Rebecca Bowe

DCCC calls against Prop B did not have desired effect, did raise questions

Chairperson Mary Jung of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee, a highly influential political body that governs the San Francisco Democratic Party, has come under fire for “misuse of funds” after authorizing the use of DCCC dollars to make calls to voters just before the June 3 election.

The funds in question, according to DCCC members who raised concerns, came out of a $25,000 check from billionaire venture capital investor Ron Conway, received by the DCCC May 30.

In a June 16 letter – signed by DCCC members Kelly Dwyer, Hene Kelly, Sup. Eric Mar, Sup. David Campos, Sup. John Avalos and Petra DeJesus – Jung is taken to task for directing $11,674.48 from this donation be used for phone calls placed to voters in opposition to Proposition B, which appeared on the June 3 ballot, just before the election.

As previously reported, a complainant cried foul on this action in a filing with the San Francisco Ethics Commission, because callers seemed to be intentionally misleading voters by implying that the No Wall on the Waterfront Campaign, which backed the measure, was opposed to it.

When we phoned Jung for comment on that complaint, she said she did not have the call script and could not comment on the charge that the calls were misleading. She also said Conway’s contribution was not necessarily put toward the No on B calls. Instead, she told us, she could not link any single donation with any single expenditure, because the DCCC had been conducting broad fundraising efforts leading up to the election.

In their letter to Jung, the dissenting DCCC members argued that her decision to authorize the use of funds for the No on B voter calls violated the organization’s bylaws, because “there was never a vote by the members to expend $11,674.48 to make calls for No on B.” 

The letter points to an article within the board’s bylaws, stating that “Disbursements of SFDCCC funds … shall be authorized by a majority vote of the voting members present and voting at a regular meeting.” 

In the end, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved Prop. B, which requires voter approval before building heights may be increased above established limits for new waterfront development projects. However, the measure was not popular among real-estate development interests.

In addition to being chair of the DCCC, Jung is employed as a paid lobbyist for the San Francisco Association of Realtors, making her professionally positioned at the center of the San Francisco real-estate community.

“The power that comes with being the Chair does not mean that you can circumvent Bylaws and advocate and raise money for causes that you happen to also work for,” the authors of the letter stated bluntly. “There is a serious conflict of interest here.”

When the Bay Guardian phoned the DCCC to ask if there was an expert on the organization’s bylaws who might be able to comment on whether the rules had been violated, we were directed to Arlo Hale Smith, a 30-year DCCC member and parliamentarian with a deep understanding of the bylaws.

Smith offered an interesting twist on the matter: He said these funds were indeed “properly expended, under the emergency provision.”

The emergency provision? Yes, Smith explained, the DCCC bylaws contain a provision allowing the DCCC chair and treasurer to authorize the use of funds without first calling a vote, “in the event of an emergency.” This provision has been used in the past, he said, to authorize last-minute expenditures when an election imposes a tight deadline.

Since the money arrived three days before the election, there was no time to call a meeting and vote on it, Smith clarified. That’s why it was perfectly legitimate for Jung to authorize the use of funds. He added that disagreement over the content of the calls warranted a separate conversation.

“Because of when the check arrived – it constituted an emergency,” Smith noted, confirming that he was talking about the check from Conway.

That would be the same check from Conway that Jung told us had nothing to do with the No on B calls.

Sounds like the DCCC is going to have lots to talk about on June 25, when the members who submitted the letter asked for a hearing on this matter.

Here’s the full text of the letter.

DCCC members' letter to Chair Mary Jung

Dangerous delays


Since we at the Bay Guardian published a story flagging Pacific Gas & Electric Co.’s odd behavior of stonewalling a developer who had basic questions about a high-pressure gas pipeline running beneath his Bernal Heights building lot (see “Bernal blows up,” May 20), we’ve heard from others concerned about the company’s practices regarding safety.

PG&E has undertaken a massive pipeline improvement project to correct the underlying problems that led to a disastrous 2010 natural gas explosion in San Bruno, which destroyed a neighborhood, killed eight people, and injured 58 others.

But the repairs have been complicated by a number of factors, including inaccuracies in records that provide a foundation for the whole undertaking. Meanwhile, a fascinating document obtained by the Bay Guardian raises troubling questions about whether state regulators are taking seriously PG&E’s shortcomings in this endeavor.

Established in 1905, PG&E is California’s largest utility company. It wields tremendous political influence, particularly in San Francisco, where it’s headquartered. But the utility giant has been in hot water lately. It was indicted by federal authorities on charges of criminal negligence earlier this year in connection with the San Bruno explosion, and may soon face additional charges in a superseding indictment, the company noted in a recent regulatory filing.

PG&E’s safety upgrade project, known as the Pipeline Safety Enhancement Plan, was launched to address the underlying problems that led to the unanticipated pipeline rupture and explosion in San Bruno. That disaster brought the powerful utility under intense scrutiny, exposing a deeper pattern of negligence and sloppy record-keeping. The PSEP was rolled out as a corrective measure, in response to regulatory demands.



The detailed PSEP outlined how the utility would go about strength testing, replacing, and retrofitting its vast network of natural gas transmission pipelines, which comprise 6,750 miles traversing the utility’s Northern California service territory. The hefty document was submitted for CPUC approval in 2011.

However, things haven’t gone exactly as planned. Phase I of this plan was supposed to have been completed by the end of 2014 — but that’s now behind schedule, and some of the original targets have been revised.

The Bay Guardian attempted to contact both PG&E and the CPUC for this story, but did not receive responses. However, regulatory filings reveal quite a lot about the company’s progress.

A comparison of the work PG&E proposed to complete in 2011, versus what it reported having completed as of March 31, 2014, demonstrates how the massive safety upgrade project has shifted over time.

In a document submitted to the CPUC on May 22, PG&E reported that it had completed 541 miles of strength testing, as compared with 780 miles of strength testing originally proposed to be completed by the end of 2014. PG&E said it had replaced 105 miles of pipeline, as compared with the 186 miles of pipeline replacement it initially said would be done by the end of the year. It also reported installing 141 automated valves — but in 2011, PG&E told regulators that by the end of Phase I, “228 gas shut-off valves will be replaced, automated, and upgraded to enable PG&E to remotely or automatically shut off the flow of gas in the event of a pipe rupture.”

In hefty technical documents, PG&E provides reasons for why some of the targets have shifted, often the result of new information coming to light. In a June 6 CPUC filing, PG&E noted that nine scheduled pipeline replacement projects included in Phase I likely would not be completed by the end of the year, as originally planned.

This formal acknowledgement of a delay seems to substantiate the account of a Guardian source familiar with the pipeline safety upgrade work, who asked not to be identified. Work crews hired by PG&E contractors and subcontractors to perform the safety upgrades have found themselves in a holding pattern of waiting to be called out to job sites, our source said, despite the extensive planned work.

The utility typically sends work crews out to perform maintenance work during spring and summer months, so it can be wrapped up in time for winter, when there’s higher demand for gas heating.

The cost of these upgrades is shared between PG&E shareholders and revenues collected from utility customers.



A major obstacle to the goal of improving safety has yet to be resolved: PG&E’s pipeline records still aren’t in order, despite a major push to iron out data in the wake of San Bruno.

Since these records are the foundation for making safety upgrade decisions, these informational gaps threaten to undermine the project. The implications of this glaring problem are outlined in a CPUC document obtained by the Bay Guardian which was circulated on an internal “service list,” but not made publicly available.

First, some background: In October 2013, PG&E submitted an update to its PSEP plan to the CPUC, which included reporting on its effort to collect and analyze pipeline records. The regulatory agency’s Safety and Enforcement Division conducted an audit of this reported progress.

The audit, which made headlines when it was released in April, commended PG&E for its work but also noted, “PG&E does not have traceable, verifiable, and complete records for every pipeline component in its transmission system.” The audit also found errors in the work papers submitted by the company to back up its claims. Nevertheless, the Safety and Enforcement Division concluded, “no imminent safety concerns arose” from the findings.

But this proclamation isn’t the final word on the matter. The Office of Ratepayer Advocates is a small division within the CPUC, which functions as a watchdog looking out for the interests of utility customers. Its comments on the audit tell quite a different story, raising questions about why the enforcement division didn’t seem to place much weight on its own findings.

In its comments, reflected in the document that was circulated internally, the ORA sharply questioned the Safety and Enforcement Division’s overarching conclusion. It should “reflect the actual findings of the audit,” the ORA wrote, recommending that the Safety Division “define what is meant by … ‘no imminent safety concerns.’

“In common language,” the ORA went on, “this would be interpreted to mean there is no situation that puts the public in immediate risk of death or serious physical harm. If that is the meaning, please confirm. If not, please clarify the meaning.”

The ORA goes on to note that such a statement is “contradicted by findings within the body of the report,” and that “it is difficult to understand how the SED Report could reach this conclusion.”

The Safety Division’s audit “documents errors that ORA would define as safety risks,” the ORA notes, such as the discovery of a pipeline that has a maximum operating pressure nearly 20 percent higher than it should be, based on the pipeline feature data, or the discovery that PG&E had been “inappropriately operating a pipeline with a reduced margin of safety.”

PG&E responded to the Safety Division’s audit, and “they view their report as final,” noted ORA spokesperson Nathaniel Skinner. As far as addressing the problems uncovered in the audit, “It’s unclear to us what the next step is for the Safety and Enforcement Division.”

State regulators issue stern warning to rideshare companies

About a month ago, we wrote about how San Francisco International Airport Director John Martin was cracking down on rideshare drivers ferrying passengers to the airport.

In a formal letter, Martin enlisted the help of the California Public Utilities Commission to assist with enforcement actions against Uber, Lyft, and other so-called “transportation network providers,” whose drivers were found to be taking passengers to the airport despite a state decision requiring them to obtain permits from airport administrators to do so.

The permits haven’t yet been obtained because the TNCs took issue with SFO’s proposed pilot program, and subsequently refused to fill out the permit applications and send them in.

It appears CPUC President Michael Peevey took Martin’s plea for help seriously. In a letter dated June 10, Peevey called on TNCs to cease airport operations until they had secured permits from airport authorities. The letter warns that if the companies do not comply and are found to be in violation of the state’s decision governing TNCs, “the CPUC may revoke your permit to operate.”

Here’s the letter, which references operations in other California cities as well.

CPUC Letter to Logan Green of Lyft by Rebecca Bowe

Elderly assisted living facility residents face eviction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shrimp Boy denied bail

Raymond “Shrimp Boy” Chow, who has a criminal history in Chinese gangs and was indicted along with Sen. Leland Yee and a slew of others in a high-profile FBI operation, was denied bail June 11.

U.S. Magistrate Nathanael Cousins struck down his defense attorneys’ motion for pretrial release on the grounds that Chow might pose a danger to the community due to his position as leader of the Chee Kung Tong (CKT), characterized as a Chinese crime syndicate by the FBI. Chow’s charges include seven counts of money laundering, one count of conspiracy to sell stolen cigarettes, and two counts of conspiracy to sell stolen liquor.

“The government’s advancing this conspiracy theory that my client is in charge of this organized crime syndicate. On that basis the judge is deciding to hold him,” said defense attorney Curtis Briggs. “It’s the Chinese Freemasons, it’s not a crime syndicate,” Briggs added. “It’s a fraternal organization. They’re going to be muddied up and dirtied up because the govermnent is pursing a racketeering case against them.”

Another wrinkle: “Now the government’s issued a deportation warrant againt him,” Briggs noted. “Even if we got him out, he’d be in immigration custody.”

A 23-page motion for release on bail for Chow, filed by Briggs and attorneys Gregory Bentley and Tony Serra, paints a very different picture of the targeted Chinatown figure than the all-powerful gangster portrayed by federal authorities.

The FBI complaint, unveiled in March, paints Chow as an international crime boss holding “supreme authority” as Dragonhead of the CKT.

In this role, the FBI charged, Chow was “the supervisor” of criminal relationships between Yee, political consultant Keith Jackson, and Chow’s associates, who had knowledge of and approved all criminal operations of the CKT and received payment for the various criminal dealings he facilitated. The complaint even noted that Chow had once told an undercover FBI agent that he served as a judge within the CKT; “if one member kills another member, Chow decides if the killing was justified.”

The mob boss who had returned yet again to a life of crime, all while swearing he’d given it all up, couldn’t be more different from the humble ex-convict described in his defense attorneys’ motion for release. Yee and Jackson, who faced charges on firearms trafficking, among other counts, were released on bail totaling $500,000 and $250,000, respectively. Prior to being taken into custody, Chow had already been wearing an ankle monitoring bracelet due to his pending case with immigration authorities.

In letters of support written on his behalf referenced in the motion, Chow was described as a community leader whose actions in recent years stemmed from nothing less than “a spiritual commitment … to make the San Francisco community a better place for all people even if it came at a great personal sacrifice to him.” A letter of support was even written by Wendy MacNaughton, an illustrator, journalist and author of Meanwhile in San Francisco.

Chow had apparently been working on his autobiography prior to being taken down by the FBI.

The motion recounts how Chow, born into “devastating financial conditions” in China, was taken in by the Chinese Triad at the age of seven “and for the next ten years scraped by and supported himself and his family through Triad related activities.” At 16, he was arrested and beaten by Chinese police in custody. Soon after, his family fled to the United States for a better life.

“Chow was recruited by local Chinatown so-called ‘gangs,’” the motion states. “As with many immigrant children with no resources, Chow was exploited by these groups for his desperate need for protection, acceptance, and recognition.” He served multiple prison sentences for various gang-related criminal activities.

But in 2003, when he was serving out a ten-year prison term, Chow became thoroughly disenchanted with the criminal lifestyle,” his defense attorneys wrote. “His revelation occurred when the façade of the gangster life disintegrated as each and every one of his criminal associates, people who he thought of as ‘brothers,’ turned their back on him and participated in activities which blatantly harmed the community.”

Chow’s girlfriend, Alicia Lo, had volunteered to act as a third-party custodian and post property bonds on her two San Francisco properties in order to facilitate his pretrial release.

In written testimony, she described him as caring and generous, saying she would buy him “second-hand clothes so he looked sharp in public,” only to later discover that he “would at times give these clothes away to addicts on the street so they could look presentable at job interviews.”

Yet in making his determination, the federal magistrate noted that there is “more than clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Chow would pose a danger to the community” if released.

New minimum wage proposal less ambitious, has broader support

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chevron refinery expansion permitted before environmental review, lawsuit charges

Communities for a Better Environment, known for its watchdog efforts around Chevron’s Richmond oil refinery, has filed a lawsuit against the Bay Area Air Quality Management District for authorizing a permit to Chevron for a refinery construction project that’s still undergoing environmental review.

The project, known as a “modernization” in Chevron lingo, would essentially make it easier for the oil giant to process lower-quality crude, an industrial practice that CBE contends could significantly increase greenhouse-gas emissions.

CBE’s lawsuit charges that the Air District granted an “authority to construct” permit, which also authorizes operation, despite the fact that a state-mandated environmental review process is far from complete, with a draft review being released just this past March. “The authority to construct should be issued after the [environmental impact review],” CBE attorney explained Roger Lin explained in an interview.

The permit was originally granted in 2008, Lin explained, but it was based on an earlier environmental review that was later thrown out in court, because it failed to properly calculate the resulting air quality impacts. Since then, stricter greenhouse-gas regulations were passed, and Chevron was discovered to be emitting more harmful particulate matter into the air than it claimed to be. Meanwhile, a new environmental review process got underway.

Nevertheless, the “authority to construct” permit was renewed in 2012. “This permit was approved the same month that the Chevron Refinery blew up,” igniting a fire that could be seen for miles, noted CBE spokesperson Steven Low.

What’s more is that the draft environmental review proposes to mitigate new greenhouse gas emissions that would be released by the refining process “through cap-and-trade,” noted Lin. “For us, it’s not true mitigation.”

When the Bay Guardian phoned the Air District for comment, Public Information Officer Ralph Borrman told us there wasn’t much he could say on the matter. “Since it’s a lawsuit,” he said, “We’re just not able to comment on current or existing information.”


No Wall on the Waterfront wins big, Chiu prevails in Assembly race by slim margin


Developers looking to build high-end luxury condos on the waterfront lost big last night. 

Proposition B, backed by a campaign committee known as No Wall on the Waterfront, won handily with a 19 percentage point lead at the polls. 

At the Yes on B campaign party at Sinbad’s, former Mayor Art Agnos described the outcome as a win for the people of San Francisco.

“I think this vote is a decisive vote,” Agnos said, “that sends a message to City Hall that people in San Francisco want to protect the waterfront.

The ballot measure will require voter approval for waterfront development projects that exceed established building height limits.

Most political experts predicted last night’s June primary election would result in record-low turnouts, since Governor Jerry Brown’s expected win meant no big-ticket votes on the ballot. The prediction was correct. All told, 22 percent of San Francisco registered voters cast ballots in the June 3 election. And though some provisional ballots and mail-in ballots will be counted over the next few days, the initial counts have Yes on B miles ahead.

At Oddjob, a SoMa cocktail bar, opponents of Prop B backers were in a grim mood on election night.

Patrick Valentino, a No on B spokesperson, said his camp had a “more complex message” to convey. He felt their thesis, arguing luxury condos take pressure off the housing market, wasn’t heard by voters.

Meanwhile, in the Assembly race for soon-to-be termed out Tom Ammiano’s seat, Board President David Chiu and Sup. David Campos emerged as the first- and second-place primary winners, respectively, setting them up to face off against one another in November as expected.

Chiu prevailed, with 48 percent to Campos’ 43 percent, a five percentage point lead. But from the start of the night to the end, Campos was able to close a gap that was initially larger, setting the stage for a close race in November

At his celebration, Chiu told supporters: “It feels good.” When early polling results showed Chiu much farther ahead, a finance staffer told the Guardian, “We’re surprised by the gap, we expected to be up, but not by this much.”

David’s father, Han Chiu, said “we are so proud.

But as more results came in, Campos was able to narrow the gap, finally trailing by a margin of about 3,000 votes.

Campos adressed his supporters at Virgil’s Sea Room, and as the crowd whooped and hollered, he took note of a few milestones.

Firstly, few progressive campaigns for Assembly had ever raised as much money as his had, which he thanked his staffers for.

And the numbers should make Chiu nervous, Campos said, because fewer voters turn out to the polls in the primaries.

“We’ve been very clear,” he boomed to the bustling crowd. “If Chiu doesn’t win by double digits [in June], we win in November.”

Reed Nelson contributed to this report.

Bay Guardian News Editor Rebecca Bowe, Staff Writer Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez and freelancer Reed Nelson live-tweeted campaign parties throughout last night. Check out their tweets in a curated timeline, below.

Ethics complaint says chair of DCCC deliberately tried to confuse voters

NOTE: This post has been updated from an earlier version.

Right down to the wire, a complaint filed with the San Francisco Ethics Commission today [Tue/3] – election day – alleges that Democratic County Central Committee elected chair Mary Jung authorized phone calls that were meant to deliberately confuse voters on Proposition B.

The ballot measure, which would require voter approval for waterfront height limit increases, is officially backed by a committee called “No Wall on the Waterfront, Yes on B.”

But according to the Ethics Commission complaint, opponents of Prop. B falsely portrayed No Wall on the Waterfront as being against Prop. B in a bid to confuse voters.

A transcript of the call included in the complaint notes that a live caller opened the communication by saying, “I’m calling about the No Wall on the Waterfront Campaign,” without saying they were calling in opposition to that campaign, and seemingly posing as being affiliated with it. Callers also made statements such as, “Prop B is about environmental loopholes, against affordable housing,” and “No on B endorsements — the Democratic Party, Alice Toklas democratic club, labor.”

“This act by Ms. Jung was a devious and deceptive plan to trick San Francisco voters,” complainant Geraldine Crowley, formerly a DCCC member herself, charged in the filing. “While I realize she employed as a highly paid lobbyist for the San Francisco Association of Realtors – who oppose Prop. B – it crosses the line for Ms. Jung to violate the ethical codes and San Francisco law in this manner.”

We reached Jung by leaving a message on her phone line, listed on the San Francisco Association of Realtors website, next to her job title: “Director of Government and Community Relations.” (Which is really a very convenient arrangement for the real-estate crowd, when you think about it. Who better to relate to the “community” and the “government” than the chair of one of the most politically influential organizations in town, which endorses candidates for elected office?)

When she called us back, Jung confirmed, “We were calling people to vote No on Prop. B.” But what about the allegation that those calls were intentionally deceptive, falsely painting No Wall on the Waterfront as being against Prop. B? “I have not seen the complaint,” Jung told us. She added, “I don’t have a copy of the script” used by callers when they contacted voters. To get a copy of the script, she said, we would have to call political consultant Eric Jaye, who is handling communications for the opposition to Prop. B. We tried calling Jaye but couldn’t reach him.

[UPDATE: Jaye just returned our call. He said Crowley’s complaint is “frivolous” because the callers said they were calling “about” the No Wall on the Waterfront Campaign. “This was what they named their campaign,” Jaye said repeatedly. “It’s not deceptive.” But we asked him multiple times if he would provide a copy of the full call script, and he refused to do so, without offering any reason why he couldn’t.]

What’s more, according to Crowley’s complaint, is that the paid phone calls to DCCC members appear to have originated with venture capitalist Ron Conway, who made a $25,000 donation to the DCCC on May 30. A few days later, Ethics Commission filings show, Jung authorized expenditures totaling $12,281.13 for “membership communication calls.”

Jung denied having had any conversation with Conway about it, and said “the Democratic Party has done a lot of fundraising in the past three months,” and that she could not link a specific donation with a specific DCCC expenditure. She then said she had to go.

Officially, “you can’t give to the party and officially say the donation is for some purpose, but anyone who’s worked in San Francisco politics knows … it’s designed to make something happen,” said Jon Golinger, who heads up the “No Wall on the Waterfront, Yes on B” committee.

He added, “They’re literally using our name to further an agenda that is the opposite” of what the Yes on B campaign has been organizing for.

Some members of the DCCC are reportedly seeking copies of that script, since there seems to have been little awareness of what was being told to voters in the Democratic committee’s name.

But the idea that Jung herself did not know what was being said in the calls, when she authorized the expenditure for membership calls and works in the same office as Prop. B opponents, raises questions about what sort of leadership she’s actually providing.

In the meantime, here’s the Ethics Commission complaint.

Ethics Complaint Against Mary Jung by Rebecca Bowe

Phillip Hirsch, a bystander, took this footage of Chamberlain’s arrest.

Despite releasing a note on iCloud that was widely interpreted as a suicide note, Chamberlain appeared to resurface on Twitter earlier this afternoon in a post rejecting the FBI’s allegations against him as untrue. 

His friends, many of whom are well-connected political insiders who work on election campaigns in San Francisco, were taking to social media to cast doubt on federal authorities’ case against him.

Political consultant Johnny K. Wang, who described himself as a friend of Chamberlain’s and said he’s known him for years, expressed doubt that he was capable of domestic terrorism.

“I truly believe that once the [FBI’s] cards are shown, they’ll have nothing,” Wang said. “I would like to see what they have. If there were actual bomb making materials, then yeah, that’s something. It better be a bags of fertilizer or something. He’s a well-connected, well-loved guy in the community. If [the FBI] just ruined his life … I’m pretty sure the FBI will be made to pay for this. They’re going to be made to pay for this. It’s unacceptable. I want to see some real bomb making materials. I want to see a car that’s rigged to explode. Because otherwise, it’s just accusations.”

Now that Chamberlain is in custody, maybe the FBI will offer some answers.


Meet the people who are getting forced out of San Francisco

The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project has come out with a number of visualization projects in the past year to document the trend of eviction in San Francisco, where rents have reached absurdly high levels and landlords have a greater incentive to oust longtime tenants.

Last year, the volunteer-based digital storytelling collective published a time-lapse visualization using San Francisco Rent Board data to plot Ellis Act evictions from the late-1990s to the present. It also published the names of landlords who were deemed to be serial evictors.

The collective’s latest digital storytelling project, a crowd-sourced map plotting narratives of displacement, goes beyond just data. Co-collaborators enter into longtime tenants’ homes, gaze into their lives, and dive into personal histories. The result is a tapestry of stories about the human beings who are departing from San Francisco due to eviction.

Much of the rhetoric around displacement trend and the lack of housing affordability in San Francisco has revolved around the idea of an endangered “soul of the city.” But that’s not an easy thing to conceptualize: How do we imagine the “soul” of a densely developed peninsula that’s home to more than 800,000 people, many with ties to far-flung nations, bound by city blocks and urban infrastructure?

This project might help define what’s meant by that “soul,” by describing San Francisco through the lens of individual experience. Yasmin (a former San Franciscan who now lives in Oakland) expresses nostalgia for the days when she would regularly encounter queer women on the corner of 19th and Valencia. Stewart (who was displaced from his home in the Castro, but was able to find new housing there) describes his initial arrival to San Francisco, at a time when the AIDS epidemic was in full force. Nancy (who was evicted from Folsom and Cesar Chavez) describes how people in her Mission neighborhood stopped making eye contact as the character, class, and aesthetic of the area changed.

Displacement can affect residents who are being forced out, or those who are in San Francisco to stay – and the project organizers have invited anyone to contribute. People can post to the website directly, using the geolocation function to tag the place they want to focus on. According to a notice sent out by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project team, “this platform is intended for anyone to upload any story or anecdote that they observe or experience around gentrification. It does not have to be a loss of a home, though it could be.”

People who want to take part in the storytelling project can email, or send an SMS to 1-772-200-4233 with *narrativesofdisplacement in the message. 

Fool me once…


As any job seeker knows, it’s tough to compete for a desirable gig if you can’t point to a solid track record. You might think this would be especially true for city contractors who stand to make a killing on lucrative construction projects.

Take, for instance, a $283.2 million San Francisco Public Utilities Commission contract awarded to perform an absolutely essential service: making seismic and hydraulic retrofits to water-treatment units.

With close to $300 million in taxpayer dollars on the line, not to mention the general importance of having a properly functioning water treatment system in the event of an earthquake, you might think the city would kick some tires and make a few inquiries about the company’s track record before signing a deal.

But according to the results of an audit issued May 20 by the Office of the Controller, local agencies do not “consider past performance in the construction contract award process.”

Which is to say, there is no mechanism preventing city agencies from awarding high-paying construction gigs — over and over again — to bidders who have done a terrible job in the past.

For the water-treatment fixes, the SFPUC wound up selecting what the controller’s audit charitably termed a “poor-performing” contractor. It didn’t go well: The company “delivered poor quality control, and applied poor project management,” according to the audit.

It issued 87 “change orders” — adding work beyond what was outlined in the original contract — consequently padding the bill by an additional $2.1 million. And this contractor was hit with 70 noncompliance notices, issued when a contractor isn’t following the obligations spelled out in the contract. Sending out those notices eats up city resources, auditors noted, while following up on them necessitates further inspections and site visits.

Although the audit didn’t name the contractor, the amount allocated and work described suggests that it was Keiwit Infrastructure West Co., hired to take on a water treatment plant retrofit project at the SFPUC’s Harry Tracy facility, which treats drinking water that originates at the Crystal Springs Reservoir System.

According to the project website, “Seismic retrofits and electrical upgrades will allow us to reliably provide up to 140 million gallons of water per day, for 60 days, within 24 hours of a major earthquake. Harry Tracy serves several communities on the Peninsula in addition to San Francisco.” The company didn’t return a call from the Guardian seeking comment.

Why was a problematic contractor entrusted with such a critical project? According to the audit, city law does in fact require a contractor to have “a record of prior timely performance,” and a history of dealing with the city “in good faith.”

But there’s no system for holding contractors to these standards. Since the city has no system in place for evaluating bids based on a contractors’ past performance, it’s anyone’s guess whether this contractor had a poor track record before being hired — and there is nothing to prevent the firm from being hired yet again despite the problems encountered by the SFPUC.

The city contracting process follows a scoring system to ensure that the contract award is impartial and equitable — but since it doesn’t factor in a contractor’s prior track record, that’s never formally considered.

And because the city doesn’t require contractor evaluations, or maintain any centralized database of records showing how well contractors have carried out their duties in the past, “poor-performing contractors — even contractors incapable of performing the work on which they bid — can secure additional city contracts,” auditors found.

This SFPUC contract was just one example. The report also highlighted a case study from the San Francisco International Airport, in which a construction crew botched a welding job performed as part of a $15 million contract to build a pedestrian bridge and mezzanine to an airport terminal. The report outlines what went wrong, citing “inadequate installation and missed steps in the welding procedures; bolt holes were misaligned and measured incorrectly.” As a result, SFO issued 59 noncompliance notices.

A contractor hired by the Department of Public Works, for a $5.2 million neighborhood branch library project, was reportedly “aggressive and argumentative … focused on preparing a claim instead of the project,” and “left the job midway through the project,” the audit notes. After that went south, the city spent $85,000–$100,000 on litigation, finally completing the job with the city’s own workforce.

The coming decade promises to be golden for city contractors who work in the construction sector. San Francisco has budgeted more than $25 billion for ambitious projects under its capital improvement plan, so many lucrative construction opportunities will arise.

The Controller’s City Services auditor has kept a watchful eye on construction over the past couple years, Director of City Audits Tonia Lediju told the Guardian. That led to the discovery that the city lacks a process for tracking contractors’ past performance when making hiring decisions.

“Given what we learned from our previous audits, not to mention … our reliance on contractors to accomplish our city’s capital plan, the Controller’s Office decided to conduct this audit to more formally assess the adequacy of the departments’ contractor evaluation processes,” Lediju explained.

As part of the audit, the Controller’s Office surveyed construction management staff at various city agencies, finding that a full 70 percent of them reported encountering poor-performing contractors “at least occasionally.”

To address the gaping problems in the construction contracting system, the Office of the Controller recommended that city agencies work with the Mayor’s Office, the Board of Supervisors, and the City Attorney’s Office to strengthen the law by requiring contractor performance evaluations to be completed — and to consider those evaluations when awarding contracts. With $25 billion in spending over the next 10 years, this might be a wise move.

Bernal blows up


When Herb Felsenfeld and his wife, Gail Newman, look out the window of the Bernal Heights home they’ve lived in for more than 30 years, they see a vacant hilly lot grown in with tall grass, stretching up in the direction of nearby Bernal Heights Park.

The surrounding area has become quite popular. Earlier this year, real estate firm Redfin crowned Bernal Heights the nation’s No. 1 “hottest neighborhood,” its desirability ranked using “a combination of big-data analysis and real-life human experience,” according to the company blog.

There are plans to build two new single-family homes on the slope directly above them, causing a bit of a neighborhood stir. But one detail about this particular site — perched high atop Folsom Street on the eastern slope of Bernal Hill — has neighbors on edge.

Below the surface, extending up a 35 percent grade, is a natural gas pipeline owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Property records designate it as Line 109, and it traverses the Bernal Heights neighborhood from farther south, running up Folsom Street. Two orange-and-white striped markers stake out its trajectory uphill, with an orange sticker on the back proclaiming, “Warning: Gas Pipeline.”

It’s serviced the area for at least 30 years, perhaps much longer, qualifying it as an aging piece of infrastructure. Felsenfeld, Newman, and neighbor Deborah Gerson say they’re worried that performing excavation on the slope for a road and new home foundations poses a safety threat.

Newman said she was especially perplexed by the San Francisco Planning Department’s issuance of a waiver of an environmental impact review, which is routine for a project of this size, citing no unusual circumstances. “I’m like, wait a minute,” she said. “There’s a pipeline here.”

One would think that any sort of risk would be eliminated by routine safety protocols. But it gets complicated when one considers that PG&E is under federal indictment for criminal negligence for its alleged failure to keep up with pipeline maintenance, due in part to sloppy recordkeeping. There may indeed be little risk involved with the new construction at this site — but then again, the neighbors’ concerns raise questions about whether adequate measures are in place to guarantee safety in this and other situations.

The criminal charges facing PG&E that were filed March 31 stem from an investigation launched in the wake of a fatal 2010 explosion in San Bruno caused by a pipeline rupture, which killed eight people and destroyed an entire neighborhood. The utility is fighting the charges in court and has reportedly invested $2.7 billion in shareholder dollars toward safety improvements since.

But according to the results of a regulatory audit on PG&E’s assessment of its own pipeline records that was undertaken to set things straight after the tragic explosion, crucial pipeline information is still missing or flawed, as the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported.

“Given the San Bruno disaster and the recent media revelations about PG&E’s pipes, we are wondering what information you have gathered on this subject,” Felsenfeld wrote in a letter to one of the housing developers, Fabien Lannoye. “Where exactly is Pipeline No. 109? How deeply is No. 109 buried? What is Pipeline No. 109 composed of? How big in diameter is Pipeline 109? How/with what are the pipe seams welded?”

He sent the same set of questions to PG&E. So far, Felsenfeld hasn’t received any answers. PG&E has also been stonewalling the developer’s information requests.

Lannoye, who is building one of the two new houses, described the project as a two-story, single-family home where he hopes to live with his wife and two children. He said he understands the neighbors’ concerns about safety, but also believes they are organizing in an effort to prevent him from moving forward.

When it comes to his communications with the utility company, however, Lannoye is a bit more baffled. “It’s kind of a little bizarre that we’re not getting clear information,” he said. “I’ve contacted like 15 different people from PG&E, and every time, they send me to someone else. Either they don’t want to give me the information, or they don’t know what it is.”

PG&E did not respond to the Bay Guardian‘s request for comment.

In general, the only parties who seem to be directly involved when there is construction near natural gas pipelines are the utility company and the project developer. An association called the Common Ground Alliance maintains the 811 phone line — a service known as Call Before You Dig — to ensure the location of underground lines are marked prior to any excavation.

When the Guardian phoned San Francisco’s Department of Public Works to ask if the agency has a pipeline risk assessment procedure in place when new construction is planned, we were told that such a thing might fall under the scope of the Department of Building Inspection.

But in a voicemail, DBI spokesperson Bill Strawn responded that such a thing might be up to the Department of Public Works, adding, “There’s no restriction about somebody building a project or a house somewhere in the vicinity of a natural gas pipeline.”

All of which means it falls to PG&E to ensure that high-pressure underground lines are safe, with no chance of rupture when new foundations are being installed close by. But PG&E doesn’t always know what it’s got. According to charges in the federal indictment, the utility created a GIS database in the late 1990s based on pipeline survey sheets that contained erroneous or incomplete information. PG&E then relied on that database to make integrity management decisions.

The indictment noted that prior to the San Bruno disaster, PG&E had been intentionally elevating pressure levels on Line 132, the one that ruptured, as well as Line 109, to maintain peak pressure levels in accordance with federal regulations. But experts have noted that this spiking practice could erode the integrity of a line if there are vulnerable welds.

“Our plan,” Lannoye explained, “is not to dig where the gas line is.” Line 109 would run beneath a sidewalk, he added.

Marilyn Waterman, another neighbor, outlined the situation in an email to University of California Berkeley professor Robert Bea, a nationally renowned civil engineer. She asked Bea if concern is warranted.

“Given the background you provided in your email, yes — you should be concerned,” he responded. It’s an old line, Bea pointed out, in an area with highly variable topography, with no available records detailing its operation and maintenance.

“This list is identical to the list of concerns that summarized causation of the San Bruno Line 132 gas pipeline disaster,” Bea wrote. “The fundamental ‘challenge’ associated with your concern is tied to the word ‘safe.'”

His rule of thumb? “If the potential consequences associated with a failure are low, then the likelihood of the failure can be high. If the potential consequences are very high, then the probability of failure must be very low.”

Shipyard artists promised affordable studios in solar-powered facility

Alarm bells went off last year when a small group of sculptors and painters in Building 101 at the Hunters Point Shipyard artists’ colony – one of the largest artist enclaves on the western seaboard, where even famed poet and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti has a studio – faced possible loss of affordable studio space.

Some artists who had long occupied low-rent studios were threatened under a shortsighted relocation plan hatched by Lennar, the mega-developer that is undertaking a sprawling mixed-use and residential project spanning 770 acres at Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point.

Fortunately it now seems that the artist colony, which has been there since the 1980s, may face brighter days ahead. Not only were the small number of Building 101 artists spared from eviction, but another group of artists who currently occupy studios in buildings that are slated for demolition under Lennar’s plan have now been promised brand-new art studio space with affordable rents set in perpetuity. 

Commissioners of the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure – better known as the successor agency to the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency – will today [Tue/20] consider a final plan for a new shipyard art facility, which is expected to pass. The 87,000 square foot structure would house 130 artists’ studios, plus a gallery space, a kiln room, a spray booth and more. 

The Shipyard Trust for the Arts (STAR), a nonprofit organization that’s represented the Shipyard artists since the mid-1990s, announced in a press statement May 19 that it had approved Lennar’s final building design – and had managed to convince the developer to install solar panels to save energy costs in an effort to keep monthly rental payments at affordable rates.

Under a 2004 agreement, Lennar guaranteed that there would be no net loss of studio space, and a stipulation in Lennar’s development agreement promised that rents in the new studio spaces to accommodate displaced artists would be based on building operating costs only. But even this seemingly minimal threshold would have resulted in a projected 50 percent rent spike for more than half the artists facing relocation. This would have forced some of them off the shipyard, and out of San Francisco by default – dealing yet another blow to the city’s arts community.

In the course of a long and arduous negotiating process with Lennar with input from OCII, the shipyard artists proposed that Lennar supply solar energy to the building, which would allow the savings in utility costs to be put toward subsidizing studio rents for artists who would be otherwise forced out.

“That was really outside of their obligations,” noted Amabel Akwa-Asare, OCII assistant project manager, who has been working with Lennar and STAR on behalf of city government.

“It has been a long and difficult process,” said STAR vice president Stacey Carter, “but Lennar has agreed to put solar on the new artists studio building at Hunters Point Shipyard and STAR intends to use that savings to help offset the rents for qualified, low-income artists.”   

Trouble Coffee


Inscribed on the window at the Yosemite Avenue location of Trouble Coffee & Coconut Club is the phrase: “Serving guts and honor.”

Proprietor Giulietta Carrelli, who opened the Bayview location on April Fools Day of 2013, six years to the day after opening the first Trouble Coffee location on Judah Street in the Outer Sunset, said she started it “to build a community.”

It’s not a café where patrons sit silently on laptops. Nor should one post Instagram photos of the signature cinnamon toast (which costs $3.50, by the way, despite being credited with touching off the $4 toast madness as a signifier of gentrification, something antithetical to what Trouble stands for).

No, Trouble is “a community built via word of mouth instead of technology,” explained Carrelli, a petite blonde whose skin is covered in tattoos, including freckles splashed across her cheekbones. “I knew I was going to build a place that was just face-to-face conversation, as an art form.”

The coffee shop was created with the help of friends and Carrelli explained that she built Trouble “because I couldn’t hold a job.” And for good reason: For years, she’d experienced schizophrenic breakdowns that made it impossible to work steadily. Over time, she’s developed coping mechanisms to get through the worst: Swimming in the ocean. Eating coconuts. Structure.

“Trouble is a survival tool,” both for her and her customers, Carrelli explained. “Everyone needs a place that they trust.” She’s known for her mantra, build your own damn house. What’s it mean? “Your house is your psyche,” she says. “Your house is your truth.”

Carrelli and her coffee shop were recently featured on This American Life, converting her into a celebrity. At first, she says she felt odd having the whole world know about her struggle with mental illness. But one day, she received something in the mail that changed all of that. It was a postcard sent by a schizophrenic, covered in feathers and flowers. On the back was the message: “I’ve lit myself on fire three times. After hearing your story, I don’t think I’ll do it again.”

4033 JUDAH ST., SF



Thee Parkside


Once upon a time, the Bay Guardian was headquartered in a giant converted warehouse at the bottom of Potrero Hill. Since Thee Parkside was just a short walk away, at 17th and Wisconsin streets across from Jackson Park, it was only natural for the music venue and pub to become a regular destination for Guardian staff.

Many classes of interns were welcomed to the newspaper via pitchers of beer filled (and filled again) by Parkside bartenders. Departing staff members were sent off in style with farewell bashes staged at Thee Parkside. So it’s with nostalgia for the days when we could amble over to this venerable dive any time we pleased that we honor Thee Parkside with a small business award.

A music venue that hosts a mix of metal, punk, country, and garage rock performers, Thee Parkside has patrons who tend not to be overly concerned with frills — think tater tots paired with Happy Hour specials such as $1 Natural Light in a can or $3 PBR tall boy specials. The dim interior is often filled with ecstatic sweaty music fans getting lost in a musical crush of sound, the back patio a glorious outdoor refuge, the bathroom doors well-loved with layers upon layers of graffiti and band stickers.

Aside from the punk and metal acts it’s probably most well known for, Thee Parkside also hosts Free Twang Sundays beginning at 4pm. The all-ages shows feature the Bay Area’s best country, western, bluegrass Americana, and rockabilly acts — if it’s twang, it’s Thee Parkside’s thang.

1600 17TH STREET


(415) 252-1330

Stored power



For this second installment of our environmental news column, we’re looking at climate change from wildly different perspectives. We’ll explore whether local green-tech manufacturing firms can help wean California off fossil fuels, highlight some key data from the National Climate Assessment, and hear from an Amazonian shaman who’s fed up with white people making a mess of the planet and his home territory.



A new green technology sector in the Bay Area could help find the missing puzzle piece needed to establish a sustainable clean-energy mix for the state’s future.

Californians continue to rely on a majority of electricity sources that are environmentally unfriendly: natural gas, nuclear power, and even coal. Generating electricity by burning fossil fuels contributes to air pollution, consumes vast quantities of freshwater, and releases greenhouse-gas emissions, exacerbating global climate change.

But this is all starting to change. Since California requires utilities to convert one-third of their energy mix to renewable sources by 2020, there’s incentive for investment in carbon-free alternatives, such as wind and solar. Meanwhile, procurement decisions at the California Public Utilities Commission have pushed utilities to purchase more renewable power.

“Solar is succeeding beyond people’s expectations around the world,” because pricing has come down, said Julie Blunden, a consultant and energy-sector expert who formerly served as vice president at SunPower. “California set itself up to say, ‘we’re for changes to our power sector.'”

But renewables have an inherent problem — the power they produce can’t always be tapped just when it’s needed. Without some way to store the electricity generated by a wind or solar array, to be kept on hand for when demand hits a peak, wind and solar are unreliable for primary energy generation because they’re subject to fluctuations in wind and natural light. This is where energy storage comes in.

Throughout the Bay Area, companies specializing in battery manufacturing are starting to gain traction, with 11 regional battery manufacturers enrolling in CalCharge, an accelerator program for energy storage created with help from the U.S. Department of Energy and the California Clean Energy Fund.

CalCharge gives regional energy-storage companies access to national laboratories such as Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, facilities described by DOE renewables expert David Danielson as “science and engineering powerhouses at the forefront of clean energy innovation.”

One of the first grid-scale energy storage firms to join CalCharge is EnerVault, a flow battery manufacturer that’s working on a major installation in Turlock that will be co-located with a tracking solar system and an electric irrigation pump.

“The little dark secret about solar is that it’s intermittent,” explained Tom Steipen, CEO of Primus Power, a flow battery manufacturing firm based in Hayward that recently joined CalCharge.

On cloudy days, solar arrays won’t produce as much power. Wind presents similar challenges: “Wind in North America is stronger at night — but we don’t need it at night, we need it in the afternoon. So anything you can do to de-couple the instantaneous supply from demand is good for the environment, good for the economy, and that’s what energy storage does. … I like to describe it as a warehouse of electrons.”

Primus makes energy pods — an array of batteries that stand about six feet tall, placed in two rows within a shipping container — fed by renewable power arrays and tied in with the grid.

The pods can be stacked in Lego-like fashion, enabling more energy storage. They are then positioned beside a second shipping container, outfitted with equipment to convert stored DC power to AC power that can be sent over transmission lines.

Primus Power plans to make one of its first energy pod shipments to Miramar, the site of a marine base near San Diego where the movie Top Gun was filmed. The base is powered with its own contained micro-grid, but it was impacted by brownouts a couple years ago. With this project, Primus faces a test for its energy pods, which are estimated to last up to 20 years: Can the flow batteries, in combination with solar, produce reliable electricity for three full days?

If the pods can supply a smooth power supply, Primus wins — but more importantly, it will be a vote of confidence for carbon-free energy sources as significant sources of electricity generation.



Davi Kopenawa is sometimes called the “Dalai Lama of the Rainforest.” He’s a shaman, activist, and spokesperson for his Yanomami tribe, the largest relatively isolated tribe in South America, which lives according to traditional indigenous ways in territory located within the Brazilian Amazon.

After years of battling the Brazilian government, Kopenawa and his people won a successful campaign for demarcation of the Yanomami territory in 1992. He co-wrote a book, The Falling Sky, with French anthropologist Bruce Albert, recently published by the Harvard University Press.

Today, the Yanomami are facing new pressures. Mining speculators are encroaching into their indigenous territory, causing fears of displacement, environmental destruction, and disease. In the past, exposure to disease brought dire consequences, resulting in widespread fatalities.

Kopenawa recently made a rare visit to San Francisco, giving talks at the Presidio Trust, UC Berkeley, and City Lights Books — and we got the chance to interview him while he was here.

Speaking via translation provided by Fiona Watson, research director of the human rights organization Survival International, Kopenawa talked about the Yanomami’s looming worries of environmental destruction and displacement that could be ushered in by mining companies.

“People are returning, invading it again, and repeating exactly what happened 20 years ago,” he told us. “These people are mainly gold miners who are looking for the riches of the Earth … They’re looking for oil, diamonds, and other precious materials, which is what white people want.”

He travels in part to seek support from the international community. “The majority of Yanomami have never left their land — they haven’t come out like I have,” he said. “So they don’t really see at close quarters how we are fighting against the politicians. However, the Yanomami and I, we continue to fight.”

Kopenawa had a lot to say about climate change and what has been done so far to address it: “All of you, the governments, the white people, need to listen to us, if you want to control the rich people who are always there … seeking raw materials from the earth, cutting down the forests, destroying the rivers.”

Indigenous leaders have spoken out internationally on the issue of climate change, he added, but the message has fallen on deaf ears. “They had the big UN climate meeting in Copenhagen,” he said. “But that didn’t result in anything. They only wasted money. They made us think that the city people would resolve things, but they couldn’t. The problem is the governments don’t listen. … The problem really is about capitalism, that’s at the root of the problem.”

Kopenawa’s perspective as a shaman in an indigenous culture is radically different from the world of government and politics, and he shakes his head at what he sees as utter complacency when it comes to implementing meaningful change.

“They’re only interested in the Internet, in paper, building more roads, stripping out the riches of the earth, destroying the trees,” he said. “We are different. We see the dangers, and we see that they are getting nearer. The cities are growing, the population is growing, and so the pollution is growing. There’s a lot of money in the world…But money won’t save the world.”

He advocates a new way of thinking about human progress.

“People have to stop thinking about ‘progress,’ which is pulling out the riches of the earth, and negotiating and doing business and having money all the time,” he said. “This is the error of the city people. I’ve tried to tell the city people, you need to minimize this problem of the climate, or else it will stop raining. And it will keep getting hotter.”



The Obama Administration unveiled the third National Climate Assessment on May 6, a hefty document detailing climate change impacts facing every region of the U.S.

Unsurprisingly, California’s own climate-related woes stem from water scarcity. Here are some details:

More money needed for drinking water. “Climate change will increase the cost of maintaining and improving drinking water infrastructure [estimated at $4.6 billion annually as things stand], because expanded wastewater treatment and desalinating water for drinking are among the key strategies for supplementing water supplies.”

Market impacts on delicious agricultural products. “California produces about 95 percent of U.S. apricots, almonds, artichokes, figs, kiwis, raisins, olives, cling peaches, dried plums, persimmons, pistachios, olives, and walnuts, in addition to other high-value crops. Drought and extreme weather affect the market value of fruits and vegetables more than other crops because they have high water content.”

More wildfires. “Numerous fire models project more wildfire as climate change continues. Models project … up to a 74 percent increase in burned area in California, with northern California potentially experiencing a doubling under a high emissions scenario toward the end of the century.”

Based on Earth is a monthly column by Guardian News Editor Rebecca Bowe.

Mayor Lee faces question on minimum wage

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee will attend the Board of Supervisors meeting today [Tue/13] to participate in “question time” – that exhilarating moment where the city’s highest-ranking official responds to pre-submitted questions with carefully crafted answers.

Today, Lee faces a question about raising the minimum wage, per District 1 Sup. Eric Mar:

“Mayor Lee, San Francisco is now the city with the fastest-growing gap between rich and poor. Yet, we have not raised our minimum wage in a decade. Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Oakland, among other cities, have recently moved to raise their minimum wage. … Some labor groups in the City have proposed to increase the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. … Can you share what level you are currently considering increasing the minimum wage to and how you plan on mitigating impacts on small businesses and non-profits?”

Which makes us wonder, will Lee name an actual dollar amount that he and a group of stakeholders he’s convened are considering increasing the minimum wage to?

Or will he stick to the vague answer he gave radio host Michael Krasny in a recent interview on KQED’s Forum? (“I said I was open to up to $15 an hour,” the mayor said in that interview, “and I didn’t state a number at the beginning.”)

Lawsuit claims SROs owned by city contractors are unsafe, moldy, rodent-infested

It’s often rumored that housing conditions in certain single-room occupancy hotels, or SROs, throughout San Francisco are atrocious. And when it comes to SROs under ownership of one family in particular, a lawsuit filed today by City Attorney Dennis Herrera now alleges not only that conditions are unhealthy and inhospitable – they’re also illegal.

Hotel owners, managers and operators Balvantsinh “Bill” Thakor, his wife Lataben B. Thakor, and their sons Kiransinh and Bahavasinh Thakor are all named in Herrera’s suit, which alleges that the business owners are renting uninhabitable residential rooms to vulnerable occupants, depriving SRO occupants of tenancy rights, maintaining public nuisances, doing construction work without required permits or contractors’ licenses, and making false claims for payment from the city.

The SRO owners hold contracts with the city. Herrera’s complaint alleges that taxpayer dollars are flowing into the hands of landlords who have allowed their properties to remain moldy, rodent-infested, and unsafe to occupants who are too poor to seek out other options.

We left a message for Balvantsihn “Bill” Thakor and will update this post if we receive a response.

Under the city contracts, homeless people who are pulled off the street by the Department of Public Health’s Homeless Outreach Team are temporarily placed in stabilization beds in SROs under the Thakor’s ownership. DPH rents out blocks of rooms to provide this temporary transitional housing, while low-income residents may live permanently in other units in the same buildings under their own private arrangements.

“San Francisco’s response to our affordable housing crisis must include aggressively protecting our most vulnerable residents — and that’s exactly what this case is about,” said Herrera. “The Thakor family has exploited low‐income residents by denying them tenancy rights. They’ve defiantly thumbed their noses at city inspectors over pervasive code violations, which endanger residents and neighbors alike. And they’ve billed taxpayers for providing clients of city programs with ‘clean, safe, habitable’ housing, when it was anything but clean, safe, or habitable.”

A litany of charges in Herrera’s complaint gives an idea of what conditions in some of these properties are like: “[Health and safety code violations include] rampant cockroach and bedbug infestations, failure to provide adequate fire protection and safety, failure to provide adequate security, failure to provide plumbing adequate to avoid repeated sewage leaks, failure to provide safe and functional wiring, failure to provide residential rooms and bathrooms free of mold and mildew, and failure to provide adequate heat.”

City Attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey noted that there had been a host of health and building code violations issued against the hotel operators, but that fines and notices of violation still had not resulted in necessary repairs. With all administrative avenues exhausted, the city is now moving forward with a lawsuit.

“With litigation,” Dorsey said, “we have the ability to bring a level of fear that the administrative process cannot.”

Meanwhile, a quick search for court records revealed that this isn’t the first time Balvantsinh “Bill” Thakor has been named in a lawsuit brought by the City Attorney against SRO hotel owners.

In 2002, records show, then-City Attorney Louise Renne named him along with a host of other defendants in a suit relating to the ownership and operation of the Warfield Hotel, a 63-unit Tenderloin SRO where defendants had allegedly “failed to correct life-safety hazards … thereby forcing residents to live in substandard conditions in violation of applicable state and local housing laws.” According to this 2003 editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle, that particular SRO later went “from horrible to habitable.”

But even back then, Thakor was described in the Chronicle as “not known for his quick response to code violations.” All of which begs the question: With such a terrible track record, how do these hotel owners manage to land city contracts?