Sarah Phelan

Taking out the trash


A controversial city waste disposal contract appeared primed for final approval by the Board of Supervisors on July 26 (after Guardian press time) — despite being challenged by a lawsuit and initiative campaign — after two progressive supervisors rescinded their initial vote in a July 20 committee hearing and supported awarding the contract to Recology.

City staff had recommended awarding the 10-year, $112-million landfill disposal and facilitation agreement to Recology (formerly NorCal Waste Systems, Inc.), which has grown from a locally based company to the 10th largest waste management firm in the US, with $652 million in annual revenue, according to Waste Age magazine.

If the full board follows the unanimous recommendation of its Budget & Finance Committee, the vote will authorize Recology to transport and dispose up to 5 million tons of the city’s solid waste at the company’s Ostrom Road landfill in Wheatland, Yuba County. The contract will take effect when San Francisco’s disposal agreement at Waste Management Inc.’s Altamont landfill in Livermore expires — estimated to occur in 2015.

The deal will cement Recology’s control, at least for a 10-year period, over all aspects of the city’s solid waste stream, at a cost of about $225 million per year, even as the company faces significant challenges, many related to the city’s 1932 refuse collection and disposal ordinance.

That law, approved during the Great Depression to prevent conflict between competing garbage haulers, has resulted in Recology’s exercising complete control over trash collection and transportation in San Francisco, without having to bid on those contracts or pay the city franchise fees.

During the negotiations over the city’s next landfill contract — the only aspect of San Francisco’s waste stream put out to bid — this 79-year-old law was invoked to explain why Recology has the sole authority to transport trash and compostables to Wheatland, which is 130 miles from San Francisco.

The move also comes as Yuba County is contemplating significantly increasing dumping fees at the landfill — from $4.40 per ton to $20 or $30 per ton — a hike that could erase the $100 million that the Department of the Environment (DoE) claims the Recology deal would save over a competing bid by Waste Management Inc. WM is the largest waste firm in the U.S., according to Waste Age, with about $12.5 billion in annual revenues.

On July 18, WM filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court to prevent the city from approving the agreements with Recology on the grounds that they violate the city’s competitive bid laws.

“The Department of the Environment inappropriately and unlawfully expanded the scope of its 2009 ‘request for proposal for landfill disposal capacity’ and, therefore, violated the city’s competitive procurement laws,” WM alleges in the suit.

WM has long held that DoE inappropriately issued a tentative contract award for both the transportation and disposal of solid waste to Recology without soliciting any other transportation bids. But DoE, which gleans $7 million annually (to operate recycling, green building, and environmental justice programs and long-term planning for waste disposal) from rates that Recology’s customers pay, ruled last year that WM’s objections are “without merit.”

Now WM is asking the court to require DoE to scrap its award to Recology and issue a new request for proposals to comply with competitive bidding requirements.

“There is ample time for the department to issue a new RFP,” WM stated July 18, noting that there is plenty of room at its Altamont landfill to accommodate the city’s waste after the contract expires.

That same week, a coalition led by retired Judge Quentin Kopp, community activist Tony Kelly, and Waste Solutions CEO David Gavrich announced that it had submitted enough signatures to qualify an initiative on the June 2012 ballot requiring competitive bidding and franchise fees from any company that seeks to win any aspect of the city’s solid waste business.

Kelly says his group was unable to collect enough signatures in time for the November election because Recology hired the city’s two biggest signature-gathering firms to circulate what he calls a “phony petition” in support of Recology’s performance in San Francisco. And signature gatherers say they were harassed by Recology boosters while trying to petition citywide.

“But I believe the question of whether candidates support competitive bidding will continue to be a defining issue this fall,” Kelly said.

The board’s decision on the landfill agreements has already been delayed several months, following a February 2011 Budget and Legislative Analyst report recommending that the board consider submitting a proposition to the voters to repeal the 1932 refuse ordinance so that future collection and transportation services be put to bid. The report also recommended that future residential and commercial refuse collection rates be subject to board approval.

But with two progressive supervisors running in citywide elections this fall, and with Recology exerting massive pressure on elected officials, the Kelly coalition could not find four supervisors to place such a charter amendment on the November ballot, forcing them to launch their own initiative.

And at the July 20 meeting of the board’s Budget and Finance Committee, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who is running for sheriff, and Sup. Jane Kim rescinded their initial decision to send the agreements to the full Board without recommendation. Instead, after the committee had moved on to other business, they joined Chair Carmen Chu, one of the most conservative supervisors, in forwarding the Recology agreements to the full board with unanimous support.

Mirkarimi interrupted the committee’s next discussion to rescind the landfill vote. “I think there was some misunderstanding a little bit in wrapping up the landfill agreements with Recology, ” Mirkarimi said. He said that he asked for the vote to be rescinded, “so we can accurately reflect some of the sentiments being articulated here. I think we just learned some things on the fly.”

In many respects, the switch by Kim and Mirkarimi made sense: prior to their initial vote, they made positive statements about the proposed agreements, but also stated an interest in exploring the appropriateness of the city’s 1932 law.

“Overall, I think this was a good contract,” Kim said. But she noted that, thanks to the 1932 ordinance, the city doesn’t get franchise fees. And she claimed that it only gets half of what other Bay Area cities get from their waste contractors. “So, I’m really interested in continuing that conversation, but I think it’s a separate conversation,” she said.

Mirkarimi said it was his concerns that led the committee to “put a pause” on the Recology agreements until it could “undertake more homework.” He also noted that his office “held a number of meetings” and he tried to “leverage this opportunity to reanimate activity at the Port.”

“I was hoping that we might be able to arrive at something much more deliverable,” Mirkarimi said, presumably referring to the fact that these efforts resulted in DoE unveiling an amendment to include two “possible changes” to operations and facilities at the Port of San Francisco in the agreements.

These changes involve utilizing other modes of transportation, including barges, as alternatives to the rail-haul plan proposed in the agreement. They also call for developing new facilities at the Port for handling waste, recyclables, organics, and other refuse. The cost of such alternatives would be passed onto the rate payers.

“I think that, cost-effectively, we may be able to insert the Port into this equation, but it’s not ready for prime-time yet,” Mirkarimi said. He concluded by saying that Recology has been innovative in reducing the city’s waste stream.

“This should be a front-burner conversation,” Mirkarimi said, noting that former Mayor Gavin Newsom focused on making San Francisco “the greenest city” in the United States. He added that San Francisco claims to have a 77 percent diversion rate, the highest in the U.S., and said, “That comes at a cost, it doesn’t come for free.”

After the meeting, DoE deputy director David Assmann said that the City Attorney’s Office is reviewing WM’s filing. “But it’s too soon to comment,” Assmann said.

He also claimed that, thanks to the 1932 ordinance, “there was no practical way” for another company to transport San Francisco’s waste to its designated landfill, “other than building a second transfer station outside the city.”

But Kelly continued to express concerns that the agreements are not competitive, and that the city lacks a contract and ensuing franchise fees. “They are running this as if it’s still the 1950s,” he said.

Kelly claimed that Recology Vice President John Legnitto, who is the 2011 chair of the SF Chamber of Commerce’s Board of Directors, recently told him that Recology has been in negotiations with City Hall around a $4 million franchise fee, but that the money would now be spent opposing Kelly’s competitive bidding initiative.

Will Kopp’s competitive bidding initiative derail Recology’s train to Yuba?


Sponsors of an initiative to require competitive bidding on all aspects of the city’s multi-million-dollar garbage services say they plan to deliver their initiative petitions to the Department of Elections this afternoon. The petitions contain 12,000 signatures, far more than the 7,000-8,000 required, effectively signalling that, even after the city weeds out non-valid signatures, the initiative will qualify for the June 2012 election.

The move threatens to give the Board a political migraine, since the Board is set to vote July 26 on a Department of Environment resolution to expand Recology (formerly Norcal Waste System, Inc)’s monopoly on San Francisco’s garbage and recycling services.

In fact, the DoE resolution contains two separate agreements: a $112 million long-term landfill disposal agreement that was competitively bid, and a facilitation agreement that governs how waste is transported to the landfill and that was not competitively bid. As such, the city’s facilitation agreement is already the subject of a lawsuit that Waste Management Inc. filed in San Francisco Superior Court last week.

Sponsors of the competitive bidding ordinance, which include retired judge Quentin Kopp, community activist Tony Kelly and Waste Solutions CEO David Gavrich,believe the Board should delay voting on the landfill disposal and facilititation agreements until next summer, after voters have had a chance to weigh in on the bigger question of whether folks want competitive bidding on all the city’s garbage-related services, which are worth a quarter of a billion, each year. “

“It would be disrespectful to voters to accept a resolution while an initiative is pending,” Kopp stated.

“It would make sense if they severe the landfill disposal and facilitation agreements into two files,” Kelly added, referring to how the two separate agreements are currently lumped into one item on the Board’s July 26 agenda, under the section titled “recommendations of the Budget and Finance sub-committee.”

How the deal got filed in the B&F sub-committee’s recommended section is another story unto itself: Last Wednesday, after Sups. Ross Mirkarimi and Jane Kim, who sit on the Board’s Budget and Finance sub-committee, voted to send the deal to the Board with no recommendation, (a vote that suggested that they had some concerns with the deal) and after members of the public who came to testify about the item had left,  Mirkarimi asked to rescind the landfill vote.

“I think there was some misunderstanding a little bit in wrapping up the landfill agreements with Recology, “ Mirkarimi said, as he asked for the vote to be rescinded, “so we can accurately reflect some of the sentiments being articulated here.”
“I think we just learned some things on the fly,” Mirkarimi stated, as he and Kim joined committee chair Sup. Carmen Chu, one of the Board’s more conservative members, in sending the deal to the full Board “with recommendation.”

The Guardian learned of the vote switcheroo, after the DoE, which is apparently anxious to see the Recology agreements move forward, contacted us to say that our blog post about the Budget and Finance sub-committee, incorrectly stated that Mirkarimi and Kim had not given the deal their unmitigated thumbs-up. (The Guardian has since amended its blog post to accurately reflect what happened at the meeting, after this reporter and most members of the public, except the Chamber of Commerce’s Jim Lazarus, who supports the Recology agreements, had left the Board’s Chambers.)

Asked about the last-minute move to amend the vote Kelly said, “It was Ross at his Rossest.”

And in many ways, Mirkarimi’s move to rescind made sense: neither he nor Kim had registered any problems with the landfill disposal and facilitation agreements during the committee hearing, though a number of seemingly valid concerns were raised, including the observation by Yuba County supervisor Roger Abe that Yuba County is considering raising its host fees at Recology’’s Ostrom Road landfill in Wheatland from $4.40 a ton to $20- $30 a ton. If Yuba County does raise itsw fees, the move could wipe out the estimated $100 million in savings that DoE claims Recology’s proposal represents for San Francisco ratepayers. According to Abe, Yuba’s fees have not been raised for 14 years, and his county, which is one of the poorest in California, could use the additional income, especially if it is going to see its local landfill fill up faster than anticipated, thanks to San Francisco sending up to 5 million tons of trash over a 10-year period.

To be fair, Mirkarimi did warn that it would be unwise to dismiss Yuba County’s concerns , but he countered that any county can raise its fees. And DoE suggested that it was unlikely that Yuba County can raise its fees excessively, because those same fees would have to be paid by the other municipalities that use the Ostrom ROad dump, most of which are small towns that can’t afford to pay as much as relatively prosperous Bay Area cities like San Francicso.

Instead, Mirkarimi and Kim reserved most of their concerns for the bigger question of whether San Francisco ratepayers are best served by the city’s continuing lack of competitive bidding and franchise fee requirements on San Francisco’s remaining $225-million-a-year garbage collection related services–concerns that seem to bring us back full circle to Kopp and Kelly’s competitive bidding ordinance, which they had hoped to qualifty for

Asked how many supervisors he thought will stand up tomorrow and dig into the details of the DoE agreements and how they contradict with the requirements of the Kopp-Kelly-Gavrich competing bidding initiative, Kelly said, “Two.”

If so, that’s not likely to derail Recology’s train to Yuba, especially given that Mayor Ed Lee, who holds veto power over any item that less than eight supervisors support or oppose, told the Guardian in February that he believes Recology had earned its privilege.

But so far the City Attorney’s Office is remaining mum about the potential impact of WM’s lawsuit on Recology’s train to Yuba County, a silence that will give the Board the political cover they apparently so desperately need, if they vote tomorrow to haul San Francisco’s trash to Yuba County by rail, an arrangement that won’t start until after the city’s current contract at Waste Management’s Altamont landfill expires, something that is not anticipated to happen until 2015, based on the city’s current diversion rates.


Recology president Mike Sangiacomo disses the Guardian as landfill agreements head to full Board


Dressed in neon- yellow vests, a crowd of Recology employees filed into the Board’s Chambers to witness the Board’s Budget and Finance subcommittee, which Sup. Carmen Chu chairs, vote to forward the Department of Environment’s proposal to award the city’s landfill disposal and facilitation agreements to Recology (formerly NorCal Waste, Inc), to the full Board.

The B&F vote wasn’t exactly a surprise. In the past six months, Recology’s top brass have been exerting pressure on the committee members to approve the agreements, which got delayed after folks started raising questions about the lack of a franchise fee and competitive bidding on all other aspects of San Francisco’s multimillion dollar municipal solid waste stream. And lobbyist Alex Clemens reported $17, 134.25 in promised payments from Recology between January and June 2011 for services that included contact with B&F subcommittee vice-chair Ross Mirkarimi in mid-June.

If the full Board goes ahead and gives the green light July 26, that approval would authorize Recology, which Waste Age’s June 2011 issue named as the 10th largest waste management company in the U.S.,  to start transporting and disposing up to 5 million tons of municipal solid waste in its Ostrom Road Landfill in Wheatland, Yuba County, once the city’s agreement at Waste Management’s Altamont landfill in Livermore expires, which is expected to happen some time in 2014 or 2015.

The initial refusal of Mirkarimi and fellow B&F subcommittee member Sup. Jane Kim to agree to Chu’s suggestion that they forward the proposed agreements “with recommendation” appeared to be indications that both supervisors harbored some concerns about the deal. UPDATE: But According to DoE communications director Mark Westlund, before yesterday’s meeting was over, Mirkarimi called to rescind the vote on the landfill item asking for it to go to the full Board with recommendation. Jane Kim concurred, and so now it goes to the Board with unanimous committee support. 

“Overall, I think this was a good contract,” Kim said during the July 20 hearing.

Kim added that she thinks “We need to continue the dialogue,” about the city’s 1932 refuse collection and disposal ordinance, which resulted in Recology gaining a monopoly over every aspect of the city’s $225 million-a-year waste stream, except the $11-million-a-year landfill disposal agreement.

Kim noted that under the arrangement that grew out of the 1932 ordiance the city doesn’t get a  franchise fee. And she claimed that San Francisco is getting half of what other Bay Area cities, which all have franchise fees, get from their waste contractors. “So, I’m really interested in continuing that conversation, but I think it’s a separate conversation,” Kim said.

Mirkarimi, who is running for sheriff this fall, noted that he has been “the most outspoken member” of the committee on the Recology item, and that his concerns were what led the committee to “put a pause” on the deal, until the committee could “undertake more homework.”

Thanks to that pause, the city’s LAFCO committee was able to commission a report on what other jurisdictions do around transporting and disposing of their solid waste in landfills, and Mirkarimi noted that his office “held a number of meetings” and he tried to leverage this opportunity to “reanimate activity at the Port.”

“I was hoping we might be able to arrive at something much more deliverable,” Mirkarimi said, presumably referring to the fact that these efforts only resulted in DoE unveiling a last-minute amendment to include two “possible changes” to operations and facilities at the Port of San Francisco in the agreements.

These possible changes, which DoE director Melanie Nutter presented during the July 20 hearing, involve a) utilizing modes of transportation, including barges, other than, or in addition to, the rail haul plan proposed in the agreement, b) developing new facilities at the Port for the handling of waste, recyclables, organics and other refuse, meeting no later than the fifth anniversary of the agreement to discuss the feasibility of such changes, and c) incorporating into the rates, or otherwise financing, the cost of implementing such transportation alternatives and the cost of such facilities.

“I think that cost-effectively we may be able to insert the Port into this equation, but it’s not ready for prime-time yet,” Mirkarimi observed.

Mirkarimi concluded by noting the many innovative things Recology has done in terms of making the city’s waste disposal system more environmentally friendly. “This should be a front-burner conversation,” Mirkarimi said noting that Mayor Gavin Newsom made it a focus of his administration to make San Francisco the greenest city. Referring to the fact that San Francisco claims to have a 77 percent diversion rate—the highest in the U.S—Mirkarimi said, “That comes at a cost, it doesn’t come for free.”

Mirkarimi’s comments came in the wake of Nutter’s claims that Recology’s bid for the landfill disposal agreement will save ratepayers $130 million, over the 10-year course of the agreement, compared to the bid that Waste Management submitted. “This is the best deal for San Francisco,” Nutter said.

Nutter’s estimates were repeated by Jim Lazarus, who spoke on behalf of the SF Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance for Jobs and Sustainable Growth. “This is the right contract for the people of San Francisco,” Lazarus said.

But Nutter’s $130 million estimate was thrown into question by Yuba County Sup. Roger Abe, who had driven the 130 miles from Wheatland to alert San Francisco  that Recology’s bid is based on the assumption that Yuba County will only charge San Francisco a $4.40 per ton host fee.

As Abe pointed out, Yuba’s rates have not changed in 14 years, and his county is considering increasing them later this year by up to $20 or $30 a ton.
Such an increase, multiplied by the 5-million tons of garbage in the agreement, could dramatically increase the cost to San Francisco ratepayers over the course of 10 years, Abe observed..

[If Yuba County approves an increase, and diesel fuel prices also increase, it could eliminate much of the cost differential between Recology’s and WM’s bid: a recent Budget and Legislative Analyst report shows that Recology would charge $58.94 a ton, ($28.53 for tipping and other fees + $30.14 transportation cost per ton), while WM would charge $66.79 for tipping and other fees + $18.33 transportation costs per ton.). But if diesel rises above $2:30 a gallon, SF ratepayers could also get hit with a fuel surcharge.]

Also speaking at the hearing was former D10 supervisorial candidate Tony Kelly, who along with retired Judge Quentin Kopp, David Gavrich’s SF Bay Railroad, and other concerned citizens, recently gathered 12,000 signatures to qualify a petition to require all aspects of San Francisco’s $225-million-a-year waste services to be put out to bid, and to require the winning bidder to pay San Francisco an annual franchise fee.

Kelly et al were originally aiming to qualify their petition for the 2011 ballot, but they blame what Kelly described during public comment as, “a very expensive advertising campaign,” by Recology, plus harassment of petition gatherers and signers, as why they ultimately had to delay qualifying their initiative until the June 2012 election cycle.

Kelly urged the committee to probe the details of a $10 million Special Reserve fund, which Recology could access, under the terms of its facilitation agreement, to cover all its expenses that have not yet been reimbursed through rate hikes. “You’d think the Budget and Finance sub-committee would want to explore those things,” Kelly said.

David Gavrich, who is also President & CEO of Waste Solutions Group, which has hauled 6 million tons of waste in the last 20 years, said approving the landfill disposal agreement, without knowing what rates Yuba County are about to set, was tantamount to “opening up San Francisco’s check book to Yuba County.”

“Recology has never moved a single ton by rail,” Gavrich also asserted.

But while none of the supervisors asked for any clarification of details in the proposed agreements, including the last-minute amendment, during the hearing, Chu was quick to comment about Gavrich’s “blank check” comment, noting that any county can increase its rates. “Alameda County already charges a lot more, so there are no guarantees either way,” Chu said.

She also claimed that the agreements had been subjected to a “very extensive, competitive and open process, especially around tipping fees.” What Chu didn’t mention is that earlier this week, WM filed a writ of mandate with San Francisco Superior Court to prevent the final award of a new long-term solid waste transportation agreement and landfill disposal contract to Recology ordinances, on the grounds that the deal violates the City’s competitive procurement laws.

Instead, Chu urged moving on the deal as soon as possible, by invoking the specter of a disaster hitting San Francisco before a landfill agreement is reached.
“Imagine if we had to go to the open market,” Chu said, apparently ignoring the fact that WM has stated that it would take SF’s waste in an emergency.

After the vote, Kelly expressed concern that the agreements are not competitive, but cost-plus, which means all costs get passed along to ratepayers. And that the city continues to lack a contract and ensuing franchise fees. “They are running this as if it’s still the 1950s,” Kelly said.

Kelly claimed that Recology Vice President John Legnitto, who is the 2011 Chair of the SF Chamber of Commerce’s Board, told him that Recology had been in negotiations with City Hall around a $4 million franchise fee, but that the money would now be spent opposing Kelly et al’s competitive bidding initiative.
But when the Guardian approached Legnitto after the hearing, he refused to comment, telling me my questions should go to Recology’s Robert Reed.
And Recology President Mike Sangiacomo, who was speaking to Chronicle reporter Rachel Gordon rudely told me, “Not today thank you,” when I approached him seeking comment on the Board committee’s vote.

“What did you do to him?” Gordon asked, as she followed Sangiacomo into a corner of City Hall. Er, nothing. Except what any self-respecting reporter would do. Like ask questions, read documents, and challenge the spin.

But that something clearly has ruffled the feathers of Recology’s top brass.
 “It’s like Godzilla, it’s like Monster Island, they can’t help themselves,” Beyond Chron’s Eric Smith commented to me during the hearing. “I’m disgusted by how money, labor and all these different entities can influence what happens. They don’t care about the little people. They care about the bottom line.”

Smith, who ran for D10 supervisor in 2010, spoke to the huge pressure that has been exerted on those supervisors who have publicly raised questions about Recology’s monopoly over all other aspects of the city’s $225 million-per-year waste stream. “Big corporations like Recology throw big money around and intimidate the electeds,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, DoE deputy director David Assmann confirmed that the City Attorney’s Office is looking at WM’s writ of mandate. But Assmann added that it is too early to respond to questions about the implications of that legal action on the Recology agreements.

Assmann also responded to a number of questions I’d already raised on the Guardian’s blog about the juicy details buried in the Recology agreements, beginning with a special reserve fund that was established in 1988, as part of Recology’s facilitation agreement that governed the transportation of waste to WM’s Altamont landfill, which is where San Francisco has been depositing its trash since 1987, and that will be rolled over to form the basis of a new special reserve fund.

Assmann said the fund currently contains almost $29 million, but only needs a baseline of $15 million. The extra funds will be the subject of a hearing this fall, he said, to determine how to use the balance, including exploring the possibility of using the funds, which were collected through a 1.3 percent surcharge on ratepayers, to lower the garbage rates.

Assmann also noted that while there is no limit on how much Yuba County can theoretically increase its host fees, “there has to be a nexus with associated costs,” and that Yuba County supervisors would have to bring any such proposed increase, which would also apply to all their other landfill users, to their voters.

Assmann further noted that the idea behind developing new facilities relates to the city’s 2020 goal of zero waste is “to get to zero waste we need new methods of handling waste,” Assmann told me explaining that San Francisco wants to be able to take residual material and process it so it could be recycled and wouldn’t end up in the landfill.

Assmann said a consultant is comparing the feasibility of building those facilities on land next to Recology’s Tunnel Road facility in Brisbane, or on land the Port owns in San Francisco, and the report should be completed later this year. He also noted that the transportation amendment would allow the City to switch or improve its transportation mode, during the life of the agreement, should cleaner technologies be developed, “including trains that run on less polluting fuel.”

Assmann clarified that San Francisco ratepayers won’t be footing the cost of building a new rail spur in Yuba County. “We’re not paying capital costs. The rail spur is not a cost that Recology can charge because it’s out of county. And if San Francisco only produces 2 million tons during the life of the agreement, we are under no obligation beyond that.”

And he noted that a potential $10 million contingency payment would only go into play if the City gave Recology the green light, and the company incurred costs related to rail haul, and the City then reneged on its deal, at which point Recology could then use its incurred costs to justify why it needs up to $10 million to included in the garbage rates.

All interesting details as we approach the Board’s July 26 vote—with a lawsuit hanging over the City’s head. So stay tuned…

Digging into the juicy details of Recology’s proposed landfill disposal and facilitation agreements


Last weekend, I tried to review online the details of the landfill disposal and facilitation agreements with Recology that the Board’s Budget & Finance committee votes on Wednesday, July 20, (assuming Waste Management’s petition for a writ of mandate doesn’t throw a monkey wrench into the committee’s scheduled vote on those agreements. And when I finally got to view the agreements in person, they raised a number of questions.

(WM has asked the Superior Court to issue a temporary, preliminary and permanent injunction, immediately enjoining the City and Recology from conducting any further action in connection with those agreements, including finally awarding them to Recology, and requiring the City to set aside and vacate the agreements, based on the grounds that they were not procured in accordance with the City’s competitive procurement laws. But as of press time, the City Attorney’s office had not issued any statement leading me to conclude that the hearing will proceed as planned.)

As it happens, my online research was thwarted by the fact that not all of the details in the proposed agreement with Recology are available electronically. So, on Monday I headed to City Hall. And I spent most of the day in the Clerk of the Board’s office, where I reviewed a) the contract language, b) the history of how the Recology was tentatively awarded the 10-year landfill disposal contract by the Department of the Environment, c) how Waste Management has been complaining ever since about what it perceives to be the unfair process whereby Recology was also awarded the city’s facilitation agreement, which governs how San Francisco’s waste would be hauled to the landfill, and d) why the Budget and Legislative Analyst recommended that the Board consider submitting a proposition to the voters to repeal the city’s 1932 refuse ordinance so future refuse collection and transportation services would be awarded under the city’s normal competitive bidding process, and require that refuse collection rates for residential and commercial services be henceforth subject to Board approval.

Heading into tomorrow’s hearing at 10 a.m, the Board has still not submitted any such ordinance (So, here are some of the questions that came up as a result of my research that I would like to learn more about before the committee takes its vote.

1. Why pay $10 million to build a rail spur in Yuba County if San Francisco’s goal is to have zero waste by 2020?

The landfill disposal agreement grants the city the right to deposit at Recology’s Ostrom Road landfill in Wheatland, Yuba County, all solid waste collected in San Francisco until Dec. 31, 2025, or until 5 million tons has been deposited. But according to the landfill disposal agreement’s Appendix B, which cites the city’s landfill disposal targets, San Francisco is projected to produce 2.4 million tons of trash between now and 2019, with zero waste projected for 2020. That got me wondering why get San Francisco ratepayers paying $10 million for the construction of a rail spur in Yuba County that would only get a few years heavy use, if these estimates are indeed accurate?

2. Just how green is my city?

According to the landfill agreement, the commencement date, when all or substantially all of the city’s solid waste is first accepted, may not be later than January 1, 2019. But according to the agreement’s Appendix B, San Francisco has an annual disposal target of 36, 614 tons in 2019, and zero waste in 2020. So are those figures just pie in the sky? And if so, is San Francisco’s claim to be the “greenest city in the U.S.” a tad overblown? Or is an independent agency like Cal ReCycle auditing these claims?

3. Oops. Are we about to authorize a $10-million annual slush fund?

Last year, the city held a hearing to consider plans to reallocate 1.3 percent of its ratepayers’ overall refuse rates that previously went to a special reserve fund that then contained $28 million, and that was initially created as a result of the city’s 1987 facilitation agreement to cover extraordinary costs associated with WM’s Altamont landfill and hazardous waste control and disposal.

There are still several years to go at Altamont (see number 1), but last fall, the Rate Board, which consisted of then City Administrator (and now mayor) Ed Lee, Deputy City Controller Monique Zmuda and SFPUC director Ed Harrington, voted 3-0 to authorize the Director of Public Works to reallocate the 1.3 percent billing surcharge to an impound account to offset DPW’s recycling and waste management costs for the period of July 1, 2010 to September 30, 2011.

“The change will not affect the monthly rate charged for residential collection service and the reallocation will be reviewed as part of the public process to review and update refuse rates, expected to take place in 2011 or 2012,” DPW’s website stated. “The city is proposing these changes to help meet San Francisco’s goal of diverting 75 percent of its waste from landfills by 2010 and to achieve zero waste by 2020.” (See number 2 in my list.)

The city also noted the need for a public hearing to discuss the special reserve fund and its uses, before September 30, 2011 (which is 10 weeks away). But to date, there appears not to have been any such hearing. Meanwhile, the city’s proposed amended facilitation agreement with Recology mentions establishing another special reserve fund, for no less than $10 million, this time funded from a one percent surcharge on all waste delivered to Recology’s transfer station, landfill and back-up landfill.

And the agreement stipulates that Recology may draw upon the reserve fund “from time to time” to reimburse costs that have or will be incurred by Recology, but have not yet been fully reimbursed, (“e.g. because a corresponding adjustment in rates has not yet taken effect, or has taken effect but has not yet been fully reimbursed.”) Such costs include all fees and penalties, including the $10 million cost of constructing a new rail spur and facility in Yuba County that Recology could become liable for if the city breaches the landfill disposal contract, or there is a delay in the contract’s commencement date.

So, does this mean that Recology will potentially have access to an additional $10 million a year for a decade, in addition to its guaranteed $200 million-a-year from the rest of the city’s collection, consolidation, transfer and composting non-biddable agreements? And does that inflate the worth of Recology’s landfill disposal and facilitation agreements by an additional $100 million?

4. Why isn’t the business related to San Francisco’s mandatory composting ordinance put out to bid, since our organics appear to be processed in Vacaville?

In the city’s master file on the disposal and facilitation agreements, I came across the following figures related to the carbon footprint of the city’s proposed rail tranportation plan: in 2008, an estimated 471, 551 tons of San Francisco material were trucked to Waste Management’s Altamont landfill. And 140,213 tons were hauled to the Hay Road landfill in Vacaville of which 105,704 tons were composted, and the remaining 34,509 tons were used as alternative daily cover.

Moving forward, the proposed plan is to rail transport the city’s annual tonnage to Recology’s Ostrom Road landfill for disposal, organics processing and alternative daily cover, and transport some of the organics for digestion by the East Bay Municipal Utility District. What’s less clear is the value of the city’s mandatory composting ordinance from a business perspective, how it came to fall under Recology’s monopoly, given that it’s being processed outside city limits, and whether the organics hauling was factored into DoE’s “green” equation, when evaluating landfill disposal proposals, and Recology’s facilitation agreement?

5. Has WM actually acquired a temporary writ and if so, what does this mean for any vote that the Board subcommittee takes on the proposed agreements? Neither the City Attorney’s Office nor WM’s attorneys got back to me with an answer to this question, as of press time, but it would be good to clear this question up before the voting begins tomorrow.

I have more questions which I hope Sups. Carmen Chu, Jane Kim and Ross Mirkarimi, who sit on the Board’s Budget & Finance sub-Committee, will drill into tomorrow, but either way, stay tuned as we approach what promises to be an educational vote tomorrow, one way or another….

Murdoch meltdown could have ripple effect


Listening to media baron Rupert Murdoch denying responsibility for the phone-hacking scandal that has Brits in paroxysms, reminded me of former US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales 2007 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in which he couldn’t seem to remember anything:  Murdoch is either losing his mind, or is a so-so actor with good legal advisers. But either way, it was hard to buy into his claims that he didn’t know what was going on.

And I can’t help wondering if the ever-widening scandal will get folks starting to demand more scrutiny of Murdoch’s tactics on this side of the pond, and whether this could represent the beginning of a sea change in the way outfits like Murdoch’s Fox News operate?

Waste Management sues SF over garbage contract


The already intense fight between Recology (formerly NorCal Waste) and Waste Management over SF’s next landfill contract just got more intense: today Waste Management of Alameda County announced that it is filing a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court to prevent the final award of a new long-term solid waste transportation agreement and landfill disposal contract to Recology on the grounds that awarding the contract would violate SF’s “competitive bidding ordinances.”

Now, Recology boosters will likely seek to frame this legal challenge as sour grapes over the city’s $11 million-a-year landfill contract. But WMAC’s suit represents a fundamental challenge to how SF’s $225-million-a-year solid waste stream is controlled: the suit requests a judicial declaration regarding the scope of the city’s 1932 Refuse Collection and Disposal Ordinance as it pertains to the transportation of residual wastes to a designated landfill outside city limits.

“The Department of the Environment [DoE] inappropriately and unlawfully expanded the scope of its 2009 ‘Request for Proposal for Landfill Disposal Capacity’ and, therefore, violated the City’s competitive procurement laws,” WMAC alleges.

WMAC has long held that DoE inappropriately issued a tentative contract award for both the transportation and disposal of solid waste to Recology on September 10, 2009, without soliciting any other transportation bids and in violation of longstanding City ordinances. Thanks to the 1932 ordinance, Recology has ended up with a monopoly over collecting and transporting waste through the streets of San Francisco. But that ordinance clearly does not apply to waste transported outside city limits, so folks have been asking if it would be greener to barge the city’s waste to nearby landfills. And they have been questioning whether ratepayers would benefit from lower rates if all of San Francisco’s garbage services, and not just the landfill contract, were put out to competitive bid.

Meanwhile, DoE, which sees $7 million of its own annual operating expenses for recycling, green building, and environmental justice programs and long-term planning for waste disposal incorporated into the garbage rates that Recology’s residential and business customers pay, ruled last year that WMAC’s objections were “without merit.”

So, now WMAC is taking its concerns to the Superior Court, asking that the court require DoE to scrap its tentative contract award to Recology for both waste disposal and waste transportation, and issue a new request for proposal to comply with existing competitive bidding requirements.

“WMAC is resolute in its commitment to providing the City and County of San Francisco with superior disposal services and responding to a Request for Proposal that is fairly administered,” WMAC’s Area President Barry Skolnick stated in a July 18 letter to the SF Board of Supervisors.

The move comes two days before the Board’s Budget and Finance subcommittee was scheduled to vote on approving a 10-year landfill disposal and facilitation agreement with Recology.

 The Board scheduled the vote last week, after it became clear that an initiative to require competitive bidding and franchise fees from waste management companies that seek to collect garbage in San Francisco, would not qualify in time for the November ballot. (Proponents of that initiative say they have enough signatures to qualify it for the June 2012 ballot. And they believe the question of whether candidates support competitive bidding on the city’s lucrative municipal solid waste collection, recycling, and disposal business continue to be a defining issue during the 2011 election.)

The landfill disposal and facilitation vote had already been delayed several months this year, following a Budget and Legislative analyst report that threw a curveball at the DoE’s plan by recommending that the Board consider submitting a proposition to the voters to a) repeal the city’s existing 1932 refuse ordinance such that future collection and transportation services be put to bid, and b) that future residential and commercial refuse collection rates be subject to Board approval. But so far, no supervisors have placed such a charter amendment on the November election.

The landfill disposal contract that the Budget and Finance sub-committee was to consider July 20 authorizes 5 million tons of solid waste disposal, or ten years, at Recology’s Ostrom Road landfill in Yuba County. It is worth in excess of $120 million, if the maximum of 5 million tons is reached, with all associated fees and costs to be passed onto, and  paid for by, refuse rate payers, not city funds. It allows for the Hays Road landfill in Vacaville to be used as a “back-up landfill.” And would allow Recology to pass on up to $10 million in rail hauler penalties, should the Ostrom Road landfill rail spur not be completed on time.

The facilitation agreement that the Board was also set to consider July 20, which governs how San Francisco’s waste is transported to its designated landfill, includes an additional rail transportation fee of $563 per rail container in future residential rate application increases that the Director of the Department of Public Works approves. (Unless there is an appeal, in which case it goes to the Rate Board, which is composed of the City Administrator (the post Ed Lee held before he was named mayor, and to which he wants to return,) the SF Public Utilities Commission director, and the Controller. And. in the event the cit

CCSF paid Recology $6.2 million to dispose of solid waste from city-owned facilities in FY 2010-11, and those costs are expected to increase by three percent to $6.4 million, according to the language of the ordinance that the Board’s budget and finance committee was set to consider this week.

As of press time, the Guardian was unable to reach anyone at City Hall to see if the city is seeking injunctive relief from WMAC’s filing, which provides a summary of San Francisco’s existing ordinances, a chronology of the events leading up to the DoE’s tentative award of the transportation and disposal contract to Recology and the subsequent bid protest filed by WMAC. {We’ll be sure to provide an update as the city’s response to the suit becomes available.)

“WMAC has exhausted all available and/or required administrative remedies,” WMAC states, noting that its filing also documents conflicting positions by DoE regarding the scope of the city’s Refuse Collection and Disposal Ordinance that San Francisco voters approved almost 80 years ago.

According to WMAC, DoE’s May 8 2008 Request for Qualifications stated that “the 1932 Refuse Collection and Disposal Ordinance …. does not address consolidating materials, processing for material recovery or transporting them to other facilities.”

According to WMAC, DoE re-stated this position in its Feb. 9, 2009 Request for Proposals.

“Yet in response to WMAC’s bid protest on (date) the Department stated there was no need to competitively bid transportation services outside the City limits since Recology was the only entity permitted under the 1932 ordinance to transport wastes from the in-city transfer station to an out-of-city landfill. “

As a result, WMAC is requesting the Court to rule on the scope of the 1932 Ordinance.

WMAC also notes that the Board of Supervisors designated the Altamont Landfill as the disposal site for all refuse collected within the City from November 1, 1998 through October 31, 2053, or until the City deposits 15 million tons. And that the 15 million ton has yet to be reached.

“There is ample time for the Department to issue a new RFP,” WMAC claims.

Repulsed by Recology’s tactics, Kopp strikes name from Adachi initiative


Who knew that a bunch of garbage could get a taxpayer watchdog like former supe/state senator/judge Quentin Kopp threatening not to endorse Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s pension reform initiative? But that’s what happened according to Kopp, who adds that he was “personally insulted’ by a signature gatherer outside the West Portal post office last week, after he struck his name from a petition he had signed in support of Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s pension reform measure.

Adachi, who has reportedly been paying up to $5 per signature, also came under fire this week from opponents of his measure, who are threatening legal action after an undercover video showed four signature gatherers for Adachi’s measure soliciting signatures while making misleading statements about the proposal.

But this misbehavior had not been made public when Kopp encountered a signature gatherer last Friday, who asked if he would sign the Adachi petition. “I wrote my name and has just started to print it, when he said, how do you feel about Recology?” recalled Kopp, who is backing a ballot initiative that would require competitive bidding and hundreds of millions of dollars in franchise fees from firms who seek to win San Francisco’s garbage collection and recycling contract.

As such, Kopp’s initiative threatens to up-end the terms of an 80-year old charter amendment that resulted in Recology (formerly Norcal Waste Systems) gaining a contractless monopoly on San Francisco’s $226 million-a-year garbage and recycling stream. 

When Kopp asked the signature gatherer, who identified himself as Tim McArdle, why he was asking about Recology, McArdle said he had another petition on hand, which referred to the allegedly satisfactory service that Recology is providing.

At which point, Kopp began to strike his name from Adachi’s $5-a pop petition. McArdle allegedly interrupted, saying, “No, that’s not the same petition as Recology’s.” And when Kopp kept scratching out his name, McArdle allegedly began swearing at him, even allegedly employing the time-honored F-word. “A woman walked by and was shocked,” Kopp said.(So far the Guardian has been unable to locate McArdle, but when we do, we’ll be sure to update this post.)

When McArdle grabbed back his clipboard, Kopp said he was able to see that on its backside was what Kopp describes as ‘Recology’s phony petition.”

So, why is Kopp so repulsed by Recology? According to Kopp. Recology recently signed up the city’s top signature-gathering firms to work on their petition thereby preventing Kopp and his associates from hiring these firms to collect signatures for his competitive bidding initiative. “And they are doing so from our rates, the money we pay, its legalized misappropriation of our money,” Kopp claimed

So far, it seems as if Recology’s strategy is paying off, at least in the short term. This week, sponsors of the competitive bidding initiative announced that they will turn in their signatures by December 11 to qualify their measure for the June 2012 ballot—and not their original target of November 2011.

Their decision followed less than three weeks of signature-gathering, a tight squeeze that occured, in part, because the City Attorney’s Office  took the full 15 days allowed by law to review the language of the Kopp initiative, which was first submitted June 3.

Even so, and despite an extensive Recology-financed media campaign that included push polls and network and cable TV ads against competitive bidding,  proponents and volunteers with Kopp’s campaign managed to gather the 7,168 signatures they needed to qualify his initiative by the city’s July 11 deadline for submitting petitions for the November election. But some signatures could prove invalid, hence the decision to delay the competitive bidding initiative until June.

And the Guardian learned today that the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee has scheduled a July 20 hearing on whether to award Recology the city’s $11 million-a-year landfill disposal contract, with the full Board set to vote on the issue on July 26 and August 2. In other words, the Board is rushing to make a decision on the landfill, which would further consolidate Recology’s monopoly on the city’s waste stream, before the Board’s summer recess.

The Guardian has also learned that the Budget and Finance Committee will hear a resolution July 20 concerning Recology’s existing agreement with the city over garbage. Rumors are swirling that this hearing will allow Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, who sits on the committee, is running for sheriff and has allegedly been meeting with Mayor Ed Lee and Recology president and CEO Mike Sangiacomo behind closed doors, to insert a clause to allow for the payment of a $4 million franchise fee. But insiders assure the Guardian that Mirkarimi has no such plans, although Mirkarimi himself could not be reached.

Either way, as Kopp points out, the alleged proposed $4 million fee would only amount to 2 percent of Recology’s annual revenue from San Francisco ratepayers. ‘That’s almost an insult,” Kopp said, noting that Oakland, whose population is 340,000, (42 percent of San Francisco’s daytime population) gets a franchise fee of $30 million.

Now, in a recent report to the Board’s LAFCO committee, Recology claimed it provides $18 million annually in “free services” to the city. But the report did not include an independent analysis of Recology’s estimates, and therefore these claims raised the hackles of Kopp, Kelly and other competitive bidding proponents.

Kopp predicts a $4 million franchise fee would allow city leaders who oppose his measure to claim that one of the two objectives of his proposed initiative have been addressed.

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year, Mayor Ed Lee said he felt that Recology “has justified its privilege to be the permit holder in San Francisco because of the things that it has been willing to do with us.”

Kopp said Lee repeated this position in June, and that Board President David Chiu recently said that he is opposed to monopolies in concept, but felt that any effort to allow competitive bidding on garbage services would tear the city apart.

“Chiu spoke in such draconian terms I thought I was in Iraq or Afghanistan,” Kopp said.

But these latest developments have strengthened Kopp and Kelly’s resolve to push ahead with their effort to give local residents a chance to decide whether competitive bidding would be better for San Francisco rate payers. As they point out, such a vote doesn’t mean Recology would be ousted from the city because they stand an excellent chance of winning any competitive bid. But it could mean that Recology is ousted from its current cost-plus arrangement with the city that allows them to make an estimated 10-20 percent profit.

And whatever happens, the upcoming battle threatens to shed light on Recology’s business model, which is based on vertical expansion into other counties and states, and the knowledge that, unlike the competitive bids it submits everywhere else in California, it has a guaranteed annual revenue of $225 million in San Francisco. In its 1996 filings with the Securities Exchange Commission, NorCal Waste and its 45 subsidiaries (now known as Recology) reported that San Francisco accounts for 50 percent of its annual revenue. And while those public filings are 15 years old, it’s clear Recology continues to rely on San Francisco for a large and guaranteed chunk of its income.

Or as one insider put it, “When you have a cost-plus contract, you can start buying things—like the Pier 96 development, and the recycling facility. And you can move profits to a different part of the company. You’re not competitively bidding the composting. And you can shift your profits out of San Francisco. And with a cost-plus contract, you put everything in the rates. For instance, the city says it wants composting. Ok, here’s the cost, here’s the bill. But you take the profit from the composting and invest it in San Jose, or San Bernardino, and use it to advance your other objectives, like buying two large landfills in Nevada and financing political campaigns.”

Meanwhile, Kopp says he plans to take Adachi to task for hiring the same signature gathering firm that is trying to undermine his petition.

“And I’m not planning to sign his petition now, and I might not endorse it,” Kopp said.


Daly blasts HuffPo SF’s choice of bloggers


In an open letter to Huffington Post former Sup. Chris Daly lays out why he thinks former Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier, mayoral candidate Joanna Rees and (perhaps not so interim) Mayor Ed Lee aren’t the best of choices to blog about San Francisco politics.

“Thank you for asking me to write for Huffington Post San Francisco,” Daly wrote. “However, I feel as if I must register a significant level of disappointment in who you rolled out today as your featured bloggers from the world of SF politics. It seems as if am the only one from San Francisco’s significant progressive elected political community.”

“Featuring Michela Alioto-Pier on the pages of Huffington Post only gives additional ammunition to those on the left who have become increasingly critical of Huffington Post since AOL’s acquisition,” Daly continued. “Alioto-Pier may seem kind of ‘liberal’ by skewed national standards, but she is decidedly conservative in San Francisco– opposing just about every progressive initiative in the last decade, from protecting rent control to checking reckless development to mitigating the negative influence of special interest money in elections. As an unabashed progressive, I was embarrassed to serve on the same Board as her and am now embarrassed to appear on the same web page with her bashing progressive homeless policy. Simply put, San Francisco’s very own Michele Bachmann now writes for the Huffington Post!”

Next, Daly laid into mayoral candidate Joanna Rees, Sup. Malia Cohen and Mayor Lee. “Rees, Cohen, and Lee may not have quite the same conservative credentials, but Lee and Cohen just green-lighted the largest demolition of rent controlled housing in SF history,” Daly observed. “So it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ed Lee’s initial HuffPo blog is generally based on the Scott Walker political philosophy of blaming unions for current economic/budget woes, when the rest of us know that large corporations, financial institutions, and government deregulators are really to blame. While trying to make public sector workers pay to balance our budget, Lee has left Corporate San Francisco off the hook, with no progressive taxation proposal even on the table for consideration. Meanwhile, Rees can hardly veil her neo-liberal agenda for San Francisco government.”

Daly concluded by suggesting that HuffPo needs to  work harder to incorporate more truly progressive political voices. “If not, you’ll just become a rehash of SFGate, without their more significant rooting in our City,” he warns.

But he didn’t overtly mention HuffPo’s failure to pay its bloggers—a sore point that got a bunch of unpaid bloggers slapping HuffPo and with a $105 million class action suit earlier this year, after Arianna Huffington sold her website to for $315 million.

Asked if HuffPo was paying him for his posts, Daly replied, “Nope, I can’t recall ever getting paid for my writing.”

He also noted that Board President David Chiu, mayoral candidate and Sup. John Avalos and Rep. Nancy Pelosi have been invited to write for the online publication, though they don’t have any blog posts up yet. So stay tuned. 

In an emailed reply to Daly, HuffPo SF editor Carly Schwartz claimed that she “completely understands” the former bad-boy-on-the-Board’s concerns.

“But Huffington Post’s mission is to go ‘beyond left and right,’ and as such, we wanted to reflect a wide array of political philosophies in our blogger lineup. (As someone who identifies as a progressive personally, I was quite pleased to feature you second from the top!),” Schwartz wrote. “You’ll notice our national bloggers come from across the spectrum as well — we have everyone from Howard Dean to Andrew Breitbart. Our goal is to bring the voices of the city to life, whether they be progressive, conservative, controversial, or just middle of the road — we want to get our residents talking. Which we have successfully done, given your response!”

“You’ll also notice we have more featured bloggers to roll out from the political community in the coming days, from Dennis Herrera to John Avalos to David Chiu to Nancy Pelosi…we simply didn’t have room for everyone on our launch day,” Schwartz continued (potentially upsetting the mayoral candidate applecart with her decision to feature Daly before folks who are currently in office AND running for office this fall).

“As someone who very much identifies with the progressive community, I would be so thrilled if you could suggest some more progressive political personalities for our page,” Schwartz concluded. Oh, and she suggested that Daly fold his concerns into his next blog post…

Obama 2012 raises $86 million in small donations


The Obama 2012 campaign files its first financial report with the Federal Election Commission on Friday July 15. In an email to Obama supporters, the campaign noted that, “the Washington chatter around the report we’re releasing has focused on one number: the sum total we’ve raised.”

That number, as it turns out,  is more than $86 million, with 98 percent of the contributions coming in at $250 or less, with the average donation being $69, according to the Obama campaign.

”But other numbers that the pundits often ignore — like how many field offices we and the DNC have open, how many one-on-one conversations we’ve had with potential supporters, and how many people have already decided to own a piece of this campaign — tell the real story of our campaign,” Jim Messina, campaign manager for Obama for America, observed in an emailed statement.

According to a video the Obama campaign released today, they’ve had 31, 000 face-to-face conversations and 290,000 phone conversations with supporters. And they have already held 650 grassroots planning meetings and signed up 1,500 full-time volunteers.

”All those numbers are in the video, and they’re the ones you should be proud of today. Watch it now,” the Obama campaign suggests.

The campaign concludes by noting that, “our opponents won’t have hundreds of thousands of people giving whatever they can afford — so they’ll be relying heavily on money from two sources to fund an unprecedented barrage.”

These two sources, the campaign claims, are “Washington lobbyists and special interests whose explicit aim is to influence the federal government in any way they can,” and, “outside groups that don’t have to disclose a word about what they’ve raised or who they’ve raised it from, like one of Karl Rove’s political organizations. His groups have set an astounding $120 million fundraising goal in their campaign to tear down President Obama.”

The specter of Rove (aka the “boy genius” or “Turd Blossom” depending on your point of view) rising from the ashes like Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort isn’t exactly comforting (unless you believe that American politics are on a parallel track to the outcome of the Harry Potter 7: Part 2 movie, which opens this Friday.)

As the Obama campaign notes, “The threat to our success from these determined groups — acting solely in their own interest, not the public interest — is real, and it’s growing. And it’s going to take serious commitment and vigilance from all of us to withstand their attacks while still building the grassroots campaign we’ll need to win.”

Now I know plenty of people who are pissed off at Obama, because, yes we did kill Osama, and yes we didn’t withdraw all the troops from Afghanistan, etc. etc. But it feels as if the moment is already here in which regular folks need to remind themselves what life under a Republican administration with Rove’s hands on the wheel  was truly like. Unless, of course, you truly believe that life under Obama is just as bad. In which case, let’s hear about the realistic alternatives…

The way forward


Two days before President Obama announced his plan to begin withdrawing 33,000 troops from Afghanistan over the next 15 months, Peace Action West’s political director Rebecca Griffin delivered a box containing thousands of toy soldiers to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office in downtown San Francisco.

Tied to each soldier were handwritten messages that gave reasons for demanding a large and swift withdrawal. Many of the petitions came from folks whose loved ones are in the military or are veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Unlike most Democratic Party leaders, Feinstein has not demanded a significant draw-down of combat troops, despite polls showing that Americans increasingly support leaving Afghanistan, particularly after the killing of Osama bin Laden. There’s good reason for the public’s growing restlessness. This 10-year war has already surpassed Vietnam as the longest conflict in U.S. history.

According to the online database, 1,637 U.S. soldiers have died in Afghanistan and 4,463 soldiers have died in Iraq. Another 11,722 service members have been wounded in Afghanistan, and 32,100 in Iraq, primarily by improvised explosive devices. And that’s not counting the thousands who are suffering from depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and other ailments.

Griffin said her goal was to draw attention to the political organizing in support of ending the war. But even as she made her delivery, Feinstein was on MSNBC maintaining that draw-down decisions should be left to the military generals.

In the wake of President Obama’s June 22 announcement, which went way farther than the generals wanted, many of Feinstein’s colleagues such as Sen. Barbara Boxer and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the house minority leader, expressed disappointment that the pace of withdrawal isn’t quicker.

“I am glad this war is ending, but it’s ending at far too slow a pace,” Boxer said.

“We will continue to press for a better outcome,” Pelosi stated.

Rep. John Garamendi (D-Concord), who visited the troops over Memorial Day weekend, told us that a different strategy is needed. “Our troops are incredible, dedicated, and skilled. But every minute of every day, they are in a very dangerous situation, and many of them are dying. There is no recognition that we are caught in the middle of a five-way civil war.”

And Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) vowed to offer defense appropriations amendments to cut all funding for combat operations. “History shows there is no military solution in Afghanistan,” she said. “We’ve got to engage with the Taliban and engage with those in the region to find some stability.”

But where does Obama’s plan leave the peace movement as the election nears?

Griffin said activists should take credit for getting Obama to withdraw 33,000 troops rather than the smaller number his generals wanted. She sees his plan as a sign that activists need to keep pushing for more, including a concrete timeline for when he will bring all the troops home.

Under Obama’s plan, 68,000 troops will still be on the ground in September 2012, and 2014 is identified as the deadline for completing the transition to Afghan control and ending the U.S.’s combat mission.

“This means there’ll be a significant military presence in Afghanistan for at least another three-and-a-half years,” Griffin said. “By the end of Obama’s first term, the war will be 11 years old and there will be nearly double the American troops on the ground as there were when [George W.] Bush left office.”

Progressive activist and author Norman Solomon, who is running in the 2012 race to replace Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Marin County), noted that a recent New York Times’ headline read “Obama Opts for Faster Afghan Pullout.”

“But faster than what?” Solomon said, noting that “10,000 troops are only 10 percent of our force. This is a pattern we saw in Iraq, where the withdrawal was too slow and the numbers remaining doubled when you factored in all the private contractors.”

Solomon said that when Nixon pulled 500,000 troops from Vietnam in the late 1960s, the conflict actually increased in terms of the tonnage of weaponry used. “And the U.S. is now engaged in wars in Libya, Yemen, and a Pakistan air war.”

But longtime antiwar activist and former Democratic state legislator Tom Hayden saw a number of clues in Obama’s speech for how to push for a faster, bigger, more significant draw-down.

“Obama said 33,000 troops will be withdrawn by next summer, followed by a steady pace of withdrawal. So that gets you to 50,000 troops by the election, and all combat troops out by 2014,” Hayden told us. “If he could be pushed by the peace movement, that would break the back of the warmongers’ planning.”

In his speech, Obama noted that the U.S. will host a summit with our NATO allies and partners to shape the next phase of this transition next May in Chicago, where Obama’s former chief of staff is mayor.

“Get ready, Rahm Emanuel, for big demonstrations,” warned Hayden, who was a member of the Chicago Seven group tried for inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. “But do you imagine Obama would do that if he were going to escalate the war? No — he’s wrapping a ribbon of unity to transfer control to Afghanistan on a timetable.”

He also noted that Obama’s allies aren’t exactly pushing him to stay. “They may not have an exit strategy, but they are heading for the exits,” Hayden said. “So if you organize demonstrations with international support, that gives you an organizational opportunity in multiple governments to press Obama to leave.”

Hayden predicts that Obama is moving toward a diplomatic settlement, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that is pro withdrawal and pro women.

“But Obama’s got a genuine problem of his own making. He escalated the damn war,” Hayden said. “He doesn’t want the military to be attacking his plan. But if he wants to be in the center, he’s going to offend the generals.

Hayden noted that in his speech Obama said, “America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home.” It was a statement that sounded in line with a recent U.S. Conference of Mayors resolution calling on Congress “to bring these war dollars home to meet vital human needs, promote job creation, rebuild our infrastructure, aid municipal and state governments.”

But Richard Becker, western regional coordinator of the antiwar ANSWER Coalition, described Obama’s draw-down as “a minimal pledge.”

“Given the growing discontent with the war, it’s hard to see how you can claim that this is a step forward,” he told us.

Becker said it has been difficult to mobilize the antiwar movement under a Democratic administration. He also stressed the importance of people coming out in San Francisco for a “protest, march, and die-in” on Oct. 7, the 10th anniversary of the war, and for a major action in Washington. D.C., on Oct. 6. “What’s going to get the U.S. out is a combination of what’s going on in Afghanistan — and what kind of antiwar movement we have here.”

DREAM Act would reduce deficit, strengthen military…and perhaps save the world


Last December, when the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act came up five votes short in the Senate, advocates began to worry that this seemingly modest piece of immigration reform, which offers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth who do well in college and/or serve in the military would not be able to get the necessary votes, even with Barack Obama as President. Rahm Emanuel, who served as Obama’s Chief of Staff up until last October, was reportedly criticized by some for allegedly not doing enough to support immigration reform. And frustration was high, as the community was forced to petition U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) each and every time they heard that a well-performing student, with no criminal record, like Steve Li or Mandeep was about to be sent to a country that they barely knew–taking their education and knowledge of the United States with them.

But six months later, the DREAMers (undocumented students who want to serve their adopted country) are refusing to take “no” for an answer. (In December, Steve Li won a reprieve, and last week ICE decided not to deport Mandeep, who was voted in high school as “most likely to save the world.” ) And now Emanuel, who was sworn in as Chicago’s mayor in May, is raising his voice in support of the DREAM Act, which Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who has been fighting for immigration reform for more than a decade, is sponsoring. And they are hoping to turn the tide and get Republicans to vote for legislation they say will reduce the deficit, build up the military and perhaps, by not deporting young U.S. trained geniuses, even save the world.

“The DREAM Act is consistent and reinforces the values of citizenship,” Emanuel said during a June 27 telephone call with reporters on the eve of the U.S. Senate’s first-ever hearing on the DREAM, which Durbin will chair June 28. “Having a DREAM Act pass at the national level will help us reinforce the right type of values,” Emanuel continued, noting that Colin Powell, a retired four-star general who was Secretary of State under President G.W. Bush, and Obama’s retiring Sec. of Defense Robert Gates, both support Durbin’s bill

Rahm was joined by Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Margaret Stock, a former professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, in arguing that the DREAM Act will stimulate the economy and benefit themilitary, by allowing thousands of top-performing U.S.-educated youth to give back to their adopted country rather than face deportation to countries they barely remember, where they could fall victim of forces that don’t have America’s interests at heart.

As former head of Chicago Public Schools, Duncan said he met plenty of students who “happened not to be born in America” but had excelled in public schools, only to find the door slammed shut, when it was time to go to college. “We need to summon the courage and political will to do the right thing for our country,” he said.

Duncan pointed to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Vargas, whose story about his life as an undocumented immigrant was turned down by the Washington Post, before the New York Times magazine published it this weekend. “How many other Pulitzer Prize winners are there out there?” he asked.

And former West Point professor Margaret Stock explained that many of the DREAMers have great potential as military recruits, but are barred from enlisting, even though some of them try to anyway, under the current system.  “They are patriotic, honorable and want to serve the country,” Stock said.

Some of these potential recruits won’t qualify, because they have asthma or physical impairments, Stock noted. But she predicted that those that do, will do very well, based on a Pentagon study that showed that legal immigrants who enlist outperform U.S. citizens. And that, Stock added, could help fill the recruitment gap that is coming, as the economy recovers, and the U.S.-born population continues to age.

Records show that the military hasn’t had any difficulty meeting its goals since the economy tanked, a few years ago. But Stock predicted that the U.S. Armed Forces will face a difficult recruitment climate, as the recession ends. Unless the DREAM Act, which would dramatically enlarge the number of potential military recruits, passes.  “It would allow us to tap into a pool of homegrown talent that is highly motivated to join,” she said.

Asked what the point of the June 28 hearing is, given that the Republican votes for the DREAM Act still don’t seem to be there, Secretary Duncan, who will testify June 28 on behalf of the DREAM Act with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, and Clifford Stanley, the Pentagon Undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness, replied,” to continue to raise awareness and build a groundswell of support.”

“I don’t think anyone has given up hope that we can do the right thing,” Stock added. “What may have changed is the serious talk about reducing the debt. “
According to a December 2010 Congressional Budget Office report, enacting the DREAM Act would save an estimated $1.3 billion over the next ten years. Supporters say that in addition to helping the military, the legislation would help fill 3 million job vacancies in the fields of stem cell, science and mathematics.
And as Stock pointed out, it makes no sense to deport large numbers of U.S. educated youth to foreign countries, where they risk being recruited to work for foreign governments against the U.S.’s best interests.

Asked whether new military recruits are really needed, now that Obama has announced a troop draw down in Afghanistan, Stock said that taking troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq doesn’t really reduce the global situation. “We constantly face crises in which we need the intervention of the U.S. military,” Stock said.

“We’re not turning into an era of full peace, and we expect to see a ten percent decline in pool of eligible recruits,” she said, noting that 35 percent of the U.S. citizens who sign up for the military fail medical fitness tests, another 18 percent fail because of drug and alcohol abuse, and 5 percent have criminal conduct problems.

“So, a crisis is coming, even with the draw down,” Stock continued, noting that the population of legal green card holders remains “relatively flat” even as the numbers of those who are legally here but can’t get a green card, and the numbers of those without documents but willing to serve, grows.

Stock noted that when you deport young people to countries they barely know and where they have no social safety net, they are in danger of being recruited by folks who might be at cross purposes with the United States. “The rise of MS-13 is directly related to our deportations to Central America,” Stock said. “The gang became their social network.”

Stock acknowledged that DREAM Act eligible students are “highly educated, high quality Americanized people,” and aren’t likely to become members of a gang. But they could be of interest to foreign militaries and intelligence organizations, she warned.

Asked how many non-citizens who are in the U.S. legally enlist in the military each year, Stock said about 9,000 non-citizens. But she noted that while documented non-citizens can join the military, they are however barred from becoming officers or attending West Point. “Most jobs are not open to them,” she said.  In other words, the DREAM Act doesn’t change the military’s requirements. But it would allow a much bigger number of non-citizens to join the military and eventually become citizens, which, in turn, would open more doors to them in the military, too.

And so ended the press conference ahead of Tuesday’s first-ever Senate hearing on the DREAM Act, which reportedly is being held in a large hearing room to accommodate at least 200 student supporters, including the daughter of a family of Albanian immigrants who was valedictorian of her Michigan high school class and is currently fighting deportation.

“These are young people who have that kind of exciting look in their eyes that they want to be part of the world,” Durbin, whose mother was a Lithuanian immigrant, recently said. “But they can’t make that first move toward the life that they want to live because they are undocumented.”

Predictably, the DREAM Act is being used as a recruiting tool for conservative groups, who argue that the DREAM is tantamount to amnesty for folks whose parents broke the law. These groups are already battling state-level Dream Act legislation in Maryland, which does not provide a pathway to citizenship but provides in-state tuition for qualified undocumented students. But a poll from Opinion Research Corporation in June 2010 found that 70 percent of likely voters support the DREAM, including 60 percent of Republican likely voters.

With the next election already looming, DREAMers aren’t likely to let up the pressure any time soon…so this could be an interesting political ride. Let’s hope it ends well for all the young people who are currently stuck in the middle of this Catch 22-like situation.

Civil Grand Jury slams shipyard development project


“The Civil Grand Jury concludes that the Hunter’s Point Shipyard redevelopment project will require more communication, more transparency, and more commitment from the City in order to achieve its goals of providing housing, jobs and economic development, tax revenue and open spaces to San Francisco and its residents, particularly those residing in the surrounding neighborhoods.”

So reads the conclusion of the Civil Grand Jury’s 2010-2011 report, which is titled, “Hunters Point Shipyard: a shifting landscape.” The report makes six findings and seven recommendation that city departments and the Board will have to respond to within the next 60-90 days. And some of these recommendations reflect problems the Guardian unearthed and highlighted during in its coverage of the development.

The jury found that the San Francisco Department of Public Health (SFDPH) is not in compliance with its pledge to the California Department of Public Health to keep residents informed of developments at the Hunters Point Shipyard. As the report’s authors note, the SFDPH’s website “is not regularly updated.”

The jury also found that the City has placed itself in a potentially compromising situation with developer Lennar where in essence, “the wolf is paying the shepherd to guard the flock.”

The jury further noted that by having developer Lennar reimburse the city for monitoring expenses associated with the shipyard project, SFDPH has created a situation that “could raise doubt in the public’s mind about its commitment to proactively and impartially enforce environmental health regulations even when it might adversely impact Lennar.”

Public trust in the SFPDH has been further jeopardized by its failure to update its website in a timely manner, and its apparent reluctance to comment publicly on the best method to deal with the clean-up of Parcel E-2, which is the site of a former dump and deemed one of the most polluted parcels of land on the shipyard.

The jury found that the above concerns were “further reinforced by the recent release of email messages that purportedly showed inappropriate communications between senior officials at the SFDPH and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Lennar.”

The jury found that with the exception of Parcel A, the City has no legal control over the remaining shipyard property. “Consequently, in a technical sense, the City has no authority over matters dealing with deadlines and deliverables for environmental clean-up. However, the City does in fact have some standing in these matters via the 2004 conveyance agreement between the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency (SFRA) and the Navy. The agreement stipulates that the Navy will work collaboratively with the SFRA and share information about cleanup work.”

Last but not least, the jury found the previous efforts by the City to implement workforce policies at city-funded construction projects such as the shipyard have “largely proved ineffective” as they only require contractors to make good-faith efforts, but that earlier this year, a new local hire ordinance was implemented with stricter requirements and mandates.

Based on these findings, the jury recommended that SFDPH needs to update its shipyard project website on a weekly or monthly basis, immediately stop accepting money from Lennar to pay for monitors at the shipyard and cover the costs from its own resources, rigorously enforce conflict of interest guidelines governing deals between its officials and the companies they are monitoring, and conduct its own environmental assessment of the issue of capping Parcel E-2 and make its findings available to the public for comment.

The jury also recommended that because the Navy still owns the majority of the shipyard land and therefore the city has no direct control over deadlines and deliverables, it is critical that the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and SFDPH be “particularly vigilant in monitoring clean-up activities at the shipyard.”

The jury further recommended that the City and the SFRA should have “contingency plans in place” for continuing Redevelopment-related projects, including the shipyard, “in the event State redevelopment plans are cut or eliminated.”

Last but not least, the jury recommended that to ensure that promised job creation goals for the shipyard are realized, “the City should ensure that the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement has sufficient resources to allow it to effectively enforce the provisions of the new workforce laws.”

According to the conditions of the Civil Grand Jury’s report, for each finding the responding parties must report if the recommendation has been implemented or not, whether it requires further analysis, or was not implemented because it is either unwarranted or not reasonable.

So, expect to see some fireworks in the coming weeks, given that the Mayor’s Office, the Board, the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, SFDPH, the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, the Redevelopment Agency and the BAAQMD have been named as the responding parties in this report…

Radon gas is a leading cause of cancer


Remember how we were all freaking out a few months ago about radiation, in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan that led to releases of radioactive material from Japan’s stricken Fukushiima Daiichi nuclear plant? Well, now comes news that the leading cause of non-smoking lung cancer in the United States is radon gas, a radioactive gas that comes from the natural decay of uranium found in nearly all soils. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which says radon gas leads to an estimated 21,000 deaths each year, apparently wants to help you test for it in your home.Typically, radon moves up through the ground to the air above and into people’s home through cracks and other holes in the foundation. In other words, your home can end up trapping and building up radon inside. This can happen in new and old homes, well-sealed and drafty homes, and homes with or without basements. And Sometimes radon can enter your home through well water, and occasionally building materials give off radon, too.

So, now U.S. EPA has announced a plan, which includes strategies to reach low-income families, many of whom, as the feds note, “do not have the resources to make the simple fixes necessary to protect their homes and loved ones.”

“With nearly one in 15 homes affected by elevated levels of radon and thousands dying each year from radon-induced cancer, it’s time to step up our actions in the federal government,” EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said. “Through the Federal Radon Action Plan, we’re working with partner agencies to raise awareness about the threat of radon in our homes and to take steps to mitigate this hazard. Together our efforts will help reduce radon exposure and make our homes, schools and communities healthier places to live, learn, work and play.”

To learn more, check out the fed’s Radon Plan website, or call 1-800-SOS-RADON.

Suhr sounds open to Portland-style FBI terrorism taskforce resolution


When the Guardian sat down with SFPD Chief Greg Suhr last week, it was shortly after the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Julius Turman as the next Police Commissioner. Turman’s appointment means the Commission, which provides civilian oversight of SFPD’s policies and procedures, now has seven members, once again, and thus can get on with addressing important outstanding issues, including what to do about the FBI’s hitherto secret agreement around SFPD officers assigned to the FBI’s terrorism taskforce.

At issue is an agreement with the FBI that then SFPD Chief Heather Fong signed in March 2007, but the Police Commission never reviewed. Further complicating the issue is the fact that in December 2008, the FBI introduced looser surveillance guidelines that appear to clash head-on with SFPD’s tighter surveillance policies, which require reasonable suspicion before any spying can be approved.

During Suhr’s first few weeks as Chief, the Police Commission and the Human Rights Commission held a joint hearing on the FBI’s hitherto secret agreement with the SFPD. And during that meeting, Suhr introduced a new bureau order which clarified that, under Suhr’s command, SFPD surveillance policies trump the FBI guidelines.

But civil rights advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Asian Law Caucus, continued to raise concerns. And evidently Suhr has listened to them. During our interview, Suhr told me that he met with ACLU’s John Crew, and Crew explained that Suhr’s new bureau order is only a temporary solution.

“It’s only a remedy as long as I am Chief,” Suhr explained, noting that the ACLU wants to sit down and review the matter and see if there is a way to tighten any loopholes,

“And if we can’t reach accord with the FBI, then we’ll talk about how to move forward with a Portland-style resolution,” Suhr said, referring to a recent decision by the Portland city council in Oregon not to sign the FBI’s agreement, and instead draft its own resolution to better define the terms and conditions under which local officers can participate in the FBI-led joint terrorism taskforce.

Asked what he thought about the FBI’s decision not to send a representative to address community concerns at the joint hearing of the San Francisco Police Commission and Human Rights Commission, Suhr replied, “I don’t think they [the FBI] thought it would be productive,” adding that his talks with Stephanie Douglas, the FBI Special Agent in charge of the terrorism taskforce, have been very “productive” so far.


Will another DREAMer be deported, despite ICE’s S-Comm reforms?


Last week, ICE announced reforms to its controversial Secure Communities program. Civil rights advocates denounced these changes as window dressing, and the Guardian broke the news about S-Comm’s importance to the FBI’s Next Generation Identification (NGI) initiative, which appears to be using S-Comm on undocumented folks to secure support for a fingerprint dragnet to cover a much broader segment of the population than undocumented immigrants. But now, even before folks have had a chance to fully process the potential civil liberties impacts of the FBI’s NGI’s initiative, comes word that Mandeep, a DREAM Act honors pre-med student at UC Davis, who was once voted “most likely to save the world” by her peers at Los Altos High in Mountain View, could be deported to India on Wednesday.

Mandeep is pursuing a degree in Neurology, Physiology, and Behavior at UC Davis. But she is undocumented, and thanks to Congress’ failure to pass the DREAM Act last year, she now faces deportation to a country she barely knows. Immigrant rights advocates note that it was only a  month ago that President Obama spoke about the importance of providing a path to citizenship for students like Mandeep.

“We should stop punishing innocent young people for the actions of their parents,” Obama said. “We should stop denying them the chance to earn an education or serve in the military.”

They note that Obama has authority to grant administrative relief, which would make qualified DREAM Act youth safe from deportation, but that he has said he can’t use his executive authority in that way. So they’ve been sounding the alarm about Mandeep’s plight by faxing government officials about her situation.

But weren’t ICE’s newly announced S-Comm reforms supposed to provide relief for students like Mandeep?

Immigrant rights advocates say they are concerned that the reforms may not have much real impact on Mandeep because they rely on advocates and attorneys to get attention on individual cases. They note that Mandeep and her mother turned themselves into ICE this morning because they are scheduled to be deported tonight at 1am. And that ICE released them. But it is not clear what will happen next….

Meanwhile, ICE today announced the results of a seven-day targeted “Cross Check” enforcement operation that led to the arrest of more than “2,400 convicted criminal aliens and immigration fugitives” in May, as part of its promise to focus S-Comm resources on undocumented residents who have also broken criminal laws.

“The results of this operation underscore ICE’s ongoing focus on arresting those convicted criminal aliens who prey upon our communities, and tracking down fugitives who game our nation’s immigration system,” ICE Director John Morton said. “This targeted enforcement operation is a direct result of excellent teamwork among law enforcement agencies who share a commitment to protect public safety.”

ICE notes that everyone taken into custody as part of this latest sweep had prior convictions for crimes such as armed robbery, drug trafficking, child abuse, sexual crimes against minors, aggravated assault, theft, forgery and DUI. ICE also noted that 22 percent of the individuals were immigration fugitives-convicted criminal aliens with outstanding orders of deportation who failed to leave the country.

ICE says it conducted its first successful Cross Check operation in December 2009,  and has since conducted similar operations in 37 states, but that this seven-day operation, was the largest of its kind, and involved the collaboration of more than 500 ICE agents and officers, and coordination with the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, and ICE’s state and local law enforcement partners throughout the United States.

Arrestees included a 32-year-old man residing in Amesbury, Mass., from the Dominican Republic, who is a registered sex offender convicted of assault, battery on a household member, indecent assault, battery on a child, and leaving the scene/person injured; a 51-year-old man residing in Denver, Colo. from Libya convicted of first degree sexual assault against a child and assault domestic violence; a 38-year-old man residing in Orlando, Fla. from the Philippines convicted of battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting officer with violence, reckless driving and refusal to submit to blood/urine test; andaA 37-year-old residing in North Hills, Calif. from Mexico convicted of aggravated felony sex crime and rape of an unconscious victim. He was also identified as re-entering the United States after deportation. He will be removed following prosecution for illegal re-entry after deportation; and a 47-year-old man residing in Magnolia, Texas from Mexico convicted of injury to a child with intent to cause bodily injury, burglary, marijuana possession, driving while license suspended and indecency with a child by sexual contact.

“ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes efforts first on removing those serious criminal aliens who present the greatest risk to the security of our communities, such as those charged with or convicted of homicide, rape, robbery, kidnapping, major drug offenses and threats to national security. ICE also prioritizes the arrest and removal of those who game the immigration system including immigration fugitives or those criminal aliens who have been previously deported and illegally re-entered the country, “ ICE stated.

Hmm. It sure sounds like Mandeep doesn’t fit ICE’s criminal alien profile or priorities any more…

Feinstein gets box of toy soldiers, as Obama prepares to announce troop draw down


As Obama prepares to announce a troop drawdown this week, Peace Action West’s political director Rebecca Griffin delivered a box of thousands of toy soldiers, each attached to a petition for a swift withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan, to Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco office on Monday afternoon. Unlike many Democratic senators, Feinstein has not publicly demanded a rapid drawdown.

Griffin said the goal of collecting the messages, attaching them to toy soldiers and delivering them to Feinstein was to draw attention to the organizing that is happening to end the war, which reportedly is costing $2 billion a week. Many of the messages attached to the soldiers came from folks with family in the military.

A representative from Feinstein’s office accepted the delivery in the foyer of the Post Street building where Feinstein’s office is located. But Feinstein continues to support deferring draw down timetables to Gen. David Petraeus, based on comments she made on MSNBC that her press secretary Tom Mentzer referred the Guardian to on Monday, when we asked if Feinstein supports a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Asked by MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, what Obama should do, perhaps this week, when he makes a decision as to how quickly to draw down, Feinstein said Monday that she had had a brief discussion with Petraeus. [Obama nominated Petraeus last June to succeed General Stanley McChrystal, after McChrystal was fired for comments he made to Rolling Stone magazine, which included dismissing the counter terrorism strategy that Vice President Joe Biden was advocating as “shortsighted,” saying it would lead to a state of “Chaos-istan” and showing a lack of respect for civilian leadership. Petraeus intends to retire in September, and Obama plans to nominate him as the next CIA director.]

“What General Petraeus said is, ‘Look, I will give him several options. I may make a recommendation. And then the President will decide,’” Feinstein told MSNBC. “My own view is that this right now is a primarily—should be a military decision.”

Feinstein noted that she is bothered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s reaction. [Presumably, Feinstein was referring to comments Karzai made on the weekend, when he stated that the Nato-led coalition forces are “here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that.” Last month, Karzai threatened to denounce the coalition as occupiers if they did not stop attacks on Afghan homes, after an airstrike killed civilians, many of them children.]

“I’m really very bothered by President Karzai’s reaction to it,” Feinstein told MSNBC. “That is negative to our troops over there. You know, our people have died essentially so that his country might be secure. I think this is a real problem: to have a President of a country that you are trying to help to stabilize, to get rid of al Qaeda, to see the Taliban doesn’t take over the country, and to receive a comment like that from the President of the country. But I think the President will make a decision—we can all guess, but none of us really know—to begin removing the troops. How big, I can’t say.”

Feinstein’s comments came shortly after Obama’s Sec of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that the U.S is negotiating with the Taliban—an acknowledgement that only came after President Karzai publicly said that the US is in talks with the Taliban.

Asked if she’d like to see a more rapid withdrawal than the 5,000 troops originally suggested, and if she thought with Osama bin Laden’s recent death, and with al Qaeda diminished in Afghanistan, there’s a justification to begin drawing down more rapidly, Feinstein said, “There is a justification,” but she left viewers with a question.

“I don’t want to see what has been a turnaround, in the words of Petraeus, ‘still fragile’ destroyed,” Feinstein said. “I think there have been major inroads made in Afghanistan. Particularly in the south and now the plan is to go east. So that to me is the crux of the decision. How do you begin a significant rollback of troops without destroying the forward momentum that has been made by the surge?”

It’s been 18 months since Obama first ordered a surge of 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. And even if he withdraws the surge, there would still be about 70,000 American troops on the ground. And according to the Department of Defense’s website, there are currently 1.425 million active service members in the U.S. military.

Those statistics brings us back to Peace Action West’s Rebecca Grifffin, who noted during Monday’s action that because there is no draft, there is more of a disconnect from and less of an outcry about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, then there was about Vietnam. “Because there is no longer a draft, the public is not as touched, as they were by Vietnam,” she said.

As of Dec. 2010, there were 103,700 coalition soldiers in Afghanistan, according to DoD numbers. This means Obama has sent an additional 72,300 soldiers to Afghanistan since Dec. 2008, when Bush left office. Obama has significantly reduced troop levels in Iraq—drawing down their numbers from 178,300 in Dec. 2008 to 85,600 in Dec. 2010—but though there is a large military presence still in place, folks are fretting about the safety of those remaining troops as they try to pack up and leave Iraq in the coming years.

So far, there have been 4,408 military deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom, which began March 19, 2003, 36 military deaths in Iraq’s Operation New Dawn, which began Sept. 1, 2010, and 1,590 deaths in Afghanistan’s Operation Enduring Freedom, which began Oct. 7, 2001.

That’s 6.034 deaths in total–a huge loss in terms of the families and communities that have been impacted by these soldiers’ deaths.

And then there are the 11,722 soldiers who were wounded in Afghanistan, the 31, 928, wounded in Operation Iraqi Freedom and the 172 wounded in Iraq’s Operation New Dawn, And that’s not factoring in the impact and cost of dealing—and not dealing–with post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 50,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars received a new PTSD diagnosis between 2002 and 2008, but fewer than 10-30 percent, particularly under 25-year-old males, completed a course of treatment sessions.

So, members of Congress are increasingly hearing from their constituents about the impacts of soldiers who were killed, maimed and/or are suffering from PTSD, especially as the recession threatens to translates into cuts to benefits and programs for veterans. And following the May 1 U.S. raid that led to Osama bin Laden being killed in Pakistan, there has been a big uptick in congressional support for a withdrawal, according to Griffin who spends a fair amount of time in Washington, D.C.

“A lot of people are using the raid as their starting point,’ Griffin said, pointing to the House of Representatives May 26 vote, where a measure which would have required Obama to develop an exit strategy for the war in Afghanistan with a clear end date and report back to Congress, only narrowly failed, winning 42 more votes than a similar amendment last year, and with a score of Republicans siding with the Democrats.

And in mid- June 16, a bipartisan group of senators wrote Obama, urging him to use his self-imposed July troop draw down deadline as an opportunity to begin a “sizable and sustained” draw down of troops that puts the U.S. on a path toward removing all regular combat troops from the country. But while a third of the Senate spoke out in that letter, and its signatories included Dem leaders Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, and Barbara Boxer, and a host of moderate Democrats and Republicans, it did not include Feinstein.

U.S. military officials have voiced concern that a rapid withdrawal of troops could undercut gains in southern Afghanistan, a traditional Taliban stronghold. And Feinstein certainly seems to share those worries. “It took 10 years and for the first time we now have a turnaround,” Feinstein, who is the Chair of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee, told reporters earlier this month. “I would like to not telescope what we are going to do; wait and see a little bit more about what happens. I think it’s important candidly to keep all our options open.”

In face of comments like this, Griffin and Peace Action West’s field organizers have spent the last two months collecting toy soldiers and messages to attach to them, with the help of an online outreach effort that they launched in May.“Part of it is to create a physical reminder of the public’s opposition to war. People talk about wanting their family members to come home, Griffin said, pointing to the handwritten messages that are attached to each toy soldiers. “Some politicians are saying, ‘Give them a little more time.’ But the casualties are going up each month, and last month was the deadliest for Afghan civilians on record. So, while Defense Secretary Gates, who is very invested in his counter insurgent strategy, is doing his farewell tour, the troops are asking, do we get to come home sooner because Osama bin Laden is dead?”

Griffin observed that DoD statistics show that double and triple amputations due to IEDs (improvised explosive devices) have increased, and that PTSD levels continue to rise as veterans return, yet it’s not clear that at-risk veterans are getting the help they need.

“There’s been a perception shift about Afghanistan,” Griffin continued, noting that it’s been going on for almost a decade, and that pressure from the public and Congress will make it more difficult for Obama to not follow suit.

But while Griffin is clearly against the war in Afghanistan, she believes there are alternative ways for the U.S. to be productively engaged. These include playing a role in regional diplomacy with Iran, Russia and Iraq, helping facilitate political negotiations with Afghan, and partnering with the Afghan people on development projects that help.

“But that does not include giving money to the military to build stuff because then it becomes a Taliban target,” Griffin explained.

Noting that Sen. Boxer has suggested drawing down the troops by 30,000 and Congressmember Barbara Lee has advocated reducing the troops by 50,000, Griffin believes that Obama’s July decision is very important in terms of setting the debate about when we are going to get out of Afghanistan entirely.

‘Will it be 2014, or much longer?” Griffin asked.

She believes the coming election season will help tip the balance, especially since recent polls show the American public supports a troop withdrawal, especially in the wake of the Osama raid. “But if there aren’t strong actions, it will fester and will risk getting bogged down,” she said, warning folks that they also focus on making sure that reduced military budgets don’t translate into cuts to veterans benefits and pay. “

A lot of people who are uncomfortable with what’s going on, don’t know what to do,” Griffin said, explaining that she is looking for people who want to end the war, and is urging them to visit Peace Action West’s website to learn about things that they can do,that they feel comfortable with. “We want people to know that even though it might seem hopeless, there’s a lot they can do.”

And with that Griffin shared with me a list of some of the reasons Californians gave when asked why they want to end the war:

“My nephew wants to come home.”

“I want my friend to be able to raise his son.”

“My ex-boyfriend never came back alive from Iraq. He was even against the war. And America is generally unhappy (to be mild) about our ‘fight’ still going on.”

“I want my legs back.”

“I have a good friend who is just back from Afghanistan and is suffering from PTSD. He is 22 years old. Stop doing this to young people.”

“If we can’t afford Medicare, then we can’t afford bombs.”

“Because my brother has been deployed several times and he has a family at home.”

“Stop because my son is in there for six years.”

“My brother has been to Iraq three times. The first time he was in the army for six months. We train football players longer than that.”

“My 21-year-old grandson was just sent with his army unit to the front lines in Afghanistan. Every day we wonder if he will come home alive and uninjured. And for what? Why does the U.S. have to police the entire world?”

All good questions and reasons as Obama prepares to tell the nation how many soldiers he plans to withdraw in July–and when the rest of them and their families can expect to see them come home….

Civil rights advocates say S-Comm reforms are spin, part of bigger FBI biometric tracking plan


In face of mounting criticism nationwide, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced today changes to its Secure Communities (S-Comm) deportation program. These changes include protections for domestic violence victims, and immigrants who are pursuing legitimate civil liberties protections. They give more discretion to ICE prosecutors, create a new detainer form that stipulates in multiple languages that arrestees cannot be detained under an ICE hold for more than 48 hours, except on holiday weekends. The form also requires local law enforcement to provide arrestees with a copy, which has a number to call if they believe their civil rights have been violated. The agency also said it will provide civil rights training related to its S-Comm program at the state and local level.

Immigrant and civil rights advocates said the announcement shows that the administration acknowledges that there are serious problems with S-Comm’s design and implementation. But they charged that the announced reforms fall far short of the S-Comm moratorium that an increasing number of advocates and lawmakers, including California Assemblymember Tom Ammiano, have demanded.

And some advocates expressed concern that the feds’ insistence on expanding S-Comm, in which fingerprints taken by local law enforcement agencies are automatically shared with federal and international databases, is proof that the program is the first step towards rolling out a much larger program called the Next Generation Identification (NGI) initiative.

Under the NGI, the FBI plans to phase-in the deployment of a host of new biometric interoperability capabilities to state and local law enforcement agencies within the next five years. And NGI likely won’t be limited to non-citizens and undocumented immigrants, suggesting that US citizens charged with a crime will also find that once their fingerprints are taken, law enforcement agencies will immediately compile a huge and internationally interconnected dossier on them, regardless of whether they are innocent of the charges.

Civil rights advocates also worry that local enforcement agencies’ participation in S-Comm will become inevitable because S-Comm is simply the first of a number of biometric interoperability systems being brought online by the NGI.
In other words, S-Comm is just the first of many additional information systems that are being made available to local law enforcement agencies to fully and accurately identify suspects in their custody.

And, according to the FBI/CJIS’s own documents, the feds have adopted a three-part strategy to deal with jurisdictions that do not wish to participate:
1.    Deploy S-Comm to as many places as possible in the surrounding locale, creating a “ring of interoperability” around the resistant site.
2.    Deploy S-Comm selectively to state correctional system facilities, permitting identification of Level 1 offenders who may have been arrested and sentenced in the non-participating jurisdiction,
3.    Ensure that the jurisdiction understands that non-participation does not equate to non-deployment.
In other words, though a local law enforcement agency is technically free to shut off, or ignore, the receipt of records related to the fed’s fingerprint-matching capabilities, the feds are already warning local law enforcement agencies that local officers may find themselves “deprived of substantive information relating to an arrested subject’s true identity, place of origin, and other pertinent data of significant law enforcement value.”

Ammiano, who is the author of California’s TRUST Act, which would allow local governments to opt out of S-Comm, said: “Today’s announcement by ICE is simply window dressing. How many more innocent people have to be swept up by the ironically named Secure Communities program before the Obama administration will change course? Talking about the need for comprehensive immigration reform is not an excuse for continuing with a flawed, unjust program that is having tragic consequences for communities across the country. It is time for a moratorium on S-Comm pending a real review of the program not just PR spin from ICE.”

Professor Bill Ong Hing, immigration law expert at the University of San Francisco, stated, “The fact is, under our Constitution, immigration is a federal responsibility. Neither a state like Arizona, nor the federal government itself, can force local governments to act as immigration agents. Such measures compound the injustices of our deeply broken immigration system – and public safety and local resources are among the first casualties.”

And the Asian Law Caucus, the ACLU of California, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, the California Immigrant Policy Center, and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network released the following joint statement:  “We are deeply disappointed by the inadequacy of the Administration’s response to the mounting body of evidence that the ‘Secure’ Communities program is damaging public safety and ensnaring community members. The painful stories of domestic violence victims and other innocent community members facing deportation thanks to S-Comm underscore that the program has simply gone off the rails. While today’s announcement acknowledges that problems exist with the program, the measures outlined by the Administration are a far cry from workable solutions these problems. To announce “reform” before review is an exercise in politics, not policy. The administration should suspend the program and wait for the Inspector General report in order to develop fair and transparent policies.” 

“Before vital relationships between local law enforcement and immigrant communities are furthered damaged, before more domestic violence victims, street vendors, family members, and workers who are merely striving for the American dream are swept up for deportation, S-Comm must be reigned in,” the coalition continued. “For the sake of public safety and transparency, we need real solutions. We strongly support California’s TRUST Act, which sets safeguards the federal government has failed to implement and allows local governments out of S-Comm, and we continue to call for a national moratorium on this fundamentally flawed program.”

In recent weeks, Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts, have either pulled out or refused participation in the program while numerous local governments have sought a way out of a deportation dragnet that harms public safety and has operated with no transparency or local oversight. And Ammiano’s TRUST Act, which also sets basic standards for those jurisdictions that do want to participate in S-Comm passed the state Assembly in May and the Senate Public Safety Committee this week.

During today’s press conference, ICE Director John Morton told reporters that “it makes sense to prioritize resources. We don’t have enough resources to remove everyone who is here unlawfully.”

But when the Guardian asked if the reforms address the community criticisms that S-Comm was rolled out as a way to catch serious criminals, but has been largely used to deport non-felons, Morton maintained the S-Comm has always focused on serious criminal offenders, but was never limited to that.
“We remove felony offenders at a higher rate than are convicted in the general population,” he stated. ‘But federal law does not provide that you can come here unlawfully and then commit crimes other than violent crimes.”

True, but local law enforcement agencies have repeatedly observed that you break vital trust with immigrant communities if they believe that contact with police, including  being arrested for crimes they did not actually commit, or arrests for very low-level misdemeanors, will lead to deportation.

“This feels like a non-announcement, and it’s far from reform,” said B, Loewe of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network. “You don’t put a collar around a snake and call it a pet.”

And SF Police Commissioner Angela Chan, a staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, said the reason ICE and the FBI, “are so crazy for S-Comm is because it’s the first step in a much bigger loop that will include citizens and non-citizens alike.”

NDLON and the Asian Law Caucus are part of the coalition that is calling on the Obama administration to publicly oppose and terminate all programs that create partnerships between state and local law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security; halt the development of the vast data gathering infrastructure that houses S-Comm, and inform the public of the current scope and purpose of its data collection and dissemination activities; and allow state and local jurisdictions to opt-out of S-Comm.

After today’s press conference, ICE issued a press release stating that through April 30, 2011, more than 77,000 immigrants convicted of crimes, including more than 28,000 convicted of aggravated felony (Level 1) offenses like murder, rape and the sexual abuse of children were removed from the U.S. after identification through S-Comm.

“These removals significantly contributed to a 71 percent increase in the overall percentage of convicted criminals removed by ICE, with 81,000 more criminal removals in FY 2010 than in FY 2008,” ICE stated. “As a result of the increased focus on criminals, this period also included a 23% reduction or 57,000 fewer non-criminal removals.

ICE also observed that the agency currently receives an annual congressional appropriation that is only sufficient to remove a limited number of the more than 10 million individuals estimated to be in the U.S. unlawfully. “As S-Comm is continuing to grow each year, and is currently on track to be implemented nationwide by 2013, refining the program will enable ICE to focus its limited resources on the most serious criminals across the country,” ICE stated.

ICE further noted that it is creating a new advisory committee that will advise ICE on ways to improve S-Comm, including recommending on how to best focus on individuals who pose a true public safety or national security threat.  This panel will be composed of chiefs of police, sheriffs, state and local prosecutors, court officials, ICE agents from the field and community and immigration advocates.  The first report of this advisory committee will be delivered to the Director of ICE within 45 days.

ICE Director Morton also issued a new memo that directs the exercise of prosecutorial discretion to ensure that victims of and witnesses to crimes are properly protected. The memo clarifies that the exercise of discretion is inappropriate in cases involving threats to public safety, national security and other agency priorities.

And ICE and the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) have created an ongoing quarterly statistical review of the program to examine data for each jurisdiction where S-Comm is activated to identify effectiveness and any indications of potentially improper use of the program. “Statistical outliers in local jurisdictions will be subject to an in-depth analysis and DHS and ICE will take appropriate steps to resolve any issues,” ICE stated.

Candidates land punches in first D.A. debate


District Attorney and former SFPD Chief George Gascón, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Sharmin Bock, and former San Francisco Police Commissioner David Onek all landed solid punches during a three-way District Attorney debate that was co-hosted by the San Francisco Young Democrats and the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, and moderated by Recorder editor Scott Graham. The primary sponsor of the debate was the City Democratic Club, according to CDC President Jim Reilly. So, thanks CDC for helping to pull off a great event.

The debate was framed as a choice between Bock, a veteran prosecutor with leadership experience, Gascón, a career cop with managerial experience, and Onek, a former San Francisco Police Commissioner and criminal justice reform expert. And above all it proved that if you lock three attorneys in the same room and pit them in a three-way fight, you’ll be rewarded with a blood sport spectacle.

Bock kicked off by noting that there are many similarities between the three candidates—except when it comes to independence and experience “Experience matters,” Bock said, throwing a one-two punch at Gascón and Onek. “The job of the District Attorney is not a management job, a police job or a job for someone with just a law degree. It needs a veteran prosecutor,” she said—remarks that resonated well with the crowd, judging from the applause.

But after a few niceties, Gascón shot right back at Bock and Onek. “I am the only one who has led large organizations and pushed public policy forward in an effective manner,” he said.

And Gascón struck a home run when he revealed that when he took the job of Chief of Police in Mesa, Arizona, he was “facing one of the most toxic environments” in terms of hatred towards people of color and the LGBT community–and that he did something about it, by standing up to anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, and protecting the local LGBT community’s right to protest.

When it was his turn to speak, Onek fired off his own rounds at Bock and Gascón, noting that the state’s criminal justice system is broken—and claiming that it will take an outsider to fix it.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform the criminal justice system,” Onek said, laying out his reform-minded track record.

And then he stuck it to both Bock and Gascón by stating that the death penalty does not work. “I will never seek it in San Francisco under any circumstances,” Onek said, earning excited applause, as he noted that he’ll look at all policy question through the prism of three questions: ‘Does it make us safer, is it cost effective and is it fair and equitable?”

Onek also noted that neither the Supreme Court’s ruling that California must reduce its prison population by 30,000, nor Gov. Jerry Brown’s call for prisoner realignment, come with any money.
‘That’s a disaster,” observed Onek, as he stressed the need to demand resources to help deal with the upcoming load of prisoners that about to return to San Francisco.

Gascón fielded questions about whether they are enough people of color and LGBT background in management in the D.A.’s Office. “Well, I think there’s definitely always room for improvement in any organization,” he said, noting that he has a history in the Los Angeles Police Department, the Mesa, Arizona Police Department and the SFPD, “of pushing very aggressively to have diversity within the office.”
But he started a bit of a buzz when he said it was “really a surprise to me that I promoted the first male, black, police captain to the San Francisco Police Department.”
“You would think that there have been, you know, male African-Americans in that department for many years. It was hard for me to believe that actually in 2009 we had not had one,”  Gascón continued, a remark that got some debate observers asking afterwards, if this meant that Gascón really did not know that former SFPD Chief Earl Sanders was a black male.

Meanwhile, Bock was happily trampling all over the sit-lie legislation that then SFPD Chief Gascón and Mayor Newsom backed last fall, as she noted that more foot patrols and community policy are what’s actually needed. “Political hot-button measures don’t work,” Bock said. “Both sides agree it hasn’t worked. It’s the wrong response to the real problem.

Asked if he had a conflict of interest, when it comes to investigating allegations of police misconduct, Gascón claimed the problem is limited to a small number of officers, adding, “if the allegations are true.”

“In reality the majority of the SFPD are hard-working people doing the right thing,” he said. “And there has been only one challenge—and our office has prevailed,” Gascón said. “However, there have been a finite number of cases where I personally adjudicated the bad conduct—and those will be handled by the Attorney General’s office.”

Bock stressed that she was not in favor of sending drug offenders to prison and would focus on restorative justice, instead. Asked if she would have a panel on her staff review potential death penalty cases, Bock confirmed that she is committed to having a Special Circumstances Committee, as D.A. Kamala Harris did, to get input around the facts and from lawyers involved in such cases.“The ultimate decision is mine, and I oppose the death penalty,” Bock said, noting that she does not believe that 12 jurors will return a unanimous death penalty verdict. “But I do think as prosecutor you need to go case by case.”

Asked if he would have sought the death penalty in a case like the L.A. Night Stalker, who murdered 13 people, many of them elderly, Gascón said, “Probably not. All of us agree that the death penalty is not a good tool. But it is part of our system, and I continue to have the system Kamala Harris had in place. At the end of the day, it’s my decision, and I’m the only one in the room, who can say I’ve already turned down the death penalty.”

Agreeing with Bock that a jury is unlikely to go for the death penalty, Gascón maintained that the death penalty is “an illusory issue,” and that the real question is, “How do we rewrite the State Constitution [so the death penalty is not on the books]?”

Asked how he felt about marijuana, Gascón said he doesn’t believe folks should be incarcerated for use—and that folks are already being diverted to community courts in those instances.

But when Onek tried to wrap up by positioning himself as a the reformist-minded outsider, Gascón pounced, reminding folks that Onek was a Police Commissioner, when the Police Commission recommended Gascón to Mayor Newsom as the next SFPD Chief. “While David is someone I respect—and one of those who hired me, David has painted himself as an outsider, when the Police Commission is the policy-making body for the SFPD. There are no outsiders here. The question is, what have you done? There’s a difference between calling yourself a reformer and having other people call you a reformer.”

Bock for her part used her closing remarks to remind folks that there has been a crime lab scandal, alleged police misconduct, a DNA backlog, and about 100 cases dismissed as a result of these scandals, and a bunch of prisoners are about to be sent back to the community because of realignment. “We’re in challenging times, at a critical crossroads, with stormy weather ahead,” she said. “I’m not going to be trying things out at your expense. As a veteran progressive prosecutor, I’m fully prepared.”

Enjoy the Strawberry full moon


The moon looked pretty full last night, but according to my Farmer’s Almanac, it’s officially full tonight. It’s also the Strawberry full moon, so-called because the relatively short season for harvesting strawberries each year happens in June.

CA Senate committee approves TRUST Act in face of rising “S-Comm” concerns


The California Senate Public Safety Committee approved Assemblymember Tom Ammiano’s TRUST Act, (AB 1081) today in a 5-2 vote, in face of rising concerns about a troubled federal fingerprinting and deportation program known as Secure Communities (S-Comm). The TRUST Act would reform California’s participation in S-Comm, which has increasingly come under fire for undermining public safety and operating without transparency or local oversight. Ammiano’s AB 1081 assures that local governments have the ability to opt out of the program and it sets basic standards for jurisdictions that choose to participate. The bill now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration.

San Francisco Police Commissioner Angela Chan, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, says  that immigrants rights activists are calling on California Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Kamala Harris to suspend S-Comm entirely, for now. These calls come in the wake of New York decision to suspend the troubled program, Illinois’s decision to terminate the program, Massachusetts’ decision to refuse to sign the Department of Homeland Security’s proposed S-Comm agreement, and the Inspector General’s announcement that it plans to investigate S-Comm allegations this summer.
“But if S-Comm eventually becomes unsuspended, that’s where the TRUST Act would come into place,” Chan said.

At today’s hearing in Sacramento, retired Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas testified in support of the TRUST Act, calling S-Comm a “Trojan horse,” thanks to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE’s) alleged misrepresentation of S-Comm to law enforcement. And community leader Renee Saucedo read the testimony of Norma, a domestic violence victim whose calls for help landed her in deportation proceedings thanks to S-Comm.

Tuesday’s vote comes on the heels of a growing firestorm of congressional criticism of the program, which reportedly has an annual budget of $200 million. And the latest statistics from ICE show that of all the states, California has deported the most immigrants under S-Comm. As of April 2011, California had deported 41, 833 individuals since it began phasing in its participation in S-Comm in May 2009. These figures include 12,133 folks (30 percent of deportees) who did not have a criminal record. And if you add those with low-level offenses to the non-criminal category, the percentage grows to 70 percent. Texas was in second place after California, with 27,000 S-Comm deportations.

Groupon’s secret


A San Francisco-based bus tour operator who relies on the Internet to drum up business has filed a class action suit against Groupon, alleging that the deal-of-the-day website uses false advertising, or bait-and-switch tactics, to get customers to its site.

San Francisco Comprehensive Tours, LLC, which does business as San Francisco Shuttle Tours and Wine Country Tour Shuttle, originally filed suit March 17 in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California “to stop false and misleading business and advertising acts and practices employed on by Groupon, Inc.”

In essence, the tour company claims that Groupon is dominating Google searches with offerings for discounted local tours — of, say, Alcatraz — that don’t actually exist.

On April 19, SFCT amended its complaint into a class action suit. The amended suit includes “all persons and entities in the United States who purchased Internet ads with Google for the purpose of advertising local tour company business information and whose tour businesses, including the cost of advertising on Google, have been affected by the false advertisements of Groupon which claim to provide discounted offers for tours but actually provide no such offers.”

Attorneys for Groupon have asked for an extension until June 13 to respond to SFCT’s complaint. Representatives for Groupon told the Guardian they can’t comment on the case.

SFCT’s attorneys claim that Groupon is arguing that this shouldn’t be a class action suit because everyone’s complaint is different.

“They’re spamming the Internet with false advertising that affects everyone’s ability to do business, so this is tailor-made for a class action suit,” said SFCT’s attorney Steve Williams of Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy in Burlingame. “It’s not easy to take on Groupon now that it has gotten so big and can afford top-notch lawyers.” In other words, it could take a group to take on Groupon.

The suit comes as Groupon, which launched in Chicago in 2008 and now claims to have 70 million subscribers as well as annual revenues of $700 million and an estimated worth of $12.7 billion, prepares to go public. Investors are trying to figure out if Groupon has a sustainable business model.

Last December Groupon fueled speculation that it would offer an initial public offering (IPO) when it rejected Google’s jaw-dropping $5 billion-plus takeover bid. Spurned, Google responded by launching Google Deals, a Groupon clone, in Portland, Ore., this June and announcing plans to expand into San Francisco and other U.S. cities later this year.

But as Forbes magazine noted last August, Groupon founder Andrew Mason has “managed to build the fastest-growing company in Web history.” Groupon’s meteoric rise has been attributed to Mason’s decision to combine a familiar concept with a novel idea: customers only get Groupon’s deeply discounted deals if enough customers pay up in advance for the deal that day.



SFCT is accusing Groupon of manipulating ad space that it buys from Google to funnel visitors to its site and collect data about these visitors — while SFCT and other tour companies lose customers and have to spend more money on online advertising.

This isn’t the first time Groupon has been sued since it was launched. But the bulk of those cases revolved around claims that Groupon’s “Daily Deal” gift certificates have illegal expiration dates. By contrast, SFCT’s suit is about Groupon hurting other businesses through manipulating Google’s AdWords program, which is Google’s main advertising program and main source of revenue.

“It’s the means that Groupon uses that is harming legitimate businesses. But they argue that it’s the Internet, it’s all new, and therefore the rules don’t apply,” Williams claimed.

Even though Google has not been sued in this instance, Eric Goldman, an associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and director of the school’s High Tech Law Institute, said that much of SCTF’s complaint is as much an indictment of Google’s platform as it is of Groupon’s practices. “Even though Google hasn’t been sued, I wonder if Google has or will make changes to its ad platform in response to the allegations in this complaint,” Goldman said.

Google spokesperson Diana Adair told the Guardian: “Unfortunately, we’re not able to comment.”

Williams claims that Groupon is gaming the algorithm that underpins Google’s AdWords program, which uses a combination of the number of click-throughs to a website, the closeness of an ad’s wording to an Internet user’s search terms, and the amount of money businesses are willing to bid on specific keywords to rank search results on Google.

“Groupon can’t say it’s just an AdWords problem,” Williams said. “It’s a manipulation.”

In its suit, SCTF claims it successfully bid on keywords such as “San Francisco tours,” “Alcatraz tours” and “Napa wine tours” for years. Then, in September 2010, Groupon started bidding on these terms as well — and though it rarely offered any discounted Alcatraz tours, it began to rank high in search results, driving up SFCT’s ad costs.

The suit notes that one time, in response to the keyword “Alcatraz tickets,” Groupon’s ad copy read “Alcatraz tickets — one ridiculously huge coupon a day: Do Alcatraz CA at 50 to 90 percent off.” Groupon’s actual ad that day was for discounted acting lessons.

“But they don’t care because they are trying to direct as many people as they can to their website,” Williams claimed.

Williams said he believes he can show that from the moment Groupon started placing ads for tours it didn’t sell, SFCT has suffered financially. “For someone like the plaintiff who is not about to put out an IPO, the frustration is that Groupon is funneling people into their direct mail campaign to develop huge databases and monitor what people like to buy so Groupon can target those people in future,” he said.

Williams told us he thinks he knows how Groupon will try to defend its strategy. “They’ll probably say that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing because if a business want to attract people to its product, it can talk to them about other products,” he said.

But he doubted they would try to blame it on Google. “Google would say that Groupon is taking advantage of AdWords,” Williams explained.

He sees Groupon’s strategy as a “bait and switch” tactic that’s illegal under the federal Lanham Act and California’s unfair competition and false advertising laws. “If I did this in a newspaper’s classified advertising section, it would be wrong. But the way Groupon looks at it, the normal rules don’t apply because it’s doing this online,” Williams said.



Williams also noted that Groupon hasn’t disclosed all the other lawsuits it’s facing. “They view this as a pesky little thing. But most companies, unless the suits are patently without merit, will err on the side of caution, believing it’s better to disclose than fail to disclose,” he said. “Or maybe they are thinking, ‘Soon we’re going to be making $30 billion, so who cares?'<0x2009>”

Goldman notes that SFCT’s class action adds extra complexity for its lawyers. “Groupon will likely try to prevent the class from forming in addition to attacking the substance of the arguments. This is not a quick-and-easy win for the plaintiffs. In many cases, companies like Groupon decide to settle rather than fight because it’s a costly defense, even if they ultimately win.”

“The starting point of this suit is simple enough, namely that businesses need to tell the truth in advertising,” he said. “The complaint alleges that Groupon wasn’t telling the truth because it says X in its ad but when you get there it says Y, which has nothing to do with X.”

Goldman also predicted that, to the extent that SFCT’s suit is truly about an algorithm problem, it won’t be helpful to Groupon. “But that doesn’t mean the plaintiff will win,” he added, noting that establishing false advertising is tricky.

The plaintiffs will have to establish that their parties are competitive and that their businesses were harmed, Goldman said. He also observed that this particular class action suit points to a broader range of questions about the legitimacy of Groupon’s business practices and problems with Google’s AdWords platform.

Goldman pointed to a lawsuit filed June 7 against Amazon suggesting that Amazon had an algorithmic tool for buying ads and that perhaps the tool had gone awry. In that case, Maxfield, a New York City company that markets and distributes the magnetic desk toys called Buckyballs, alleges that beginning May 5 when people searched online for “Buckyballs,” an ad popped up for Buckyballs at Amazon. But when customers clicked on this ad, they wound up on a website that purports to be a listing for Buckyballs but is actually an ad for Maxfield’s competitors’ products.

Goldman also said there is a growing trend of plaintiff law firms feasting on Internet companies, especially in Silicon Valley. “They are watching for these companies to make a mistake and are pouncing on them. It’s possible that suits are mushrooming into class action suits because someone is looking to get more money,” he said.

But in SFCT’s case, Goldman noted, “the plaintiff’s story makes sense.”

High levels of strontium at Fukushima


More bad news for Japan and its stricken fishing industry: Tokyo Electric Power Company says radioactive strontium up to 240 times the legal concentration limit has been detected in seawater samples near an intake at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

According to Japan Times, the utility said the substance was also found in groundwater near the plant’s Nos. 1 and 2 reactors. And Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said it is the first time that the substance has been found in groundwater—and that is necessary to carefully monitor the possible effects of the strontium on fishery products near the plant. Strontium tends to accumulate in bones and is believed to cause bone cancer and leukemia.

Strontium is a chemical element with the symbol Sr and the atomic number 38. An alkaline earth metal, strontium is a soft silver-white or yellowish metallic element that is highly reactive chemically. The metal turns yellow when exposed to air. It occurs naturally in the minerals celestine and strontianite. Strontium-90, an isotope of strontium, is present in radioactive fallout and has a half-life of 28.90 years. Both strontium and strontianite are named after Strontian, a village in Scotland near which the mineral was first discovered.