Who Benefits from Green “Benefit” Districts?
GBDs — privatizing basic City services
Property owners in San Francisco are generally under the impression that their property taxes pay for basic government services such as public safety (Police and Fire Departments); clean streets and sidewalks (Public Works); maintenance of our parks (Recreation and Park Department) and services to help homeless people (Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing).
In spite of an enormous budget ($13.7 Billion this fiscal year), the City has sought to hand off many of these responsibilities to the private sector for several years. A key mechanism whereby City officials “privatize” basic government functions is to fund the promotion of Commercial Benefit Districts (CBDs), Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and, more recently, Green Benefit Districts (GBDs). San Francisco residents who have been following DPW’s Mohammed Nuru corruption scandal and SF Parks Alliance’s questionable tactics should give special scrutiny to this intentionally obscure scheme that promotes GBDs.
... DPW and OEWD paid Parks Alliance some portion of a $156,984 contract to serve as foot soldiers in the most recent failed campaign ... But the City and SF Parks Alliance have blocked all citizen attempts to get invoices through public record requests, so the exact amount of public money spent is not known.”
Establishing GBDs requires special elections and special campaigns.
First, the Mayor's Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) and the Department of Public Works (DPW) fund aggressive campaigns to convince business and residential property owners to assess themselves by establishing “benefit” districts to pay extra for basic services. The City’s message is that San Francisco can no longer be counted on to provide basic government functions. These benefit district campaigns, paid for with tax dollars, undermine the public's faith in the City's ability to perform even the most basic government functions, and they confuse the lines of responsibility and accountability. There is still no plausible explanation why local crytocurrency billionaire Chris Larsen has distributed hundreds of surveillance cameras to Benefit Districts without City oversight and perhaps contrary to City ordinance. A New York Times report concluded: "San Francisco is unique in that the cameras are not being installed and monitored by the police but by private citizens, and it is unique in that one person is paying for so much of it."
Grants and Contracts Second, to convince residential property owners to set up GBDs, public funding via OEWD grants and contracts flows to non-profits SF Parks Alliance and Build Public which conduct the day-to-day campaigns. Working through a non-profit is a convenient way to hide the details of how public funds are spent.
Weighted Voting And third, the City uses weighted voting in the required special elections to set up “benefit” districts. Large property owners have greater voting power than small homeowners. And the City often owns enough property in a given neighborhood to tilt the election outcome.
Pay-to-Play: Let the Games Begin!
Once a “benefit” district is formed and the assessments pour in, private firms are hired to provide security, clean the sidewalks and serve as homeless “ambassadors.” These contracts create opportunities for cronyism. The disgraced former head of DPW, Mohammed Nuru, was personally involved in promoting the GBD concept in various neighborhoods. Early on, a selling point was that Benefit District managers would gain better access to DPW and City services. Access turns up because Benefit District managers tend to be former City employees and political staffers. Former unsuccessful Supervisorial candidate Julie Christiansen became Director of the Dogpatch GBD, the only GBD in existence. Public Works also pays a full-time employee - Jonathan Goldberg – as its Green Benefit District Program Manager. Goldberg assists in the startup of benefit districts and persuades residential property owners that they need a surcharge on their property tax if they want “enhanced” basic services.
City employees are forbidden by the Campaign & Government Conduct Code from influencing elections. In reality, City agencies place their thumbs heavily on the scale, using taxpayer dollars to fund City staffers to promote benefit districts, and by funding non-profits to influence the election process while obscuring the City's role. The City Attorney was alerted to this problem in April 2019, but showed zero interest. Finally, after Mohammed Nuru was arrested by the FBI on federal corruption charges, City Attorney Herrera subpoenaed the SF Parks Alliance, and organizations that donated to the Parks Alliance, seeking the very information concerned citizens have been requesting for almost two years.
GBDs defeated in residential neighborhoods
Public funding to promote GBDs originally came through Public Works and, more recently, via the Mayor's OEWD and was then contracted out to SF Parks Alliance. Yet, GBDs have been defeated in almost every residential neighborhood where they have been promoted, including the Inner Sunset, Golden Gate Heights, the Haight, and most recently in the Dolores Park neighborhood where a divisive two-year effort has been suspended.It appears that DPW and OEWD paid Parks Alliance some portion of a $156,984 contract to serve as foot soldiers in the most recent failed campaign. Property owners in these areas have questioned the City-funded lobbying; "Don't we already pay property taxes to provide for policing, street cleaning and park maintenance?” But the City and SF Parks Alliance have blocked all citizen attempts to get invoices through public record requests, so the exact amount of public money spent is not known. Citizens have a right to know how their dollars are spent, a right protected by California's Brown Act and San Francisco's Sunshine Ordinance.
SF Parks Alliance a Central Participant
SF Parks Alliance has been at the center of recent undemocratic efforts to form GBDs and has been paid by the City to run these campaigns to privatize City services.The contract between the City and Parks Alliance for the failed effort in the Haight (known as the Greater Buena Vista GBD), came to $221,000. The total cost of the effort in the Dolores Park area is at least $156,000. SF Parks Alliance routinely used taxpayer dollars to set up websites, conduct biased public meetings, pay for promotional mailers, and run petition drives without a time limit in preparation for special elections. Since votes are weighted by the size of the property owned, large property owners, often City-owned properties in targeted neighborhoods, can force less wealthy neighbors to join a "benefit" district.
Developers PAC? Of special interest, real estate developer Michael Yarne of Build Inc. originally convinced the City to authorize GBDs while he worked at OEWD under Mayor Newsom. Yarne later started a non-profit called Build Public, doing business as Place Lab, and which then merged with SF Parks Alliance where he sits on the Board. The SF Parks Alliance Board now includes another major real estate developer, Emerald Fund's Oz Erickson. At the same time, City funding amounting to millions of dollars started pouring into Alliance coffers
For the past two years, neighbors from different areas of the City have testified before the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force (SOTF) to obtain records about the relationship between DPW, OEWD and SF Parks Alliance in promoting residential assessment districts using taxpayer dollars. Detailed information about these attempts can be obtained by searching the SOTF website for Files 19061, 19062, and 19032. The SOTF has been repeatedly stonewalled by OEWD and DPW, yet has taken little action on this issue. Non-government organizations like the SF Parks Alliance assert that they are not bound by the Sunshine Ordinance. Now that Public Works and the SF Parks Alliance find themselves at the center of a government corruption probe, there may be hope that the SOTF will find a way to help concerned citizens get to the bottom of this matter.
Drew Becher, CEO of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, expressed shock at the Controller's findings. "Like everyone, we were outraged to learn of the public corruption in our local government,” Becher said, in a statement. “We did not benefit in any way nor had any control over the donations that Nuru and Public Works solicited and directed to the sub-account, as the report states. We are a trusted partner to many community groups and city departments and welcome any and all actions that bring more transparency and oversight to ensure the public’s trust."
This deployment of public funds and City employees to set up assessment districts which pay private companies to carry our basic government services has not yet been fully exposed.
Think your taxes pay for City services? That was then — this is now.
San Francisco activists John Hooper and Mark Sullivan were assisted by Dr. Kerr in this report.
November 20, 2020