Sarah Phelan

Excerpts from freelance journalist Josh Wolf


What follows are excerpts from an Aug. 14 letter that freelance journalist Josh Wolf wrote to reporter Sarah Phelan from inside Dublin Federal Correctional Institute. Wolf has been held at Dublin FCI since Aug. 1 refusing to give a federal grand jury unpublished footage from a July 8, 2005 anti-G8 protest that turned violent.

Aug. 14, 2006

Dear Sarah,

Thanks for writing to me about my case;

On Judith Miller:

“The issue of Judith Miller is a complicated one. My reservations about the Judith Miller situation are as follows: She should be protected, but should she have published it in the first place? I’m very thankful that she has helped publicize my case and I have talked to her on the phone and wouldn’t want it to seem like I’m ungrateful for the support.”

On the injuries that a SFPD officer sustained during the July 8, 2005 anti G8 protest:

“The officer’s injury is a sad and unfortunate incident, and I do not in any way condone violence against any living creature. However, as tragic and unjust as it may have been, it is a potential crime which falls under state and not Federal jurisdiction and although the Assistant US Attorney has brought up the injured officer repeatedly, he has never asserted that this potential crime is part of the grand jury investigation and is therefore nothing more than an effort to sensationalize the case.

Furthermore, my mother’s statement is accurate, I neither witnessed nor filmed the alleged assault on the officer – I learned of the incident after hearing “officer down” by several bystanders. At that point in time, I was filming the aforementioned officer’s partner choking Gabe Myers whom has been charged with the conspiracy charge of attempting to lynch himself, along with resisting arrest and rioting. The published video illustrates this fairly well and can be accessed through along with the all the legal documents up until I became incarcerated and could no longer maintain the site.”

On the alleged arson to a SFPD patrol car:

“Another important factor in the police’s story of what happened that night is their claim that the Styrofoam sign (for the 500th time, there was no mattress) became lodged in front of their car, therein disabling it. While the Styrofoam sign may have been lodged – I have trouble believing that a piece of Styrofoam could actually force a modified Crown Victoria to a stop. As a rear-wheel drive car with more-than-ample horsepower, I believe it would’ve been able to push the sign along indefinitely, if not able to completely rise over the top of it. Beyond that, the officers immediately jumped out of their vehicle and chased after the 2 people they believed were originally holding the sign.

By the way, these officers – Shields + Wolf (no known relation to myself) were not assigned to the protest and were responding to some sort of complaint. These police officers attempted to disperse the crowd by accelerating their vehicle towards us – it was at that point that the sign carriers in the back of the crowd dropped their sign and dived out of the car’s path. The most accurate description I heard of the event came from Attorney Ben Rosenfeld who spoke at one of my press conferences, the video can be accessed at the URL I mentioned previously.”

On the grand jury investigation:

“As I’m sure you are aware, the subject of the grand jury investigation, or the reason that I’m in jail, is the alleged attempt to destroy property that the federal government may have had a fiscal interest in, the SFPD patrol vehicle. If this pretense for a federal interest is allowed to stand, then would not all public property – be it city, state, or federal serve to trump state protections such as the California Shield law. This would not only include streets, schools, and sidewalks, but also city hall itself.

Perhaps you recall Matt Gonzales last art exhibit as Supervisor – the Supervisor arrange to have graffiti art sprayed onto his office wall. Now, obviously he did this with the approval of the city, but could the federal government have intervened under the claim that this art damaged Federal Property? Obviously they wouldn’t, but according to the logic of the US Attorney, I imagine they might feel they could legitimately do so. The analogy is a stretch and borders on being cartoonist, but is it really any more outrageous than throwing me in prison for refusing to comply with this order to turn over a videotape regarding a police vehicle that apparently wasn’t even damaged – we’ve yet to see any repair orders for the squad car.
Both myself and my attorney have filed declarations to the fact that I did not film any attempts at arson on a police car. It seems highly unlikely that the US Attorney doesn’t believe us as I imagine lying in a declaration would result in perjury for me but could also, to my best understanding; result in my attorney facing even more serious repercussions than that. Neither myself nor my attorney would be stupid enough to behave that irresponsibly. I remember Alger Hiss.”

On Alger Hiss, McCarthyism and Black as the new Pink:

Speaking of Hiss, I feel that given the circumstances, this witch hunt could very likely be a witch hunt akin to those of McCarthey’s blood thirsty quest to expose communists. If that in fact is the case, then instead of a red-scare, this is a black scare.

Keep in mind, that each subpoena I have received not only demands the unpublished materials, but also my testimony. I do not feel that is paranoia which leads me to think that I would be compelled to identify anyone on the footage whom I might know in an effort to create a list of political dissidents and anarchists in the bay area.

Yes, the idea is alarmist, but; it happened in this country 50 years ago – and anyone with a decent education is painfully aware that history has a way of repeating itself. There is no way this much money and energy has been expended simply to investigate some kid throwing a firework four days after the 4th of July, and as the government has not been forthcoming, I have no reason not to assume the worst.

On life inside Dublin Federal Correctional Institute:

“In your letter you also asked me about Dublin; I don’t have a whole lot to say about my experience here, but I can say that the experience is nowhere near the nightmare I had expected. I’ve never felt like my personal safety is in jeopardy, and I have made friends with many of the inmates. There’s food which is edible during every single meal, and 90% of the staff have behaved with the utmost professionalism. At the same time, visits are limited to immediate family, and I only get to feel air on my face for an hour each day; 5 days a week.

Living in captivity is emotionally very difficult, and you find yourself missing the simplest of things. Not having my music, for one, has been very hard for me. The experience is akin to being a young child in man ways, and almost all decisions have been robbed from you. Regulations which serve no purpose abound – we are prohibited from doing laundry after 2pm; I have no idea why.
I have the opportunity by being here to catch up on a lot of reading; however, and I’ve written more letters by hand over the last two weeks than I’ve composed throughout my 24 years up till now. I miss email. I’ve also been inspired to create a new organization, but I can’t share the details just yet about that one.”

Thanks again, for covering the story and in the words of Edward R. Murrow,
Goodnight and Good Luck,

Is Josh Wolf in jail because of federal laziness?


By Sarah Phelan

An amicus brief filed this week in support of jailed freelance reporter Josh Wolf argues that federal common law already recognizes a reporter’s privilege, that it should be applied to Wolf’s grand jury case, and that before a journalist be compelled to divulge unpublished material in response to a subpoena, the requesting party must demonstrate “a sufficiently compelling need for the journalist’s materials to overcome the privilege.”
‘At a minimum, that requires a showing that the information sought is not obstainbable form another source,” argues the brief, which points out that , “it appears that the US Attorney has not even attempted to make a showing that alternative sources have even been consulted, let alone exhausted, or that Mr. Wolf’s videotape is unique. As the district court repeatedly pointed out, the events Mr. Wolf filmed took place on a public street and the published portions of his video show numerous participants and onlookers, (some with cameras) and dozens of police officers.”
Observing that, ” the record reveals a veritable treasure trove of alternative sources, including possible eye witnesses from law enforcement,” the brief concludes that, “The government seems to want Mr. Wolf’s video not because it is the only source of information about what happened to the police car, but because it speculates that it might be the best and most convenient source of information.”
The full text of the amicus brief which was filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the national Society for Professional Journalists, the WIW Freedom to Write Fund, and the California First Amendment Coalition can be viewed at
P.S.! A fund-raiser for Josh Wolf happens this Saturday, Aug. 19, 7 to 9:30 p.m., at Dance Mission, 3316 24th st., San Francisco. Free Admission, donations appreciated. Entertainers include Diamond Dave Whitaker of Enemy
Combatant Radio and musician John Staedler. Chuck Gonzalez is the DJ.
Speakers include Josh’s mother, Elizabeth Wolf-Spada; Wolf’s uncle Harland Harrison, Libertarian candidate for Congress from San Mateo County;Krissy Keefer, Green Party candidate for Congress from San Francisco’s east side, and Rick Knee of the National Writers Union. Or consider donating online at

Sue Bierman memorial, Sept. 3


By Sarah Phelan
A memorial will be held for Sue Bierman on Sunday, Sept. 3, 2-4pm at Delancey St, 600 Embarcadero.
News that former San Francisco Sup. Sue Bierman died on the afternoon of Monday August 7 after her car crashed into a dumpster in the Cole Valley, got the current supervisors sharing memories of her at the August 8 Board of Supes meeting.
Sup. Gerardo Sandoval said “volumes could be written about the accomplishments” of this woman, who was “probably a grandmother/sister figure to many of us.”
Sup. Aaron Peskin called her “an incredible person, an FDR-type Democrat,” who was behind the demolition of the old Embarcadero freeway.”Said Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, “she was a hero in so many battles in San Francisco..most recently, when we were trying to bring attention to excessive, disproportionate closure of schools, Sue Bierman and her daughter were on the front line. She was very disarming, but very strong. I will miss her dearly.”
Sup. Sean Elsbernd acknowledged that “should she and I have served on the board together, we would have had a few disagreements. I’ll miss her look.”
Sup. Tom Ammiano recalled how,”When Carole Migden put on lipstick, Sue would follow, You knew something was going to happen, as if a secret handhske was involved…I don’t know if there’s a highway to heaven, but thanks to Sue it ain’t a freeway.”
Sup. Dufty remembered how she had a lot of influence over Mayor Willie Brown. “If you heard him cussing at Sue, you knew she’d won one over him.”
Sup. Alioto-Pier, noting how she and Bierman often did not agree when they were both on the Port Commission said, “She very eloquently told you, she was very forceful, she was always the first person to call, it was dismaying to hear her voice on the machine, saying, “michela,” in a shaky voice.
Sup. Daly said she was the champion of young adults–and renters.
‘She understood what made San Francisco great.”
And Gloria Young, clerk of the board, recalled trying to get Bierman, who served on the board from 1992-2000, to vacate her office at noon on the day she was termed out, so to tidy up before the new supe [Peskin] arrived.
“Absolutely not,” bierman is said to have said. “I’ll be working until the end of the day, It’s immportant to acknowledge thew constituents who put us in office.”
“And she left me with a big stack of books,” added Peskin. “They’re still on the shelf.”

The Race is On: Candidates for local Nov. 7 races


By Sarah Phelan

Sixty-six took out papers. Forty-one filed, meaning that over one-third of the potential candidates in local races in the Nov. 7 election, bailed before the train even left the station.

So who’s in the running?

On the Board of Supes front, there are five races.
District 2 incumbent Michela Alioto-Pier, who has not accepted the voluntary expenditure ceiling and does not intend to participate in the public financing program, faces one lone challenger: business management consultant Vilma Guinto Peoro, who has accepted a voluntary expenditure ceiling and intends to participate in the pubic financing program.

In District 4, seven candidates are vying to fill the vacancy Sup. Fiona Ma created as Democratic nominee for Assembly District 12, (where she is running against the Green’s Barry Hermanson.) Mayor Gavin Newsom has endorsed Doug Chan, who lent his name to PG&E’s anti-Prop. D campaign, has not accepted voluntary expenditure ceiling and does not intend to participate in public financing campaign. Chan, who also got Ma’s endorsement and has served on the San Francisco Police Commission, Board of Permit Appeals, the Rent Board and the Assessment Appeals Board, has promised to return SFPD to its legally-required numbers (it currently operates 15 percent below voter-mandated leval), and upgrade policies, practices and technology, and would likely become the establishment conservative on the Board,

Other contenders are business consultant Ron Dudum, who lost against Ma in 2002 and against then Sup. Leland Yee in 2000, anti-tax advocate Edmund Jew, who would also be popular with the district’s conservative base, and San Francisco Immigrant Rights Commissioner and Fiona Ma-supporter Houston Zheng, David Ferguson, Patrick Maguire and Jaynry Mak, though Neither Maguire nor Mak, who has already raised $100,000, had filed papers as of Aug. 11, perhaps because District 4 has a Aug. 16 filing extension, thanks to departing incumbent Ma.

District 6 incumbent Chris Daly, who has accepted voluntary expenditure ceiling and intends to participate in public financing campaign, appears to face the biggest fight—at least in terms of numbers, with seven challengers hoping to fill his shoes. Of these Mayor Gavin Newsom has portrayed former Michela Alioto-Pier aide Rob Black, who has accepted voluntary expenditure ceiling and intends to participate in public financing campaign, as “the best contender to lessen divisiveness in the district.”
Fellow challengers are Mathew Drake, Viliam Dugoviv, Manuel Jimenez , Davy Jones, Robert Jordan and George Dias.

District 8 incumbent Bevan Dufty faces stiff opposition from local resident and Oakland deputy city attorney Alix Rosenthal, who was instrumental in turning around the city’s Elections Department, has worked on turning the former Okaland Army Base over to the Redevelopment Agency and has helped rebuild the National Women’s Political Caucus. Rosenthal, who is running on a platform of affordable housing, sustainability and violence prevention, also wants to keep SF weird.

In District 10, Incumbent Sophie Maxwell, who says a November ballot measure opposing the Bayview Redvelopment Plan is based on fear and unfairness, has five challengers: Rodney Hampton Jr., Marie Harrison, Espanola Jackson. Dwayne Jusino, and former Willie Brown crony Charlie Walker. Of these, the most serious are Harrison, helped shut down the Hunter’s Point PG&E plant and has worked for decades to fight all the pollution that’s being dumped on southeast residents, and Espanola Jackson, who has fought for welfare rights, affordable housing, seniors and the Muwekma Ohlone.
In other races, Phil Ting runs unopposed as Assessor-Recorder.
18 challengers are fighting over three seats on the Board of Education, one of which is occupied by incumbent Dan Kelly, and six candidates are vying for three seats on the Community College Board, one of which is occupied by incumbent John Rizzo.

Cop measure headed for full board


By Sarah Phelan
The San Francisco Board of Supes Rules Committee voted 2-1 to send a resolution opposing federal meddling in local police investigations and calling for support of California’s reporter’s shield law, as well as support of similar bills at the federal level that are currently working their way through Congress.

Farewell, Sue Bierman


By Sarah Phelan
News that former San Francisco Sup. Sue Bierman died Monday afternoon after her car crashed into a dumpster in the Cole Valley, got the current supervisors sharing memories of her at the August 8 Board of Supes meeting.
Sup. Gerardo Sandoval said “volumes could be written about the accomplishments” of this woman, who was “probably a grandmother/sister figure to many of us.”
Sup. Aaron Peskin called her “an incredible person, an FDR-type Democrat,” who was behind the demolition of the old Embarcadero freeway.”Said Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, “she was a hero in so many battles in San Francisco..most recently, when we were trying to bring attention to excessive, disproportionate closure of schools, Sue Bierman and her daughter were on the front line. She was very disarming, but very strong. I will miss her dearly.”
Sup. Sean Elsbernd acknowledged that “should she and I have served on the board together, we would have had a few disagreements. I’ll miss her look.”
Sup. Tom Ammiano recalled how,”When Carole Migden put on lipstick, Sue would follow, You knew something was going to happen, as if a secret handhske was involved…I don’t know if there’s a highway to heaven, but thanks to Sue it ain’t a freeway.”
Sup. Dufty remembered how she had a lot of influence over Mayor Willie Brown. “If you heard him cussing at Sue, you knew she’d won one over him.”
Sup. Alioto-Pier, noting how she and Bierman often did not agree when they were both on the Port Commission said, “She very eloquently told you, she was very forceful, she was always the first person to call, it was dismaying to hear her voice on the machine, saying, “michela,” in a shaky voice.
Sup. Daly said she was the champion of young adults–and renters.
‘She understood what made San Francisco great.”
And Gloria Young, clerk of the board, recalled trying to get Bierman, who served on the board from 1992-2000, to vacate her office at noon on the day she was termed out, so to tidy up before the new supe [Peskin] arrived.
“Absolutely not,” bierman is said to have said. “I’ll be working until the end of the day, It’s immportant to acknowledge thew constituents who put us in office.”
“And she left me with a big stack of books,” added Peskin. “They’re still on the shelf.”

What Can Brown Do For You?


By Sarah Phelan

Someone needs to take the UPS Poster that says “What Can Brown Do For You” and seriously adbust it, in the light of all the crazy posturing around “illegal” immigration.

Not that I’m inciting anyone, but speaking as a “legal” immigrant, it’s hard to stay silent as Americans build a fence to keep out the people who they underpay to prop up the American “white picket fence” dream.

Good luck with that surreality…

“Oympic Dreams”


By Sarah Phelan

Gotta love that unfortunate “Oympic” typo on the front page of the Chronicle’s article about Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Olympics.

Especially since “oympic” is an anagram for “Myopic”.

Oymp, oymp.

Amalgamated health care


Mayor Gavin Newsom has taken credit and sought the national spotlight for a plan he touts as an innovative way to deliver universal health care access to the city’s uninsured. Yet Newsom has consistently ducked the vitriolic public debate over how to the pay for the plan, which a companion measure by Sup. Tom Ammiano would cover with a controversial employer mandate.
But as the measures were headed for the first of at least two hearings before the Board of Supervisors (on July 11 after Guardian press time), a board committee and Newsom’s public health director, Dr. Mitch Katz, finally made it clear that Newsom’s plan can’t stand alone, as much as the business community would like it to.
“The two pieces of legislation were created to and do fit together,” Katz said at a July 5 Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Finance Committee hearing. “One can’t successfully move forward without the other.”
Katz made the comments after budget analyst Harvey Rose said the mayor’s plan doesn’t contain a specific funding mechanism. Rose’s admission prompted Sup. Ross Mirkarimi to characterize the mayor’s proposal as “a one-winged aircraft that doesn’t fly.” Sup. Chris Daly added that “It’s time to be up front that [the San Francisco Health Access Plan] only works if it has significant contributions from outside sources, including Ammiano’s plan.”
Neither Newsom nor his spokesman Peter Ragone returned repeated calls for comment on the issue. The Mayor’s Office also has not fulfilled a June 22 request by the Guardian for public records associated with the plan in violation of deadlines set by the city’s Sunshine Ordinance.
“Celebrating one resolution while pooh-poohing the other is disingenuous, because if they don’t work together, nothing works,” Mirkarimi added at the hearing, shortly before he, Daly, and a mostly mute Sup. Bevan Dufty voted to combine both proposals into one health care plan: the San Francisco Health Care Security Ordinance.
“After today’s meeting,” Ammiano wrote in a follow-up press release, “I’m confident that the citizens of San Francisco and the media will understand that the Worker Health Care Security Ordinance and the Health Access Program are one comprehensive health care plan, and are now codified as such in a single bill.”
The decision to amalgamate left small business owners voicing fears over the economic impact of the employer spending mandate, which would raise an estimated $30 million to $49 million of the $200 million cost of providing health care access for San Francisco’s uninsured.
As the controller’s Office of Economic Analysis points out, most of the financial burden of the employer mandate “falls on businesses with 20 to 49 employees, since these firms currently are less likely to offer health care benefits to their workers.”
With the cost of covering 20 full-time employees’ health care estimated at $43,000 to $65,000, many business owners fear the mandate will result in layoffs, economic downturns, and the erosion of their already marginal profits.
Although the controller predicts a “nearly neutral impact” on the city’s economic picture — a loss of 60 to 590 jobs from staff cuts or business closures mitigated by 140 to 250 new health care–related positions — small businesses worry about the controller’s “moderately adverse impact” prediction for employers who currently aren’t offering health care benefits at mandated levels.
“It’s going to add another $50,000 to my already high health care costs,” John Low, who runs a small company in the Tenderloin, said at the hearing. San Francisco Soup Company owner Steve Sarver claimed the mandate could force him to abandon expansion and hiring plans: “Projects that I was borderline on, I’m now going to go toward eliminating those jobs.”
As written before the July 11 hearings, the mandate would kick in January 2007 for large businesses and the following January for small businesses. Mirkarimi says the board should be “extremely sensitive” to the small business community’s concerns.
“The business community knows best how to speak about profit margins. Right now, an employer spending mandate is the only option in orbit. If there are other options, great, but so far all we’re hearing is nothing but distortion,” Mirkarimi told the Guardian. He said the proposal by some downtown leaders to increase the sales tax by a half cent — an alternative to Ammiano’s mandate — comes from “the same community who would sabotage any attempt to enact a tax-based funding mechanism.”
Mirkarimi told us the mayor’s plan was “prematurely pitched through the media on a national stage,” while Ammiano’s legislation, “which is really the heart and soul of the plan, has struggled to get any notoriety locally.” Mirkarimi told us he hopes Newsom will directly address small business concerns — including the reality that his health access plan can’t work without Ammiano’s mandate.
“The mayor needs to make an effort to show small business that he intends to mitigate the negative financial side effects of his plan. But what is the mayor’s communication? And why is he relying on the Board of Supes to fill in the blanks? The mayor needs to exercise leadership, to admit that for his plan to work somebody has to pay, and decide who that somebody is going to be, then build confidence that he has adequate answers. But right now, he’s deflecting that responsibility onto the board.”
Dr. Katz, who was a member of the Universal Healthcare Council that created the plan to offer health access to all the city’s uninsured residents, said he neither hopes nor believes that all 82,000 of the city’s uninsured will enroll.
“We hope that large employers continue to chose commercial health insurance,” Katz said at the meeting, noting that 95 percent of businesses with more than 100 employees already have commercial health insurance.
“If people enroll in a commercial health insurance plan, the city doesn’t get the revenue, but we also don’t get costs,” said Katz, who believes the city can offer health access to all uninsured residents without building additional health centers.
“All existing clinics and facilities have shown a desire to join the program and accept people,” Katz said, noting that the $104 million the city already spends on San Francisco’s uninsured is on the lowest-income individuals, plus a minute subsidy to small- and medium-size business but no subsidy for large businesses.
“Most of SF’s 82,000 uninsured residents are getting care right now, but not in a rational way,” Katz explained. “I look at how much capacity could we add to health centers by only paying for additional providers, like nurses, doctors. And the answer is a lot. We’re not doing evenings or Saturdays, so we just need to open for more hours and hire more doctors, nurses.”
Acknowledging that the Department of Public Health already saw 49,000 uninsured residents last year, Katz said that doesn’t mean that people are getting what he calls “rational care.”
“So when we create a system, we’ll create a demand,” he said. “It’s not just the woman with a bad cough who comes in, but now she’ll also get a pap smear.” SFBG
For coverage of the July 11 hearing and other updates on the health plan, visit

Pier review


This summer there are three giant additions to San Francisco’s Embarcadero and all three represent huge victories in uniting the city with its waterfront and artistic roots.
For the next six months, Passage — two 30-ft welded sculptures, representing a mother and child and covered with countless recycled metal objects, including horseshoes, herons, and even a kitchen sink—will grace the entrance to the newly dedicated Pier 14.
Orchestrated by the Black Rock Arts Foundation and the Port of San Francisco, the Passage installation is part of an ongoing attempt to bring the work of local artists into the city’s public spaces and people’s daily lives. First exhibited at last year’s Burning Man event, Passage also represents a cultural full circle, as it comes to rest on the very waterfront where Larry Harvey started the Burning Man tradition, some 20 years ago. And it is the third significant Burning Man piece to be temporarily placed in San Francisco in the last year, a new trend that all involved say they hope to continue.
As for Pier 14, which at $2.3 million for 637 ft. represents some of the most expensive sidewalk in the world, it allows the public to walk on water, as well as meditate on panoramic views of both city and bay from a snazzy set of swivel chairs.
Addressing a crowd of artists, city officials, and curious passersby on June 16, which happened to be his birthday, Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin dedicated the newly opened pier to former SF mayor Art Agnos for his “courage and commitment

Shotgun marriage


Mayor Gavin Newsom has garnered media accolades for his San Francisco Health Access Plan, which would provide the city’s 82,000 uninsured residents a package of health care services, including preventative, primary, specialty, and emergency care, lab work, X-rays, pharmaceuticals, and inpatient hospitalization.
All of this sounds good until you consider how the press has glossed over serious flaws in Newsom’s plan, which was coauthored by Sup. Tom Ammiano. And SFHAP could be doomed to fail unless coupled with the more controversial Ammiano-authored health care legislation: the Worker Health Care Security Ordinance (WHSCO).
Ammiano’s ordinance would require employers operating within the city that have at least 20 employees (or 50 employees for nonprofits) to provide health care coverage for their workers. Predictably these mandatory spending requirements have the business community screaming its opposition — and Newsom, who is up for reelection next year, pussyfooting around the issue.
But the truth is that Newsom hasn’t detailed how to fully pay for his plan or avoid its policy pitfalls without the financial and structural boost that WHSCO’s mandates provide.
“There is no separation between the two pieces of legislation except in the way they’ve been presented. They’re joined at the hip, and there will be no funding gap with both pieces of legislation working together,” Ammiano told the Guardian.
Here’s how the plans work: To cover the estimated $200 million cost of Newsom’s sliding scale SFHAP, the city would contribute the $104 million it currently spends on the uninsured, hoping that more preventive care would efficiently translate into lower emergency room costs.
Add that to an estimated $60 million that the city thinks higher income enrollees will pay, plus an additional $10 million in estimated savings from increased federal cost-sharing. But even if all that works out, there’s a $30 million shortfall.
Enter Ammiano’s plan, which would generate an estimated $30 million to $40 million in employer contributions. There’s also another key piece of Ammiano’s plan that saves the one Newsom is touting: Unless Ammiano’s plan becomes law, there’s nothing to stop employers who already offer health insurance from saving money by dumping their workers into Newsom’s newly minted program, thus expanding the number of uninsured and potentially overwhelming the city’s clinics.
While Ammiano’s plan requires businesses with more than 20 employees to cover 50 percent of workers’ health care costs ($1.06 an hour), and those with more than 100 employees to cover 75 percent of those costs ($1.60 an hour), it also offers employers a wide array of health care expenditure options, including providing insurance, creating health savings accounts, or paying into the Health Access Plan.
There’s a reason for these options: the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act. The act prevents cities and states from specifying which health care plan employers must provide. But as Ammiano discovered, municipalities can stipulate how much employers must spend on health care.
Asked why he thinks Newsom isn’t giving Ammiano’s mandatory plan his public blessing, Ammiano waxes diplomatic.
“I asked the mayor, ‘So, what could you live with?’ and the answer was the Health Access Plan, in which everyone is covered, and there are no preexisting conditions,” Ammiano told us.
But the business community latched onto the idea as if it existed in a vacuum. Nathan Nayman of Committee on Jobs helped develop the Newsom plan but continues to slam Ammiano’s ordinance. At a Budget and Finance Committee hearing on June 26, Nayman called Ammiano’s ordinance “a full frontal assault on small and medium businesses.” But when challenged by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi over how killing the ordinance would incapacitate Newsom’s plan, Nayman suggested “putting both plans on hiatus.”
Ammiano said he’s running out of patience with Nayman and his downtown allies.
“They didn’t lift a finger except to come in at the last minute with a proposal that was neither progressive nor legally viable,” he complained, referring to an 11th-hour suggestion that businesses be charged a license fee. The fee would have fallen heavily on businesses with less than 20 employees — which don’t have to provide health insurance — and likely would have been challenged as a tax in disguise, thereby triggering a ballot.
Not that the Ammiano camp is afraid of voters. In 2004, 69 percent of San Francisco voted for Proposition 72, which would have provided employer mandated health care had it not narrowly failed statewide. So while Ammiano anticipates resistance from the business community, he isn’t expecting a “monolithic rebellion.”
“They’ve been doing their own polling, so they know if [mandatory health care spending] goes to ballot, it’ll pass, and they’ll only get much more rigid legislation,” Ammiano told us.
Ken Jacobs, who Ammiano describes as the brains behind WHSCO and who was also part of the mayor’s 37-member Universal Healthcare Council that developed SFHAP, told us WHSCO not only helps workers who don’t have health care access but also serves to stop the erosion of employer-sponsored coverage.
Jacobs — who is deputy chair of UC Berkeley’s Labor Center — said it’s important not to erode the 85 percent of SF-based businesses already providing employee health care benefits. Even Newsom’s health director, Mitch Katz, has publicly said that good health insurance is better than the access plan Newsom is touting.
Crediting San Francisco’s existing clinic system for making SFHAP conceptually possible, Jacobs noted that its estimated $200 million annual cost is based on “a fully ramped-up program in which every uninsured resident is enrolled” — something he believes won’t happen immediately.
Jacobs also points out that if employers who currently don’t offer medical benefits sign up for private insurance because of WHSCO’s mandate, their employees will no longer be uninsured, thus reducing the public system costs. He also believes that because WHSCO makes large employers spend $274 a month, it’s unlikely they’d opt for SFHAP because that plan is limited to care in San Francisco.
Conversely, SFHAP requires participants to be willing to apply for state and federal benefits. They also must pay monthly fees ranging from a nominal $3 for those earning below $19,600 to $35 for those earning between $19,600 and $40,000 to $201 a month for those earning over $50,000.
There’s also one more reason why Newsom will likely to be forced to accept the marriage with Ammiano’s plan, despite the grumbling from his business community supporters: Eight supervisors have now signed on as WHSCO cosponsors, giving it a veto-proof majority.
Newsom’s spokespeople did not return our repeated calls for comment, but Eileen Shields of the Department of Health confirmed that “Ammiano’s legislation supports making the SFHAP a reality financially.” SFBG

Dellums’s outlook


By Sarah Phelan
At Ron Dellums Party, Kimball’s Carnival

Leaving San Francisco, we could feel the temperature rise as we crossed the Bay Bridge. By the time we got to Kimball’s, the party for Ron Dellums was absolutely raging.

Dellums is beating Ignacio De La Fuente 44 to 36 percent in the race for mayor of Oakland, but with only 1 percent of precincts reporting, the outcome is far from clear. Nevertheless, Dellums was looking relaxed and stately.

Notes from the AC


By Sarah Phelan
Somewhere in Alameda County

You’ve got to feel just a tad sorry for the political animals in the East Bay tonight. While other campaigns are cracking open the bubbly, or drowning their sorrows in pitchers of beer, on this satanic-sounding O6.06.06 election night, the folks in Alameda County are going to be chewing their nails, a manicure-challenging activity they’ll likely continue until the wee hours — or even until noon, Wednesday, June 7 — before they find out if their candidate won.

The cable that bind s



Oakland, San Francisco, and other California cities have in recent years tried to negotiate maximum public benefits under their franchise agreement with cable television provider Comcast, but all have backed down when the telecom giant threatened costly litigation.

The latest episode played out May 30 at the Oakland City Council meeting when the council voted to repeal an ordinance that would have required franchisees like Comcast to allow workers to decide whether they want to form a union.

Comcast dubbed the “Wal-Mart of Telecom” by the American Right to Work Foundation not only sued Oakland over the ordinance but also decided to void a tentative franchise agreement with the city that had taken three and a half years to work out.

Comcast officials claim the company walked away from the contract because two years had elapsed since major parts of the agreement had been hammered out and during that time the competitive field had shifted.

As for the lawsuit, company officials argue that Oakland’s union ordinance is preempted by federal law and that the city doesn’t have a “proprietary interest” in its franchise.

A proprietary interest occurs when a city has to manage critical public rights-of-way, such as streets, alleys, and utility easements, and must make sure it receives fair compensation for the ongoing use of those public properties by private entities, like Comcast.

In such situations, a city must ensure the efficient and cost-effective management of its public rights-of-way and must maximize benefit and minimize risk, including the risk of a labor-<\h>management conflict that could arise from a union organizing campaign.

That, at least, was the argument the city of Oakland made when it drew up its labor ordinance, and it was the argument that city council president Ignacio De La Fuente continued to make at the May 30 council meeting.

Councilmember Desley Brooks managed to sound like a Comcast apologist by claiming the city had been wrong to pass the ordinance in the first place.

“We knew that when this ordinance was passed, we had no basis to do it,” Brooks said. We can try and justify why we did it, but federal law is settled in this matter.”

But De La Fuente was joined by Councilmember Jane Brunner and Vice Mayor Jean Quan in insisting that the city wasn’t backing down because it was wrong, but because it couldn’t afford to fight with a deep-<\h>pocketed monopoly in court.

That was the same argument that led the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to narrowly approve a four-year contract extension with Comcast last September, rather than negotiate better public access and other community benefits as part of the contract.

San Jose, Walnut Creek, and other cities have also been tied up in expensive litigation with Comcast, which has virtually unlimited resources and a willingness to spend big in court fights and the political arena. But a bill now moving through the California State Legislature has the potential to shake up the cable television playing field some say, in ways that are hard to predict.

The Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, authored by Assembly speaker Fabian N??ñez, seeks to allow telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon to provide television services through fiber-<\h>optic lines and thereby compete with Comcast and other cable providers.

The landmark bill, AB 2987, cleared the Assembly on a 70<\d>0 vote the day after the Oakland City Council repealed its ordinance. It is now awaiting consideration and possible modification by the Senate.

It is being watched carefully by Communications Workers of America, which represents 700,000 workers nationally, including 2,000 in the Bay Area, and is one of the few labor unions that is growing.

As CWA field coordinator Lisa Morowitz explained, for cities to take on Comcast individually, as Oakland, Walnut Creek, and San Jose have tried without success to do, is like David fighting Goliath.

“It’s one step forward, two steps back,” Morowitz told the Guardian. Nevertheless, she believes Oakland has substantial leverage in future negotiations with Comcast, precisely because of the N??ñez bill.

“CWA supports AB 2987,” Morowitz said, “because we believe it’s going to create conditions more favorable for cities, communities, and workers by bringing competition to video service.”

She acknowledged that the bill won’t directly address the issues raised during Oakland’s ordinance battle, but, she said, “theoretically, it will create more accountability.”

CWA argues that in addition to creating competition in the video services marketplace, the bill will replace city-by-city franchising deals that have led to steep rate increases, protect revenue streams for local governments, and expand local tax bases.

But Sydney Levy of San Francisco<\d>based Media Alliance worries that it will simply help the titans of industry and not the communities they supposedly serve.

“I understand that labor thinks it has a better chance of being able to organize within companies if there’s more competition and AT&T is pitted against Verizon is pitted against Comcast,” Levy told us. “But I disagree with CWA on how to have that competition be fair. It’s like energy deregulation. It sounded cute, but it wasn’t. So, we can’t be stupid this time around. We need to do it in a way that’s good for cities, consumers, and communities.”

The goal of franchise agreements that cities enter into with cable companies is to ensure that providers cover the entire city, provide public affairs programming, and pay for their use of public rights-of-way.

“But with the new bill, there’s no enforcement, no contractual obligations, no timetable,” claimed Levy, who worries that under the proposed arrangement Comcast’s competitors could say, “We can’t put fiber everywhere; we’ll upgrade as we see fit.”

“But that’s not good enough,” said Levy, who also worries that the bill will screw up community media locally and that redlining providing new services in higher-<\h>income neighborhoods while bypassing areas already underserved by broadband services may well occur.

And then there’s the sticky matter of ceding control to Sacramento.

“If we don’t have the ability to complain at the city level, then we’ll have to take all our fights to Sacramento, where we don’t have equal access,” Levy said. “That would be disastrous for local decision making.”

To his mind, AB 2987 is about cable vs. phone companies, and not about what’s best for the public interest.

“Having competition is a good thing for cities, consumers, and communities, but having competition that is unfair to communities and dismantles protections is not. We need to fix what’s in the Senate version,” he argued.

Levy believes that Comcast is playing a wait-and-see game as the N??ñez bill makes its way through Sacramento and that Oakland should continue to negotiate with Comcast for the best franchise deal possible.

“Because it may be the last franchise deal Oakland gets,” he explained, warning that if AB 2987 passes unmodified in the Senate, “we’re going to go from an irresponsible monopoly system to one that’s a system of unfair competition.”

But N??ñez deputy chief of staff Steve Maviglio told the Guardian that without the N??ñez bill, “cities have as much choice as they did in the former Soviet Union…. This bill is a powerful incentive for other providers.” Maviglio said that the bill language could still be modified in the Senate, but that its basic goal is clear.

“We hope this bill will save consumers money, lead to more competition, and prevent redlining,” he said. “We want to make sure under<\h>served communities don’t get left out of the digital picture.”

Comcast is the 800-pound gorilla lurking behind the vote in Sacramento, the force that all cities are looking to find some leverage against.

San Francisco supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told us that the Board of Supervisors had tailored legislation that mimicked Oakland’s union-<\h>organizing ordinance but abandoned it on the advice of CWA and the SF Labor Council because of what was happening to Oakland at the hands of Comcast.

To Mirkarimi’s mind, the best solution is neither piecemeal ordinances nor statewide laws, but for cities to municipalize their telecom and Internet systems.

“We would not be facing these kind of legal challenges if San Francisco was able to municipalize,” he told us.

And that’s precisely what San Francisco is now pursuing. A proposal by Sup. Tom Ammiano to study the creation of a citywide municipal broadband system to be installed as streets are opened up for sewer lines or other infrastructure needs was recently put out to bid.

Ammiano told the Guardian he expects to get some preliminary indications as to whether the system would be viable as soon as this summer, and he’s confident San Francisco will ultimately be in the position to offer television and other broadband services to city residents.

Mirkarimi, who supports the proposal, said it’s the best hope to “redeem our utility democracy as it pertains to our cable industry.” SFBG

Eviction battle continues



Back when the tsunami of condo conversions now rolling across San Francisco was but a ripple on the rental pool, local resident William Johnston didn’t know "the ins and outs of the Ellis Act."

"Now I have a Ph.D. in it," jokes Johnston, 70, about the legislation allowing landlords to get out of the rental market, which has been increasingly abused over the past decade by landlords wishing to sell their buildings in a scheme known as tenancy-in-common.

Under the TIC system, tenants share the same mortgage but live in their own unit, which they usually hope to convert to an individually owned condo. And it was a letter proposing a TIC in the 10-unit rent-controlled building where Johnston has lived for 33 years that finally got the feisty septuagenarian to start learning about the Ellis Act in detail.

"That letter scared the crap out of me," says Johnston, who was shocked when a real estate agent claimed that the one-bedroom unit, for which Johnston pays $512 a month, would fetch half a million dollars if it were converted into a condo … if only Johnston could pony up $90,000 for a down payment.

Johnston was relieved when none of his fellow tenants took his landlord’s TIC bait, but they’re all worried the landlord plans to put the building up for sale anyway. So he’s closely following the latest chapter in the Board of Supervisors’ effort to protect renters like him.

On May 9 the board gave an initial 73 approval to a measure that would prevent condo conversions in buildings where seniors, the disabled, the catastrophically ill, or multiple tenants have been evicted.

Three previous board efforts to help tenants have been vetoed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, so Sup. Aaron Peskin heeded input from the Mayor’s Office and amended the measure to move the cutoff date for considering evictions from Jan. 1, 1999, to May 1, 2005.

That change, and the fact that he’d been getting public pressure from renters, apparently won the support of Sup. Bevan Dufty, who had voted to uphold Newsom’s vetoes of the previous renter measures. But with Sup. Ross Mirkarimi forced to abstain because he owns a TIC, the board is still left one vote shy of being able to override a veto.

The date change could affect renters like Debra Hutzer, who is disabled by thyroid problems and whose eviction papers were filed January 2005, forcing her to move on May 13, 2006, from the rent-controlled apartment on Church Street where she’s lived for 19 years to a place where she’s already paying $250 more a month.

"It’s been very disconcerting," says Hutzer of the eviction, which one of her neighbors, Carole Fanning, may now fight. Fanning is also supposed to leave, but she’s now hired an attorney to fight for "a stay of execution" that would allow her to remain in her rent-controlled unit.

"It’s possible, since seniors, disabled, and the catastrophically ill have one year from the date their eviction notice was served, that some may yet be able to convince landlords not to proceed," Peskin board aide David Owen told us.

As for the watering down of Peskin’s original measure, Ted Gullicksen of the San Francisco Tenants Union says the alternative was to put a version backdated to November 2004 on the November ballot a strategy that would have involved taking risks on an initiative that, even if it had passed, wouldn’t have gone into law until January 2007.

"Instead we have a measure that’s acceptable and has passed its first reading, which means tenants should be protected in another week," Gullicksen says. Peskin’s other amendment allows buildings with multiple evictions but not those involving the elderly or disabled to be eligible for condo conversions after 10 years. "This means those buildings get taken off the speculative real estate market," Gullicksen adds. SFBG