of the city’s tax structure, and now there’s a hurricane-force fiscal storm forcing the issue. If Newsom doesn’t announce plans to hold open, public discussions and draft a new tax policy for the city (and we doubt that will happen) then the supervisors must act, now. Board President David Chiu already had a broad-based committee work on tax reform. Now the board needs to begin drafting comprehensive legislation to change the way the city collects money — with the aim of putting a measure on the ballot as early as possible next year.

The goal should be not only to bring in another $250 million (at least) in new revenue, but to shift the tax burden away from small businesses and the poor and middle class and onto the wealthy. A big first step: get rid of the flat business tax and replace it with a progressive gross receipts tax that charges the biggest companies a higher percentage. Other cities have found numerous other ways to raise money — such parcel taxes, which aren’t quite as fair as ad valorem property taxes, but at least tax property owners, who in general are a wealthier class. A properly written utility users tax would hit big companies that use (and sometimes waste) a lot of power. And of course, a tax on income earned in the city — which would cover commuters who use city services but don’t pay city taxes — is among the most progressive ways to bring in new money.

Meanwhile, let’s remember: fee hikes (for Muni rides, for use of city pools and playing fields etc.) are just hidden taxes — on the poor and middle class.

State law makes it hard to raise taxes; any measure would have to go to the voters. But a major tax-reform overhaul that doesn’t just raise a few taxes on a targeted group but makes the entire system more fair for everyone, ought to be a ballot-box winner — particularly if the mayor is willing to raise money and lead the battle to pass it.

In a Nov. 18 interview with Hank Plante, the KCBS political editor, a testy and impatient Newsom ducked specific questions about how he was going to solve the budget shortfall. After saying that he doesn’t read the newspapers (which, frankly, is either a lie or utterly shameful for a big-city mayor, and leaves him looking as ill-informed as former President Ronald Reagan) he simply said the deficit would be "a lot of work."

That’s an understatement — and Newsom needs to do more than sit in his office and whine about the media. He needs to be out in public, addressing the budget crisis — and he needs to let reporters and residents and business people and the supervisors ask questions and get straight answers.

It’s fine to say that at this point, nobody knows how to solve the problem. It’s not okay to say: trust me, I’ll get back to you on that. This is a citywide crisis, and it’s essential that the public feels involved.

This is the biggest crisis since Gavin Newsom took office. It’s time he started acting like it.

Fixing police discipline


EDITORIAL San Francisco’s new police chief wants more authority to discipline problem officers. He’s been talking about it since the day he arrived, and he’s getting some political traction. Sup. David Chiu has called for a hearing in the next few weeks, and it’s likely that the chief will seek a Charter Amendment next year to redefine how the top cop and Police Commission handle personnel issues.

We have no problem giving the chief the right to fire a bad cop. In fact, if George Gascón wants to quickly rid the force of the small number of violent and unprofessional officers who are responsible for most of the serious discipline problems, more power to him.

But Gascón isn’t stopping there — he wants to reduce the power of the commission and possibly the Office of Citizen Complaints. And that’s a very bad idea.

Police discipline is one of the biggest problems facing the force. The city has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuit settlements in police abuse cases. Rogue cops have beaten, harassed, intimidated, and sometimes killed innocent people. And because so few officers ever face serious penalties, the bad behavior goes on unabated.

Gascón recognizes that. He told us in an interview in October that he thinks there are 10 cops on the force who ought to be fired, right now. That would send a powerful message: in the past 20 years, fewer than five police officers have ever been fired for misconduct.

Right now only the Police Commission can terminate an officer; the most the chief can issue on his own is a 10-day suspension. And there’s a huge backlog of discipline cases. That’s partly the result of the system itself — commissioners are part-time appointees and discipline hearings are time-consuming. It’s also partly the fault of the department — previous chiefs have shown little interest in expediting discipline cases and have worked to thwart the ability of the Office of Citizen Complains to complete investigations.

Gascón told us he’d like to see the commission become an appellate body. The chief would make most discipline decisions, and if an officer thought the ruling was unfair, he or she could take it up with the civilian panel. We understand his frustration with the process, but his proposal doesn’t make sense.

If Gascón is serious about weeding out problem cops (and taking on the politically powerful Police Officers Association to do it), he’d be the first chief in decades to do so. His recent predecessors showed almost no interest in discipline, and even if Gascón turns out to be the toughest chief in history, he won’t be here forever, and his successor might return to the bad old days.

That’s why the current system allows the OCC to take cases directly to the commission if the agency director feels that the chief has failed to act. That ability is central to any civilian oversight process and must remain as part of any reform.

We don’t see why there has to be any conflict here at all. We’re fine with giving the chief the extra authority to fire cops — and leaving the rest of the system intact. Let the chief enact firm discipline — and if he doesn’t, let the OCC and commission do it. That would preserve the checks and balances in the system and allow Gascón to clear up some of the disciplinary backlog and get rid of the worst problem officers.

San Francisco has long operated under the proposition that civilians, not police officers, should conduct investigations of complaints against cops — and should have the final authority on the disposition of those complaints. The supervisors should be open to giving Gascón what he wants — but not if it means dismantling the heart of a civilian-oversight program.

And if Gascón wants the voters to trust him with front-line discipline, let’s see some action. Work with the commission to fire those 10 bad cops — now — and we’ll all have a lot more faith in your reform credentials.

Newsom: support just-cause eviction law


EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom, reeling from criticism of his disappearing act last week and his failure to quickly reengage with San Francisco, has an opportunity to repair some of his tattered image, particularly among progressives, and mend fences with the majority of the Board of Supervisors. It wouldn’t even require a dramatic or groundbreaking step — all he has to do is agree to sign legislation by Sup. John Avalos extending eviction protections to roughly 20,000 vulnerable San Francisco renters.

The Avalos legislation clears up a lingering loophole in the city’s rent-control ordinance, a leftover piece of a bad deal that tenants were forced to accept when the city first moved to limit rent hikes 20 years ago. Back in 1978, with greedy landlords taking advantage of a housing shortage to jack up rents by astronomical rates, the supervisors and then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein were under immense pressure to pass some kind of control. But the landlord-friendly mayor and at-large elected board were unwilling to do what Berkeley had done across the bay by setting permanent limits on how much landlords could raise prices. Instead, they approved a watered-down measure aimed largely at fending off a tenant initiative that would have gone further.

The deal capped rent hikes — but only for existing tenants, allowing landlords to raise rents whenever a unit became vacant. And, after the real estate industry whined that rent control would cause developers to stop building new housing in San Francisco (a dubious claim if ever there was one), the supervisors agreed to exempt all newly constructed housing (that is, anything built after 1979) from any rent regulations at all.

That housing is still exempt from rent control — and because the rent control law also includes eviction protections for tenants, the post-1979 housing stock is also exempt from those rules.

Most San Francisco tenants enjoy what’s known as "just-cause" eviction rules — that is, you can’t toss a tenant out on the streets without a reason. Failure to pay rent, of course, is legal grounds to send someone packing; it’s also okay to force a tenant out if the owner wants to move in.

But for the roughly 20,000 renters living in newer units, evictions can happen on a landlord’s whim — and one of the most dangerous problems is the lack of protection for people who live in a foreclosed building. Tenants in older, pre-1979 buildings have the right to continue to live in the property, under the same lease or rental agreement, after a sale or foreclosure. The Avalos bill would extend that protection (and the other just-cause protections) to all tenants in the city.

It’s hardly a radical idea — and given the boom in high-end housing construction in this city over the past decade (slowed only by the economic crash), the claim that tenant protections will doom new housing is demonstrably false. It would save vulnerable residents from losing their homes, protect people who live (through no fault of their own) in foreclosed properties, and restore a level of fairness to the local housing market.

The measure will almost certainly get six votes on the board, so the only real obstacle is the threat of a Newsom veto. The mayor should state publicly that he supports the measure and will sign it — which could be the start of a new, more promising chapter in Newsom’s political career.

Editorial: The next Gavin Newsom


EDITORIAL It’s possible that Mayor Gavin Newsom took a long look at himself, his life, and his future last week and decided that politics — intense, 24/7/365 politics — wasn’t what he wanted right now. It’s possible (as Randy Shaw noted in that Newsom "now joins longtime adversary Chris Daly in putting family relationships ahead of one’s political career." It’s possible that he never really wanted a future in electoral politics and was driven to run for governor less by personal ambition than by the desire of his advisors to see him in a higher political role.

In that case, Newsom has a responsibility to do the best job he can over the final two years of his term as mayor, then step away and find something else to do with his life.

But since it’s also possible — even likely — that Newsom still hopes to have a political career, and that his decision to drop out of the governor’s race was as much about his failure to gain any traction as it was about his family obligations, it’s worth talking about why his campaign failed and what he can and should do next.

For starters, Newsom never expected to beat Attorney General Jerry Brown in the big-donor fundraising battle. He was hoping to put together a grassroots operation, to mobilize the Obama constituency, and build a war chest with tens of thousands of small donors organized through social media and technology. And that kind of effort could have worked — Brown has name recognition and money, but not much else. It’s hard to imagine large masses of young activists donating time and energy to his primary campaign.

The problem was, those legions of California activists weren’t terribly excited about Newsom either. And there are good reasons for that — reasons Newsom needs to understand if he wants to run for statewide elected office in the future.

If the real Gavin Newsom had been anything like the campaign picture his handlers tried to present, he would have been a serious candidate. Newsom the candidate was a leader who brought San Franciscans together to get things accomplished. He was a progressive thinker who created universal health care and an effective budget process with a rainy day fund that prevented teacher layoffs. He was bold enough to challenge federal and state law on same-sex marriage and demand equality for all.

But Newsom the mayor was actually a snippy politician who refused to work with the Board of Supervisors and would never engage his opponents. He was great at press releases but short on accomplishments — universal health care and the rainy day fund were projects put together by Tom Ammiano, one of the supervisors the mayor disdained, who is now a state Assembly member. He refused to take a lead role fighting Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to promote clean energy and public power. And for all his success in moving same-sex marriage forward, he never once managed to bring that kind of progressive energy or policy-making to economic issues. His budget this year was the same as Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget — cuts and fees only. No new taxes.

As a result, the progressives and independent voters in his own town didn’t support his campaign — and without the environmentalists, labor, tenants, and progressive elected officials from San Francisco behind him, there was no way he could generate an honest grassroots movement in a Democratic primary.

Now he’s back from the campaign trail — and he has two years to pick up on the lessons of his ignominious political collapse. If he wants any kind of a political future, he needs to change. First, he needs to start engaging and working with the supervisors — even the ones who disagree with him. (Showing up for "question time" would be a huge step). He needs to take the city’s structural budget deficit seriously and present plans for progressive taxes to help close it. He needs to show he can take on big powerful local interests — PG&E, for example — by opposing the utility’s anti-public power initiative and putting his political capital on the line to support community choice aggregation.

Newsom the imperial mayor has, we hope, been a bit humbled. Let’s see if he comes out of this chapter as an embittered, angry (and ultimately unsuccessful) mayor committed to punishing his enemies — or a serious city leader who can live up to his own hype.

Gavin Newsom, lawbreaker


EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom has set off something of a crisis in San Francisco government by insisting that he will defy the city law that seeks to protect immigrant youth from deportation. While Newsom claims that the sanctuary policy approved 8-2 by the supervisors last week violates federal law (something the same-sex marriage advocate hasn’t worried so much about in the past), this is really a matter of politics. Newsom, candidate for governor of California, doesn’t want to seem soft on crime — so Newsom, mayor of San Francisco, is siding with the federal immigration authorities.

He’s also putting out a misleading message about the law.

The sanctuary legislation, by Sup. David Campos, is an attempt to deal with a very real — and serious — problem. Under the city’s current policy, any time a young person is arrested and the juvenile probation department thinks he or she might lack documentation, the officers involved contact Immigration Control and Enforcement. That means kids who have lived in this country for years and have no ties to their birth nation can be deported — just on the basis of an arrest that could turn out to be groundless.

Campos’ law establishes a city policy that prohibits local law enforcement from reporting juvenile offenders to ICE until they’ve been convicted of a crime. That’s just basic due process.

Newsom insists (and the city attorney’s office agrees) that no city employee can be penalized for contacting ICE. But that’s not the point of this law. Right now, juvenile officers are required to call ICE when they have someone in custody who may be undocumented. There’s no federal law saying this has to happen. And it’s perfectly legal — and appropriate — to lift that mandate and to say, in effect, that no city employee should be penalized for declining to turn a kid over to the feds.

At this point, the city attorney hasn’t argued that the Campos bill is illegal or unenforceable, and no judge has overturned it. When, as expected, the supervisors override Newsom’s certain veto, the bill will become city law — presumptively valid until a court rules otherwise. And Newsom has a legal obligation as mayor to abide by and enforce that law.

City Attorney Dennis Herrera is in something of a bind here since he has to represent both the mayor and the supervisors. But he needs to make clear, in public, that while he warned of possible legal implications of the Campos legislation, right now there is nothing preventing the law from taking effect — and that the mayor, like any other city official, is required to follow it.

The supervisors need to keep pushing the issue, too. And they need to be prepared to go to court to seek a writ mandating that the city’s chief executive follow his sworn oath and faithfully execute the law.

None of this needs to happen. Newsom could have worked with Campos on the legislation. Instead, the mayor continues to defy the board and act like the sort of imperial executive who is utterly unqualified for any higher office. For the sake of innocent kids facing the horrors of deportation, San Francisco’s reputation as a sanctuary city and Newsom’s own political future, he needs to back off and agree to abide by the city’s own laws.

Wake up, City Hall – and get moving on CCA


EDITORIAL San Francisco’s chance to create a semblance of public power, through community choice aggregation, faces a devastating threat from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. — and the city needs to move with a sense of real urgency to get this program off the ground.

CCA would allow San Francisco to buy electric power in bulk and sell it to customers at a reduced cost. It wouldn’t create a true public-power system — PG&E would still own the transmission facilities. And while customers would see price breaks, the city wouldn’t make much money off the deal. But it would be a major step toward breaking PG&E’s illegal monopoly.

The giant private utility desperately wants to avoid that, but right now its options are limited: The state law that authorizes CCAs, written by then-state Sen. Carole Migden (D-San Francisco), bars utilities from interfering with or trying to shoot down community attempts are creating the buying coops. So PG&E is paying to collect signatures for a statewide ballot initiative that would mandate a two-thirds vote before any city, county, or public agency can attempt to create or expand a public-power utility.

We all know what the two-thirds vote requirement has done in Sacramento — it’s paralyzed the Legislature. The PG&E initiative would do the same thing, making it almost impossible for any community to get rid of the dirty, high-priced power the utility peddles.

It’s going to take a huge statewide effort to defeat that initiative, and San Francisco — the only city with a federal mandate for public power — ought to be leading the way. Sup. Ross Mirkarimi has been pushing the issue, and the supervisors have passed a resolution opposing the measure. That’s a start, but city officials need to do a lot more. We suspect the initiative may violate Midgden’s law — by any reasonable standard, PG&E is interfering with the rights of local government here — and San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera is investigating the issue. He needs to move aggressively and quickly to determine whether the city has a legal case that could get the measure thrown off the ballot. If so, he needs to connect with city attorneys in other public-power cities and launch a full-scale legal assault.

But if it looks as if a legal strategy won’t fly. Herrera, Mayor Gavin Newsom, the city’s state Legislative delegation and every other elected official in San Francisco needs to be speaking out against the measure — and working to set up a statewide coalition that can raise money to defeat it. The measure can’t be fought just with a few press conferences and statements of support — every public-power city, including Los Angeles, Sacramento, and Santa Clara, needs to be on board, with a high-profile campaign committee and public officials across the state holding fundraisers and looking to build a war chest in the millions of dollars.

And in the meantime, San Francisco absolutely must be moving at full speed to get its own CCA measure passed, in place and under way before this initiative gets on the ballot. For several years now, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has been dragging its feet on CCA, and General Manager Ed Harrington is hardly making it a top priority. That has to change, now. Mirkarimi, as chair of the board’s Local Agency Formation Commission, is pushing the PUC to get the process moving, and the mayor, who claims to support CCA, needs to direct Harrington to press forward as if there were a hard deadline of next spring for implementation. Because if the PG&E measure makes the spring 2010 ballot, and wins, San Francisco’s program will have to be fully under way — or it will be dead.

Other than Mirkarimi, who is trying to organize statewide opposition, nobody at City Hall seems to be taking this threat seriously. It’s time to wake up, folks — the future of public power, and all the benefits it could bring San Francisco, is on the line. *

How an online newspaper can succeed


EDITORIAL Dave Iverson, host of KQED’s Friday Forum show, introduced the Sept. 25 program with a pretty obvious comment: "Conversations about the future of journalism, and newspapers in particular, are rarely optimistic affairs." He went on to describe the new effort by Warren Hellman, KQED, and the UC Berkeley journalism school to create a new media outlet in San Francisco (a story that broke first in the Guardian‘s politics blog).

The guests, including Neil Henry, dean of the j-school; Carl Hall, the former San Francisco Chronicle reporter; and Jeff Clarke, president of KQED; talked in vague platitudes about the big new plans — and then spent much of the time defending and lauding the Chronicle, which one guest called "a great paper."

But that’s not how the callers saw it — and not how much of the Bay Area perceives San Francisco’s major daily newspaper. And therein is a critical lesson for the new journalistic effort.

For the record: we would hate to see the San Francisco Chronicle fail. A daily newspaper plays a crucial role in urban life, politics, and society. No number of part-time bloggers and citizen journalists will ever be able to perform the watchdog role of a fully-staffed newspaper.

And we welcome the new effort by Hellman and his crew. With the dramatic decline in the Chron‘s fortunes, there’s less and less coverage of crucial news in the city, and an aggressive new outlet could be very good news for San Francisco.

But the people who manage the new venture need to understand that the problems the Chronicle faces are not entirely due to the economy and changes in the newspaper business. Frankly, the Chron has consistently spurned, ignored, trivialized, and sought to discredit the entire progressive movement and a wide range of progressive issues. It’s been a conservative newspaper in one of the nation’s most liberal cities. It’s been a cautious publication, wary of serious challenges to the city’s power structure. There’s not a single liberal or progressive columnist at the paper. Opinion writers like C.W. Nevius seem to disdain everything about San Francisco and urban life in general. The political coverage tends to treat the left as something to be mocked. There’s no real labor reporting any more, no aggressive consumer reporting, little pursuit of big structural corruption issues.

It’s little wonder then that a significant percentage of San Franciscans (in particular, younger people) see no reason whatsoever to pick up the San Francisco Chronicle. And KQED (which gets big donations from some of the city’s biggest corporations and the social and political elite) is hardly the voice of young, progressive San Francisco. (Pacific Gas and Electric Co., for example, is one of the greatest corporate criminals in San Francisco history — and also a major KQED donor.)

As one local media observer told us, this new Web-based publication "can’t just be about getting the old band back together for another tour."

If a new online city newspaper is going to succeed, it’s going to have to take San Francisco — with all its diverse communities — seriously. It’s going to have to be willing to offend the big-business power structure. It’s going to need a strong, independent, editorial voice that includes, rather than marginalizes, the progressive point of view. And it’s going to have to attract writers who are interested in communicating to a generation that has abandoned the Chron.

That means Hellman and the gang have to hire a respected editor — and vow not to interfere if the stories and editorials don’t support the agendas of the members of the nonprofit board.

The nonprofit model is tricky for newspapers: foundations and big donors have their own interests, and they often want the organizations they bestow their largesse upon to behave in ways that are antithetical to good journalism. If this new group can make it work (and produce a locally- operated product — unlike the Chron, which is owned by Hearst Corporation in New York) we’re all for it. But a new model of journalism in San Francisco will require more than a new publishing technology. That’s going to be the hardest part.

Stopping PG&E’s fraudulent initiative


EDITORIAL A ballot measure that could spell the end of public power in California is headed for either the spring or fall 2010 ballot — and so far, the opposition is missing in action. This is a profoundly important issue, and every elected official, city council, board of supervisors, and utility agency in the Bay Area needs to immediately come out in opposition and start organizing to defeat it.

The source of the proposition, of course, is Pacific Gas and Electric Co. PG&E is facing political wildfires all over the state as communities rebel against bad service and high rates. In Marin County, a community choice aggregation (CCA) plan is moving along, full speed. In San Francisco, CCA is a little slower, but still on track. These efforts could turn two of PG&E’s most profitable territories into public power beachheads. Meanwhile, in San Joaquin County, a public power movement is trying to take over part of PG&E’s service area, and PG&E just spent millions of dollars fighting a similar effort in Davis.

So the utility has decided to fight back — not just in the local communities where activists can beat PG&E back, or in the state Legislature, where the giant company has fewer and fewer friends, but with a ballot initiative that has a misleading name, a misleading political message — and tens of millions of dollars to back it up.

Signature-gatherers are out in force already, collecting names for a measure called "New two-thirds requirement for local public electricity providers." The paid petition crews are describing it as a "right to vote" measure, giving the public a chance to weigh in on government action.

What the measure would really do is require a two-thirds affirmative vote before any public power agency could add new customers, or any local agency could get into the power business. It would force the existing CCA movements to get two-thirds of the local voters to approve their efforts.

That’s an almost impossible standard — particularly when PG&E spends millions to block public power efforts everywhere they appear.

The two-thirds voting requirement is increasingly being assailed as undemocratic. The state Legislature has been paralyzed by its own two-thirds requirement for passing a budget, and there are multiple moves to reduce that threshold. The two-thirds mandate for passing local taxes has been widely blamed for driving cities and counties to the brink of fiscal ruin.

And yet PG&E is trying to add a new, crushing mandate — aimed entirely at snuffing out public power advances. The impact on the state will be enormous. As Megan Rawlins reports on page 8, high PG&E rates and the lack of public power cost the San Francisco economy alone as much as $2.8 billion a year. Multiply that by a factor of 10 or 20, and you see what a devastating financial blow this PG&E move would be to California’s crumbling economy.

So where, exactly, is the opposition?

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi called a meeting last week at the offices of the Utility Reform Network (TURN) to try to get other public power communities involved in a statewide campaign. But it’s been slow going.

That’s not going to work. Every elected agency in the Bay Area needs to get this on the agenda — now. Every city official (starting with Mayor Gavin Newsom, who wants to be governor) and every state official (starting with Attorney General Jerry Brown, who also wants to be governor) needs to loudly and publicly denounce this move, help establish a high-level coalition to beat it back, and start raising money for the campaign.

There may be a legal strategy, too. The law that authorized cities and counties to set up CCAs bars PG&E and other private utilities from interfering with local CCA efforts — and it’s pretty clear that this initiative is designed to do exactly that. City Attorney Dennis Herrera needs to immediately investigate the possibility of suing to get this disastrous initiative off the ballot. *

City Planning’s latest mess


EDITORIAL The San Francisco city planning director, John Rahaim, has kept a fairly low profile since taking over the troubled department in 2008. But some serious problems are starting to fester on his watch — and if he and the planning commissioners don’t clean up the mess, the supervisors need to step in.

Rahaim remains somewhat in the shadow of the former director, Dean Macris, who is responsible for some of the worst San Francisco development problems of the past three decades. And the Macris influence is still very heavy in the department. But Rahaim needs to step out and show that things are going to change. For starters, he should:

Scrap the plan to privatize environmental review. As Rebecca Bowe reports on page 15, the department is looking at bringing in outside consultants to help clear up the backlog in the Major Environmental Analysis division of the Planning Department. It’s a horrible idea — the environmental consulting firms that do this work make most of their money from developers, and that’s where their loyalties will always lie. The city planning staff is by no means perfect, but at least the unionized MEA staffers have some ability to demand that builders follow the rules and that environmental impact reports are relatively honest. The whole idea comes (not surprisingly) from the big developers, particularly Lennar Corp. at Hunters Point and the consortium looking to redevelop Treasure Island; they’re worried about the short-staffed Planning Department’s slow pace of project review. But we don’t see those developers helping raise new revenue for the city — money that could allow planning to hire more staff.

Back away from allowing developers to block sunlight in city parks. San Francisco voters approved a measure back in 1984 that essentially halted the construction of any tall buildings that would cast shadows on city parkland. Proposition K has worked remarkably well over the years. But now, with such behemoths as the 100-plus-story tower planned for the Transbay Terminal area and the high-rise condo complex near the Transamerica Building threatening to block out the sun in public open space, the developers are looking for ways to "update" — that is, gut — Prop. K protections. On Aug. 23, a who’s who list of big local developers, architects, and lawyers met with city planning officials to discuss the issue (the attendance list, and more background, is posted at The Planning Commission will get a briefing on the topic Sept. 17.

We don’t see the problem with Prop. K — protecting parks from high-rise shadows is pretty basic planning and has been public policy for 25 years. Rahaim should drop this developer-driven plan, now.

Get Macris the hell out of the Planning Department. Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Planning Commission hired Rahaim a year and a half ago. So why does Macris, the former director, still have an office in the department? Why is he routinely consulted on major issues? When, oh when, will he finally go away?

According to the mayor’s press secretary, Nathan Ballard, Macris isn’t costing the city any money — a handful of developers are chipping in to cover the cost of his paycheck. That alone is a problem — since when do developers get to have their own paid planner sitting in on office in the Planning Department?

And frankly, Macris has been a shill for big developers all his career. He oversaw much of the massive over-construction that took place in the 1980s, and resisted all attempts at slowing down runaway growth. He’s a bad influence on the department, and Rahaim needs to send him packing, now.

Rahaim has gotten a fairly free ride so far, but things are starting to spiral out of control in his department. It’s a disturbing pattern, and the supervisors should be prepared to hold hearings and start taking action. *

On health care, just win


EDITORIAL This could very well be the pivotal moment in Barack Obama’s presidency. If he loses on health care reform — or worse, if he caves in to right-wing bullying tactics and abandons a strong public option — then not only will the American people and economy suffer, but Obama will have hobbled his ability to effectively address the myriad problems facing this country.

The time for negotiating with Republicans on health care is over. They have proven to be hostile and irrational obstructionists interested only in sabotaging both Obama and health care reform, repeatedly telling lies to incite anger and fear in the populace. Beyond being irresponsible, they have abandoned their role as good-faith participants in the political process.

Even when U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius suggested on Aug. 16 that private co-ops might be an acceptable alternative to the public plan — a tactical and policy mistake that understandably outraged progressives — Republicans refused to come back to the bargaining table.

With that gesture, Republicans showed that their overheated denunciations of the public option were simply a political ploy. They will scream "socialized medicine" on behalf of insurance companies no matter what is in this reform package, so Obama and the Democrats need to ignore them, develop the strongest possible plan, and do whatever it takes to get it through Congress this fall, even when that means stretching procedural rules to require only a bare majority vote for the most controversial elements.

The Democrats have already compromised enough. As the Guardian has said ("It’s the insurance companies, stupid," 7/22/09), a single-payer system is the only reform that will bring the cost savings this country (and its residents and businesses) desperately needs. Democrats were foolish to abandon that so early, a decision that emboldened conservatives and insurance industry shills in both parties and led to the current standoff.

So if Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are right that starting over on health care reform would cause the moment of possibility to be lost — and we aren’t sure they’re right, although we understand the point — then they need to get tough and push through their plan without letting it get watered down any more.

Despite the over-amplification of right-wing talking points, the political winds have shifted in this country. Progressives are ascendant and they expect fundamental reforms. Pelosi (to her credit) acknowledged as much in August when she said that health reform bill without a strong public option wouldn’t be approved by the House.

That’s because the House Progressive Caucus, led by Rep. Lynn Woolsey from Petaluma, now has more members than the conservative Blue Dog Coalition, 81 to 52. It’s not the 1990s anymore, when then-President Bill Clinton felt he had to compromise with the emerging right wing to get anything done. Now Democrats finally need to acknowledge progressives and enlist their help in moving a bold reform agenda.

Today, the Republicans have been thoroughly discredited, but the Democratic Party is its own worst enemy. The people who gave the Democrats substantially congressional majorities expect action, and if the Democrats can’t toughen up and deliver, this country is headed for a real political crisis that could easily spin out of control.

Obama and Pelosi need to seize the moment and pass a health reform bill that includes a robust public option and explicitly allows states like California to experiment with single-payer systems, which is the only system that will truly hold down health care costs and drive a stake through the heart of the insurance industry, which is ruining not just the health care system, but the political system as well. *

Rhetoric and reform at SFPD


EDITORIAL We’re glad to see San Francisco’s new police chief, George Gascon, is talking about reform. He’s talking about opening up the mediaphobic culture at the SFPD, bringing in new blood at the management level, shifting schedules so more experienced cops are available at night (when most crime takes place). He wants to focus the discipline process on the most serious departmental offenders — the handful of officers who are responsible for the majority of the misconduct problems.

Those are, generally, good signs. If he’s serious about changing the moribund, sometimes corrupt, and generally toxic climate in the department, though, he’ll need more than promises. Over the next few months, he needs to take action on a few key fronts.

Send a clear message about discipline. The weakest link in San Francisco’s civilian oversight system has traditionally been the police chief. The Office of Citizen Complaints has its problems, and some valid cases get dismissed, but overall, the agency investigates and recommends disciplinary action in most of the serious abuse cases. But the former chief, Heather Fong, repeatedly declined to impose credible discipline, either dismissing or ignoring the OCC’s findings. One single officer, Jesse Serna, has so far cost the city $580,000 in legal settlements stemming from improper conduct — but he’s still on the force.

Yes, the OCC has a huge backlog, and some of the cases the agency presents may be weak. Gascon has proposed dismissing about 75 cases now before the Police Commission — mostly, he says, minor offenses like failing to file a proper police report. But the cases that have gone before the commission typically aren’t minor — offenses that could result in as much as a 10-day suspension are resolved by the chief. The commission gets cases that are more serious — or that the chief refuses to act on.

Before Gascon starts talking amnesty and clearing minor cases, he needs to demonstrate that he’s going to take a hard line on the serious cases. He claims that "a very small group" in the department has a history that’s "irredeemable." Once he’s helped the commission fire those officers — and sent a clear message that abuse won’t be tolerated — he’ll have the credibility to talk about dismissing less-serious cases.

Don’t be afraid of the POA. There are some good, honest, experienced, qualified officers in the management and command ranks — but there are also people who hold powerful positions because of their union and political connections. And frankly, the Police Officers Association has been a major obstacle to reform. The POA doesn’t run the department, shouldn’t get to chose managers, and needs to be informed by the chief that the needs of the current (sometimes abusive) union leadership are not going to drive department policy.

Take a public stand against secrecy. Under Chief Fong, the San Francisco Police Department seemed terrified of sunshine. The media relations department acted as if releasing any information to the media was a terrifying prospect. Officers and detectives were told to avoid talking to reporters. And the cops — who, for reasons we still don’t understand, have the authority to unilaterally decide who qualifies for a police press pass — use the most narrow interpretation and keep bloggers, small publications, and nontraditional media out of the information loop.

Gascon has done the right thing by bringing in outside help and vowing to expand his definition of news media. But given the stifling climate of secrecy in the department, he needs to do more. Directing his staff to cooperate with the press (through a public general order) would be a big step. Announcing that all police reports (unless they involve a confidential source or situation) will be posted on the Web would go even further.

Chief Gascon has the chance to completely turn around a dysfunctional department. But small steps aren’t going to do it.

Newsom’s leak


EDITORIAL At the heart of the conflict over Sup. David Campos’ recent sanctuary legislation is a basic issue of civil rights: Should a young San Francisco immigrant arrested by the local police be treated as innocent until proven guilty — or should that person face deportation, even if the arrest is bogus and no formal charges are ever filed?

All Campos wants to do is establish that an arrest is not a conviction — and, as anyone who works with youth or immigrants in the city knows, thousands of innocent people are picked up by the police every year, sometimes because of simple mistakes, more often because the local cops have a propensity to arrest young people of color in disproportionate numbers.

And under current city policy, anyone arrested on felony charges who lacks proper documentation can be turned over to federal immigration authorities. And even if the suspect turns out to be innocent, he or she can be deported. That’s not fair, not consistent with the city’s sanctuary policy — and, according to the ACLU, not legally defensible.

But Mayor Gavin Newsom, not content with arguing the merits of the legislation (a battle he would clearly lose), has taken the remarkable step of leaking to the San Francisco Chronicle a confidential opinion from City Attorney Dennis Herrera that warned of the potential legal downside of the Campos measure. The Chron quickly turned the memo into a front-page story, proclaiming that the legislation "would violate federal law and could doom [the city’s] entire sanctuary city policy." Newsom was quick to chime in: "The supervisors are putting at risk the entire Sanctuary City Ordinance, which we’ve worked hard to protect," the Chron quoted the mayor as saying.

For starters, that’s blowing the situation way, way out of proportion. Herrera’s office writes these memos all the time. Any piece of legislation that might have legal ramifications gets this sort of review — and in many, many cases, the supervisors and the mayor simply go ahead anyway. Two of Newsom’s biggest initiatives — same-sex marriage and the city’s health care law — involved serious legal issues, and it’s almost certain that Herrera formally warned the supervisors and the mayor that going ahead could lead to lawsuits. Newsom, properly, proceeded with the legally risky moves.

And while we haven’t seen Herrera’s memo, people familiar with it agree that it never said that the existing sanctuary law is at any real risk. Yes, some anti-immigrant group could sue the city over Campos’s bill. And yes, some court could conceivable invalidate not only this law but a lot of other city immigration policies. But nobody has ever successfully sued to overturn the current law, which has been in effect for almost 20 years.

Of course, there are, and will be, legal issues with the Campos bill. But now that the mayor has leaked the confidential memo laying out those concerns, any right-wing nut who does want to sue will have the ammunition prepared. And Newsom’s action makes the prospect of a suit — one that will cost the city a lot of money — far more likely.

In other words, the mayor has put his own city’s treasury at risk, possibly vioutf8g city law in the process, in order to undermine a piece of legislation that he doesn’t support. This has all the hallmarks of the mayor’s new gubernatorial campaign team, led by consultant Garry South, who is known for his vicious, scorched-earth battles. South, we suspect, advised Newsom that appearing soft on illegal immigrants would play poorly in the more conservative parts of the state — and that a tactic that puts his own city at risk was an appropriate way to respond.

And Newsom, to his immense discredit, went along.

This is a big deal, a sign that the mayor is putting his higher ambitions far ahead of his duty to San Francisco. "In my eight years in office, I saw hundreds of these memos," former Board President Aaron Peskin told us. "I saw plenty of material that I could have leaked that would have been useful to me politically. But all of us on the board, across the political spectrum, understood that you just don’t do that. Because if you do, it tears the government apart."

We’re journalists here, and we never support government secrecy. We have consistently defended reporters who publish leaked documents (and would do so here, too, despite our criticism of the way the Chron played this story). And there are times, many times, when it’s best for city attorneys and the officials who get their advice to let the public know what those memos say. We support whistleblowers and principled city employees and officials who defy the rules of secrecy and tell the public what’s really going on.

But Newsom was serving no grand public interest purpose here. He was simply using confidential legal advice to attempt to thwart a political opponent, for the purpose of promoting his own ambitions. That’s alarming. If Newsom wants to be taken seriously as a candidate for governor, he needs to demonstrate that he can stand up to his political advisors — and so far, he’s failing, miserably.

P.S.: Sup. John Avalos has asked the Ethics Commission and the city attorney to investigate the leak, which is fine — but this shouldn’t become an attack on the right of the press to publish confidential documents. None of the investigators should try to question the Chron reporters to seek the source of the leak — particularly since Newsom has as much as admitted, to the Guardian‘s Sarah Phelan, that he was the one who authorized his staff to hand out the memo. *

Garamendi for Congress


EDITORIAL The Sept. 1 special election to replace Ellen Tauscher (who has taken a post with the Obama administration) in the East Bay’s Congressional District 10 includes a large field with several great candidates. In fact, any of the top half-dozen or so Democratic Party candidates would be an improvement on Tauscher, a member of the Blue Dog Coalition who supported the Iraq War.

All these top candidates are good on the issues, including requiring a strong public option in health care reform (most go even further and support single-payer), ending the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy, withdrawing troops from Iraq and developing an exit strategy for Afghanistan, achieving marriage equality, limiting federal drug and immigration raids, reforming Wall Street, and developing a sustainable energy policy that addresses climate change.

But it’s a tougher decision to choose between the experienced politicians in the race and a couple of attractive newcomers, who argue that fresh faces and new ideas are what’s most needed now in Congress, where the Democratic Party’s huge new majorities have so far produced disappointing results.

The most impressive of these new candidates is Anthony Woods, a smart, charismatic young person of color who has a remarkable personal story. From growing up poor in Fairfield with a single mom and without health insurance, Woods got into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and then went to Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree in public policy from the prestigious Kennedy School of Government.

Then, after doing two tours of duty in the Iraq War and earning the Bronze Star, Woods informed his commanding officer that he is gay. He was honorably discharged from the military and forced to repay the federal government for his college tuition, in the process becoming a cause célèbre in the LGBT community, which has strongly backed his candidacy.

Adriel Hampton, a former San Francisco Examiner political reporter who now works for the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office, also brings to the race a fresh perspective and intriguing ideas about using technology to engage more citizens with their government. We’re glad they’re running, but they could each use some more political experience before assuming such an important office at this critical point in history.

Fortunately, there are three Democratic Party office-holders in the race. Joan Buchanan is a member of the California Assembly who is running a strong race, while State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier has a more extensive political background, a long list of endorsers (including Tauscher and Sen. Mark Leno), and a strong voice calling for fundamental reforms of the political system, including being an early proponent for calling a constitutional convention in California.

DeSaulnier was the clear frontrunner and would have made an excellent member of Congress — but then Lt. Gov. John Garamendi dropped his plans to run for governor again and got into the race. It was a game changer. Garamendi has been in public service since he was elected to the Legislature in 1974; he later served as deputy secretary of the Department of the Interior under President Bill Clinton and as California’s first and best insurance commissioner, where he learned to play hardball with health insurance companies.

Garamendi has a forceful presence, progressive values, long relationships with key power brokers and knowledgeable advocates, and an unmatched history of intensive work on the most pernicious problems that Congress is now wrestling with, including health care reform and resource issues. From day one, he would be a leader who would help President Barack Obama move his agenda.

"I have the experience and knowledge we need right now in Congress," Garamendi told the Guardian‘s editorial board. He’s right, and he has earned our endorsement. *

The big prison duck


EDITORIAL A panel of federal judges has ordered the release of 44,000 California prisoners, sending politicians of both parties scrambling for cover and throwing a crucial issue into the heart of the Democratic campaign for governor.

And so far, both major candidates are ducking, badly.

The state prison system is a mess; any sane person knows that. California incarcerates 170,000 people in facilities designed for less than half that number. Sick inmates don’t get to see doctors; mentally ill or drug-addicted inmates often get no treatment at all. It’s so bad that a federal monitor appointed by the courts has demanded that the state spend $8 billion building new medical facilities for prisoners.

Meanwhile, inmates are crowded into makeshift bunks in gymnasiums and dayrooms. The few modest rehabilitative programs California offers are stretched so thin that many inmates get no job training or violence-prevention skills at all. The parole system is overburdened and focuses far too heavily on people with minor, nonviolent offenses.

And politicians wonder why the state has a recidivism rate of 70 percent.

The solutions aren’t rocket science, either. There’s a clear reason why incarceration rates have jumped so high: harsh sentencing laws, passed by the Legislature and the voters with no concern for the costs of implementation. The state’s three-strikes law is so draconian that thousands of people are serving 25 years to life for nonviolent felonies that typically would carry a sentence of a few years. So the first thing the Legislature and the governor need to do is change the sentencing laws (and give back discretion to judges).

Then there’s a drug problem. California prisons are packed with people serving sentences for drug possession — and most of these people, and society in general, would be better served, at less than half the cost, with treatment programs.

And frankly it wouldn’t be hard to release 44,000 inmates without any new threats to public safety. The vast majority of the inmates in California prisons are going to be released at some point anyway; in fact, the state now releases about 10,000 people a month. The early releases envisioned by the federal courts could simply mean allowing people who have served, say, three years of a four-year sentence to leave prison and shift to the custody of the parole system a few months earlier than scheduled. Many of those people are nonviolent offenders, particularly drug offenders.

With the state in a catastrophic fiscal condition, the cost of corrections ought to be a huge issue for the candidates for governor, particularly the Democrats. Mayor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Jerry Brown ought to be promoting a plan that would end the insanity of "three strikes," offer alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders and drug addicts, and allow early releases to bring down the current unsustainable incarcerated population.

So what are these candidates, supposedly alternatives to the Republican agenda, saying?

Here’s Brown, quoted in the Los Angeles Times: "Government is established to protect the safety and security of its citizens, and these wholesale releases are totally incompatible with that." Where’s Newsom? We called his campaign press office for comment, and haven’t heard back.

This is unacceptable.

It’s typical for Republicans to use scare tactics and talk about crime as a cheap way to win votes. But Newsom and Brown ought to know better. This is no time for demagoguery — the prison crisis is serious, festering, and a major factor in the state’s financial mess. If the two leading Democrats can’t come up with honest answers, it’s time for someone else to enter the race. *

Fixing PG&E’s blackout problem


EDITORIAL The electricity that San Franciscans buy from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. isn’t just expensive — it’s unreliable. That’s what figures from the California Public Utilities Commission show (see "The blackout factor, page 8). In fact, PG&E has more blackouts than any of the public power agencies in the Bay Area.

That has a significant impact on local businesses — but neither City Hall nor the small business community is paying much attention to a multimillion dollar problem.

During the worst days of the California energy crisis, rolling blackouts were a regular event, and the press and public talked constantly about the impact of power outages on businesses and the economy. Now that the worst of that crisis is over, many blackouts get no news media attention at all. But the problem is still serious: reliable power is critical to most business in the Bay Area, and even short-term outages can hit the bottom line.

That’s why public power agencies like Silicon Valley Power in Santa Clara and Palo Alto’s municipal utility put substantial resources into infrastructure upgrades and repairs. PG&E, which as a private company seeks to keep costs down to fatten profits and reward highly paid executives, has fallen far behind on its system upgrades. That’s why, for example, underground explosions keep happening in San Francisco, shorting out power systems and plunging neighborhoods like the Tenderloin into blackouts.

State law requires PG&E to pay claims for economic damage caused by system failures. Restaurants that lose frozen food, for example, can fill out a form, go through a cumbersome process of proving the extent of the losses, and get reimbursed. But PG&E rarely advertises or promotes that program, and lots of small businesses know nothing about it or never manage to file claims.

And even the claim process doesn’t cover lost business, lost customers, and the loss of reputation.

State Sen. Mark Leno, who owns a small sign shop (and has suffered from blackouts) has asked the California Public Utilities Commission to investigate PG&E’s reliability and mandate that the company meet basic standards for keeping the lights on. But so far, that agency is ducking. Leno has promised legislation if he gets no results from the CPUC, and he should proceed with a bill that would set minimum reliability standards for private utilities and provide significant penalties for failing to meet those targets.

San Francisco needs to take action on the local level, too. The supervisors should hold hearings on electricity reliability and demand that PG&E executives explain the reason system failures are so much higher here than in other Bay Area communities with public power systems. The Small Business Commission should set up (and publicize) a process for filing complaints about PG&E and include information about filing claims in its outreach material.

And as the city continues to wallow in budgetary disaster, city officials (and small business groups) should take note of the lesson here. Public power is not only cheaper — it’s more reliable. And that means it’s good for business and the San Francisco economy. *

What went wrong


EDITORIAL David Dayen, a political blogger at Calitics, had the best line on the California budget crisis.

"Whoever cares the least about the outcome wins," he wrote July 20. "If you don’t care whether children get health care, whether the elderly, blind and disabled die in their homes, whether prisoners rot in modified Public Storage units, whether students get educated … you have a very good chance of getting a budget that reflects that."

In the end, the Republicans largely carried the day because they had all the power: they could block any budget deal, they refused to raise any taxes, and they don’t really care if the state goes bankrupt. In fact, Gov. Schwarzenegger was happy to draw the crisis out as long as necessary — it helped his poll rating.

San Francisco should have had a very different situation and a very different outcome. The progressives control the Board of Supervisors and the mayor is in a tight spot — he’s running for governor and wants to show that he can manage San Francisco better than anyone in Sacramento is managing the state. It’s part of his campaign theme. A prolonged budget standoff was not in his interest.

And while the city budget is far, far better than the state budget, and the progressives managed to get a few concessions, the bottom line remains: this is a no-new-taxes budget, balanced largely with cuts and regressive new fees. In fact, for all the mayor’s talk of working with the board on possible tax measures, it now appears likely that there will be no revenue proposals whatsoever on the November ballot.

And the mayor is going to make another deep round of cuts soon, when the figures on what San Francisco will lose in state funding (almost certainly more than $150 million) become available.

It took last-minute efforts by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, supported by Sup. David Campos, to win back funding for the Public Defender’s Office and at least a shot at funding the public finance system for the next local elections.

The supervisors, frankly, should have pushed harder. The message to Newsom should have been: no budget without new revenue. And as the board approaches the next fiscal year — projections already call for a $300 million deficit — that absolutely has to be the bottom line. Critical services have been cut too deeply already.

The process needs to be better too. Allowing two supervisors — the budget committee chair and the board president — to negotiate a closed-door deal with the mayor without briefing their colleagues or letting the other stakeholders know what was going on was a big mistake that can’t be repeated.

The New York Times ran a front-page story July 21 describing in bleak terms how California has abandoned its safety net and given up the ambitious dreams that for so long defined the state. "At no point in modern history," reporter Jennifer Steinhauer wrote, "has the state dealt with its fiscal issues by retreating so deeply in its services, beginning this spring with a round of multibillion-dollar budget cuts and continuing with, in total, some $30 billion in cuts over two fiscal years to schools, colleges, health care, welfare, corrections, recreation and more.

That can’t be the model for San Francisco to follow. *