Guardian Editorial

Harris, Newsom duck on immigration

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EDITORIAL So let’s get this straight.

Kamala Harris, the San Francisco district attorney, has set up a laudable program called Back on Track that offers counseling and job training for first-time drug offenders who otherwise would be clogging up the local jail.

A handful of the people who went into the program were undocumented immigrants. Some completed the program successfully and were allowed to graduate.

This is a problem?

Apparently so — because between them the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner have devoted at least five major stories, one horrible column and at least one editorial to exposing the fact that some people who otherwise would have been jailed and deported for minor nonviolent crimes have been allowed to stay in the country, with new skills that might help them find jobs that don’t involve selling drugs on the street.

And Harris, who is running for state attorney general, is scrambling to cover herself, announcing that undocumented immigrants will no longer be allowed to go through the program. In other words, to get rehabilitation instead of jail time in San Francisco, you now have to submit proof of citizenship.

There’s a whole lot wrong with this picture. The critics attacking Harris claim that undocumented immigrants don’t deserve job training since they can’t work in this country legally anyway. That’s just silly — tens of thousands of immigrants who lack legal documentation are working in San Francisco right now, and tens of thousands will continue to work in San Francisco. And they’re generally a productive part of the economy and community. These immigrants already face barriers to attending college. The only thing that denying first-offenders job training does is increase the chance they will return to crime.

Yes, the L.A. Times was able to find one person enrolled in the program who went out and committed robbery and assault. He was the only one of seven undocumented people in the program who had legal problems while attending. The others were allowed to graduate, had their criminal records erased, and, given the overall results of the program, were far less likely than people who had served jail time to re-offend.

Unfortunately, the daily newspaper stories are just the latest attack on San Francisco’s Sanctuary City policy, which is supposed to bar local law enforcement from turning people over to federal immigration authorities. Mayor Gavin Newsom has backed away from the sanctuary policy — and now Harris is backing away, too.

The district attorney says that allowing undocumented immigrants into her program was a mistake, and that it’s been "fixed." That’s the wrong approach. Prisons and county jails in California are jammed beyond capacity. The cost of incarcerating all those people is staggering and helping to bankrupt the state. And the threat of deportation has created a climate of terror and desperation in immigrant communities, where families are being ripped apart and lives shattered by overzealous federal agents.

And the weak responses by San Francisco city officials are just empowering the radical nativists, who want to blame all of society’s problems on immigrants.

Harris did nothing wrong and has no need to apologize or change her program. Job training as an alternative to jail is good public policy — for citizens and noncitizens. She and Mayor Newsom ought to be defending the Sanctuary City laws instead of running away from them. If this is what it takes to seek statewide office, the mayor and district attorney would better serve their constituents by staying at home. *

Tear up the budget

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EDITORIAL Here are a few of the new taxes in Mayor Newsom’s no-new-taxes budget.

The cost of sending your kid to a city day camp will jump 35 percent. The cost of after-school latchkey programs will go up 112 percent. It will cost a dollar more to swim in a public pool. Annual swim passes for seniors and people with economic needs will rise by $25. And that’s on top of the Muni fare hike. Fines, fees and licenses will go up a staggering 41 percent.

In other words, poor people who use city services will see their taxes — that is, the cost of using city services — go up significantly. But rich people, big business, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., property owners — they won’t pay anything more at all. (Of course, if you own a small tatoo parlor, your city fees will go up 1,200 percent.)

This is one of the essential lies of the Newsom budget. It’s not revenue-neutral at all; it just raises taxes on the poor.

It’s also not a budget that shares the economic pain fairly.

The Firefighters union is screaming that the supervisors might want to cut a little bit from that bloated agency, but their protests defy reality. In fact, the budget analyst has identified more than $6 million in relatively painless cuts to the Fire Department — and if the supervisors went along with those recommendations, the department would still be getting more than $1 million in increased funding. It’s hard to argue for cutting firefighting in a city built of wood that’s had a bad history with fires. But the reality is that San Francisco’s fire-suppression system was designed long before the days of fire codes, smoke detectors, and sprinklers, and there just aren’t as many fires these days. The budget analyst suggests — as the controller did in 2004 — that the city could temporarily close a few fire stations without any appreciable reduction in public safety.

Firefighters in San Francisco get pay and benefit parity with the cops — and the cops have gotten nice raises recently, in part because it’s been hard to recruit people to work for the San Francisco Police Department. On the other hand, there are 5,000 people on the waiting list to apply for a job as a San Francisco firefighter.

The Police Department’s due for a budget increase, too — of more than $15 million. The budget analyst suggests that $4 million of that could be cut without damaging law enforcement.

Then there’s the Mayor’s Office, where a staff of five people handle public relations for Newsom, at a cost to the public of $653,571. When Art Agnos was mayor in the late 1980s, he managed to get by with just one press secretary. The population of the city hasn’t changed; the number of reporters at City Hall has decreased. Why does Newsom need five times as many people in his communications office? And how much of that public money is actually being used to promote the mayor’s campaign for governor?

Those are just some of the revelations from the reports of the budget analyst and the hearings so far. And they add up to a budget situation that’s very different from anything the city has seen in years.

The Board of Supervisors typically tinkers with the mayor’s budget, changing a million here and a million there. This time the mayor has in effect declared war on the supervisors, appearing with the firefighters at rallies and denouncing board members (at one point Newsom told reporters, "Thank god we have a mayor.") The outcome of the current budget hearings will be a test for the progressive majority on the board, and particularly for president David Chiu. The board members have to be willing to essentially tear up the mayor’s budget, restructure the priorities, replace the fee increases with fair new taxes (even if it means including in the budget projections for tax measures to go on the November ballot), and eliminate the embarrassing waste. *

Stop PG&E’s alarming ballot measure

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EDITORIAL One of the greatest threats to public power in a generation is quietly working its way toward the California ballot.

As Rebecca Bowe reports on page 12, a proposed initiative that would require two-thirds of the voters to approve any sort of public electricity measure, including community choice aggregation (CCA), has been submitted to the state attorney general’s office. And Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s fingerprints are all over it.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that this measure is designed to derail successful CCA efforts in places like Marin County and San Francisco, where the supervisors are moving forward to set up the equivalent of a buyer’s co-op for electricity. A San Francisco CCA would offer lower costs and much greener power — and would give the city far more control over its energy future.

The measure could also hamper the efforts of existing public power agencies to expand their territories or offer service to new customers.

The state Legislature approved a bill back in 2002 allowing California cities to replace private utility service with CCAs — and the bill included language barring PG&E and the other giant electricity companies in the state from spending money to undermine CCA efforts. In other words, it’s illegal for PG&E to use its immense resources and lobbying clout to try to block San Francisco’s efforts.

And PG&E has spent tens of millions of dollars in San Francisco, Davis, and elsewhere trying to block public-power programs.

So now the utility is going to the state ballot, where a campaign with enough money on an issue that’s sufficiently complicated can often pass. The law firm that filed the initiative papers, Neilsen Merksama (a political powerhouse that represents, among others, PG&E) won’t divulge much about the funding sources — except to say that the filing fee came from … PG&E. So there’s little doubt the measure will have the funds it needs to gather more than 600,000 signatures and mount a campaign of lies and disinformation.

That’s why supporters of CCAs and public power need to rally, now, to start planning to defeat this thing.

Mustering a two-thirds majority at the ballot for almost anything is difficult. Even in liberal San Francisco, bond measures requiring a two-thirds vote often pass only narrowly — and that’s if there’s no opposition. Even the most popular sorts of measures — say, for funding schools or libraries — can go down to defeat if anyone mounts serious opposition.

And PG&E, with its unlimited resources, would have the ability to kill the current CCA plans — or anything in the future that threatens the company’s illegal monopoly.

The two-thirds majority requirement is undemocratic and has paralyzed state government. Two-thirds mandates for new tax measures have made it almost impossible for cities and counties in this state to raise new revenue, even in desperate times like these.

The San Francisco supervisors need to immediately pass a resolution opposing the measure. Assembly Member Tom Ammiano and state Sen. Mark Leno have told us they oppose it, and they should see if there’s any way the Legislature can add language to the CCA bill to bar regulated utilities from spending money to undermine public power statewide. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission should be talking to public power agencies all over the state and helping organize the opposition. If the measure makes it onto the ballot, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and every other municipal utility agency in the state will need to raise money — millions — and marshal forces against it.

This is a very serious threat, and the time to start defusing it is now. *

P.S.: Mayor Newsom has nominated Anson Moran, the former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, for a seat on the commission. This is a terrible idea. Moran had a notoriously anti-public power record when he was running the agency. In fact, in 1994, he tried to stop the city from bidding on the lucrative contract to supply electricity to the Presidio, saying that going up against PG&E would be "too political." And although he later said he would be willing to bid on the contract, he privately urged then-Mayor Frank Jordan to veto then-Sup. Angela Alioto’s measure pushing for public power at the Presidio. With all the battles over CCA and public power, the last thing the city needs is a PG&E call-up vote on the PUC. The Rules Committee hears the nomination June 18, and should vote to reject him.

Dismantling the Newsom budget

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EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom was upbeat when he delivered his budget proposal last week. It won’t be that bad, he told everyone — "At the end of the day, it’s a math problem."

Well, actually, it’s not. At the end of the day, it’s job losses, major cuts to city services, and hidden taxes — most of them, despite the mayor’s rhetoric, falling on the backs of the poor.

You can’t cut $70 million from the Department of Public Health — which is already operating at bare-bones levels after years of previous cuts — without significant impacts on health care for San Franciscans. You can’t cut $19 million out of the Human Services Agency without badly hurting homeless and needy people. You can’t raise Muni fares to $2 without taking cash out of the pockets of working-class people. The mayor’s cheery line may sound good when he’s out of town running for governor, but it’s not going to play so well on the streets of San Francisco.

Just for the record, here are a few of the proposed cuts:

A 21-bed acute psychiatric unit would be shut and replaced with an 18-bed unit for milder cases. Where would the seriously mentally ill go?

The number of home-healthcare workers, the folks who take care of the very sick who need skilled clinical services in the home, would be cut by 30 percent. Those clients would either suffer, go to (expensive) hospitals, or die.

Ongoing outpatient mental health services would be limited to the most severe cases. People who are, for now, only moderately mentally ill would lose access to care (until, without care, they become severely mentally ill).

The emergency food-bag program for seniors will lose $50,000, so hungry senior citizens won’t get to eat.

Almost $3 million will be cut from community-based organizations that provide direct, frontline services to the homeless.

Almost half of the city’s recreation directors — people who provide direct services and mentoring to at-risk youth — will be laid off.

The Tenderloin Housing Clinic Eviction Defense Center, the only place that offers free legal defense for Ellis Act evictions, will lose funding, leaving hundreds of tenants at risk of losing their homes.

Drop-in centers will close. Programs for homeless youth will shut down. More homeless people with increasingly more serious mental illness will be wandering the streets with nowhere to go for help.

Mayor Newsom brags in his campaign ads about creating private-sector jobs — but the budget will mean layoffs not just for city employees but for perhaps 1,000 nonprofit workers. That dwarfs the job creation he’s claiming — and defies the Obama administration’s call for government and private business to try to preserve and create jobs.

This isn’t a math problem. It’s a political problem, and the supervisors need to make it very clear that the mayor’s budget isn’t going to fly.

The supervisors need to take the budget apart, piece by piece, and reset its priorities. Newsom increases funding for police investigators by $7 million, while cutting the Public Defender’s Office by $2 million. He’s preserving his own bloated political operation (a big press office, highly paid special assistants and programs like 311 that are part of his gubernatorial campaign) while eliminating big parts of the social safety net. He’s raising bus fares, but not taxes on downtown.

"The mayor has presented his vision," Sup. John Avalos, who chairs the Budget Committee, explained. "Now our priorities have to be presented."

This can’t be a modest, typical budget negotiation with the supervisors tweaking a few items here and there. This is a battle for San Francisco, for its future and its soul, and the supervisors need to start talking, today, about how they’re going to fight back. *

How to repeal Prop. 8

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EDITORIAL When the late Sup. Harvey Milk was fighting to defeat the Briggs Initiative, a statewide ballot measure that would have barred gay people from teaching in public schools, he repeatedly made the point that the more Californians met and interacted with openly gay and lesbian people, the less likely the voters would be to sanction discrimination. Mayor Gavin Newsom made the same basic point in his statement following the horrifying Supreme Court decision that legalized discrimination in this state.

"I know many of my fellow Californians may initially agree with this ruling," he said, "but I ask them to reserve final judgment until they have discussed this decision with someone who will be affected by it.

"Please talk to a lesbian or gay family member, neighbor, or coworker and ask them why equality in the eyes of the law is important to every Californian."

That ought to be the theme of the November 2010 ballot measure that seeks to overturn Proposition 8.

It’s going to be a tough, uphill battle — after all, the voters just passed Prop. 8 last fall. But the campaign against it was, almost everyone now agrees, fatally flawed — the TV ads spoke in platitudes, there was almost no use of the words "gay" or "lesbian," and, perhaps most important, no coherent, grassroots effort to convince swing voters by making connections between them and the queer community. And there was far too little outreach to black and Latino voters.

And the tide of national sentiment is turning, far faster than anyone expected. Maine and Iowa recently legalized same-sex marriage. The New York Assembly has passed a marriage equality bill and, if it clears the state Senate, the governor has promised to sign it. By the time the 2010 election rolls around, gay marriage will be sweeping the country, and California will be way behind. And, of course, every year a new group of 18-year-olds gets the right to vote — and that demographic is heavily in favor of marriage equality.

So there’s no question that Prop. 8 can be overturned — and placing the issue on the same ballot as the governor’s race will sharpen the issue, force the candidates to take a stand, and generate additional voter turnout.

This time, though, the campaign has to be much more inclusive. The soft-pedal-homosexuality-and-pretend-queers-don’t-exist approach didn’t work. The write-off-the-black-community-and-religious-voters gambit backfired. Harvey Milk was right: Gay people and their allies need to be everywhere in this next fight, and need to take the message directly to those moderate voters who are going to think differently about someone they have met and talked to than about some image the right-wing nuts have conjured up.

Straight supporters of same-sex marriage need to be deployed properly. Newsom spent much of his time during the No on 8 campaign appearing before adoring crowds in places like the Castro District, which was a waste of time; he needs to be in Walnut Creek. African American ministers like the Rev. Amos Brown ought to be visiting churches in conservative areas and trying to make inroads. Art Torres, the former chair of the state Democratic Party, came out this spring and is popular among Latino voters.

We agree with Newsom. It’s time to start this campaign, now. But this time, let’s get it right. *

Newsom’s tax proposals

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EDITORIAL Mayor Gavin Newsom and a negotiating team from the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 have hammered out yet another deal, this one slightly better for the workers than the proposal that the 11,000 union members voted down last week. As part of the deal, SEIU members will take 10 legal holidays without pay over the next 14 months, and gain five floating paid holidays. It’s way better, for both the city and the union, than the prospect of 1,000 more layoffs — and the deep service cuts that so many job cuts would entail.

As a part of the negotiation, Newsom agreed to suspend any further layoffs — and, more important, promised to work with labor and the business community on possible revenue measures for November. That’s an encouraging sign, but Newsom needs to do much more. He needs to be out front, now, meeting openly with the various interest groups and constituencies and working with the supervisors to craft progressive new tax proposals that will work as more than a one-year stopgap.

Rahm Emmanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, is famous for saying that no politician should let a crisis go to waste, and San Francisco’s current fiscal crisis ought to be a chance to fix the unfair and broken business tax system that both hampers job creation and allows the biggest players to get off far too easy.

And to make the point that he’s serious about raising new revenue, Newsom should include in the budget that he presents to the board a projection that the city will have another $100 million or so to spend in the next fiscal year because of revenue plans that he expects will pass, with his help and strong support, in November.

That would do two things: it would demonstrate to the supervisors that the mayor is serious about looking for ways to bring in more money, and it would stave off the most debilitating, immediate cuts for the beginning of Fiscal 2010.

Newsom is still a popular mayor and has a sophisticated political operation behind him. Right now he’s using his good will, fundraising ability, and seasoned political advisors to help him get elected governor. If he is willing to bring that level of effort back home — and use it to pass some significant tax reforms in his own city — it would do a lot more to show his leadership ability than all the campaign trips in the world. *

Downtown’s missing history

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EDITORIAL To hear the proponents of a new downtown condo complex talk, you’d think they were giving the city a wonderful deal. In exchange for an exemption from height limits that would allow a tower twice the allowable size just a few yards from the Transamerica Building, the developer would give the city a little patch of parkland that’s now privately owned. Even the city planning director, John Rahaim, seems to think the special treatment is acceptable, since none of the other buildings in the area are nearly as tall as the Pyramid, and, he told the Chronicle, "usually you cluster tall buildings together."

Of course, the usual crew of downtown boosters love the architecture (a sort of spiral design), love that it would create housing in an area that’s generally empty at night, and figure that something only about half as tall as the high-rise it’s next to can’t be all that bad.

But there’s a stunning lack of historical perspective in all this discussion.

The Transamerica Building seems like an icon today, but when it was first proposed in 1969, it met with strong opposition — not so much because of its unique design (although some prominent architecture critics thought it was hideous) but because it was way too big, too tall, and jammed into a human-scale neighborhood where all the other buildings were low-rise. It was a flash point for the anti-Manhattanization movement and rallied preservationists, environmentalists, and neighborhood advocates.

One of the central issues: in order to accommodate the new tower, the city would have to give up a block-long section of Merchant Street, an alley filled with small businesses. The controversy over the sale of that public street occupied center stage in the Transamerica battle, and in order to convince the supervisors to hand over the public property, Transamerica agreed to build a little park on the edge of the property. That’s how Redwood Park came into being — as a concession from a developer who had been given public land.

And now another developer, Andrew Segal, is offering to give the park back — again, as mitigation for a project that’s too big for the site. So the city, in exchange for approving a bad project, winds up with land it would have had anyway if it hadn’t accepted a different bad project four decades ago.

And there’s been very little attention paid to the historic reasons why this project would need special exemptions from two city laws to move forward. In the mid-1980s, with Dianne Feinstein in the mayor’s office, the city was getting choked with tall, bulky — and frankly, nasty-looking — high-rises that were turning downtown and South of Market into dark, windy, dismal canyons. After long debate, many public hearings, and extensive discussion, the voters approved two measures aimed at limiting the impact of overdevelopment. One of them, Proposition K, barred new buildings from casting shadows on public parks. The other, Proposition M, limited high-rise office development and mandated the preservation of neighborhood character. At the same time, the height limits in that area — on the edge of Jackson Square and North Beach — were reduced, again after many hearings and much debate. The idea was that downtown’s skyscrapers shouldn’t be intruding northward.

Let’s remember: this won’t be affordable housing. The new condos will be priced at the top of the market (clearly the developer thinks the housing market is coming back in San Francisco). And while environmentalists like the idea of building housing near jobs, very few of the new condos that have gone up downtown have provided housing for San Franciscans. Most are owned either by empty-nesters returning from the suburbs, Silicon Valley commuters, or international jet-setters seeking a SF pied-à-terre.

So there are very good reasons for planners and the supervisors to reject this project — and for the city not to forget that the rules that make this deal unappealing were neither random nor a mistake. There’s history here, and once you understand it, the project makes very little sense. * *

Rewrite the Muni budget

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EDITORIAL Just one day after the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee voted to reject Mayor Gavin Newsom’s Muni budget, the mayor’s press flak, Nathan Ballard, reminded us of how deeply the Mayor’s Office remains in budget denial.

"We are currently operating under the assumption that the supervisors will approve the MTA’s sensible budget," Ballard told City Editor Steven T. Jones May 8. "If they reject the budget, we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it."

That was a foolish assumption. At press time, seven supervisors had signed on as cosponsors to Board President David Chiu’s bill rejecting the Municipal Transportation Agency budget proposal, and Sup. Bevan Dufty, an eighth vote, was among the Budget Committee members favoring rejection. Only seven votes were needed, so the MTA budget was dead by May 7 — and Newsom’s refusal to recognize that was nothing more than a foolish attempt to play chicken with the supervisors. If the MTA fails to produce a new budget by the end of May, the current funding remains in effect — and that means the city’s budget deficit is much worse. The mayor strategy seems to be aimed at blaming the supervisors instead of addressing the problem.

And the problem is serious — the MTA budget is a mess. It seeks to close a $129 million shortfall almost entirely on the backs of the riders through service cuts and fare hikes. Only 20 percent of the new revenue would come from higher downtown parking fees.

That’s not just bad public policy for a transit-first city (the last thing San Francisco wants to do right now is discourage people from taking Muni), it’s bad economics. Every time Muni raises fares, ridership drops. Typically, most of the riders come back eventually. But at a certain point — possibly at the proposed $2 level — further increases in cost will drive people away from the system, and that will end up costing Muni money. The alternative — charging more for parking, particularly downtown — has multiple benefits: most people who drive cars downtown are better off than the Muni riders and can afford to pay more — and if higher parking meter rates discourage driving, that’s an excellent outcome.

The MTA is a creature of Proposition A, a 2007 transportation reform measure that was supposed to insulate Muni from political pressure — and guarantee the transit system more money. Newsom pushed for Prop. A and promised that the measure would guarantee Muni a $26 million additional funding stream that could be used to improve service. (He also promised — in writing — that he wouldn’t use the fine print in Prop. A to try to privatize the taxi medallions). He’s now gone back on both of those vows.

In fact, the budget put forward by Newsom’s MTA appointees, and his $316,000 a year general manager, diverts a huge amount of Muni money to the Police Department, the mayor’s pet 311 call center, and other city departments — far more than $26 million. That money goes for "work orders" — in other words, the cops get to suck money out of the Muni budget for doing what they’re supposed to do anyway. And 311 charges Muni almost $2 every time someone calls to ask about bus service (even though 311 exists to help people find out about city services).

The mayor needs to quit his political games and direct the MTA to draft a new budget, quickly, that hits drivers harder than bus riders and dramatically trims the money used as a back-door subsidy for the cops and Newsom’s call center. And the supervisors should make it clear that they won’t approve any MTA budget until he fixes those problems. *

Making sunshine work

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EDITORIAL The Sunshine Ordinance Task Force and the Ethics Commission are talking to each other, which is some small progress on one of the most annoying lingering issues in San Francisco. But the joint meeting last week, while positive in tone, didn’t solve the basic problem.

Under the city’s Sunshine Ordinance, the task force investigates complaints about city agencies improperly withholding records or meeting in secret. If the task force members find that there’s been a violation — and that the matter is serious enough to merit enforcement action against the city officials involved — the file is forwarded to Ethics, which can charge elected and appointed officials with misconduct.

But that never happens.

Fourteen times the task force has asked Ethics for action, and 14 times those cases have been dismissed — with little serious investigation. In fact, at the April 24 meeting, John St. Croix, the executive director of Ethics, admitted that his staff doesn’t always interview the complainants in these cases. Instead, Ethics asks the respondent for his or her side, and relies heavily on the advice of the city attorney.

That’s a problem in itself, because sometimes City Attorney Dennis Herrera will advise a department to keep something secret when the task force — which has its own lawyer, also from the City Attorney’s Office — disagrees. And in some cases it’s very clear that city officials have willfully ignored, defied, or sought to circumvent the open-government law.

Mayor Newsom, for example, refuses to release his full appointments calendar, which would show the public whom he’s meeting with — a key way for San Franciscans to understand who is influencing, and seeking to influence, city policy. The New York Times just published a detailed investigative report on Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s ties to Wall Street financiers, basing the story in significant part on a review of Geithner’s appointment calendars. The New York City Federal Reserve Bank — a secretive institution if ever there was one — released the calendars of Geithner’s appointments when he was bank president. Newsom can certainly do the same, and the law requires him to. But he simply ignores that mandate.

The district attorney also has the authority to enforce the law, but has never filed a single sunshine violation case.

The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance is supposed to be the best and most comprehensive law in the state ensuring public access to government activities. But it’s rendered almost meaningless when city officials can defy it, routinely, and suffer no consequences.

The current enforcement system is simply not working. The supervisors should hold hearings on this with the goal of placing a charter amendment on the ballot giving the task force the independent authority to order documents released and adopting a more effective way to sanction officials who disregard the law. The task force should also have the right to take cases directly to the Ethics commissioners and prosecute them in public before the full commission. It’s the biggest open government issue in the city right now. Which supe wants to take it on? *

Arnold’s big hoax

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The choice facing California voters May 19 is, to put it mildly, unpleasant. The budget deal hammered out by the governor and legislative leaders — which these six ballot measures will confirm and implement — at least kept the state solvent and prevented a financial catastrophe. But the solution is just terrible, and will lock the state into a budgetary nightmare for years to come.

State Sen. Mark Leno, who supports the deal, makes no attempt to soft-peddle what went on here. It was, he told us, the result of "extortion." Because California has an arcane and counterproductive rule mandating that any state budget and any tax increases must be approved by two-thirds of both houses of the Legislature, and because Republicans control just enough votes to block any budget, and because those Republicans have all signed a written promise never to raise taxes under any circumstances, and because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t get the GOP to go along with his compromises and is unwilling to accept Democratic proposals that might escape the onerous supermajority, budget stalemate in tough times is almost guaranteed. And in this case, because the state was running out of cash and hundreds of thousands of people were about to be put out of work as state-funded projects shut down, the Democrats were forced to accept a compromise none of them like.

A small number of Republicans insisted on vast changes in the way California does business — and because the Democrats saw no other options, the GOP faction got much of what it wanted. The result: the Democratic Party leadership is campaigning for a series of measures that reflect, to a significant extent, a Republican view of how the state should be run.

The opposition to the package comes from the far right (which is upset because the budget deal includes some new taxes, albeit regressive ones) and, increasingly, progressives, who argue that the measures will make it harder for the state to meet the needs of a growing (and aging) population.

We’ve listened to both sides, researched the measures in depth, and concluded that the best choice for Californians is to reject Propositions 1A through 1F. The proposal may address (most of) this year’s budget woes and keep the state running for a while, but it will create a fiscal straightjacket on the order of Proposition 13 that will damage California and undermine any progressive policy hopes for many, many years into the future. If the voters accept this deal today, they’ll come to regret it.

Proposition 1A doesn’t quite reach the Republican holy grail — a cap on annual government spending — but it goes a long way in that direction. The measure would require the state to make annual contributions to a budget reserve fund until the reserve reaches 12.5 percent of general fund revenue. The state would have to set aside reserve money every year, even in very bad years. If next year’s budget deficit is as bad as this one, Prop. 1A would make it worse. It restricts the use of "unanticipated revenues" — meaning the state can’t spend money it might have in very good years. There’s a really complicated formula for when the state can dip into the reserve, and how it can be used, but the California Budget Project, the respected policy watchdog group, points out that the measure amounts to a cap in spending, one that won’t keep pace with California’s needs.

"Prop. 1A would not address California’s existing structural shortfall — the gap between revenues and expenditures — that exists in all but the best budget years," CBP notes. "By basing the new cap on a level of revenues that is insufficient to pay for the current level of programs and services, Prop. 1A would limit the state’s ability to restore reductions made during the current downturn out of existing revenues."

The guidelines for future spending don’t take into account the increased demand for public services California will face in the next few years. The population will increase by 29.4 percent over the 2000 level by 2020, state officials project, but the number of people 65 and older will increase by 75 percent. That will put a huge new demand on state services — and if Prop. 1A passes, the budget won’t be able to expand to meet those needs.

The budget compromise included some temporary tax increases. The sales tax is slated to go up by one cent on the dollar, the vehicle license fee will rise slightly, and there’s an across-the-board increase in income taxes. Sales taxes are the most regressive way to raise revenue, and the income tax hikes hit the rich and the middle class evenly — hardly a fair or progressive plan.

But that money is needed to close the horrendous budget gap, and the propositions are designed to make it hard for progressives to say no. If Prop. 1A and Prop. 1B go down, the taxes expire after two years. If those measures pass, the taxes continue until 2012.

Prop. 1B is part of a deal that the governor cut with the California Teachers Association, the largest union of educators in the state. It shifts some more money to the public schools to make up for what was cut this year and last. It’s a complicated formula, but in effect it probably does nothing more than what Prop. 98 — the state’s mandate to fund education — already requires. The problem is that the governor and the school districts disagree on what Prop. 98 says, and without 1B, it’s unlikely that money will be forthcoming. The money California’s public schools get under 1B is still woefully inadequate; and again, this does nothing to address the structural problems.

Prop. 1C allows the state to borrow $5 billion from future lottery revenues to help balance the current budget. Of course, that money won’t be available in future years — unless, as 1C suggests, the lottery can find ways to sell more tickets. The idea here: increase lottery revenue through better marketing, thus taking more money from poor people (the lottery is an overwhelmingly regressive source of income).

Prop 1D’s title, "Protects children’s services funding," is a complete lie. Instead it redirects money earmarked for early childhood programs into the general fund, essentially de-funding some of the most effective and inexpensive programs California offers. Prop. 1E is a similar deal — it temporarily suspends the program that funds mental health services with a tax on the very rich, and puts that money into the general fund instead.

Prop. F is just stupid — it prevents lawmakers and the governor from receiving pay increases when there’s a budget deficit. That’s not going to change anything in Sacramento.

We’re acutely aware of the risks inherent in voting down this intricately orchestrated budget compromise. In effect, the Legislature, which has been paralyzed by the two-thirds rule, will have to go back and try again. The governor, who is ineffective at best and a severe roadblock at worst, will be little help. And the anti-tax forces will claim that the voters have vindicated their position.

But let’s look at reality. The tax increases will be in effect for the next two years anyway. The state’s budget position has worsened in the past month, so the Legislature will have to figure out how to deal with an $8 billion additional shortfall no matter what happens.

And in the fall of 2010, state voters will almost certainly have a chance to repeal the two-thirds budget rule — and have a good chance to elect a Democratic governor.

California needs major, structural budget reform. If we thought this were just a temporary painful deal that would postpone the worst of the state’s problems until Schwarzenegger and the GOP obstructionists were gone, we’d be tempted to support the package. But these measures lock the state into an unacceptable budget situation forever.

Vote no on 1A–1F.

Slow down the solar project

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EDITORIAL The concept is so good it’s hard to imagine why anyone would criticize it: the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission wants to cover the Sunset Reservoir with solar panels, creating the largest municipal solar generating project in the country. The money would come from existing SFPUC revenue — no new taxpayer dollars. The Sierra Club loves the idea, and Mayor Gavin Newsom is pushing it.

We agree that the reservoir is a perfect place for a solar project, and that the city ought to be pursuing this.

But the structure of the deal makes us uncomfortable — and the financing shows a serious flaw in how federal money for renewable energy is allocated.

Under the terms of the proposal, a private company, Recurrent Energy, would finance and build the plant at a cost of perhaps $40 million. The facility would have the capacity to generate 5 MW of electricity, enough to power 2,500 houses. The city, in turn, would agree to buy that power for the next 25 years, at about 23.5 cents per kilowatt hour — far more than the current market rate for electricity but less than what other cities have agreed to pay for long-term solar contracts.

The city would have an option to buy the plant from Recurrent after seven years for $33 million.

The good news is that this would be a public-power project — the city would own the electricity and could use it to power public buildings and eventually, once the community choice aggregation (CCA) system is running, could sell it as retail power to residents and businesses.

But Sups. Ross Mirkarimi and David Campos have asked the obvious question: Why is a private company even involved? Why can’t the city build the solar generating station itself? The CPUC’s answer: It’s cheaper to let Recurrent do the work — because the private outfit will get a $12 million tax break from the federal government.

That’s a serious problem — why is the Obama administration giving tax breaks for private projects that aren’t available to cities? "What we should be looking at is why San Francisco, with all its clout in Washington, can’t get that same sort of subsidy for a public project," Campos told us.

Or as Mirkarimi put it: "This only makes sense to me if there’s some guarantee that the city will actually buy the plant in seven years. Otherwise we’re going to look back at this in year 15 and realize it’s not such a good deal."

The city’s energy future is very much up in the air right now — CCA is on the cusp of viability, there’s still an active public-power movement, and it’s very hard to say what the city’s needs will be (or what the price of solar energy will be) 10 years from now, much less 25. So we’re very nervous about signing a contract of that length with a private company.

Yes, the Recurrent deal offers solar now — and that’s important. But the supervisors shouldn’t rush this through. At the very least, they should pass a resolution asking House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to seek to direct the same subsidies that private companies can get to public solar projects — and to delay a final vote on this until there’s a better analysis of why a private company should be given a long-term contract for what ought to be a public project. *

Gavin Newsom’s Earth Day

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EDITORIAL Here’s a snapshot of the state of green San Francisco, as we approach Earth Day 2009:

San Francisco ought to be getting $18 million a year for energy-efficiency programs, but the money instead goes to Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which is wasting half of it.

Mayor Gavin Newsom went to Washington, D.C. to participate in a Newsweek panel on the environment and called for a transformation of the American automotive industry just a few days after the city’s transportation agency decided to cut $56 million out of Muni, increase transit fares by $30 million — and hike fees for car parking by just $11 million.

The city stands to get millions in federal stimulus money for green jobs — but nobody knows how many jobs the money will create, where they will come from, or who will get them.

This doesn’t seem the best way for one of the most liberal cities in America to respond to the environmental and economic crisis.

As Rebecca Bowe reports on page 10, PG&E is managing part of a multibillion dollar program aimed at cutting electricity demand. It’s a laudable goal — in fact, the cheapest way to reduce the use of fossil fuels and dirty power is to use less in the first place.

But the private utilities are a bad fit for any program that seeks to cut demand. Every year PG&E tells Wall Street how it expects to grow — and since the company’s product is electricity and natural gas, that means PG&E has no incentive at all to shrink its market. Not surprisingly, the giant utility has done a crappy job of running the program, failing to meet even its modest goals.

But state law allows cities to apply to run the local programs themselves — and data from across California show that public sector, non-utility programs do a far better job of lowering electricity use. So why isn’t San Francisco applying for that money? Because the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission thinks it’s "premature."

That’s crazy — the money could create local green jobs, reduce energy demand, and cut PG&E waste. It’s an obvious choice, and the supervisors should pass a resolution directing the PUC to take on this program.

The supervisors no longer have control over Muni fare hikes, but when they examine the city budget, they should take a hard look at what Newsom’s transit planners are doing. Cutting bus service during a recession, when low-cost transportation is needed more than ever, is generally a bad idea. So is raising Muni fares. Why are the car drivers, who are generally richer (and many of whom are commuters from wealthier suburbs) getting off so cheap?

The supervisors also need to be monitoring closely the federal stimulus money and the creation of green jobs. The single most important thing San Francisco can be doing right now is creating jobs in the green economy. In fact, there ought to be a city loan fund just for local green-collar startups. Instead, while Newsom is prancing around the country running for governor, his staff seems flummoxed by the whole process. The city needs a goal — say, 5,000 new green-collar jobs for unemployed San Franciscans in the next five years — a plan to create them, and a program to use the available federal money.

Newsom seems to have plenty of ideas for Detroit. We’d love to see him start to focus on San Francisco. *

What’s Newsom got to offer?

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EDITORIAL The front-line city employees have stepped up to the plate. Members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, the largest of the city-worker unions, are discussing concessions worth close to $40 million, the equivalent of the raises they were set to get in next year’s budget. Other unions will likely follow suit, meaning that as much as 20 percent of the city’s budget deficit could come directly out of the pockets of city workers.

That was probably inevitable, and Local 1021 members were willing to give up pay increases to avoid further layoffs. Nevertheless, it makes the point very clear: Labor was willing to come to the table and offer to do its share. Now Newsom needs to do the same thing.

In a press briefing March 31, the mayor gave only the tiniest hints of his budget plans. He said he’s calling for 12.5 percent cuts in all departments, plus another 12.5 percent in contingency cuts. He told reporters that not all departments will face 25 percent cuts, although some probably will. Which programs are getting the deepest cuts? Newsom won’t say. "You’ll find out when you read my budget," which won’t be released for another six weeks, he told the press.

So the city’s facing a deficit for fiscal 2009-10 of a staggering $438 million — and the mayor wants to keep his plans secret. That’s not just ridiculous and counterproductive, it’s bad faith. The budget’s going to be awful, and the only way to keep it from becoming a bloody train wreck is to start discussing all the options now, with all the stakeholders, in public.

The problem of course, is that closing a budget deficit requires two steps that Newsom is loathe to take. First he has to set priorities — to acknowledge that some programs are more important than others, and tell us where he draws those lines. Then he has to look for ways to raise new revenue, and that means hiking taxes — which won’t help his campaign for governor.

By the time Newsom releases his budget, the supervisors and the activists will have only a month or so to hold hearings, examine the fine print, discuss priorities, and make changes. It’s a notoriously inefficient way to run the city, and it leaves far too much of the budget power in the hands of the chief executive. The supervisors and the people whose lives will be affected by budget cuts need to be in the loop right now.

And Newsom needs to tell us what he’s willing to accept as part of a budget deal, and what he’s willing to give up. His office is full of highly paid staffers working on projects designed to help his political ambitions. Is that more important than public health and after-school recreation programs? What significant tax hikes will the mayor promise to support on the November ballot? Will big businesses, developers, and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. be asked to take on some financial pain the way city workers have? Will Newsom raise money and shift some of his formidable campaign apparatus into saving San Francisco’s public services this fall? Will he present a budget that assumes not just cuts but, say, $250 million in permanent revenue hikes?

Everyone in San Francisco is going to find something to hate about next year’s budget. Every resident will have to pay more, whether in taxes or Muni fares or use fees, and get less. Most people can live with that — if the costs and cuts are fair, the pain is properly shared, and there’s plenty of time to discuss it openly.

Time’s running out here. Where’s Newsom? *

Saving SF’s human services

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EDITORIAL San Francisco stands to get more than $50 million in federal stimulus money designed to prevent cuts to health and human services. That could be a huge help to the city’s efforts to close a half-billion dollar budget gap. And the Department of Public Health is counting on its $27 million share to prevent layoffs and program closures.

But the city’s Human Services Agency, which ought to be able to spend some $25 million in federal money to keep alive programs for the homeless and the needy, is refusing to include that revenue as part of its budget for next year. That’s a terrible mistake that will literally cost lives.

The money comes under the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage program, known as FMAP. When President Obama announced that the additional funding would be available to cities and states Feb. 23, he specifically stated that the cash should prevent a loss of services: "This plan will also help ensure that you don’t need to make cuts to essential services Americans rely on now more than ever," he told the nation’s governors at a press event.

Somehow, though, Mayor Gavin Newsom doesn’t see it that way. The Newsom administration seems to believe that since the money is a one-time grant, it shouldn’t be used to pay salaries and keep ongoing operations afloat. That has infuriated critics, like Sup. John Avalos, who chairs the Budget Committee. "I’d like to see us use the money to prevent cuts to human services," he told the Guardian. "I think maybe the Newsom people want to make cuts and eliminate service programs anyway, and this doesn’t fit their plan."

We’re talking about employment services, homeless supportive housing, the Tenderloin drop-in scenter, job training for homeless people, and more essential services. Obviously, the city is facing a spike in unemployment and homelessness — the last thing that makes financial or policy sense is to cut the programs that unemployed and homeless people rely on.

We understand the problems with one-time federal grants. Money like that is typically put toward one-time uses — setting up a new program that will have to find its own funding later, or building something, or funding a temporary position. Use one-year grants for regular operating expenses and you run into trouble when the money is gone.

But this is an emergency situation, and the money that Washington is handing out is designed specifically to prevent cuts to health and human services. The stimulus money is supposed to be spent, now — and saving jobs, programs, and lives by preventing further budget cuts is exactly the sort of thing Obama intended when he made the money available.

But this is the best Newsom’s press flak, Nathan Ballard, can offer: "The mayor has not decided yet how this additional revenue will be used to solve the city’s $575 million budget shortfall," Ballard wrote us, "and he and his staff will be working with the directors of the DPH and HSA throughout the course of this decision-making process."

Mayor Newsom ought to be doing two basic things right now: Looking for every dollar that’s on the table or can be grabbed from somewhere to prevent the worst of this year’s budget cuts, and convening meetings and putting together a proposal to fix the city’s long-term revenue problems. We suggested holding a special election this spring or summer to put some new tax measures before the voters, but Newsom opposed that idea — and it’s looking less and likely to happen. But there’s no way to pass a credible budget in this city without planning for, and counting on, some significant revenue package in November.

Newsom’s still acting as if this budget crisis is nothing much to worry about. It’s time he took it seriously.

Save the Chronicle!

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EDITORIAL The San Francisco Chronicle story March 15 on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s frequent absence from the city drew comments from many who believe the mayor is out of touch, wandering the state seeking votes for governor at a time when the city is facing a historic financial crisis. The news was really nothing new — we’ve been reporting for months now that the mayor is disengaged in the business of running the city. But it appeared on the front page of the local daily newspaper, and that put the story right in the center of civic discourse.

We’ve been as critical of the Chron as anyone in town. For 42 years, we’ve been reporting on the failures of the daily newspapers in San Francisco, and we regularly blast the Hearst-owned near-monopoly daily for its failure to cover major stories and its biased slant on others.

And as the first alternative newspaper in the country founded specifically to provide an editorial and advertising alternative to the moribund dailies, we’re the first to agree that the Chron doesn’t, and shouldn’t, have the final word on what’s important in this city. We’re big supporters of all sorts of alternative media, and we’re glad to see that Web-based news publications, some of them daily, are appearing and offering different ways for people to find information.

But if the Chronicle dies, the city will lose an important, if often infuriating, civic institution. Hearst should not be allowed to turn San Francisco into the first major American city with no major daily newspaper — not without extensive oversight, hearings, and a chance for somebody else to take over the paper and try to make it work.

Hearst is complaining that the Chronicle is losing about $50 million a year. Of course, Hearst, a private corporation, won’t show anyone, even its own unions, its books.

We realize the newspaper business is rough right now, but we’re not convinced that running a daily paper in San Francisco is a doomed proposition. This is one of the wealthiest, best-educated markets in the world — and the fact that Hearst can’t sell enough newspapers and ads to float its operation is in significant part a sign of how miserable the paper’s management has failed. It tried to be a regional paper, which flopped. It’s become so politically conservative that progressives, particularly young progressives who make up the future of its demographic base, see little reason to subscribe.

And let’s not forget — Hearst has made a fortune in San Francisco. In 1965, the Hearst-owned Examiner and the family-owned Chronicle formed a joint operating agreement — a government-sanctioned monopoly, blessed by special legislation, that allowed two ostensibly competing companies to fix prices, share markets and pool profits. For the next 26 years, the JOA was a license to print money. Local advertisers paid billions in high rates to the newspaper combine, and those profits far, far eclipse anything the Chron has lost since Hearst bought it.

When the New York company bought out the deYoung Thieriot family in 2001, it sought to create a true monopoly by shutting down the Ex entirely. A local outcry, a lawsuit by Clint Reilly, and threats by federal regulators forced Hearst to sell the bones of the Ex to the Fang family, which essentially got the paper free and was given a $66 million subsidy to run it.

Now, after all this, Hearst is threatening to close shop and walk away, destroying hundreds of union jobs and wiping out a newspaper that is, by its nature, something of a public utility. And once again — ironically, just as the Chron reported — Mayor Newsom is missing in action. Newsom should be taking the lead on preventing the loss of a major local business. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who is asking the Justice Department to relax anti-competitive rules on newspaper ownership (a bad idea), should instead push legislation barring a daily newspaper in a one-paper town from closing down unless and until the owners offer it for sale at a fair price and give someone else a chance to run it. Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer should join her.

The Chron unions have talked of an interest in buying the paper. Financier Warren Hellman confirmed to us that he supports creating a nonprofit entity to take over Chronicle operations. Hearst Corp., which has almost certainly already written off its $600 million purchase as a tax loss, should be forced to work with potential buyers — and give them a deal no worse than what the Fangs got in 2001.

The future of the Chron has implications for the entire industry — and if Hearst is going to carry out the assassination of a newspaper, it should be done in a fishbowl. Congress, the state Legislature, and the San Francisco supervisors should hold hearings, subpoena the Hearst executives, and push alternatives. And Newsom needs to quit gallivanting around the state and start working on his own city’s problems. *

Newsom’s state secrets

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EDITORIAL On January 21st, his second day in office, President Barack Obama announced that he was dramatically changing the rules on federal government secrecy. His statement directly reversed, and repudiated, the paranoia and backroom dealings of the Bush administration.

"The Freedom of Information Act," the new president declared, "should be administered with a clear presumption: in the face of doubt, openness prevails. The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public."

The following day, Jan. 22, we sent an e-mail to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s press secretary, Nathan Ballard. "Now that President Obama has made a dramatic change in federal FOI policy," we asked, "would Mayor Newsom would be willing to issue a similar executive order in San Francisco?"

Ballard’s response:

"We wholeheartedly agree with the President on this issue. The mayor has charged my office with handling sunshine requests for the executive branch of city government, and he has directed us to cooperate swiftly and comprehensively to all sunshine requests, and to err on the side of openness."

That, to put it politely, is horsepucky.

As we report in this issue, it’s difficult, and at times insanely difficult, to get even basic public information out of Newsom’s office. Take his calendar: by law, the mayor is required to make public his appointments calendar. Other public officials manage to do that — in fact, the president of the United States, who has a tad more national and personal security issues than the mayor of San Francisco, lets the press know what he’s doing almost every minute of every day.

Most days, though, what we get from Newsom’s office is a statement like, "The mayor has no public events scheduled today." Or, "The mayor is holding meetings at City Hall." Meetings with whom? What private events is he attending? What’s he do all day? What lobbyists, activists, public officials, or campaign donors is he talking to in his City Hall office? Why is that some huge state secret?

Or take the city’s terrifying budget problems. When Board of Supervisors President David Chiu began holding meetings with key stakeholders to look for a solution, Newsom refused to show up, saying there was no need. The mayor claimed he was holding his own meetings with everyone who needed to be involved.

That was news to many of the people in Chiu’s sessions. So who was the mayor talking to? The mayor’s office won’t tell us — and the limited calendar information he releases doesn’t shed any light, either.

The San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force has repeatedly found Newsom directly in violation of the Sunshine Ordinance. Legions of reporters have run across the slammed door, the ducking, the non-responsiveness, and the general hostility of the mayor’s press office. As the White House comes out of the dark ages and starts to set new standards for open and honest government, San Francisco is not only lagging behind — this city’s chief executive is actively resisting.

We’re getting tired of this. The city attorney, district attorney, and Ethics Commission all have the mandate and ability to enforce the Sunshine Ordinance, but none have made that a priority. At this point, the only way the executive branch is going to comply is if the supervisors give the Sunshine Task Force the authority and resources to do its own enforcement.

In the meantime, somebody on the board ought to introduce Obama’s exact policy statement, replacing "Freedom of Information Act" with "San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance." And the Sunshine task force should begin an investigation into how the mayor’s press office is defying, on a regular basis, both the letter and the spirit of the city’s open-government law. *

Fisher’s Folly threatens the Presidio

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EDITORIAL The latest proposal for developing the Main Post at the Presidio national park shows exactly what’s wrong with the privatized, developer-driven planning that has plagued the 1,400-acre site since Rep. Nancy Pelosi took control of it away from the National Park System.

The centerpiece of the new plan, released last week, is the same old monument to the greed and ego of Gap Inc. founder Don Fisher. The octogenarian billionaire still gets his art museum, a three-building, 200,000-square-foot development that has no place at the Presidio. Oh, it’s not quite as ugly and intrusive the original design: most of the main gallery will be underground, and the roof will be green. How lovely.

The essential problem with the museum remains, and will continue to plague this development plan. The park is making room for a museum, which was never part of anyone’s vision for the new national park when the Army abandoned the post, purely and simply because a billionaire with powerful political connections wants a place to show off his personal art collection. Fisher’s desires are driving the shape of what ought to be a crown jewel of an urban park. The folks who once upon a time thought the Presidio could be a center for sustainable ecology never had a chance.

And a museum of contemporary art is a total mismatch for the Presidio’s main post. A museum is, by its nature, designed to attract large number of visitors — and since there’s only limited transit capacity in the Presidio, most of them will come by car. The center of the park will be overwhelmed with traffic — and so will the surrounding neighborhoods and the streets that serve as the chokepoints for the Presidio’s limited number of entrances and exits. Those cars will compete for space with the growing number of hikers and bicyclists trying to carve out a space in what is, by definition, a park.

The Main Post proposal also includes a large hotel (described as a "lodge," to conjure up images of rustic accommodations) that will feature a high-end restaurant and bar.

This commercialization of the Presidio stands as the legacy of the speaker of the house, who back in 1994 bowed to Republican demands and decided to take the new park away from the people who run every other national park in America and turn it over to a developer-run Presidio Trust. The trust was saddled with a mandate something no other park has ever faced — it has to develop enough real estate to become self-sufficient. And with Fisher as one of the early trust members, the Presidio has become part office park (with a big George Lucas complex that won the moviemaker a $60 million tax break), part shopping center — and now part museum and hotel complex.

This plan — and the overall dreadful direction the park is taking — can still be changed. The seven-member trust board is appointed by the president, and the Obama administration will soon have a chance to fill three of the slots. By tradition the local Congress member (Pelosi) would have a major say in those appointments — but Pelosi is close to Fisher and has set the Presidio on the wrong course. Obama ought to appoint credible environmentalists and preservationists who are wiling to question and oppose Fisher’s grand scheme.

Some well-meaning local museum foes think the best answer is to encourage Fisher to build his personal edifice somewhere else — say, in downtown San Francisco, where other museums are and where there’s adequate transit infrastructure. The Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 to encourage Fisher to follow that path.

We wish he was willing to donate his contemporary art to SFMOMA which is perfectly suited to handle and display it. But Fisher wants total control, and no professional curator would ever accept that. So we’re willing to consider a new Fisher museum downtown. But the city shouldn’t roll out the red carpet for it. If the Republican who made a fortune selling clothes sewn by children in third world sweat shops wants to buy some land and apply for a building permit, the city should treat him like any other developer. But Don Fisher, who has done almost nothing but damage to this city, deserves no special favors.

Losing the tax argument

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EDITORIAL The lead topic on the local cable TV show City Desk News Hour Feb. 21 was the state budget, and a panel of local reporters were talking about the mix of tax increases and service cuts the Legislature finally passed. After a bit of back and forth, Scott Shafer, host of KQED’s California Report, piped up. "Everyone knows it’s a bad idea to raise taxes in a recession," he said.

Shafer, who was a press secretary to former Mayor Art Agnos, is hardly a conservative commentator. In fact, at the risk of damaging his credentials as an unbiased reporter, we might even call him a liberal. And to judge from the response of most of the panel, nothing he said was particularly controversial. Sure, raising taxes in a recession is bad; so is cancer, and violent crime. Next question.

But that’s not just a limited viewpoint — it’s factually inaccurate. Raising taxes during a recession can be an excellent economic idea, if it’s done right. Because the one thing almost every credible economist outside of the far-right intellectual swampland agrees on these days is that cutting government spending during a recession is a terrible idea — and if the only way to keep the public sector jobs, the social services, and the welfare payments going is to raise taxes, then raising taxes on those who can afford to pay is not only good politics, it’s good policy.

And it’s infuriating that this point seems to have dropped out of the mainstream of debate. That’s a major failure of the Democratic leadership, in California and nationwide.

Historians can argue forever about the direct impact the New Deal had on ending the Great Depression. But it’s pretty clear that what Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman calls the great jobs program of World War II turned the American economy around. And during World War II, tax rates, particularly on the wealthiest individuals and corporations, were exceptionally high. The top marginal income tax rate exceeded 80 percent. Corporations that made more than a modest return paid a high excess-profits tax. The high income tax rates on the richest Americans remained through the postwar boom era, a time when inequality declined and overall wealth grew.

That money went into the public sector, not just for the war but for retooling and rebuilding U.S. industry. High taxes on the rich paid for the interstate highway system, the University of California system, the California Water Project, the birth of the Internet. It took almost half a century for the Republicans and no-taxers to wreck the economic gains of that high-tax era.

And yet, despite all the consistent, clear evidence, we still hear the news media, the commentators, and even liberal Democrats saying that tax cuts are good for the economy and tax hikes are bad.

What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.

One of the most important goals of the next year or two, under the Obama administration, is to change the national debate over public and private priorities. That won’t be easy. President Obama has started off in the right direction, although the Republicans forced him to include several hundred billion in wasteful tax cuts in his stimulus bill. The tax hikes in the state budget plan are almost entirely regressive (sales taxes and a flat increase in the income tax.)

Here in California, and here in San Francisco, elected officials who claim to represent the Democratic Party’s future need to stop mouthing the old Republican line. None of the Democratic candidates for governor, including Mayor Gavin Newsom, have been our front about the need for more government spending, even if it means higher taxes on the wealthy (say, a business tax that hits harder on the biggest and less so on the small). In fact, Newsom has taken the opposite line, writing in a Feb. 13 San Francisco Chronicle op-ed piece that "we have to reduce spending." The San Francisco supervisors are at least talking about new revenue sources, but polls show that will be a hard sell.

Why do the polls show that? Because people like Newsom — and to some extent, the supervisors — aren’t using their bully pulpits to change the tone of the discussion, to make the case for economic sanity, to challenge the demented wisdom that’s brought us to this nightmare.

That has to change, now, or there will be no way out. *

Budget talks, without the mayor

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EDITORIAL The president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, David Chiu, is doing something Mayor Gavin Newsom should have done a long time ago. He’s putting the key stakeholders in the budget debate — labor, small business, downtown, nonprofits, etc. — in the same room and talking about solutions.

And while none of the participants want to talk publicly, it’s clear that all sides think they are making progress. The most likely outcome ought to be a winner for everyone: a special election, delayed until July, when the public can vote on some revenue measures that would blunt the awful impact of a half-billion dollar budget deficit.

For this to work, everyone is going to have to give up something. The city employee unions will have to be willing to reopen contracts and accept either reductions in raises or some layoffs. Some political leaders’ pet projects and highly paid patronage employees will have to go. Downtown will have to accept some new taxes on the wealthy; small business will have to stomach a sales tax. And the supervisors will have to hold hearings on and negotiate a budget this summer before they know for sure that the money will be there to pay the bills.

We have actively pushed for a June election, to make sure the money is there when the budget is approved — but July is a perfectly acceptable compromise. In fact, it has a certain amount of political synergy. The mayor will present a bloody, brutal, budget in May that includes devastating cuts to essential programs. The supervisors can then offer the voters a clear choice: accept those cuts — or vote to approve a package of revenue measures on a special election ballot.

The effort will be a whole lot easier if the mayor stops being such an obstructionist — and if his allies on the board are willing to join with what could be an emerging consensus. Under state law, any new taxes San Francisco enacts this year would require a two-thirds vote of the people — a tough threshold. But if the supervisors and the mayor agree unanimously to declare a budget emergency (and a deficit that equals half the discretionary money in the general fund is by any standards an emergency), then a simple majority can approve a tax hike.

So far the mayor has been almost entirely missing in action here. Although his press secretary, Nathan Ballard, told us the mayor has been meeting with budget stakeholders, that’s news to many of the people in Chiu’s group. Even business leaders, who in the past have been loyal to the mayor, are now openly criticizing his absence from the discussions. It’s crazy — Newsom is running around the state, working on his campaign for governor, while the work of keeping his city from a total meltdown is going on without him. Newsom absolutely must engage here, and start attending Chiu’s meetings. He’s been insisting he won’t support a June election, allegedly because there’s no broad coalition calling for it. But that coalition may be coming together to talk about an election in July — and Newsom isn’t even paying attention.

Meanwhile, three of the supervisors — Sean Elsbernd, Michela Alioto-Pier, and Carmen Chu — have also opposed a special election, and they’re going to have to change their tune. Even Republicans in the state Legislature — who signed a pledge never to support any tax increases — worked with the governor on a budget plan that includes some significant tax hikes. The Democratic moderates on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors shouldn’t be able to get away with refusing to look for new sources of revenue — soon, as part of the next year’s budget — to keep the city from fiscal calamity.

Ma’s JROTC bill needs to die

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EDITORIAL With California in a cataclysmic budget crisis and a long list of problems on the agenda of the state Legislature, Assemblymember Fiona Ma has announced a bill that would force the San Francisco school district to bring back a military recruitment program. It’s an unusual tactic, and one with questionable legal grounds. It’s also inappropriate and bad public policy.

The school board has been debating the Junior Reserve Officers Training Program for years. Supporters promote the program, which costs the district $1 million a year, as a leadership training opportunity; for a lot of district kids, it was an alternative way to meet a physical education requirement. In reality, though, JROTC is, and always has been, part of the Pentagon’s effort to convince young people to join the military.

High school students, the target of the program, have always been vulnerable to recruiters. That’s why the military brass love anything that gets them into high schools. JROTC cadets are besieged with recruitment calls, and those efforts continue even after the kids have left the program.

The local queer community has been pushing hard to end JROTC in San Francisco, in part because of the Pentagon’s ridiculous don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy on gay service members. But even after that policy ends (and under President Barack Obama, it’s likely gay people will be serving openly in the military soon), JROTC is a terrible program for the San Francisco schools. If the best leadership training this progressive city can offer is through a model based on the values of the Army, something is very wrong.

And that’s what the school board ultimately decided. The board has voted to discontinue JROTC, as of this summer, and is moving to adopt an alternative leadership program.

But a few JROTC supporters, with the assistance of the local Republican Party, placed an advisory measure on the November 2008 ballot calling for the program’s continuation. With most activist energy going to support the Obama campaign and the efforts to elect progressive supervisors, the measure passed. But it contained no legal mandate, and the school board members, even those who support JROTC, have generally agreed that it would be a bad idea to revisit the issue. A clear majority of the board is prepared to let JROTC die and replace it with something better.

We can’t figure out why Ma has suddenly decided to make this a state issue. She told us that "the voters of San Francisco have spoken, and all I am doing is upholding the will of the voters." But the voters also elected school board members who think it’s best to eliminate JROTC.

More important, this simply isn’t Sacramento’s business. The Ma bill needs a two-thirds vote to pass, which means it depends on Republican support — and as Assemblymember Tom Ammiano says, "Do we really want the Republicans in the state Legislature to tell San Francisco what to do?" Even School Board member Hydra Mendoza, who supports JROTC, is opposing the bill: "It’s not appropriate," she told us, "for the state Legislature to overturn a decision of the San Francisco school board."

This would set a horrible precedent: every time the city schools took a progressive stand on some program, someone in Sacramento could come along and try to undo it.

Mayor Gavin Newsom should speak out against this bill, and Ma should withdraw it. If she doesn’t, the Legislature should reject it. *

Bad budget ideas

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EDITORIAL There’s nothing easy about solving a half-billion-dollar budget shortfall, and most of the people involved in the grisly process of making the numbers add up at San Francisco City Hall know there will be blood on the floor. Labor unions representing city workers know there will be layoffs, salary concessions, or both. Community-based organizations handling critical front-line services know they’ll have to reduce staff and curtail their mission-driven operations. The supervisors know that a lot of good projects and great ideas won’t get funded this year.

The mayor, unfortunately, isn’t acting as if this were a crisis at all — he’s been out of town more than he’s been around the past few weeks. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and, sadly, some small business leaders, are refusing to accept the idea that taxes — some taxes, not enough to stave off deep cuts, but enough to prevent disaster — ought to be part of any budget package.

And along with the cuts — which, as Rebecca Bowe reports on page 11, will have far-reaching implications for San Franciscans — a number of really bad ideas have been floated, most of them quick fixes that would generate cash for now, but lead to serious problems later.

Among the worst ideas the mayor has put forward — in fact, it’s one of the worst budget ideas we’ve ever heard — is the notion of increasing the number of condominium conversion permits from 200 per year to 1,500 per year, and possibly allowing every property owner waiting for a conversion permit to get one, now, for a price.

It’s true that selling off condo conversion permits would bring in revenue. Raffling off building permits and planning code variances would bring in money, and so would selling development rights in city parks, and so would auctioning off appointments to boards and commissions. There are lots of stupid ways to generate cash, and the fact that a proposal would be lucrative is not by itself an argument in favor of it — even in times like these.

There’s a good reason the city limits condo conversions. Nearly every piece of property that becomes a condominium was once a rental unit, and the speculative pressure to take rent-controlled apartments and turn them into market-rate condos is immense. It’s bad enough that tenants — particularly those with relatively low rent — face eviction every day because of the state’s Ellis Act and the push by real-estate interests to create tenancies in common. Without conversion limits, the number of those evictions would soar; rent control would be eviscerated, the cost of housing would rise, and the economic cleansing of San Francisco would roll forward another few giant steps.

Newsom and his real-estate industry allies like to say that this sort of proposal is painless, since nobody has to pay higher taxes. Only people who want to convert their units, and are willing to pay a high fee for the right, would wind up paying. But that’s silly — the tenants of San Francisco would pay the cost — an immense cost — while the wealthier property owners made profits.

Selling off the taxi medallions (see "Don’t privatize the cab medallions, 1/21/09), another Newsom idea, fits in the same category. In the short term, it could bring millions into the city coffers. Long term, it would turn control of the taxi industry back to speculators and big companies, hurting the drivers and the public.

The mayor (and Sup. Sean Elsbernd) also like to talk about eliminating set-asides — those parts of the budget that voters have earmarked for particular purposes. But most of that money (the Children’s Fund, for example) goes to worthy programs: eliminating the "set-aside" protecting doesn’t save any money unless you cut those programs.

There are plenty of good budget ideas out there (see "Beyond the bloody cuts, 12/17/08). But the supervisors ought to make it clear that the bad ones are off the table.

PS: Where were all these anti-tax folks in the Chamber and the small business community, and supervisors like Elsbernd, when the city had a chance to bring in millions without any new taxes — by creating a public power system or raising utility franchise fees? They were siding with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. That’s part of the reason we’re in this fix.

So what are Newsom’s budget plans?

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EDITORIAL In Washington, Rep. Nancy Pelosi — who has never been known as a radical leftist — is proposing that Congress repeal the Bush tax cuts, now, two years before they expire. That would bring $226 billion into the federal till, enough to fund a good part of the stimulus package.

In Sacramento, Democrats are moving toward a special election this spring to allow the voters to approve a tax increase — a move that would prevent disastrous service cuts in this horrible economic climate. Even the Republicans in the state Legislature — about as intransigent a group of people as you’re going to find in public service in America — are actually discussing the possibility that they might accept a tax increase as part of a budget deal.

Political writer David Sirota, blogging on Open Left, argues that a tectonic shift is taking place, that budget fights are "tilting the terms of debate away from Reaganism and toward progressive policy goals."

But not in San Francisco, where Mayor Gavin Newsom refuses to support any sort of new revenue measures this spring. In fact, while the supervisors, labor, and others are working to try to figure out a solution to the budget crisis, Newsom has been out of town, campaigning for governor or galavanting off to Paris and Davos.

We can’t quite figure out what the mayor plans to do about a budget deficit that could reach $500 million. So far we know he thinks the city can get some money by privatizing cab medallions (a dumb idea). We also hear he’s talking about vastly increasing the number of condo conversion permits (an even worse idea that will lead to massive evictions and the end of rent control). Beyond that, he hasn’t offered anything.

We recognize the problems with a spring special election. Passing a tax measure would require a two-thirds majority, a tough threshold under the best of circumstances. The state may call its own special election in May, preempting the city’s chances. The deadlines are tight, and city officials would need to move very quickly to come up with a workable plan in time.

But there are also serious problems with abandoning the idea, or even waiting until November. We’re talking cataclysmic budget cuts here — maybe as many as 1,500 layoffs, massive cutbacks in public health, parks and recreation centers closed, fire stations shut down, police cut back, Muni backsliding into dysfunction, programs for the homeless and needy vanishing as more and more desperate people fill the streets … it won’t be pretty.

We’ve consistently argued that a June special election to raise new tax money is a reasonable option, and the supervisors need to keep it on the table. That means voting on several technical issues Jan. 27 and then moving at full speed to draft the ballot proposals. If circumstances change, the city can always back off and cancel the election.

But the mayor needs to come back to town and start getting engaged with this problem. Before he simply dismisses the June election, he needs to tell us his plan. What alternatives is he offering? What is he proposing to cut? What jobs, what services, will be eliminated?

The same goes for downtown, small business leaders, and the supervisors who oppose tax increases. Tell us — now, in public — what you propose to do about this once-in-a-lifetime crisis. The progressives are at least putting forward plans, imperfect as they may be. Anyone who refuses to support those plans should be required to offer something else.

Don’t privatize cab permits

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EDITORIAL In tough times, political leaders with no backbone for making hard decisions tend to look for easy, short-term fixes. And Mayor Gavin Newsom’s proposal to auction off taxicab permits to the highest bidder is just that — a quick fix with serious long-term problems. In fact, it amounts to the privatization of a lucrative public asset.

A bit of background: since 1978, when then-Sup. Quentin Kopp authored a measure called Proposition K, San Francisco has issued some 1,500 taxi permits, known as medallions, to working cab drivers. Under Prop. K, the medallions can’t be owned by corporations, and they can’t be bought and sold as speculative commodities. They’re owned by the city, and only people who actually drive cabs for a living can use them.

There’s a logic to that. The permits are valuable — a medallion holder not only has the right to drive a cab, he or she can lease that permit to other drivers for additional shifts. Since a taxi can be on the road 24 hours a day, the lease income is substantial, roughly $30,000 a year. But only active drivers get that benefit; nobody can hold a permit, sit at home (or work another job), and just collect that cash.

The process isn’t perfect. The waiting list for a medallion takes more than 10 years. Some medallion holders cling to their permits long after they should have retired (and thus keep driving when they should no longer be on the road). There’s no process for compensating a permit holder who becomes disabled.

But those are issues that can be addressed. The basic fact is that San Francisco has taken the position that the public benefit — a license to drive a cab for hire — should be given only to those who are using it. Prop. K prevents consolidation of ownership in the industry, prevents speculators from turning medallions into a new form of securities (which worked out so well with mortgages), and gives people who have spent 10 years or more driving a cab a chance to reap the full benefits of their work.

Newsom, however, sees those permits as a gold mine. If the city auctioned them off, they might bring $100,000 apiece. Under Newsom’s plan, much of that money would go to the city, although some would go to current medallion holders.

The plan is full of problems.

For one, it could completely change the cab business in San Francisco, shifting control of the industry away from drivers and giving it to big businesses and investors. Very few working drivers (who are lucky to clear $30,000 a year) could afford to buy permits, particularly at auction. So the first people in the market would be the cab companies, which for years have wanted the right to own and control the medallions. Private investors — wealthy individuals and institutions — would see the permits as an asset likely to appreciate, and would buy up medallions, then seek to raise the lease fees for drivers. The only way drivers could buy permits would be to seek the equivalent of mortgage loans — but the banks that handle that sort of loans typically require 20 percent down, putting many drivers out of the running. Unless, that is, some shadowy characters come along with cash loans — or unless the cab companies handle that payment, thereby getting further control).

Unless medallion ownership is limited to drivers, the entire process will get corrupted. People will drive for a minimal period of time, bid on medallions, then go into another line of work — and keep the medallion. Newsom’s office says he’s going to do that, but there are no details on the plan yet.

Cab drivers in the city talk about the need for security and retirement income. After years of driving with a medallion, they want the right to sell it for a chunk of cash. But under the current system, drivers are — and most of them like being — independent contractors.

Freelance writers, consultants, small business owners, and many others who are self-employed are responsible for their own retirement planning. Why should cab drivers get a special deal from the city?

Privatizing the permits is just a bad idea. Newsom promised last year — in writing — that he wouldn’t seek to change Prop. K. It’s infuriating to see him so quickly break that promise.

The supervisors should reject this proposal.

The challenges for President Chiu

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EDITORIAL The ascension of Sup. David Chiu to the presidency of the Board of Supervisors gives a relative political newcomer considerable power. It also puts Chiu in position to carry on the legacy of Aaron Peskin and lead the opposition to Mayor Gavin Newsom’s pro-downtown, pro-Pacific Gas and Electric Co. agenda. Chiu, obviously, lacks the experience Peskin brought to the job, so he needs to move carefully at first. But he also needs to show that he’s more than a compromise candidate and that he has the ability to lead the board and promote the progressive agenda.

Let’s remember: Chiu was elected president entirely by the six progressive supervisors. The way the vote went down, five people, including Newsom’s closest allies, stuck together as a solid bloc and repeatedly voted for Sup. Sophie Maxwell. Maxwell had come down to the Guardian office a few days earlier to tell us that she was a solid progressive, but we saw the future of the board playing out when the votes were counted. Maxwell and Sup. Sean Elsbernd, who both have voiced concerns about the prospect of an inexperienced person taking the top job, could have broken with their bloc and voted for Sup. Ross Mirkarimi — that would have put him over the top. But through seven votes, as the progressives moved around trying to find a candidates all six could support, the Newsom Five stuck together. (Of course, if it hadn’t been for Sup. Chris Daly’s ill-conceived antics, Mirkarimi would have been able to get six votes, and we would have had an experienced leader in place).

Although Chiu talks (as he should) about bringing everyone together, he needs to keep in mind from day one that he is now the most visible member of a six-person board majority that can control the agenda and the set the tone for the city — if none of the six starts to drift toward the squishy center.

It’s going to be a rough, brutal year. The mayor has already made clear through his comments that he doesn’t even want to look at new revenue measures; he intends to solve the city’s half-billion-dollar budget crisis with cuts — deep, bloody cuts — alone. Chiu will have to stand up to him, publicly and privately, and make clear that a cuts-only budget isn’t going to fly in San Francisco.

And while Chiu will need some time to develop a leadership style and become familiar with the often-complex workings of the board, he should do a few things right away to show that he’s prepared to take on the difficult tasks ahead:

Support Peskin’s proposal for a special election in June. The proposal to allow the voters to consider raising taxes instead of just cutting is going to need a lot of help and support. The mayor opposes it, and some of his allies may oppose it too. But it’s absolutely crucial that San Francisco refuse to follow the lead of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s crucial that the progressives, while acknowledging that cuts will have to happen, also insist on looking at fair revenue ideas. Chiu needs to take the point on this.

In fact, now that the mayor and his allies on the board have made this a central battleground — and in effect have made this a litmus test for Chiu’s new presidency — it’s even more important that every one of the six progressive supervisors stands up to this challenge.

We’re not sure which of the dozen-odd tax proposals floating around is the right one. But it would be the worst kind of foolishness to take the whole idea off the table.

Put good people on the key committees. The Budget Committee at this point looks good, with Mirkarimi, Sup. John Avalos, and Elsbernd. When that panel expands to five members (and it should, soon) Chiu should make sure that either David Campos or Eric Mar joins the committee, keeping a progressive majority. The Land Use committee will be crucial as the Eastern Neighborhoods plan is implemented; Chiu needs to appoint a progressive chair and majority.

Save LAFCO. The Local Agency Formation Commission is the only board committee that has public power and energy policy as its primary agenda. Budget-cutters (spurred by PG&E, which more than any other company is responsible for the budget crisis) have made LAFCO a target; Chiu needs to make it clear immediately that LAFCO will remain in place, with strong appointments and a chair committed to making community choice aggregation work and pursuing public power as the largest potential new revenue source for the city.

Chiu has promised to work with the mayor, which is fine. But first he needs to show the progressives who elected him that he’s also ready to do battle.