SFO COVER-UP – August 1, 2001

San Francisco Bay Guardian,  August 1, 2001

How Willie Brown squelched an investigation into racism at SFO.

By Savannah Blackwell

Mayor Willie Brown personally directed the Human Rights Commission staff to squelch an investigation into charges that a major airport contractor was breaking the city’s law aimed at helping minority- and women-owned businesses, a senior HRC contract compliance officer has testified under oath.

Compliance officer Kevin Williams testified in hearings before an arbitrator May 21-23 that the mayor forced the agency to shut down an investigation into Hensel Phelps Construction, one of the main companies that worked on San Francisco International Airport’s expansion project.

The Mayor’s Office pressured then-HRC director Marivic Bamba to overturn Williams’s decision that the big firm was trying to use a black subcontractor as a “front.” Comer Marshall, former chair of the HRC, testified in the same proceeding that the Mayor’s Office pressured him to resign as chair because of his insistence that the agency pursue the investigation into Hensel Phelps.

Marshall and Williams testified as part of an arbitration hearing on a complaint by Willie Ratcliff, the African American owner of Liberty Builders Inc., against Hensel Phelps. Ratcliff alleges that Hensel Phelps employees harassed Liberty’s employees and made it difficult for Liberty to complete work on a $3 million airport subcontract.

In the fall of 1998 Hensel Phelps admitted that one of its managers hung a noose in a construction trailer – a move some African American contractors saw as an attempt to intimidate them.

Ratcliff filed suit against the big construction outfit in March 2001. His suit alleges that the noose was hung as “a symbol of racism and hatred” directed at Liberty’s African American crew. The suit seeks $4 million in damages.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking into the Hensel Phelps contracting matter, sources who have been interviewed by the FBI told us.

Some African American contractors say Brown’s favorable treatment of Hensel Phelps reflects the mayor’s failure to support small, locally owned minority businesses. “[Brown] is selling out to the big businesses,” Ratcliff told the Bay Guardian. “That’s where he gets his soft money and power, and if it means running over a few black contractors and people of color and women, then so be it.”

“The mayor has everything in the whole world to do with this problem,” said La Vaughan Moore, whose women-owned trucking company, Double B and L, worked as a subcontractor for Hensel Phelps. Moore said she also had problems with the company.

Hensel Phelps and its associates contributed at least $3,000 to Brown’s 1999 mayoral reelection campaign, campaign finance reports show

A 911 call

Hensel Phelps hired Liberty in 1997 as a subcontractor on a $67 million bid to build a new loading area at the airport as part of the Colorado-based company’s effort to satisfy city requirements that a certain percentage of all public contracts go to minority-owned businesses. Without a minority-owned subcontractor, Hensel Phelps could not have gotten the bid, Williams testified.
But in October 1997, Ratcliff complained that Hensel Phelps was not following through on its contract with him and had created a hostile work environment aimed at driving the small Bayview firm off of the job site.

Williams, who is now on leave from the HRC, investigated that complaint, and after a nine-month inquiry he concluded that Ratcliff’s allegations were valid.

Other HRC officials, who asked not to be named because they fear retribution, confirmed that conclusion in interviews with the Bay Guardian.

On July 31, 1998, Williams directed airport officials to stop payment to Hensel Phelps. He convened a “show cause hearing” Aug. 18, a procedure designed to give the contractor found to be violating the city’s affirmative action law a chance to show why the findings are wrong.

But on the second day of the hearing, Williams testified, he was stopped cold by a call from Bamba.
Williams testified that the message “911” followed by the number of HRC’s main office suddenly appeared on his pager. He left the meeting, walked to a phone in the hallway, and spoke with Bamba.

“She told me to stop the proceedings,” Williams said, according to a transcript of the arbitration hearing. She did not give any reason for her command at the time, he added.

A day or two later in a private meeting with Bamba, Williams found out who had ordered the hearing stopped.
“She told me in the meeting that she received a telephone call from the mayor and that the mayor told her to stop the show-cause hearing and that she should have been the one conducting it…. She told me that she tried to explain on my behalf that a show-cause hearing is essentially a compliance tool,” Williams testified. “He [the mayor] didn’t want to hear it.”
Williams also testified that Bamba had authorized his decision to order payment stopped to Hensel Phelps.

Williams testified that in his 16 to 17 years working as a compliance officer for the HRC, he knew of no other San Francisco mayor intervening in a compliance case. Other officers at the HRC confirmed to the Bay Guardian that no previous mayor had interfered in the HRC’s activities to the extent that Brown has, as did Marshall.

In November 1998 the HRC, under direction from the mayor, reversed Williams’s findings without further investigation, according to Williams’s testimony and interviews with HRC sources. Ratcliff appealed that decision, and it’s taken more than two years for that appeal to get a hearing.

Ultimately, after Ratcliff hired former supervisor Angela Alioto to sue Hensel Phelps, the HRC agreed to hold an arbitration hearing into the appeal. That hearing was the source of Williams’s testimony.

Eight days after Bamba stopped the show-cause hearing, a noose was discovered hanging in a Hensel Phelps trailer near the Liberty work site and brought to Williams’s attention. Hensel Phelps foreman Greg Stines admitted at an Oct. 8, 1998, hearing before the Board of Supervisors that the noose was hanging over his desk, but he said that is was meant as a joke, not as a symbol of racial hatred against blacks. Liberty superintendent Delton Sanders, who took pictures of the noose, wrote in a report to Williams that Stines had told him that the noose “was there for [him] to put his neck into.”

In his Nov. 20, 1998, report Sanders wrote, “This degrading act of a hangman’s noose by HPCC in their job site trailer was by far the worst blatant display of racial discrimination I have ever witnessed in all the forty years of my construction career.”
The hanging of the noose kicked off the FBI’s investigation, which has since broadened to include contracting abuse at the San Francisco Housing Authority and other city agencies.

The HRC and the Mayor’s Office arranged for Hensel Phelps to donate $500,000 to minority programs and open an investment account in a Hunters Point bank to prove that the company was making a good-faith effort to work with minorities. Hensel Phelps representatives said they reprimanded the workers involved in the noose incident.

According to Williams, Marshall, and other sources within the HRC, no previous complaint of that nature had ever been resolved in such a manner.

Williams testified that the Mayor’s Office insisted that the noose incident be treated as a separate issue and not considered in the context of Ratcliff’s complaint. Some time in late October 1998, Williams testified, Jonnie Robinson, a special assistant to the mayor, came over to HRC headquarters and told Williams “that the matter of the hangman’s noose and the issue of discrimination are to be separate findings.”
“She just simply said that is what the mayor wants,” Williams testified.

That diluted the overall case against Hensel Phelps and allowed Bamba to tell the supervisors and the HRC at a joint hearing Oct. 29 that Hensel Phelps was still in compliance with the city’s minority contracting laws. Speakers at the hearing were barred from bringing up the Liberty complaint.

“Putting the complaints together would have tied [the issue] up in a package,” one former HRC officer told us.

Williams also testified that Robinson called him several times in October and November 1998, ordering him to “unfind his findings.” She said, “I want this matter closed. The mayor wants this matter closed. I expect for this to be done, and I am going to put another telephone call to Marivic Bamba to see to it that it is closed.”

Bamba resigned as HRC director in March 2000, following almost of year of press reports on the FBI investigation into the HRC’s contracting practices as well as the airport’s expansion project. She is now a member of the city’s Small Business Commission.

She failed to show up for her scheduled testimony in the arbitration hearing on July 23, according to Alioto.

Hensel Phelps attorney Lindbergh Porter told us, “The company’s position is that we did comply with our contractual obligations. We met our obligation under the portion of the contract pertaining to retention of minority business enterprises.”
Brown spokesperson Ron Vinson said the mayor had no comment on the case.

Firing the chair

According to documents obtained from the HRC, Ratcliff’s lawsuit, and transcripts of Ratcliff’s arbitration-hearing testimony, tensions between Liberty and Hensel Phelps employees started mounting shortly after Liberty started work at the airport in spring 1997. In October, Ratcliff lodged his first official complaint that his outfit was being treated differently than the white-owned subcontractors working on the project.

That same month Hensel Phelps tried to fire Liberty, charging that the small company was performing badly and running up costs. But Williams insisted that Liberty stay on the job and requested an independent audit. He instructed the other HRC officers working at the airport to continue the investigation.

On June 29, 1998, the airport issued an audit that cleared Hensel Phelps and supported the big firm’s allegations that Liberty was doing a shoddy job. Williams testified that he wasn’t satisfied with the document: it didn’t address whether Hensel Phelps was violating the law by deliberately placing hurdles in front of the minority-owned firm.

At the time, Liberty had been complaining to HRC officials at the airport that they were being forced to work under dangerous conditions and without equipment that Hensel Phelps was supposed to provide. Ratcliff testified that he could not get access to basic job needs such as electricity, phone service, and a lift – which forced Liberty workers to hoist heavy materials up several floors with a rope. “We find compelling proof from eyewitness statements, which corroborates Liberty Builders’ complaint of uneven and discriminatory harassment to the extent of being unable to effectively perform,” Williams concluded in his findings.

Hensel Phelps also argued that Williams lacked authority to stop payment to the contractor. Only Bamba, as the HRC director, had that power, the company claimed. The City Attorney’s Office, apparently, has taken Hensel Phelps’s side on that issue: deputy city attorney Katharine Hobin, in her cross-examination of Williams at the May arbitration hearing, asked whether Bamba told Williams when she ordered the show-cause hearing stopped that he did not have the authority to lead it. Williams said that wasn’t true.

Other HRC sources interviewed by the Bay Guardian said that Williams should probably have made sure Bamba signed off on the findings. But, one person said, “even if [Williams] screwed up, Bamba still had the authority to bring in the city attorneys to do cleanup. Instead, she just signed off and let the whole thing go into the toilet, and Hensel Phelps rode into the sunset.”

On Sept. 24, 1998, Bamba met privately with representatives from Hensel Phelps, according to a Sept. 25 letter from Hensel Phelps to Bamba obtained by the Bay Guardian under the city’s Sunshine Ordinance. In the letter, Hensel Phelps thanks Bamba for the meeting and for “confirming that Mr. Williams had no authority to issue the July 30, 1998 letter to the San Francisco Airport Commission purporting that the Airport withhold progress payments due to Hensel Phelps.”

Williams testified that Bamba never even asked for the file on the investigation to be sent to the main office from the airport.
On Nov. 23, 1998, both Williams and Bamba signed off on closing the investigation into Liberty’s charges against Hensel Phelps. “No credible evidence exists to substantiate … the charge of discriminatory treatment,” the determination says. On Dec. 11, 1998, Williams and Bamba both signed off on closing the investigation into the hanging of the noose. Williams testified that he insisted Ratcliff be informed of his right to appeal and that Bamba refused.

Ratcliff wrote a letter to Marshall on Nov. 24 appealing the decision.

Marshall then took the matter to the mayor. He and two other commissioners, Martha Knutzen and Steve Herman, went to the mayor Dec. 10, 1998, to complain that the matter should have been heard by the commissioners, Marshall testified.
“My understanding is that the director is supposed to bring these concerns to the commission and we should have the final say rather than being a rubber stamp; that was my concern,” Marshall told us.

Instead, the mayor informed the commissioners that they were interfering with the running of the agency, Marshall said.
Marshall told us that he decided to meet with representatives of Hensel Phelps to see if the company understood the seriousness of the noose issue, but shortly after the meeting the mayor called him directly and told him to back off.

“I got a call from Brown saying, ‘I heard you had a meeting with Hensel Phelps. That’s interfering with the director,’” Marshall told us. “And I said, no, it’s not … that [the commissioners] just wanted to get some insight into what was going on … It was clear we didn’t agree and then [the phone call] got cut off.”

In March 1999, Marshall ran into Brown on a Saturday, and the mayor curtly informed him that he had replaced him as chair with Harry Low. “He had my resignation the next Monday,” Marshall testified.

If the arbitrator agrees that Bamba abused her discretion in reversing the July 31, 1998, findings against Hensel Phelps, that decision would resurrect those findings and render the final determinations invalid. The matter would then go to the full commission.
“The Human Rights Commission exists to protect and promote equality. It does not exist to suffocate equality in a pillow of ‘nonprofit donations’ and corruption,” Alioto wrote in her brief to the arbitrator assigned to the case. “This entire situation is a travesty in the name of Human Rights and a very sad day in our City’s history.”

Categories: 1


San Francisco Bay Guardian – October 18, 2000 Pgs. 14-16, 34-35


How big developers, with the help of Mayor Willie Brown, are moving to bulldoze the neighborhoods.
By Savannah Blackwell


On Feb. 9, in a corridor outside a City Hall hearing room, powerhouse multimedia lobbyist Robert McCarthy pulled housing activist Calvin Welsh aside and told him exactly how the big developers were going to destroy San Francisco’s limits on commercial office development. He didn’t mince words.

Welsh does not recall exactly word for word what transpired that day, but at least one other observer who was present does, and he says it went something like this: “We’re going to fuck you guys,” McCarthy gleefully charged as he poked Welsh in the chest. “We’re going to repeal Prop. M [the 1986 slow-growth law].” And according to McCarthy, there wasn’t much Welsh or any of his other political allies could do about it. (A call to McCarthy’s office was not returned by press time.)

McCarthy’s plan was to take advantage of a law Welsh wanted expanded” a measure that requires commercial office developers to pay the city a special fee that goes to affordable housing construction. Welsh wanted other kinds of big projects, including hotels and retail outlets, to pay the fee as well.

McCarthy wouldn’t oppose that expansion. Instead, he’d simply convince Leslie Katz, one of his friends on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, to insert language into the law that would define all new multimedia developments as something other than office space. That would mean that these new projects would be exempt from the city’s limits on office construction.

Of course, anyone with any sense knows that multimedia offices are, for all practical planning purposes, the same as offices for lawyers, or accountants, or corporate executives. Many use about the same amount of space for each new employee and thus put the same demand on the city’s transit, parking, housing, and city-services infrastructure.

McCarthy and the developers were getting frustrated by Prop. M’s limits on the amount of new office space that can be built in the city every year. So he was using his political connections and trickery in an attempt to repeal – without a vote of the people – the landmark proposition that 14 years ago had slowed runaway office growth and saved San Francisco’s neighborhoods.

City on the line

The impact of McCarthy’s sneaky plan would have been profound: since many, perhaps most, of the new big office projects that developers want to build in neighborhoods like the Mission District and Potrero Hill were, in fact, designed for Multimedia companies, his legislation could have ended any effective controls on growth. Welsh insisted that McCarthy would never get away with the scheme. “You cannot kill a voter-approved mandate [by getting the Board of Supervisors to pass] an ordinance,” he told the lobbyist. And when the details of McCarthy’s plan became public, even the pro-development supervisors realized the absurdity of his define-away-the-dot-coms plan. Katz’s proposal to designate multimedia office development “research and development” went nowhere.


But McCarthy wasn’t giving up his goal of overturning Prop. M. Within several months he and a handful of other downtown lobbyists had convinced Mayor Willie Brown to put a measure on the November ballot that would, for all practical purposes, destroy 14 years of city planning policy, wipe out a citizen initiative that has become a national model for growth control, and give big developers the freedom to bulldoze what’s left of San Franciscoˆ‚s thriving neighborhoods and diverse economy.

The future of San Francisco will be on the line Nov. 7, when two competing ballot measures – one, Proposition L, backed by Welsh and a host of housing and neighborhood activists, and the other, Proposition K, the work of Brown, McCarthy, and the developers – vie for voter support.

Prop. K would accelerate the rate of multimedia office development in neighborhoods that are already suffering from overcrowding and gentrification and, as a result, would accelerate the eviction of nonprofits, arts groups, and renters. “This is a repeal of Prop. M,” Welsh told us. “Everything in [Prop. K] could be done by ordinance, except to lift the annual limit on office development, and that’s what Prop. K does.” Of course, Prop. K supporters disagree. “Prop. K attempted to find a balanced approach,” Emilio Cruz said at a Sept. 27 workshop on Prop. K held by the San Francisco Partnership, a pro-business group created by Gap CEO Don Fisher. Cruz, who has taken a leave of absence from his job as the mayor’s director of economic development to lead the Prop. K campaign, argued that the measure “keeps the cap of 900,000 square feet and defines multimedia [developments] as subject to the exactions [fees]. We needed to compromise, and Prop. K does that.

The impact of this election can’t be understated. If the developers win this battle, big new projects will crop up all over the city, in areas that are now mostly residential and light industrial. Those projects will demolish existing buildings that house blue-collar jobs and drive up rents for residents and small businesses (not to mention artists) – and thousands of people will be driven out of town. What’s more, the city’s economy will suffer badly as a result (see “The Dot-Com Road to Ruin,” page 20).

The mayor is pushing Prop. K despite his earlier blessing of a series of discussions between neighborhood activists and business interests that was supposed to lead to a compromise. In doing so, he has stoked the first major development war in San Francisco in more than a decade. “During the first four years [of the mayor’s administration], it seemed that the mayor was willing to have an honest, open, and real dialogue about economic development and community development,” Welsh told the Bay Guardian. “But in the last nine months that’s gone out the window. This guy has decided to lean to one side.” The side that Brown is leaning to is the side of multimedia developers and their representatives who contributed generously to the mayor’s reelection campaign (see “Giving Away the City,” page 18).

Like Old Times

The situation in the mid 1980s that led to the passage of Prop. M is strikingly similar to the situation today: more capitol is being thrown at one particular segment of the economy than actually matches the demand. In those days, the rush was to build high-rise office buildings to accommodate supposedly soaring growth in the real estate, finance, and insurance industries. Today, it’s turning warehouses – whether they’re being used already or not – into dot-com businesses.


In 1986 Mayor Dianne Feinstein’s “Downtown Plan” was threatening to displace small, South of Market businesses to allow the expansion of office construction – even though studies showed that these small businesses were responsible for most of the city’s job growth. Today, scores of nonprofits, artistic groups, and other less profitable ventures that help sustain the vibrancy of our communities have been forced or are on their way out. As in 1986, those people and companies looking to make money out of a particular segment have convinced the city’s top elected officials to steer planning policy to fit their agenda. But today the stakes are even higher.

In 1986 Prop. M supporters were fighting to protect San Francisco’s local industries, the skyline, the character of the neighborhoods, and the city’s stock of affordable housing. Today Prop. L supporters are fighting to keep people who make less than $100,000 a year from having to see the city. The outcome is fundamental to the very livability of San Francisco. The remnants of the city as we know it are at stake.

Prop. M was based on the notion that San Francisco ought to be developed to make life better for the people who live here, not to help outside financial interests make more money. Passed in 1986, it limited all new office development to 950,000 square feet a year. Unlike Feinstein’s “Downtown Plan,” which was aimed at luring out-of-town capitol to the city and which allowed high-rise development to expand beyond the Financial District, Prop. M sought to protect San Francisco’s native industries and neighborhoods by directing office growth to the existing Financial District. One of its main tenets was that office development should happen where the city’s major public transit corridors are located – that is, downtown – and not in residential and light-industrial neighborhoods.

Prop. M kept the high-rises from spreading to the Mission and other neighborhoods and is part of the reason San Franciscoˆ‚s economy did not suffer a more serious blow in the 1990s. Welch, who helped write Prop. M, says the situation today is even more critical, because so much more money is involved in pushing one industry. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in August, for example, that 227 Bay Area companies attracted more than $2 billion in venture capitol during a three-month period this spring.

“This is the eternal game in San Francisco, in which land use is key to money and all behind-doors political garbage,” Welch said. “It’s all about development here. But now it’s more fundamental. It’s about the transformation of who works here and who lives here. It’s far more intensive and massive [than in 1986].”

There’s a huge rush on to build new office space. City officials have approved some four million square feet of office space since the beginning of this year, adding to the three million already approved before 2000. If the mayor’s measure passes, by 2003 the city could have another 15 million square feet of space – the equivalent of 25 new Transamerica pyramids – approved or under construction, much of it outside of downtown. If all of that space were filled, it would mean 60,000 new office workers pouring into an already overcrowded city – with nowhere near enough housing being built for them. So tens of thousands of existing residents will have to be displaced (see “38,000 Evictions?,” page 21).

Already developers have been exploiting the loophole that McCarthy wanted enshrined in law. In many cases multimedia developers have convinced city planners not to call their proposed office projects offices. They have been allowed to convert warehouses and other spaces for high-tech enterprises without having to go through messy public hearings (and without having to abide by the annual growth limit). Residents who have fought these projects have moved beyond anger and desperation (see “Battle for the Barrio,” page 31). Many of them are now supporting L.

The city wasn’t, and isn’t, prepared to deal with the influx of dot-commers. Finding a parking space in the Mission can take 20 to 30 minutes now. Spillover streets are gridlocked during rush hour. Only the well-off can afford to move to the city. Artists, nonprofits, and now even doctors cannot afford space to work. It’s become glaringly obvious that the developers have taken control of city planning.

“We have been learning and developed an understanding of the planning process and have become much more sophisticated in understanding it,” Eric Quezada, resident programs director for the Mission Housing Development Corporation (MEDA) and a Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MAC) organizer, told the Bay Guardian. “One of the most important things that’s happened in San Francisco for many years is that we targeted the planning department and exposed them for the decisions they are making and how it affects the [housing] market. People thought it was just about the market forces. As if there was no facilitation process by the city.”

No Real Planning

Meanwhile, the rising number of reports of mergers and layoffs suggests that the high-tech industry may be leveling out. In fact, the city may be building far more space then the dot-coms need.

That’s the problem with allowing developers to set the planning agenda: the city’s growth is driven by all sorts of factors (greed, speculation, excess capital) that have nothing to do with logical planning for real need. According to Katz’s proposal to categorize multimedia office development as something other than “office use,” the information technology firms need an additional 2.5 million square feet – a figure put out by high-tech industry lobbyists. But the mayor and the developers’ measure would allow the construction of 15 million square feet of office space by 2003 (though not all of that would go to dot-com businesses).

Prop. L is hardly antigrowth: it would allow a little more than 10 million square feet of new office space during the same period and more than two million next year alone. Props. L and K would both change development law governing the city’s southeast section and modify the cap on the amount of new office construction that can be approved in any one year. But there the similarities end. Prop. L does include compromises, such as exempting federal, state, and city office space, Pier 70, and the Hunters Point shipyard – but, unlike K, it maintains the 950,000 square foot limit.

And perhaps more important, Prop. L bans big office development in the Mission and parts of Potrero Hill.

Though its proponents won’t admit it, Prop. K does away with the office limit imposed by Prop. M. It allows for more than seven million square feet in new office construction by the middle of 2001 alone and more than the 950,000-square-foot limit each year thereafter. It exempts Mission Bay’s massive proposed office development, as well as all land under the jurisdiction of the Port of San Francisco. It opens up areas of the city to office development where it is presently banned, such as in parts of SoMa, Telegraph Hill, the Embarcadero, South Beach-Rincon Hill, and Treasure Island.

Prop. K purports to protect parts of the Mission and Potrero Hill from further, large-scale office development for two years. But L proponents say that moratorium is phony, because K fails to stop developers from exploiting the live-work loophole in the city’s planning laws that allows them to construct market-rate lofts supposedly for artists to live and work in. Many of those buildings are being used solely as multimedia office space (see “Strictly Business,” page 26).

Like its predecessor, Prop. M, Prop. L is based on the premise that San Franciscans who live here have an inherent right to continue to do so. Also like Prop. M, it directs office growth to public transit corridors and limits or stops it in several neighborhoods. It bans further office development in the north Mission (except for the Armory project at 14th and Mission Streets) and parts of Potrero Hill. It places a moratorium on commercial office developments in the mid-Market area, SoMa, parts of Potrero Hill, and Bayview-Hunters Point until neighborhood plans for those regions can be established by planners in coordination with residents and approved by the Board of Supervisors. And any proposal for an office development larger than 6,000 square feet would require a public hearing.

Prop. L goes much further than Prop. K toward protecting the most endangered types of organizations in the city: nonprofits and groups dedicated to the arts. It encourages affordable housing development by directing the Board of Supervisors to pass a law requiring dot-com and other office developments to set aside 10 percent of their space to nonprofit groups, at less than market-rate rent. It prevents nonprofits and arts groups from having to compete for space with office developments by calling nonprofit developments “community services.” (The mayor’s measure also exempts nonprofits from the annual limit.) It also requires that developer fees to support housing construction and the arts be adjusted with inflation.

Prop. L also settles the contentious matter of live-work developers’ not paying affordable housing and other fees, by formally categorizing live-work as housing development. Prop. K doesn’t address the live-work issue at all; instead the mayor is backing legislation at the Board of Supervisors that would treat live-work construction as housing development and therefore subject to impact fees. But there’s no guarantee that that legislation will pass (or won’t be killed if Prop. L fails).

Though the mayor and K’s backers claim their measure will establish developer fees for affordable housing and the city’s other needs, passage of the initiative itself will not put those charges into effect. That would require legislation to by the Board of Supervisors. And none of those charges apply to projects built in 2000 – which means some $61 million for affordable housing, transit, and child care the city will never see. “K means more office development [than L] and less money for services,” Welch says.

Brown kills compromise

If Brown weren’t completely beholden to a few very greedy developers and lobbyists, this ballot battle might never have happened. In a highly unusual move earlier this year, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the slow-growth activists very nearly reached a compromise.

About a year ago the business community started debating the dot-com phenomenon and began to ask, “Is this too much of a good thing?” The San Francisco Business Times pointed out that the multimedia office developers wanted more space than the law would allow. At the same time, activists started to note that many live-work units were being used as offices for Web enterprises.

In response to the debate, Brown encouraged Chamber of Commerce vice president Roberta Achtenberg last spring to call for a summit, one in which the disparate interests – from development boosters such as the San Francisco Partnership to neighborhood activists from the Mission, where displacement pains were already severe and anger over massive multimedia office proposals such as Bryant Square palpable – could come to some kind of compromise over how to revise Prop. M to handle the push to build dot-com offices.

The idea was to put that compromise on the ballot, since any changes to Prop. M would require a vote of the people. There was one key point the 30 or so people gathered for those summit meetings quickly agreed on: there was too much office space going into neighborhoods that lacked the infrastructure to handle it – and future development shouldn’t come at the cost of destroying those neighborhoods. From there, the talks led to an outline of principles.

The activists, including Welch and several neighborhood leaders – Quezada and Carlos Romero of MAC, Luis Granados of MEDA, Dick Millet of the Potrero Boosters Neighborhood Association and others from Potrero Hill, and Sophie Maxwell, who is running for supervisor in the Bayview – agreed that they were willing to trade an adjustment in the annual office growth limit for neighborhood protections. (Welch and his housing activist group had been talking to residents from the frontline neighborhoods about their concerns several months before the talks started.) They agreed to exempt already approved projects such as the redevelopment of the Hunters Point shipyard and the construction of the Lucas digital center at the Presidio and Catellus Corporation’s Mission Bay complex – if multimedia development was slowed down in residential areas.

The neighborhoods activists were also willing to allow planners to “borrow” from future years’ office growth allotments if the push for development was particularly strong in a given year – and if the basic tenets of Prop. M were maintained.

After some 20 discussion sessions the Chamber of Commerce put out a list of principles that represented a compromise between the two sides. Those principles included modifying or lifting the office growth limit under Prop. M to accommodate the current backlog of projects. But the principles also stressed that the economic diversity and the character of the city’s neighborhoods should be preserved.

This consensus approach was underscored in a proposal adopted in June by the board of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research (SPUR) association, a group that traditionally had been friendly to developers. That proposal stressed that office development should occur mostly near major public transit and that large-scale growth should be directed away from neighborhoods.

During preparation for the talks, the two sides had agreed that a few people from both sides – namely land-use attorneys Sue Hester and Tim Tosta and lobbyists McCarthy and Debra Stein – would not be invited. The idea was to avoid the most vocal element of both sides of the issue. It wasn’t a perfect situation by any means, and the final outcome might not have pleased anyone. But it was remarkable that the participants agreed to some basic guidelines – guidelines that the mayor would very soon scrap. According to Welch and others involved, the most strident pro-development forces, the ones not directly involved in the Chamber of Commerce talks, did an end run around that process and went straight to the mayor.

The activists strongly suspect that representatives from the San Francisco Partnership (which has promoted a 1996 Arthur Anderson study urging the elimination of city rules that hinder multimedia development), who were involved in the Chamber of Commerce talks, assisted those who weren’t by complaining to the mayor that the neighborhood activists were getting their way in the talks. At least, that’s what two of the developers who were at the Chamber of Commerce talks put out. A July 3 San Francisco Business Times article quoted Dan Kingsley of SKS Investments, the developer of Bryant Square, saying, “To craft a ballot measure in November, there should be more bipartisan support than exists now.” And it reported that office developer Douglas Rosenberg had yanked his support of the Chamber of Commerce principles. (Kingsley’s projects were already heading toward approval.) Despite the mayor’s blessing of the talks, it soon became apparent he was not going to bless the discussions’ outcome.

In a June 26 meeting with those involved in the Chamber of Commerce discussions, the mayor seemed unimpressed with the compromise. According to participants in that meeting, the mayor said he didn’t like the fact that the proposal failed to create a special category to cover multimedia, the concept proposed by Katz at the behest of McCarthy and other multimedia lobbyists. In fact, he made it clear that he wanted to end any effective limits on office development in San Francisco.

Participants walked out realizing that the Chamber of Commerce compromise was dead. The activists concluded that the talks were simply a way to stall them from getting a measure on the November ballot that would amend Prop. M to deal with the dot-com assault.

“Apparently there was some kind of internal competition among the developers in terms of what their influence would be on the mayor,” Quezada told the Bay Guardian. Why else [other than the developers getting to him] would the mayor kill the compromise? He passed up an opportunity for a win-win situation.”

Achtenberg admitted to the Bay Guardian that the mayor’s decision surprised her. She, along with Welch, had been providing regular updates to Brown on the direction of the talks. He had not raised any objections.

“Mostly we were hopeful that a compromise that served the goals of neighborhoods and business would have been embraced,” Achtenberg said. Then she added, “I think we influenced both proposals.” But she stressed that the Chamber of Commerce is supporting the mayor’s measure.

According to Quezada, angry Mission residents had been carefully following the Chamber of Commerce discussions and were outraged when the mayor killed the compromise. “[The compromise] was not a done deal,” Quezada said. “We would have had to sell it hard to the community. But [the mayor’s decision] helped pull a lot of the troops together. Regardless of the outcomes in November, I think [the mayor’s decision] has backfired on him. He’ll be ruling over a deeply divided city.”

Brown staffer Cruz explained the mayor’s actions at the San Francisco Partnership workshop for Prop. K. He said the Chamber of Commerce compromise did not allow enough office construction to “keep [the dot-com] industry going and the economy healthy.”

“It would have left the next administration in a difficult position,” he said. “We were worried about that.” Cruz also revealed a little bit about who had influenced the measure’s contents. He said Prop. K was the result of picking “the best things” from the Chamber of Commerce compromise, separate proposal from the San Francisco Partnership and SPUR, and a “a few other comments from private interests that, by that time, were circulating on the streets.” The same day the mayor dissed the compromise, the Board of Supervisors signed off on the Bryant Square multimedia development.

Two days later, on June 28, more than 500 people packed the Horace Mann Middle School in the Mission to confront representatives from the Planning Department, which had approved the Bryant Square in May. Enraged residents demanded an end to new lofts as well as office buildings and live-work conversions.

The following weekend Hestor, Debra Walker (a painter who has taken the lead in fighting the displacement of artists), Welch, activists from the Mission, and artist-activist Andrew Wood called a pow-wow. They faced two choices: to sue over each multimedia office project that the developers and planners tried to call something else or to amend Prop. M. The decision to go to the voters as soon as possible was spurred by Welch’s recent acquisition of some inside information. He had heard, secondhand, a comment made by Jack Davis, the mayor’s political consultant who directed the anti-M campaign in 1986, that made him suspect that the mayor and his forces were going to try to repeal Prop. M at the November ballot.

Hestor’s July 5 e-mail announcing the creation of “the daughter of Prop. M,” which would have become Prop. L, went like this: “Last Monday the Board of Supervisors gave the finger to the Mission when it rubber-stamped the more than 165,000 square foot Bryant Square project at 20th and Bryant, surrounded by neighborhood housing serving many low income Latino families,” Hestor wrote. “Over the weekend some of those who had been involved in the [Chamber of Commerce talks] process got angry and decided to call the mayor’s bluff… we drafted the ‘Daughter of Prop. M’ to close the loopholes created by planning development… make the city develop new offices in areas where there is adequate transit (rather than neighborhood locations where people will drive and over-run the neighborhood) AND BAN NEW OFFICE CONSTRUCTION IN THE MISSION AND FORCE PLANNING OF THE AREAS IN THE WESTERN SOUTH OF MARKET, THE BASE OF POTRERO HILL AND BAYVIEW [Hestor’s emphasis].”

The activists took a two-pronged approach, hitting the streets for signatures and also trying to get four supervisors to put it on the ballot. They got three: Tom Ammiano, Sue Bierman, and Mark Leno, Gavin Newsom – their best shot after Sup. Leland Yee declined – ultimately refused to sign.

On July 13 more than 500 people – many of whom had attended the venting session at the middle school – rallied on the steps of City Hall, specifically to protest the Planning Commission’s and the mayor’s policies. By July 31 proponents of Prop. M’s daughter, or the “Honest Planning Initiative,” had gotten enough signatures to get it on the ballot. On Aug. 7 Brown he4eld a meeting in his office to discuss an alternative to the activists’ plan. It had been billed as a discussion, but it was quickly clear there wasn’t going to be much of that. Welch, who participated, told us that the mayor simply wanted the 22 or so assembled to declare outright their support for the measure. Chamber of Commerce CEO Rhea Serphan and SPUR president Jim Chappell were the first to oblige. Welch refused.

The actual text of Prop. K was not ready until two days later, at the last possible moment before the 5 p.m. deadline Aug. 9. That gave the writers just enough time to throw in several highly objectionable items, including the appointment of a so-called development czar who, during a 10-year appointment, would look for neighborhoods willing to accept more multimedia office development. The czar would be appointed by the mayor and would be accountable to nobody. Supervisors and Brown allies Katz, Alicia Becerril, Amos Brown, and Micheal Yaki helped get the measure on the ballot by adding their signatures.

One day before, representatives of developers, including McCarthy, made it clear that they had had early, direct knowledge of the contents of the mayor’s measure: they filed applications for developments that the proposal would grandfather in = only if they were filed by Aug. 9 at 5 p.m. By 5 p.m. on Aug. 9 – just after Cruz had literally run through the halls to deliver Prop. K to the Department of Elections – it was clear that voters would face two very different measures on the ballot dealing with office growth: one that would hasten the destruction of neighborhoods, the loss of jobs and people, and one that would slow it down.

The Developer Lies

After failing to stop Prop. L in court, the proponents of K have started a major disinformation campaign fueled by hundreds of thousands of dollars from developers. Voters can expect a flood of mailers, chief among the charges being that L will drive out a “burgeoning” industry that is contributing to the economic boom times.

“We are now experiencing a textbook case of too much demand chasing too little supply,” Chappell wrote in an Oct. 12 op-ed piece in the san Francisco Chronicle. Then he offered this total falsehood: “Prop. K will encourage the construction of new office space where our city can best handle it – in the downtown area.” (Actually, it’s L that encourages construction downtown and K that pushes it deeper into neighborhoods.)

The “demand” in not due to normal market forces, but to a whopping influx of billions in capitol in a very short amount of time. How long it will last is tough to predict. Currently, office space is available downtown, but dot-coms don’t want to go there because it costs more money. The San Francisco Business Times reported June 9 that many Web outfits are leasing space in live-work buildings simply because it is cheaper, not because they couldn’t find space downtown. And in any case, allowing one type of industry to flourish at the expense of others doesn’t make for sound economic policy.

Prop. K’s proponents claim the measure will let the city “grow smartly,” while L will drive up rents. But that’s just another way of making the same phony supply-and-demand argument: it’s the current administration’s total failure to enforce San Francisco’s basic planning laws and the resulting breakneck speed of office construction – not the lack of space – that is escalating rents, forcing evictions, and disrupting communities. K will make all of that worse.

Prop. K’s supporters also claim, ironically, that Prop. L will widen economic disparity by “redlining” certain neighborhoods. “The permanent shut-down of office development as proposed in Prop. L would likely lead to decreased rents and property values in the redlined areas,” a report put out by real estate firm Grubb and Ellis claims. But it’s the intrusion of higher-rent office space into lower-rent office space into lower-rent neighborhoods that is widening the gap between haves and have-nots. And Prop. K would accelerate the invasion.

Don’t go to Kansas!

The San Francisco Partnership’s Sept. 27 workshop on Prop. K provided a peek at the developers’ campaign. Billed as a discussion on “winning smart growth for San Francisco” and held at the tony City Club of San Francisco, the cocktail reception featured a panel whose members all pushed Prop. K while laying out false charges against L and false claims about K.

First up was Katz, who claimed that “Prop. L will stop all growth.” She is wrong. Prop L allows office development to continue near downtown and parts of SoMa. Under its terms, 10 million square feet of office space can be built or approved by 2003. Despite what the developers say, it does not stop all construction projects larger than 6,000 square feet. It simply requires that those proposals go through a public hearing.

Cruz plugged the fallacious economic argument, saying K will keep rents “at a reasonable rate” and that the city needs to increase the supply of office space “to preserve a balanced economy in San Francisco.” After Cruz, the San Francisco Partnership’s Marie Jones stood up and claimed that she would make the case “for the other side,” but she didn’t do a very honest job of that. She quickly painted Prop. L’s supporters as irrational. Her comment, “You won’t see the raging emotionalism [that you would have] if we had an L supporter up here” brought applause and laughs from the tassel-loafered group. Then she said the measure could not survive a legal challenge, because the provision suggesting office developers provide space to nonprofits at below market rents amounts to commercial rent control (which state law prohibits). She blasted Prop. L’s public hearing requirements: “Every yahoo in San Francisco will be able to come and try to stuff your project.” Finally, she dismissed it as “draconian.”

Then the San Francisco Partnership’s president, Mara Brazer, reassured the crowd that Prop. K would save them from the disaster of L: “Don’t despair if you’re a real estate developer and you feel like moving to Kansas.”

The attendees started to fret about the campaign, worrying who would get the message out and where the money would come from. But they need not have concerned themselves about either. Cruz quickly assured them that the mayor himself was handling the campaign (on behalf of the business community, Cruz added) and that Brown was planning to enlist a well-experienced consultant. Cruz did not name the outfit, but on Oct. 11 the Chronicle’s Matier and Ross reported that Barnes, Mosher and Whitehurst – the firm directing the local Democratic Party machine’s soft money campaign for district elections – had joined the mayor’s Prop. K team, along with Davis and direct-mail specialists Terris and Jaye. Lobbyist Don Solem is handling media calls.

BMW partner Robert Barnes is closely allied with the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club, which is playing a role in the web of soft money as well. The club’s slate cards have already arrived in voter’s mailboxes. Most of the club’s candidates for supervisor support K. And as for money – it’s rolling on in.

According to reports filed early this month at the San Francisco Ethics Commission, the Yes on K campaign has collected $226,750 – mostly from developers, their lawyer representatives, and other real estate interests. Lobbyists McCarthy and Marcia Smolens each gave $10,000. Rosenberg’s companies contributed $75,000. Other SoMa and Mission developers have forked over tens of thousands of dollars. For example, TST Mission Street gave $50,000, HC&M Commercial Properties $10,000. In an effort to protect his piece of the dot-com pie, live work landlord Victor Makras gave $10,000.

The Campaign to Save San Francisco (Yes on L) had collected $89,000 by the beginning of October. Of that, Doug Engmann, an original backer of Prop. M, contributed $12,500. Former mayoral candidate and original Prop. M backer Clint Reilly spent $44,000 on the petition drive. Engmann and Reilly have contributed nothing close to the $2 million the Chronicle’s Matier and Ross reported Brown claimed the two would kick in (see District Elections Notebook, 10/11/00). Indeed, the bulk of Prop. L’s contributions come from San Francisco residents and are less then $500 each.

Prop. K’s proponents are using one of the oldest campaign tricks in the book: steal the other side’s issue. By appearing to address some of the severe problems caused by rampant office development in the neighborhoods, they hope to convince voters there is no need to vote for L.

The mayor’s Oct. 3 press conference announcing that he would try to find space for nonprofits and artists who’ve been priced out of their practice and performance venues was part of that strategy. Even pro-establishment columnist Ken Garcia didn’t buy it. “Mock Tears for Eviction Victims” headed his Oct. 5 piece in the Chronicle.

In addition, expect Prop. K’s proponents to herald the Planning Commission’s Oct. 19 discussion of Katz’s amendments to the city’s existing legislation requiring office developers to help fund affordable housing as further evidence that Prop. L isn’t needed. They’ll also try to claim that Katz’s proposed legislation to treat live-work developments as housing construction – and therefore subject to some fees – as further evidence that L is not needed. Neither will do anything to prevent office development from further destroying neighborhoods. The only way to do that is to vote no on K and yes on L.

“The only people Prop. K will benefit are the lawyers representing projects before the Planning Commission and the developers,” Welch said. “It does not benefit small businesses or nonprofits or arts organizations. It opens up SoMa to unbridled development. It makes no mention of traffic. It’s a bad policy that does not benefit the people who call San Francisco home.”

Categories: 1

GAY-VOTE GAMES – September 20, 2000

San Francisco Bay Guardian – September 20, 2000


The machine’s “Lavender Sweep” plan to divide gay and progressive voters

By Savannah Blackwell

Chris Daly organizes low-income tenants and has helped lead the Mission’s anti-displacement movement. Chris Dittenhafer heads a group of small merchants on Polk Street and has lent his image to the political cause of big taxi companies.

Daly is straight. Dittenhafer is gay. Both are running for supervisor for District Six, which encompasses the Mission, South of Market, and the Tenderloin. Daly has the support of many members of the Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgendr Democratic Club. Dittenhafer is part of the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club’s “Lavender Sweep”slate – a strategy, devised by political consultant Robert Barnes, aimed at getting five queers elected to the 11-member Board of Supervisors. The sweep is part of a broader machine-friendly lineup being pushed by the Alice B. Toklas club and Barnes.

The two clubs’ respective endorsements show the striking difference between the strategy of Alice and Barnes, who is heavily involved in the club, and that of the Milk Club and Milk heir apparent Tom Ammiano, who endorsed a straight woman known for her leadership on environmental issues for supervisor in District 6 (see “District Six Dilemma,” 9/13/00). Both Ammiano and Milk have only endorsed two queers for supervisor. The endorsements also reflect widening splits in queer-community politics. Alice and Milk, both highly influential in the city’s gay community, are appealing to different factions within that community. “What’s becoming clear is that more and more the gay community is becoming economically split,” pollster David Binder told the Bay Guardian. “You’ve got more conservative gays living on the hills, and then on the flatlands you’ve got more progressives. Politically, we’re seeing the aging and maturation of the community and a moving into more or less two different camps.”

Another indicator of the divide: Alice supports the mayor’s pet measure on the November ballot, Proposition K, while Milk opposes it.

As the direct heir to Milk’s political legacy, the Milk club has long reflected more leftist, progressive values, such as keeping rents affordable for working-class people and supporting workers’ rights, whereas Alice has been closer to the machine – endorsing Dianne Feinstein’s bids for mayor in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. The Milk club was more willing to go out on a limb for riskier candidates, while Alice played close to the machine.

Case in point: Alice didn’t endorse Harvey Milk in his two bids for supervisor and for state assembly. The club was an early and stalwart supporter of Mayor Willie Brown in his reelection campaign against Ammiano. Indeed, political historians note, one reason for the Milk Club’s formation in 1977 was to assemble a group of gay Democrats willing to put the word “gay” in the group’s title (see “Happy Birthday Milk Club” 5/14/97).

With the return of district elections – a system that brought San Francisco to its first openly gay supervisor – the heirs to Harvey Milk’s political legacy are endorsing only two candidates for supervisor who identify as queer. Alice, on the other hand, has endorsed five.

So why is the Alice club pushing the slate with more queers than Milk? Milkers and Ammiano say the Alice club is using the gay card to push a machine-friendly group of supervisors that will ensure that Brown maintains his tight grip on the board. Alice charges that Milk is failing to cultivate gay candidates and is departing from its roots.

Milkers explain that their choices reflect the maturation of the city’s gay political movement, to a firm place at the table of power. Now, the Milk club and Ammiano’s litmus test is progressive politics – whether candidates are independent from the entrenched, local Democratic machine and the corporate money that sustains it, as well as where they stand on issues such as tenants rights, gentrification, and privatization of city resources.

“The lesbian and gay movements are all grown up now,” Doug Comstock, a longtime gay political consultant who is running the campaign of Matt Gonzalez, a straight progressive, for supervisor in District Five against Juanita Owens, a queer Latina who has long served on the Board of Education and whom Alice has endorsed. “We’re part of a broader constituency concerned about real issues, such as housing and [the city’s lack of] planning.”

“If a candidate wants to run and win these days, they’ve got to have good gay politics,” Milk political action committee cochair Jerry Threet said. Threet is running the campaign of straight, white neighborhood activist Jake McGoldrick against incumbent Michael Yaki, who is straight and endorsed by Alice.

Ammiano’s list of endorsements varies only slightly from that of Milk. But the issues he and Milk leaders cite as key to their support are nearly identical.

“What we want today is independent, homework-oriented candidates who won’t take money from downtown,” Ammiano told us. “Then you look at [sexual] orientation and race…. I don’t care if a candidate is gay if [he or she] has terrible politics.”

Ammiano called the Alice and Barnes Lavender Sweep “manipulative” and a “cheap shot,” charging that Barnes has used the club to strengthen his clients’ credibility with gay voters. Alice cochair Dean Goodwin says the club considers Barne’s advice but functions independently from the interests of his clients.

Rich de Leon, the chair of the political science department at San Francisco State University, told the Bay Guardian that the last mayoral race – Alice supported Brown, while Milk supported Ammiano – was a watershed moment in the maturation of the gay movement.

“It seems to me that San Francisco politics have reached a level of maturity where we’re branching out from identity politics to politics of ideology,” de Leon said. “That’s a good thing, and it was reflected in the last mayor’s race. Outside of the city the race was portrayed as a black, liberal straight guy versus a white, liberal gay guy. But inside the city it wasn’t about that. It was about [where the two stood] on issues such as housing and dot-com growth.”

Meanwhile, gay political consultant and soft money shepherd Barnes is banking on many gay voters still voting queer first, politics second. Aside from Ammiano, the Lavender Sweep slate mostly includes candidates whose politics are moderate on the San Francisco spectrum and who generally do not pose a threat to the machine.

Some are not the mayor’s first choices, but in the face of a runoff with a community leader endorsed by Milk or Ammiano, they are candidates he and big money will support.

Early this year Alice’s executive officers scanned the field of potential district supervisors and took note of several queer incumbents whose chances of winning looked good and who, in the opinion of Alice’s leaders, had solid records of building consensus on issues.

“[The Lavender Sweep] came out of an organic process of the executive board,” Goodwin said. “We saw early that there were several strong incumbents – Leslie Katz, Tom Ammiano, and Mark Leno. We knew Lawrence Wong and, of course, Juanita Owens. So there were five really strong candidates that, on the issues, are very diverse.”

Katz later dropped out, and Alice recently endorsed Dittenhafer, who replaced Katz as the mayor’s choice for District Six.

Ammiano and Milk members say it should come as no surprise that Milk did not endorse those candidates. Aside from Ammiano – who chafed at the use of his name in association with the four other sweep members – none of them are candidates Milk would endorse.

“When queer politics got started in this city, it was synonymous with progressive politics. Milk was the leading example of that. It’s no accident that the Milk Club doesn’t endorse candidates who are not progressive,” equal benefits advocate and former Milk club president Jeff Sheehy told the Bay Guardian.

“Anyone who would vote to privatize schools is bad news,” Sheehy said, referring to school board member and candidate for District Five supervisor Owens’s consistent support of the privatization of the Edison School. Owens’s political career owes much to her former consultant, Barnes.

Her campaign is expected to benefit from soft money from business interests. As a member of the Democratic County Central Committee, Owens voted against endorsing Proposition I – which would slow dot-com office growth in neighborhoods where residents are being forced out by high rents, and for Proposition G, which would stall closure of JFK Drive on Saturdays. A landlord, she abstained on the two tenant initiatives. Owens did not return Bay Guardian calls for comment.

Alice’s candidate for District Three, Community College Board member Lawrence Wong, is not threat to moneyed interests – his campaign literature is aimed at business groups. On the college board Wong supported keeping the ROTC on campus after gay students opposed its presence because of the military’s position on gays within its ranks. Brown’s favorite is incumbent Alicia Becerril, who is straight. But in a runoff against feisty neighborhood activist Aaron Peskin – a straight man endorsed by Ammiano, the Milk Club, longtime gay leader Harry Britt, and Assemblymember Carole Migden – Brown would clearly support Wong.

Alice’s candidate for District Eight, Mark Leno, has recently started to distance himself from Brown. In June, for example, he voted against the Bryant Square dot-com office development that galvanized opposition in the Mission. But during most of his tenure he generally has voted with the rest of the Brown-appointed majority. Most recently he sided with the majority against putting a municipal utility district measure on the ballot. Barnes and Alice expect Leno to win easily against Ammiano and Milk’s Eileen Hansen, who is also gay but identifies more with tenants and the leftist roots of the old Castro.

The rest of Alice’s slate fits neatly with that of the mayor – with the notable exception of District 11, where Alice endorsed neighborhood activist Rebecca Silverberg over incumbent Amos Brown. Otherwise the list reads the same; incumbent Michael Yaki for District One, incumbent Gavin Newsom for Two, political consultant and Barnes colleague Tom Hsieh Jr. for Four over incumbent and independent Leland Yee, Sup. Mabel Teng for Seven, incumbent Mark Leno for Eight, and planning commissioner Linda Richardson for District 10. (Ammiano is running unopposed from District 9). Key to the Milk club’s endorsements was a candidate’s position on progressive issues such as the two tenant initiatives (H and N) and the dueling measures on controlling dot-com office growth (K and L); not so for Alice.

“Alice is about coalition building,” Goodwin said. “We don’t have a litmus test around propositions…. To get things done you have to be able to work with everybody. We look at your ability to build consensus.”

Milk, Goodwin said, is “looking at housing and renters’ issues…. Maybe it should be called the Harvey Milk Progressive Club.” Milk president Phillip Babcock defended the club‘s emphasis on issues. “We are a lesbian and gay democratic club. We have the responsibility to have strong independent leaders who support the community.”

“The issues that came up over and over [as key issues to the Club] were K and L, the tenant issues, campaign finance, and ethics,” Babcock said. “We also wanted to see who was independent of not just the mayor but also downtown money.”

“If the Lavender Sweep only includes machine candidates, it’s not a lavender slate,” Babcock said. “[Alice’s] slate is not about a lavender slate. It’s about a machine lavender slate. Everything Harvey fought against. People have to represent the community first and the interests of the administration second.” ?

The Lavender soft-money Sweepstakes

The Alice B. Toklas Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club will play a major role in steering soft money from business interests into supervisorial and other campaigns – and many members of the Lavender Sweep will benefit. On Sept. 11 Alice formed a fundraising committee headed by political consultant Robert Barnes. “I imagine that will start happening between now and the end of October,” Alice cochair Dean Goodwin said. Barnes confirmed that he will play a lead role in independent expenditure campaigns for various races.

Alice spent more than $100,000 on reelecting Brown, according to reports filed with the Ethics Commission and Barnes. Contributors included corporations and individuals with business before the city, such as Norcal Waste Systems, Gap CEO Don Fisher, and live-work developer Joe O’Donoghue.

After the mayor’s reelection last December – which depended heavily on a multi-million dollar independent expenditure campaign orchestrated by Barnes, the Committee on Jobs’ Mark Mosher, and consultant John Whitehurst – Barnes formed Barnes, Mosher and Whitehurst. The BMW team is expected to marshal hordes of soft money for district elections. Voters can expect a deluge of mailers and ads supporting Alice’s slate.

But Rich de Leon, the chair of the political science department at San Francisco Sate University, said the Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Democratic Club’s support for candidates with strong ties to the neighborhood might play better than big money: “[The soft money campaign] might not be a successful as they might hope,” de Leon said. “I think that can turn people off…. The successful gay candidate will be elected because they’re seen as good leaders across the neighborhood.”

Categories: 1

NO CASH, NO CONTRACT – July 5, 2000

San Francisco Bay Guardian – July 5, 2000


How Ernie Meriweather’s plan to create jobs for troubled kids collapsed when he wouldn’t fork over a mysterious $60,000 cash payment.

By Savannah Blackwell

nocashnocon.jpgIn 1994, when African American community activist Ernie Meriweather first conceived an ambitious development project on the San Francisco waterfront that would create jobs for troubled youth, he knew there would be obstacles.

For starters, he’d never done any real estate development work, and certainly nothing of this scale. His idea would cost hundreds of millions of dollars Ò and he had no personal connections to any deep-pocketed financiers. And although Sups. Tom Ammiano and Sue Bierman had encouraged him to pursue his plan for Pier 30-32, navigating the city’s bureaucracy would be tough.

But he never expected to learn that he needed to clear an unofficial hurdle: coming up with a suspicious $60,000 cash payment, which a city official told him was necessary to get the blessing of Mayor Willie Brown.

Meriweather, who had campaigned for Brown in 1995 and had high hopes for the cityís first African American mayor, was baffled. He’d worked with city officials on small projects during the years when Art Agnos and Frank Jordan were mayor, but he’d never been asked to pay what sounded to him like a bribe. Smelling trouble, he never paid the $60,000 that he was told would give him the inside line on the right to develop a prime piece of Port of San Francisco property. As a result, he believes, his plan never moved forward with city officials.

Instead the deal went to a competitor who had all the right political connections: a consortium including the Port of Singapore and the founder of a Taiwan-based maritime shipping company won the exclusive right to negotiate the development of Pier 30-32. The teamís victory appears to have been based at least in part on political influence and backroom dealing by one of city hallís most powerful lobbyists ,Marcia Smolens, and another key member of the Democratic political machine, state senator John Burton.

The project that the big out-of-town corporate group wants to build contains key elements of Meriweatherís original proposal, according to Meriweather and other members of the Embarcadero Cultural Center International (ECCI), the team he put together to develop the proposal.

ìWe had wanted to do something to provide an opportunity for people who work on jobs that donít make enough money to pay the rent.î, Meriweather said but what happened just shows you why the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And worse. Its about corruption, which Iíve learned you have to fight regardless of who practices it.

The story of what happened to Meriweatherís dream is startling not because the project failed (all sorts of grand ideas like this never move past paper budgets and designs) or because it involves a powerful ally of Brownís soliciting a fee to get a project approved (powerful local lobbyists, for instance, use their connections to the mayor as grounds for charging their clients big lobbying fees). What Ìs extraordinary is that Meriweather and two other people involved in the project (a prominent architect and a source who asked not to be identified) insist that Meriweatherís team was asked to pay a bribe that, they understood, would go to the mayor to win his approval for their project.

Meriweather and the members of his team who spoke to the Bay Guardian for this article say that the group was asked to come up with the money Ò in cash Ò on numerous occasions by a person who was among Brownís closest friends and allies.

That person, then-Recreation and Park commissioner Rotea Gilford, died March 14, 1998, so itís impossible to know how he would explain his involvement with the project.

nocashnocon2.jpgMeriweather says he met with Gilford more than a dozen times Ò at the Southeast Community College campus, at Gilfordís house, at his City Hall office, and later, in the ailing Gilfords hospital room Ò and Gilford consistently told him that if he wanted the project to succeed, he needs to come up with $60,000 to get the wheels turning.

One of MeriweatherÌs partners recalls Gilford demanding the money in front of ECCI members at a gathering at GilfordÌs home in the Lower Haight, Gilford made it very clear, Meriweather and his partner say, that the money was not a traditional consulting fee, which Gilford would have kept. The money, they say, was to go to higher-ups who could pull strings . In fact, Meriweather says he was told repeatedly that it goes to the boss, Willie Brown.

Minutes from ECCI meetings going back to April 1996 contain repeated mentions of the $60,000 payment. It is described in those minutes as a consulting fee because, Meriweather says, the group didnít know how else to describe it.

There is no proof that Brown ever knew about the alleged bribe. We have no evidence suggesting that the eventual winning bidder did anything illegal. It Ìs entirely possible that Meriweather, a relative novice at city politics, misunderstood the exact purpose of the $60,000 request Ò although he insists it was never described to him as anything other than a payoff.

But itís hard to doubt Meriweatherís veracity or motives: he has nothing to gain and much to lose by coming forward with this story, which could seriously damage his business and personal relationships in the pro-Brown camps of the black community. And his story is confirmed by others and by company records.

Regardless, MeriweatherÌs case, which also involves infamous political players such as Charlie Walker and Eddie DeBartolo, exemplifies a city government awash in corruption. His story, coming amid FBI investigations of Brownís administration, shows a city hall where insider politics trumps not only good intentions but also the rules of the game Ò and where sometimes, you have to pay to play.

As much as anything else, this is a story about what happens when an ordinary citizen with great ideas but few connections tries to do business in todays San Francisco.

For Mayor Brownís full response, see ëA word from the Mayorí, page 18.

Jobs for Kids

Meriweather hails from Augusta, Ga. One of three children, he is the son of minister for the Seventh Day Adventists. He grew up poor and in 1950 joined the army. When he got out in 1959, he moved to Long Beach and worked at Douglas Aircraft as a technician.

During the mid ’70s he worked for a nonprofit organization that secured jobs for young people who had run into trouble. In 1976 he moved to San Francisco and continued to work as a job-placement counselor, mostly trying to get at-risk kids off the streets, out of trouble, and into jobs.

In 1987, with a little start-up money from his wife’s family, he launched a project called We the People, which produced TV shows to encourage activism in the African American community. The show We the People airs on public access channel 29 at 8 p.m. on the first and second Tuesday of the month.

In the early 1990s Meriweather started interviewing young people in jail, and he kept hearing the same complaint. They had wound up in crime, they said, because there weren’t any jobs.

That’s hardly a revelation, but Meriweather, who has never lost his idealism or his exuberance, decided to commit himself to creating jobs for troubled youth.

He came up with the idea of building a project on the San Francisco waterfront that would combine restaurants, shops, and maritime uses – and would employ local kids. It was an ambitious idea, the sort a lot of people would consider unrealistic, but Meriweather went ahead anyway. He set his sights on Pier 38, but another developer got the contract.

Ammiano and Bierman then suggested he look elsewhere on the waterfront, and he wound up focusing on Pier 30-32. Situated on the South Beach waterfront a7rea, between Brannan and Bryant Streets on the Embarcadero, Pier 30-32 is a huge parking lot. Red’s Java House perches next to it, as it has since the 1940s.

“I remember [Meriweather’s] idea had a maritime emphasis,” Ammiano told us, “I remember talking to him and that his idea had great merit but was pushed aside.”

Bierman, too, encouraged Meriweather to stick with the project. “The Port Director informs me that your [Pier 38] proposal may be appropriate for future development at another location,” Bierman wrote in a 1996 letter to Meriweather.

In October 1998 port officials decided that the 13-acre site would be the best spot for a new cruise ship terminal, something the port has been hoping to develop for at least 10 years.

The port’s 1997 Waterfront Land Use Plan describes Pier 30-32 and the adjacent lot as “the Port’s largest development site,” appropriate for the terminal and a mix of commercial and public entertainment-oriented enterprises.

During the next several years more than $1 billion worth of construction is expected to transform to the port. The cruise terminal project at Pier 30-32, the Chelsea Piers, and the remodeling of the Ferry Building are the biggest projects.

The cruise terminal is a big part of the waterfront’s future: the port expects at least a 70 percent increase in the number of cruise ships passengers by 2003, according to a September 1998 report by the port’s planning and development director, Paul Osmundson. That October he recommended Pier 30-32 for the cruise terminal, suggesting that a hotel with retail outlets be built on the adjacent lot. The Port Commission agreed.

Meriweather figured that was ideal. He had long since assembled a development team and drawn up an impressive plan that featured a cruise terminal. It also included a hotel, a movie theater and outdoor amphitheater – named after the godfather of soul, James Brown – 15 to 20 shops, a conference center, a fruit and vegetable market, a museum, and a child care center,

Former port commissioner and labor leader James Herman, who died in 1998, encouraged him in the idea, Meriweather says. Port officials decided to memorialize Herman by naming the cruise terminal after him.

Meriweather had been going to Port Commission meetings regularly since 1996, asking to get the development rights. He and his ECCI team had presented a proposal for Pier 30-32 as early as September 1997.

“It seemed like he came to every meeting,” a source who formerly worked at the port remarked. “He was always there.”

Meriweather and his group met regularly at the Java House. Group members included Col. Lincoln Langley, who had maritime experience and whom Meriweather had known for many years, and an architect named Albert Cabellon, who had worked on high-end resort developments and is president of a design/build firm based in Burlingame. Cabellon was to script a budget and visuals for the project.

Meriweather then met with merchants and community groups to generate support for the project. He approached the Delancey Street Foundation’s Mimi Silbert, staffers at the Ella Hill Hutch Community Center, and a host of other organizations. He also went to city officials, including Kofi Bonner, a key economic advisor who worked in the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development at the time.

All were very supportive of the idea, Meriweather said.

(Silbert, however, claims she doesn’t even recall meeting with Meriweather.)

The Insider

Long before he went to port officials, Meriweather discussed the idea with one of the few well-connected city leaders he knew: former police inspector Gilford.

Their first discussion occurred one morning shortly after the November 1995 general election, when Brown was clearly on his way to becoming the next mayor of San Francisco.

Gilford and Meriweather were in a group called Black Men of Action, which met regularly at the Southeast Community College to discuss ways to empower black youth, among other goals.

Gilford took Meriweather outside of the building to discuss the latter’s plan. According to Meriweather, Gilford said that it was a fine idea, but that Meriweather had to come up with $60,000 in order to get support from “the boss.”

“[Gilford] told me he had talked to [Brown] about the idea,” Meriweather said. Gilford then told him, “sixty thousand dollars and I can assure you’ll get [his] blessings,” Meriweather recalls.

There was no doubt in Meriweather’s mind that “the boss” in question was Brown. Although Frank Jordan was still mayor and Gilford was a deputy mayor in the Jordan administration, Gilford had declared allegiance to Brown and was speaking frequently to the soon-to-be mayor.

Meriweather asked Gilford about the legality of paying $60,000 to win the favor of the man who would become the city’s top elected official. Gilford told him that right or wrong wasn’t the point. The point was “to get the wheels turning,” he said, assuring Meriweather that the payment could not be traced.

“There are all sorts of accounts offshore,” Meriweather recalls Gilford saying.

A highly decorated 18-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department and of the two African Americans to serve on the department’s homicide squad, Gilford met Brown at San Francisco State University when they were students there, and he had been a friend of Brown’s for nearly 50 years. He was a consummate city hall insider, having served as executive director of the Mayor’s Council on Criminal Justice under George Moscone, as deputy mayor for Dianne Feinstein, and as deputy mayor for former mayor Art Asgnos as well as Jordan.

nocashnocon4.jpgOnce Brown won the runoff in December 1995, Gilford began serving as a close confidant to him, as a member of Brown’s transition team and a member of the mayor’s brain trust. Brown rewarded Gilford’s friendship and loyalty by appointing him to the Recreation and Park Commission in March 1997, Gilford was instrumental in helping Kimiko Burton-Cruz, daughter of state senator Burton, revive the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice.

Gilford shared 49ers tickets with Brown, who visited Gilford just hours before he died of complications from diabetes.

In 1996 Gilford told a local newspaper that he had telephone conversations with Brown almost daily. “The relationship is such that things we discuss I won’t talk about,” Gilford told the San Francisco Examiner.

Gilford was also a close friend of Charlie Walker, a Bayview business-person and Brown buddy whose activities are currently the subject of a wide-ranging federal investigation into the city’s minority contracting practices that recently resulted in a criminal indictment of a city official and three other individuals.

At one point Gilford told Meriweather to go to Walker to find the money, Meriweather says,

Meriweather believes that Gilford wanted to see that port project happen to employ young people – not for personal gain.

Gilford made it clear that the money was not a consulting fee for him. “Look at my house. Look at my cars. Do I look like I need any money?” Meriweather recalls Gilford saying.

Pressure to Pay Up

Between November 1995 and March 1998 Meriweather continued to meet periodically with Gilford, who consistently stressed that the $60,000 was needed in cash and that the payment was necessary to get the project moving. Cabellon and others in the group said they were uncomfortable with this demand, and they decided to handle it in their documents by calling the payment a “consulting fee” – even though Gilford made it clear that the money was not for him.

“In order to substantiate the release of that funding – if the [backer] was to ask us what it was for, we had to substantiate that, so I suggested calling it a political consulting fee,” Cabellon said. “Even though it was not.”

Both Cabellon and Meriweather describe the $60,000 as a “payoff.” They say they understood it to be a bribe.

One of the meetings took place at Gilford’s house not long after Brown had been elected. Meriweather and Cabellon met in Gilford’s bedroom. The mayor had popped into the gathering at the house but did not go into Gilford’s bedroom. Cabellon and Meriweather both said in interviews that Gilford explained that $60,000 in cash was necessary for the project to go forward. They told us that Gilford did not say directly who would receive the money but did specify that it would not be for him. Meriweather and Cabellon said it was clearly not a deposit for the project.

Cabellon said his impression was that it was for “higher-ups.”

Environmental activist Ron Frazier, whom Meriweather had brought into the group, remembers hearing Gilford discuss the payment on another occasion. “You better hurry up or other people will take away the opportunity,” Frazier recalls Gilford saying to Meriweather. Gilford chided Meriweather for not having produced the cash yet.

“[Gilford] said it would go to someone who could help process this through,” Cabellon said. “This was going to be the catalyst, and it was stressed that cash was needed. In return, we would get assistance from someone with the power to circumvent the process.”

“We were negotiating back and forth on this,” he added. “Cash that large is hard to substantiate. There was more than one meeting on this. And there were telephone calls.”

“My biggest concern was that [the demand for cash] was not going to stop there,” he said. “Greed comes in.”

Frazier said Gilford’s demand discouraged him from becoming involved in the project.

nocashnocon3.jpgCabellon said ECCI members had thought about borrowing the money or going to other sources but dragged their feet because they felt so uncomfortable about it.

“It’s a payoff,” Cabellon said. “That’s how I looked at it. It was greasing the pump, so to speak, to circumvent the regular bidding process.”

Gilford spoke with Meriweather about the need for the cash numerous times in meetings at Gilford’s home and once in his office at City Hall – even up until his death. When Gilford was in the hospital in early 1998 after having his leg amputated owing to a diabetes relapse, he scolded Meriweather for not coming up with the money. “People are waiting for you,” Gilford said to Meriweather.

According to Meriweather, Gilford suggested that his friend Walker would have no problem coming up with the money. “If this was Charlie Walker’s [project], he wouldn’t walk in here with no money,” Meriweather recalls him saying. “It would have been done by now. Here I am with my leg cut off. But I can still lift one finger, make a call, and get the money. And you’re telling me you can’t come up with sixty thousand dollars. What the hell is wrong with you?”

Gilford suggested to Meriweather that he approach Walker for the money. But Meriweather did not want to deal with Walker, having gotten to know him somewhat during the 49ers’ 1997 campaign for a new stadium. “Walker asked me if he could participate. And I said no. He told me he had some idea of how to get fifty thousand dollars from [former 49ers owner] Eddie DeBartolo. He said he would ‘be the heavy,’ but I was not interested,” Meriweather told us.

Walker had no comment for this story.

On May 28, 1998, shortly after Gilford’s death, the group met with Brown. According to two sources present at the meeting, Brown told them they needed to show they had “the wherewithal, the vehicle” to do the project and “get exclusivity.”

The Competition

The port of San Francisco formally published a request for proposals to develop Pier 30-32 in June 1999. By then Meriweather’s plan was effectively dead – without the inside connections Gilford had promised, he was unable to find anyone willing to help finance it.

By October two big development groups had submitted bids: a consortium of called the San Francisco Cruise Terminal Inc. and a developer named LCOR.

LCOR, a Pennsylvania-based development company, offered Meriweather a piece of the project in late 1999. His job would be doing what he had already been doing: talking to community and business groups. Meriweather joined the team.

On Jan. 11, 1999, Port of San Francisco staff and a majority of commissioners agreed to give the well-connected SFCT the right to negotiate development of the Bryant Street Pier and James R. Herman International Cruise Terminal.

The team sports an intriguing lineup of heavy hitters with ties to the shipping industry in the Far East. Besides Lend Lease, a development and financing company headquartered in Australia, which holds 50 percent of the interest in SFCT, the team includes Whitney Cressman, a San Francisco commercial real estate firm, which has an 8.5 percent interest and will handle the leasing. The PSA Corporation, which was formed from the Port of Singapore Authority and is wholly owned by the government of Singapore, has roughly 20 percent interest in SFCT and will operate the cruise terminal.

About 20 percent interest is held by Chinese Maritime Transport, a group that’s supposed to help market San Francisco’s cruise industry, Port documents identify CMT as a subsidiary of CMT-Associated Group, an international maritime shipping company worth more than $200 million, founded by financier John Peng. the brother-in-law of a high ranking Hong Kong official.

“CMT itself is one of the few companies permitted to engage in direct cross-straight shipping between Taiwan and mainland China,” SFCT’s proposal states. In the summer of 1999 the group also tapped the Alfred Williams Consultancy (see “With Friends Like These…,” page 23) to handle “public relations and community outreach.”

Using political connections, P.R. savvy, and on-the-ground organizing, the group pushed hard to sew up port staff and neighborhood support.

Sources close to the port say Burton made sure the commissioners “fell into place.” He called many of them requesting breakfast meetings to discuss the project, one source said. And several sources at and close to the port, said Burton, influenced the selection process.

Numerous sources close to the port and involved in the proceedings told the Bay Guardian that SFCT’s bid was given favorable treatment from the port for political reasons.

“This was an inside kind of deal,” one source who was approached by Burton said.

Burton did not return two Bay Guardian phone calls asking him to explain his involvement in the Pier 30-32 project.

The Bay Guardian called the four commissioners who voted for SFCT. Only Denise McCarthy could be reached, and she said she was not aware of any behind-the-scenes politicking. Pius Lee and Micheal Hardeman did not return calls. Kimberly Brandon did, but when we called the number she gave us, we were told she no longer worked there.

Among the people who played a key role in lobbying for SFCT was Smolens, who was paid at least $30,000 to push for the project, Ethics Commission records show. Burton has strong, longstanding ties to Smolens. From 1991 to 1999 Burton provided legal services to SmolensÌ firm, HMS Associates, billing $10,000 or more annually, according to documents from the Fair Political Practices Commission.

Smolens did not return a Bay Guardian phone message asking if she requested Burton’s help in pushing the project.

Asked if Burton or Smolens had contacted port staff, port planning and development director Osmundson said, “Not to my recollection” But, he noted, “We were aware Marcia Smolens was representing the developer.”

Osmundson denies that support for SFCT from Burton, Smolens, Delancey Street and the community swayed the port staff in its evaluation of the proposals. “We are extremely careful about what we put in these reports,” he said. “We try to get the facts down from the developer’s own perspective.”

At the Nov. 17 Port Commission meeting (during which both teams presented their proposals), according to the minutes, Williams said that “over the past several months, the [SFCT] team held dozens of meetings with stakeholders and other parties concerning the project.”

nocashnocon5.jpgIndeed, several members of a key neighborhood group, the Rincon Point-South Beach Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC), confirm that SFCT representatives contacted and met with them frequently. (The CAC advises the port and the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency on development matters in South Beach).

“Every single community group was lined up, because they went out and sold it to the community,” port commissioner Brian McWilliams, the sole commissioner to vote for LCOR, told us. “They did an effective P.R. blitz by hiring people who are at that. Marcia Smolens does a good job.”

The support of the influential Delancey Street Foundation, which is headquartered near the site, was a significant factor in SFCT’s winning the right to negotiate, port sources say. Delancey Street director Silbert turned out both Nov. 17 and Jan. 11 for Port Commission meetings and gushed support for the proposal.

“They scaled the project down because of neighbors’ responses,” the Nov. 17 minutes quote Silbert as saying.

In an interview with the Bay Guardian, Silbert, who is friendly with Burton and Smolens, said she was unaware of any political juice behind the project.

“I really believe the process was without a lot of political interference and that [port commissioners] picked it honestly on the points that they said they were going to pick it on,” Silbert said.

“My main concern, since this was the first big [port] development down here, and we stare at that pier and our restaurant depends on it, was that the [developer] be responsive to the neighborhood. And they [SFCT] were.”

LCOR, too, was ready to address community concerns but did not get cozy with the neighborhood as early as SFCT did. The developer proposed creating several community advisory boards to provide input on design and environmental, traffic, safety, and waterfront access issues. And, like SFCT, LCOR presented its project to the Citizens Advisory committee.

LCOR’s chief failure, it seems, was that it didn’t hire a high-powered city hall lobbyist. On that point, the developer miscalculated.

Thanks in part to SFCT’s outreach strategy, community organizations near the site overwhelmingly endorsed the team’s proposal. The minutes of the port’s Nov. 17 meeting show a parade of support from neighborhood groups for SFCT. They were pleased that SFCT had agreed to scale down the hotel and retail area. They liked SFCT’s proposal to turn the south berth into a lagoon for recreational activities that would provide on open view of the bay from the shoreline. In letters, public comments, and interviews with the Bay Guardian, they stressed that SFCT members were the first to discuss the project with them.

But now it appears that the elegant design the community liked so much may not be viable. Sources close to the port say there are problems with the plan that may not pass regulatory muster and could force changes.

“There’s something about this process that is, I don’t want to say dishonest, but we went through this whole exercise – all those drawings – all of that was just to negotiate,” McWilliams said. “All of that was about who gets to sit down and talk. People don’t understand that. They see a picture, and they think that that’s what they’re going to get, even though it may have nothing to do with what you get in the end.”

Anne Cook, the port’s manager of waterfront development, says that while many issues remain to be worked out with environmental and other agencies, she does not foresee substantial changes – though she admits she cannot guarantee that. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (a port watchdog agency) and the port are still working out an agreement that will affect the project. Issues up for debate include dredging and parking. BCDC prefers little or no parking on port piers. The SFCT proposal places most of the parking on the pier – one of the ideas neighborhood groups liked.

The Wrong Project

Despite port officials’ assurances that they conducted a careful, merit-based review of LCOR and SFCR, a Bay Guardian review of more than 1,000 pages of port records shows serious unresolved questions about whether the port – by its own criteria – chose the best pier project.

The documents reveal that the LCOR proposal was much closer to what the port had requested: LCOR’s plans were more practical and promised more guaranteed revenue to the port. The SFCT proposal, while attractive, may not allow for San Francisco to become a player in the cruise ship industry, which is what the port had wanted, according to port reports written before the request for proposals was released. In addition, the SFCT proposal will require dredging of toxic sediments, which would have to be hauled inland, at considerable expense, to a secure landfill.

“Dredging is a big, big deal,” Jennifer Clary, waterfront chair of the environmental group San Francisco Tomorrow, said. “That’s when contaminants get stirred up.”

SFCT had no comment.

Additionally, SFCT’s final proposal to the port contained what appear to be serious financial inaccuracies.

At the Jan. 11, 2000, meeting, John Infantino, LCOR’s vice president, pointed out a multimillion-dollar discrepancy between the two projects. The problem was only addressed after he raised the issue in a Jan. 10 letter to the port. In an interview with the Bay Guardian, Infantino said the issues raised were never resolved to his satisfaction.

Perhaps most puzzling about the port staff’s decision to recommend SFCT is that LCOR was offering more revenue in “guaranteed” rent (money that is guaranteed whether the developer turns a profit or not).

In comparison, port officials have said they chose the more touristy and unpopular Malrite proposal for Pier 45 because the developer was offering more money.

According to port documents, LCOR was offering $2.4 million in annual, guaranteed rent to the port, while SFCT promised just $1 million. More than 60 percent of SFCT’s rent package was based on speculative “participation” rent (a portion of the profits delivered, in this case, once the developer got a 12 percent return).

“LCOR had a better financial package with more money going to the city,” Richard Ow, an immigrant rights commissioner and longtime union member who followed the proceedings, said.

SFCT did offer the port more in participation rent, but port staff ignored an LCOR proposal under which the port would have collected far more revenue than it would under SFCT’s plan.

Curiously, the port staff’s Nov. 10 memo to commissioners did not accurately reflect a public-private partnership proposal that LCOR had made. The staff wrote that the annual rent during construction would be $1.9 million – not $2.6 million. It did not mention the $4.8 million in guaranteed rent and did not put a number on the participation rent. The staff also incorrectly identified LCOR’s “home-run insurance” as just 25 percent of annual net operating income generated beyond income projections – instead of LCOR’s promised 50 percent.

According to Cook, port staff did not spend as much time considering a public-private option and acknowledged that some mistakes could have been made in the evaluation of that option.

SFCT’s proposal contained a glaring financial omission: the team failed to include the cost of retrofitting Pier 30-32 for earthquake protections. The port’s June 1999 request for proposals showed that a retrofit was necessary, stating that “a seismic upgrade will be required to meet current building code seismic requirements.” the upshot was that SFCT’s revenue projections appeared to be about $9 million higher than was accurate.

Port staff knew that SFCT had failed to include that cost, port documents show. A November staff report lists LCOR’s project costs at $350 to $375 million and SFCT’s at $268,254,895 – which “does not include pier repair or reinforcement,” the report notes.

But the matter was not resolved until Jan. 11, the day the commission was to choose a bidder. Though the staff had recognized the problem by Nov. 10, it apparently did not direct its consultant, Economic and Planning Systems, to take that into account when analyzing the two financial packages.

“We had caught [the issue] early on,” Cook said. “It just didn’t make it onto the tables. It was last minute.”

In its Jan. 7 report EPS noted that SFCT did not include the cost of pier improvements – but EPS did not adjust the revenue projections to reflect that until one day after Infantino raised the issue in his Jan. 10 letter.

Not only did LCOR include the cost of retrofitting the pier but the developer also provided a plan for how to do it; the group also offered to tear down Pier 34 to create space for a new park. According to the port’s June 24, 1997, Waterfront Land Use Plan, that pier should be condemned and removed.

Design Flaws

One of the greatest oddities about the port’s decision to negotiate with SFCT concerns design issues. LCOR’s offer met the terms of the RFP. SFCT’s did not.

SFCT’s proposal failed to meet the RFP’s requirements of the two 1,000-foot-long and 35-foot-deep berths “that require little or no dredging” so that the pier can handle two cruise ships docked simultaneously. The SFCT team proposal calls for one ship to dock in the north berth – a plan that port staff considered not viable prior to issuing the RFP, documents show. “The north berth is not being considered as a viable option for berthing ships: preliminary testing indicates that sediment from the north berth, which is quite shallow, would require upland disposal which would exceed $5 million,” a September 1998 report by Osmundson states.

At 11 to 13 feet deep, the north berth of Pier 30-32 would require extensive dredging to make it suitable for a cruise ship. And at 845 feet long, it’s too short to handle more than half of the ships cruising in North American waters, according to LCOR’s proposal. The port staff recognized the need for longer and wider berths for San Francisco’s future terminal, “cruise ships are getting longer, wider and taller… the next generation is expected to reach 1,030 feet in length,” a Sept. 2, 1998, staff report states.

LCOR devoted a significant portion of its proposal to explaining the advantages of using the south berth, estimating that initial dredging of the north berth would cost $7 million.

Nonetheless, “SFCT was able to convince our maritime staff that the northern berth would satisfy our foreseeable needs,” Osmundson said. Because SFCT uses the north berth, the south berth could be turned into a lagoon for waterfront recreation, giving SFCT plan more community appeal. Residents living near the pier would have clear views, since no cruise ship would dock there.

Certainly, SFCT’s project has its pluses, and LCOR’s has its downsides. With the Port of Singapore on board, SFCT brings more cruise terminal experience to the table, port officials say. Port staff and consultants criticized LCOR’s retail tenants for being too upscale and tourist-oriented rather than focused on providing services to the South Beach community.

But commissioner McWilliams, who is also the president of the international headquarters of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, says the LCOR plan was still better. “Clearly, from a longshoreman’s point of view, they had the better proposal for a working pier,” he said. “This was about a working dock and a maritime facility. From the point of view of what was a much more passenger-friendly terminal, they had the better proposal… The maritime issue seems to have gotten lost in the process.”

For Meriweather, who is still struggling to revive his proposal, “the process” was corrupted a long time ago, back when his stomach turned at the idea of hustling a $60,000 payoff just to get his development on the inside track. His project, though clearly preliminary, had high ideals that Meriweather once thought were shared by Willie Brown – those of marrying urban development with real economic opportunities for low-income African Americans.

During his campaign, Brown had told Black Men of Action that his election would open up opportunities for people of color.

“He said, ‘You haven’t had a mayor that understands your problems like I do,'” Meriweather said. “That’s what made me think we could go and do something and make some jobs for the city… We should have known better.”

Categories: 1

SUTRO SLEAZE – May 31, 2000

San Francisco Bay Guardian – May 31, 2000


Exclusive: How S.F.’s planning director pulled a legally dubious move to push through the installation of dangerous antennae on Sutro Tower.

By Savannah Blackwell and Lucia Hwang; Bob Porterfield contributor

San Francisco planning director Gerald Green usurped the authority of the zoning administrator and approved almost 200 telecommunications antennae already installed on Sutro Tower in apparent violation of city law, the Bay Guardian has learned.

Green had no legal authority to overrule then-zoning administrator Mary Gallagher last December and allow the antennae to remain in place without authorization from the full Planning Commission, public records show. The powerful group of broadcasters that owns the 977-foot eyesore should have been forced to go through a comprehensive planning process; the antennae are now in place illegally. The controversy over the decision shows in unusual clarity just how far appointees of Mayor Willie Brown are willing to go to please powerful lobbyists and big campaign contributors.

In fact, planning activists say it was Brown who forced Green to approve Sutro Tower Inc.’s additions of 179 heavy and potentially hazardous pieces of telecommunications equipment to the tower. And a legal declaration filed by Gallagher states that she was told by Green to hold off on her decision until after the December runoff election – apparently to keep the controversy out of the political spotlight until Brown was safely reelected.

All but three of the antennae have been hanging on the tower for years. But under pressure from neighborhood activists, Sutro Tower moved last August to get a retroactive building permit for the devices.

Under the city planning code, the zoning administrator had the sole authority to decide if special permission, called “conditional use authorization,” was needed for Sutro’s changes to the tower. Decisions and orders of the zoning administrator may be appealed only to the Board of Appeals.

Gallagher decided Dec. 17, 1999, that Sutro’s original 1966 conditional use authorization did not cover the changes and that the antennae and two underground fuel tanks required a new conditional use authorization – a cumbersome procedure that would have involved public hearings and a full Planning Commission vote. On Dec. 24 Green revoked that decision, saying he was acting as zoning administrator because Gallagher had resigned. He later issued a ruling allowing the antennae.

But a Bay Guardian investigation shows that Gallagher was still signing legal zoning documents in her official capacity at least several days after Dec. 24 and that she was still in office and on city payroll as recently as April 13, 2000.

Gallagher and Green did not respond to interview requests. Ron Vinson, a spokesperson for Brown, said the mayor had not comment.

Political Pressure

In a May 23, 2000, declaration submitted to the Board of Appeals and made public at a May 24 hearing on Sutro Tower, Gallagher suggested that she believed election-season politics were behind Green’s unusual action. According to Gallagher’s declaration, concern for the mayor’s political career was influencing how the department would handle Sutro Tower.

“In the weeks prior to December 17, I spoke with Mr. Green on at least two more occasions regarding the determination. On the first occasion he instructed me to hold the determination until after the runoff election and make sure I check it with the city attorney’s office.” (The runoff election was held Dec. 14, 1999.)

One week after Gallagher issued her Dec. 17 decision, Green wrote a letter to Christine Linnenbach, the attorney who represents residents living near the tower, saying that Gallagher had resigned from her job and that he now held the position. In the letter, Green said he had decided to “rescind” Gallagher’s decision and that after further review he would issue a new opinion.

“I have been informed by Mary Gallagher that she has resigned her position as Zoning Administrator,” Green wrote in the Dec. 24, 1999, letter. “Therefore, in accordance with Section 307(e) of the Planning Code I shall now function as the Acting Zoning Administrator.”

After word of Green’s letter got out, residents living near the tower and some San Francisco supervisors demanded an explanation. A Dec. 29, 1999, article in the San Francisco Chronicle stated without attributing the information that Gallagher had resigned. Green is quoted saying that Gallagher told him Dec. 22 that she “was going to resign.”

The City Attorney’s Office has argued that Green had the authority to rescind Gallagher’s Dec. 17 decision, although different deputy city attorneys give different reasons. In a letter to Sup. Leland Yee dated Feb. 10, 2000, deputy city attorney Mario Kashou wrote, “We have concluded that Director Green may perform the functions of zoning administrator while the position is vacant.”

Deputy city attorney Judith Boyajian went a lot further. She told us in a phone interview that, in her analysis, a zoning administrator can change another zoning administrator’s decision as long as it is not under appeal. Which means that according to Boyajian, Green could have waited until Gallagher left in April and then overturned the ruling on his own. That’s directly contradicted by the City Charter, which states that a zoning administrator’s decision is final unless it’s appealed to the Board of Appeals.

At the May 24 Board of Appeals hearing, board president Arnold Chin asked Boyajian if Green had the right to rescind Gallagher’s Dec. 17 determination. Boyajian answered, “We believe he was authorized.” Debra Stein, a lobbyist for Sutro Tower, argued in her briefs to the Board of Appeals that, under the planning code, the planning director could step in as the zoning administrator and change a determination if there was “sufficient reason.”

Sue Hestor, a lawyer who is an expert in the city planning code, told us that Stein’s reasoning is tantamount to saying that the planning director can pull rank on the zoning administrator at any tine, an extremely dangerous precedent.

“She’s asking for the planning code to be overturned,” Hestor said. She added that in her 20-plus years observing San Francisco city planning, no zoning administrator determination had been changed by any body or person other than the Board of Appeals. “I’ve never seen that,” she said. “The rule is the zoning administrator can only be reversed by the Board of Appeals.” Former zoning administrator Robert Passmore confirmed that in his decades in that job, no other planning official ever changed his decision or tried to overrule him by becoming zoning administrator.

So Green’s ability to rescind Gallagher’s decision seemed to depend, at the very least, on her resigning as zoning administrator by Dec. 24. Green has repeatedly told city officials and the public that Gallagher had resigned by the time he wrote the letter to Linnenbach.

Still on the Job

But public records indicate that Gallagher did not officially resign from her position as zoning administrator until April 13 – and that she was certainly still on the job after Green said she had resigned. No official city record exists showing Gallagher’s resignation from any Planning Department position until April 13, 2000.

A Planning Department human resources document obtained by the Bay Guardian clearly states that Gallagher resigned as zoning administrator April 13, 2000.

Payroll records also obtained by the Bay Guardian show that Gallagher was paid as zoning administrator until April 14, 2000, the day Green finally issued a decision reversing Gallagher’s Dec. 17 decision and authorizing the antennae.

Asked how Green could have rescinded Gallagher’s Dec. 24 decision if Gallagher was still considered by the department’s payroll and human resources offices to be the zoning administrator, Boyajian said that the fact she was being paid as the zoning administrator didn’t mean she was actually the zoning administrator.

Boyajian told us that she relied on Green’s word that Gallagher had resigned in December. “My understanding is that she did resign,” Boyajian said. “She hasn’t said publicly that she did not resign. She stayed silent, and I assumed she did not dispute [Green’s claim that she had resigned].”

Public records obtained by the Bay Guardian prove not only that Gallagher was paid as the zoning administrator until April 14, 2000, but also that she continued to act as the zoning administrator until at least the end of December and that Green considered her the zoning administrator until that tine as well.

On Dec. 20, 1999, Gallagher sent an e-mail to all staffers in the Planning Department explaining how to handle her duties as zoning administrator while she was on vacation for the holidays. She described exactly how she wanted planners to sign off on decisions that only she, as the zoning administrator, could make. She said nothing about resigning. Indeed, she told planners that if they did not know how she would rule on a matter, they had to wait until her return the following week.

“When you sign something on my behalf, I ask that you handle the signature by signing your own name and then adding ‘for’ before my printed name,” she wrote. The implication: Gallagher still considered herself the zoning administrator and had not resigned.

On Dec. 27, 1999, Gallagher herself signed off on a variance, which is an exemption from the planning law. Moreover, Green followed Gallagher’s e-mail instructions Dec. 29 when he signed a routine variance decision “Gerald Green for Mary Gallagher, Zoning Administrator.” Green’s decision to sign “for” Gallagher amounts to his acknowledgment that she held the position.

Powerful lobbyists

The Dec. 29 Chronicle article quoted Sutro Tower lobbyist Bob McCarthy saying that he and fellow Sutro Tower lobbyist Stein had contacted both Green and Gallagher asking that Gallagher’s Dec. 17 decision be rescinded. Lobbyists Stein and McCarthy represent five broadcasters – KPST, KBWB, KQED, KTVU, and KGO – that have installed unpermitted antennae on the tower.

Internal Planning Department e-mail obtained by the Bay Guardian shows that Gallagher was under intense pressure from the Sutro lobbyists. In an e-mail to planner Jim Miller dated Dec. 17, 1999, Stein writes, “Heads up for hot gossip, pal: I’ve got a meeting and a verrrrrry serious showdown with Ms. Gallagher scheduled for tomorrow morning. The more I think about her canceling my hearing without the courtesy of talking with me, the more pissed off I get. Also the part about how I’m such an unethical exploiter that I would cheerfully sucker a planner into violating a supervisor’s order or committing some other form of professional suicide just so that I could charge a client a few more bucks. Grrrrr.”

In an April 3, 2000, e-mail from Gallagher to planners, she announced that she had been hired by the city of San Mateo as chief of planning and that her last day with the San Francisco Planning Department would be April 13. The e-mail suggests that Gallagher did not appreciate interference from Sutro Tower lobbyists.

“First I tried to get a job expediting telecommunications permits, but I couldn’t get any good references,” Gallagher wrote. “Then I tried looking for a job in a local city agency not under investigation by federal authorities, but I couldn’t find any. Finally, through some kind of sutro karma deal, I was hired as Chief of Planning for the City of San Mateo.” Planning sources have told the Bay Guardian that Sutro Tower planning process is under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (see S.F. Confidential, 5/24/00).

Sutro lobbyists played a major role in raising money to reelect Brown. McCarthy, Stein, and their clients accounted for 14.3 percent of the $2.6 million in soft money spent in support of Brown’s campaign, according to campaign records filed with the city’s Ethics Commission.

Stein and McCarthy contributed $21,250 to several independent expenditure committees. Soft money contributions from their clients totaled $356,000.

‘Extraordinary step’

Despite Gallagher’s declaration and extensive testimony from residents worried about whether Sutro Tower can withstand an earthquake, the five-member Board of Appeals voted unanimously May 24 to uphold Green’s April 14 decision that Sutro Tower did not need special permission for the 179 antennae and the structures.

A June 1999 study done by Sutro Tower says that the tower needs structural improvements to make sure it will not fall over in an earthquake. McCarthy, Stein, and Green told the board that a special permit was not needed because the original 1966 permit foresaw additions for telecommunications services.

“The 1966 determination contains findings that seem to contain an expectation of additional antenna,” Green said at the hearing. He also said that he took the “extraordinary step” of stepping in as zoning administrator because Gallagher’s decision contradicted 12 years of planning policy. He said that at the time (Dec. 24) he was the zoning administrator and that Gallagher did not consult with him. He was under oath at the hearing.

Gallagher said in her declaration that her interactions with Green regarding Sutro Tower and her notes were documented and provided to her attorney, Malcolm Burnstein. Burnstein’s office said he was out of the country and not available for comment.

Several members of the Board of Appeals are connected to Brown. Sabrina Saunders, as head of the One Accord PAC, spent $58,000 in independent expenditure money to get Brown reelected. Carole Cullum is a past chair of the Alice B. Toklas Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club, which spent $264,000 on the mayor’s behalf. John McInerney III is an associate of Joe O’Donoghue, the Residential Builders Association head who contributed $20,000 to One Accord PAC for Brown’s runoff election.

Joan Girardot, outgoing president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, said the decision on Sutro Tower was a disaster. “As guardians of the City Charter, the planning code, and the public trust, the Board of Appeals should grant a rehearing,” she said.

The Infernal Tower: a Timeline

1966 Sutro Tower Inc. receives conditional use authorization (special permission) to construct the 977-foot-high tower in the middle of a residential neighborhood. KRON, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the tower’s other big media owners black out the story.

Sept. 29, 1971 The Bay Guardian publishes “It’s Taller than Transamerica, as Tall as the Eiffel Tower.”

Summer, 1999 Residents living near the tower inform the Board of Supervisors that over the last decade, Sutro Tower added 176 antennae to the tower and two underground fuel tanks to the site without first getting building permits as required by law.

Aug. 16, 1999 Sutro applies for a retroactive building permit for the antennae and fuel tanks.

Dec. 8, 1999 Courts rule that Sutro’s addition of a 10-ton digital TV antenna to the tower does not require special permission.

Dec. 9, 1999 Christine Linnenbach, attorney for the residents, asks zoning administrator Mary Gallagher to determine whether Sutro’s changes to the tower necessitate getting special permission from the city.

Dec. 17, 1999 Gallagher decides Sutro does need special permission for the antennae and fuel tanks.

Dec. 24, 1999 Planning director Gerald Green announces that Gallagher has resigned, assumes her position, and revokes her Dec. 17 decision.

Dec. 27, 1999 Though she has supposedly resigned, Gallagher signs a planning document as the zoning administrator.

Dec. 29, 1999 Greens signs a planning document “for Mary Gallagher, Zoning Administrator.”

Jan. 6, 2000 Linnenbach tries to appeal Green’s Dec. 24 action, but is denied.

April 13, 2000 Gallagher officially resigns as zoning administrator.

April 14, 2000 Green, as both the director and zoning administrator, decides that Sutro does not need to get special permission for the antennae and fuel tanks.

April 27, 2000 Neighbors appeal Green’s April 14 decision.

May 24, 2000 The Board of Appeals votes 5-0 to uphold the decision.

A favor for Mike Sugerman?

The Sutro Tower case is not the only time that planning director Gerald Green has apparently illegally jumped in as the zoning administrator. On Dec. 8, 1999, Green claimed in a planning document obtained by the Bay Guardian that Gallagher was out sick and then signed a variance granting permission to build an addition onto the back of a house at 825 Faxon Ave.

“Because the Zoning Administrator was ill, the Planning Director assumed the duties of Zoning Administrator, independently reviewed the full record and rendered the following decision in the capacity of Acting Zoning Administrator,” Green wrote.

Attorney Christine Linnenbach mentioned the case at the Board of Appeals hearing May 24. According to county assessor records, Michael Sugerman, the KCBS radio reporter, and his wife, Janice, own the house. KCBS’s parent company, CBS, owns a part of Sutro Tower Inc.

Payroll documents for Gallagher obtained by the Bay Guardian under the Sunshine Ordinance, however, show that Gallagher worked Dec. 8, 1999, and was not sick. The payroll records show that Gallagher worked 5.75 hours in the office that day and used 2.25 hours of comp time.

Sources close to the San Francisco Planning Department say that Green stepped in because Gallagher had indicated that she was planning to deny the variance. They say that Anita Theoharis, who is president of the Planning Commission, strongly supports the mayor, and lives in the same neighborhood as the Sugermans, argued to Planning Department staff that the Sugermans should get their variance because it was important to keep a member of the press happy during the mayor’s reelection campaign.

In a telephone interview Theoharis acknowledged that she argued to Planning Department staff that the Sugermans should get their variance, but she denies that it was because Michael Sugerman is a member of the media.

“I was supportive of the variance, as was the entire neighborhood, the neighborhood association, the architect, who authored the Westwood Park Association Residential Design guidelines,” Theoharis said. “I don’t care who signed the variance; it was the right thing to do.”

In a phone interview Sugerman said that he was neither aware of nor involved in any politicking for his variance. “I have no idea what anybody said, and I have never in my career asked anybody to give me a favor because of my job,” he said. “That’s completely unethical.” Ron Vinson, spokesperson for Mayor Willie Brown, said the mayor had no comment on the Faxon Avenue decision. Green did not respond to questions regarding the Faxon decision.

S.B. and L.H.

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San Francisco Bay Guardian – March 15, 2000


Democratic Party rebels win 11 seats.

By Savannah Blackwell and Tim Redmond

In a generally bleak election, San Francisco saw to signs of hope: Proposition E, the antiwelfare measure, went down to defeat handily – and despite being outspent 5-1 by downtown forces, reformers managed to win 11 seats on the Democratic County Central Committee.

That’s not enough to form a majority, but it could be enough to shake up the machine and force at least some debate over reforms.

There are 24 elected positions on the committee, which means the reformers start out short of a majority. An additional seven seats go to representatives of city and state elected officials – many of whom are allies of Mayor Willie Brown.

“The elected really hold the margin here, so the question is, what are they going to do?” gay rights activist Jeff Sheehy told the Bay Guardian. “If they aren’t going to allow us to influence the DCCC, the lowest level of participation in politics, then I think we need to start going to the top and running against them.”

Sheehy was one of a group of candidates bent on reforming the politics of the DCCC. Many were involved in the unsuccessful campaign to elect board president Tom Ammiano mayor (see “The Party’s Over” 2/2/00).

A powerful but little watched organization, the DCCC endorses candidates for primaries and takes sides on non-partisan issues as well. It controls the influential slate card of the Democratic Club – and in the mayor’s reelection campaign, it became a conduit for hundreds of thousands of dollars collected from business interests. The reformers want to change the committee into a group that better reflects the interests and needs of the city’s have-nots.

“Progressives got out the message that the DCCC is important for causes like rent control and integrity in government,” Jim Stearns, a political consultant who worked for several of the reformers, told the Bay Guardian.

The Harvey Milk Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Democratic Club and the Bay Guardian endorsed 20 candidates for the committee. The Alice B. Toklas Lesbian/Gay Democratic Club, a group heavily influenced by political consultant Robert Barnes and generally loyal to the mayor, endorsed 24 candidates.

Eleven of the Toklas/Brown machine candidates won seats. Only five were political newcomers. The rest, including Sups. Sue Bierman and Leslie Katz, were incumbents. Two winning candidates, former district attorney Arlo Smith and Shawn O’Hearn, did not receive endorsements from either side. Smith is an incumbent; O’Hearn is a newcomer.

“I don’t think [either side] can claim a massive victory,” Barnes told us. “Given that we were up against a coalition of the Milk Club, Ammiano, and the Bay Guardian, I think we fared pretty well.”

Final figures aren’t yet available. But based on interviews and records that have been filed, the successful reformers spent roughly $30,000 (including $2,000 for taped phone calls by Ammiano to several thousand households). The Milk Club was not able to come up with enough money to send out a last-minute slate.

Those successful candidates backed by the Brown machine spent about $165,000. Much of the money came from downtown business leaders, including Republican Don Fisher and from financier Warren Hellman, who gave big chunks.

Alice’s priorities

The Alice B. Toklas Club spent a grand total of $33,194 on the March 7 primary – an election in which one of the most blatant antigay measures in California history – Proposition 22 – was on the ballot.

All of Alice’s materials – including Democratic Central Committee slate cards – included a No on 22 message (along with a No on 21 message and a No on Prop. E message). Still, it’s worth noting that the club’s “Independent Expenditure PAC” spent $243,120 last fall to reelect Brown (over gay supervisor Ammiano).

So the Toklas club spent more than seven times as much money defeating a gay candidate for mayor as it did fighting an antigay ballot measure.

Go figure.

Faith Healing

We ran into Sup. Amos Brown at the Department of Elections, just as the returns were showing clearly that Prop. E had lost (making San Francisco the only major city in the nation to defeat an antiwelfare ballot measure in the past five years). Reverend Brown wasn’t pleased.

“We need some people at city hall who can think,” he insisted. “We can’t continue giving out money to subsidize alcohol and drug habits.”

Well, he was asked, instead of taking away the already meager cash payment to welfare recipients, why not make sure the city funds adequate drug and alcohol treatment? His response, even for Brown, was startling.

“A lot of these people don’t need medical treatment, they don’t need residential treatment,” he said. “They need motivation to get their butts off the street.”

When we asked him what sort of motivation he was thinking of, he suggested they start coming to his church on Sunday. ?

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The Party’s Over – February 2, 2000

San Francisco Bay Guardian February 2, 2000 Pgs. 19, 22

The Party’s Over

Activists who tried to get Tom Ammiano elected mayor have set their sights on taking S.F.’s Democratic Party back from the machine.

By Savannah Blackwell

Reforming San Francisco’s politics is like cleaning the manure out of the ancient Augean stables. The Greek hero Hercules had to divert two entire rivers to scour the years of accumulated sludge out of those stalls, and it will be just as tough for San Francisco progressives to get rid of the corruption that’s fouling the local political system.

That’s in part because the corruption goes so deep. Mayor Willie Brown’s Democratic machine doesn’t just control city hall – it has an equally tight grip on many of San Francisco’s ground-level political clubs. Other than the Harvey Milk Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Democratic Club, few are completely free from the tentacles of the power structure, and – not coincidentally – few push important progressive causes that might offend the powers that be.


Nowhere is that more evident than at the most significant of the local organizations, the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. The committee, the official governing body of the Democrats of San Francisco, in theory represents the 59 percent of San Francisco voters who are registered Democrats. A powerful but little watched organization, it endorses candidates for primaries and takes sides on nonpartisan issues as well. It controls the influential slate card of the Democratic party – and these days it also controls hundreds of thousands of dollars in “soft money” that go to finance political campaigns.

And now it’s becoming the site of the next skirmish between the machine and the upstart progressive coalition that sought to put Tom Ammiano in the Mayors Office.

In the past few years the DCCC has:

  • endorsed Brown more than a year before the November 1999 election – a move likely aimed at discouragingpotential challengers – and spent some $264,683 in soft money to get him reelected;

  • spent $23,212 trying to defeat ameasure requiring campaign consultants to disclose their finances to the Ethics Commission;

  • spent $2,047 trying to defeat a measure to toughen the city’s Sunshine Ordinance;

  • endorsed the privatization of Edison school;

  • allowed chair Natalie Berg to muscle anti-machine opponents out of the way and keep the committee in the hands of Brown allies – through tactics a judge later found to be illegal.

Political analysts say the DCCC has turned off potential activists, because it has actedas a cheerleader for only one faction of San Francisco’s politics, theBurton-Brown machine.

“One hundred percent of its resources has been devoted to one wing of the SanFrancisco Democrats,” Rich DeLeon, chair of the political science department at San Francisco State University, told the Bay Guardian, “It should not be that way. They risk losing their credibility and their standing.”

Right now,though, the committee is a force to be reckoned with. During election season,its endorsements go out on a slate card labeled simply “San Francisco Democratic Party,” a slate card pollster David Binder tells us is one of the most influential in San Francisco races.

And thatinfluence flows in predictable directions. To help Brown lock up reelection,the committee endorsed him in summer 1998 – more than one year prior to theelection – without even interviewing candidates. It raised $553,091 in 1999 andspent about half of that, at least $264,682, on Brown’s campaign. That’s an unprecedented amount for the committee to spend on one issue or candidate;among other things, it went to pay for such activities as playing recordedmessages from President Bill Clinton down voters’ phone lines.

“The DCCC took sides very heavily for Willie Brown,” Jim Sterns, a political consultant who worked for multimillionaire candidate Clint Reilly in the 1999mayoral race, told the Bay Guardian. “They did everything possible,stretched every legal loophole they could find for Willie Brown and themachine.”

Building momentum

Not every Ammiano supporter is a Democrat, and the coalition that backed him doesn’t even have a name, much less a formal organization. But some of the folks who worked on his campaign are trying to use the momentum built upin the mayor’s race to take the DCCC back from the machine.

All 24elected committee seats – 12 in the 12th Assembly District and 12 in the 13th -are up for election March 7. (Seven other seats are reserved for representatives of area elected officials.) The reformers hope to win 16 seats,enough to form a majority and turn the DCCC in a new direction. 

“San Francisco is a one-party town whose machine is about passing out money, staying in power, and keeping people disenfranchised,” neighborhood activist Aaron Peskin, who is running in the 13th district, told the Bay Guardian.

“What we’re trying to do is put together a slate of people interested in putting democracy back into the Democratic Party. These are people who have a historyof advocacy, who want to make San Francisco more livable and better for all SanFranciscans and remove it from big politics, big money, and raw power.”

“The machine is supposedly liberal, but it is really about where the money is at,” Phillip Babcock, president of the Milk Club and a candidate in the13th district, told the Bay Guardian. “It’s not about supporting the average working person. It’s about maintaining the status quo that favors the wealthy.”

Checkbook Democrats

Brown won reelection last year with an unprecedented amount of soft money – more than $2million. Big business poured that cash into “independent expenditure”committees, which were freed from campaign contribution limits by a law suitfought by Brown’s lawyer.

The DCCCwas a key part of that fundraising effort. At a single March 1999 event, it brought in tens of thousands of dollars from a host of sources, including city contractors such as Norcal Waste Systems. City law prohibits contractors from contributing to a candidate’s campaign if the candidate, once elected, oversees the contract, but courts have ruled that theydon’t bar contributions to “independent” groups like the DCCC.

The group”acted as a de facto candidate committee,” Charles Marsteller of good-government group Common Cause told theBay Guardian.

Thereformers want the committee to make its finances public – and want to see theDemocratic Party spend less money keeping the likes of Willie Brown in officeand more on an effort to bring young people and people of color onto Democraticrolls.

“Torevive the Democratic Party on the left, you’re going to need to reform thecommittee and have it act as an activist, connecting to the grassroots andbadgering elected officials to consider that viewpoint,” campaignconsultant David Spero told the Bay Guardian.”Right now, the elected officials can count on the committee to give themvotes.”

“Inorder to combat the money-oriented, over-organized politics we have in SanFrancisco, you have to go to the ground level,” equal rights advocatesJeff Sheehy, a candidate in the 13th district, toldthe Bay Guardian.

Given thatDCCC chair Berg and another high-ranking Brown loyalist, treasurer Martha Knutzen, are not running again, the reformers see this as the right time to mount their effort. The key to winning, they say, is to keep the coalition that got behind Ammiano together.

“TheDCCC needs to be changed. We feel this time we can make it for everybody likeit should be,” Willie Ratcliff, editor and publisher of the San Francisco Bay View, told the Bay Guardian. “If we’re going to change the system, we need a coalition of people on the other side against Willie Brown. We gotta keep it rolling to keep up change.”

Fighting Reform

But it won’t happen without a fight.

Robert Barnes, a political consultant who helped spearhead the mayor’s soft moneycampaign, told us the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club – the machine-friendly queer community political club – is going all-out to elect a pro-Brown slate,including many city employees and commissioners, to the DCCC.

Barnes,who has enjoyed much influence at the DCCC owing to his business relationship with Berg, says, “Alice will certainly be out there.”

Barnes,critics say, is a perfect example of the sort of corruption they want to root out. At one point about four years ago, the DCCC had Barnes on its payroll atthe same time Berg had him on hers in her bid for Community College Board,according to longtime DCCC member Greg Day.

“Wefinally got that changed, but [Berg] never really saw anything wrong with it,” Day told the Bay Guardian.

Bergdidn’t return calls for comment. Barnes told us he didn’t think there was anyproblem that he represented Berg and the DCCC simultaneously. “I thought Iwas the best person for the job,” he said.

Ironically,the DCCC was created to foster political reform. The concept of an electedcounty committee goes back to the early 1900s, when Hiram Johnson pushed to get control of the party out of the back rooms and into the hands of the voters.

And the early 1980s saw a period of activism on the part of the committee. “We had actual discussions. We would argue about issues,” Day told us.

Things have certainly changed. During Berg’s term, which started in 1995, the bylaws were changed to require a two-thirds vote of the committee to overturn a decision by the chair.

This iscertainly not the first effort to reform the committee. In 1998, more than 80candidates – including Brown opponents from the left and the right – vied for slots.But the effort was stymied. In the first meeting after the June 1998 election,Berg held on to her chair, with Brown’s blessing, in a highly controversial vote. Labor activists, Milk Club members, and some conservative Asian American Committee members tried to get San Francisco Tomorrow’s Jane Morrison, who isrunning for reelection in the 12th district, elected chair. Berg hung onto theposition by disqualifying one of her opponent’s votes on a technicality. Ajudge later ruled the election invalid, but by that time Berg had enough votes to retain her seat.

Otherreformers caved in to pressure, and the DCCC continued along its pro-Browncourse. Tough questions about the committee’s fundraising efforts or financeswere politely ignored, Henry Louie, who ran as a reformer in 1998, told the BayGuardian. Louie was the only committee member who did not vote to endorse themayor in summer 1998. He is running for reelection in the 12th district.

“The committee is tightly held and controlled by a few insiders,” Louie told the Bay Guardian. “We went in there to try and open up, but there weren’t enough of us to hold that slate together. Once it became clear the DCCC was going to fall over itself to speak out and support the mayor’s candidacy, there just wasn’t the same energy to promote the reform goals.”

As a first step, the reformers want an audit of the committee’s finances. Louie told theBay Guardian that, despite the DCCC’s requirement that the treasurer release a report every month, financial information has beenspotty and at the most has provided bottom-line numbers with little or noaccounting.

“Reform starts with the DCCC and its books,” former Milk Club president Criss Romero, who is running in the 13th district, told theBay Guardian.

A reformed DCCC could move to empower the city’s disenfranchised communities – starting with aggressive efforts to get younger voters and people of color registered to vote. The committee had not initiated a serious registration effort since 1992,although, according to Binder, the past three years have seen young voters and people of color register at low rates with the local Democratic Party.

And if thecommittee could be opened up to activists from outside the establishment, itcould give progressives a base from which to get involved in local politics.With Brown’s allies controlling the clubs and the commissions, it has beentough for potential candidates for office to get a foothold.

With such a foothold, the surge of momentum behind the Ammiano campaign could be channeled into the coming elections, especially under the district system.

The committee “should provide fodder for a citizen-level reform effort,” DeLeon told the Bay Guardian. “If it was more representative across the spectrum, and not just of the downtown interests, it could enhance the power of the community.

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