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Vacant Apartment Tax
To ameliorate the vacancy problem, Supervisor Dean Preston announces a proposed tax on vacant apartments.Photo courtesy of 48

Ten percent of SF housing is vacant, a new report shows

The number of condos that are sold but never occupied has soared in the past five years, suggesting that letting developers build freely doesn't really help the crisis.

More than 40,000 housing units—ten percent of the current housing stock—are currently vacant in San Francisco, a new report shows.

The data in the report, by the Board of Supervisors Budget and Legislative Analyst, strongly suggests that a significant percentage of new market-rate housing that’s been built in the city in the past ten years is still empty, and thus doing nothing to alleviate the housing crisis.

Some of the vacant units—7,241—are empty because they’re currently on the rental market. Another 2,400 are rented but the renter hasn’t moved in yet.

But 8,039 units have been sold to new owners who have not occupied the property, and 8,565 units have owners who use them for short-term seasonal or recreational purposes—that is, they come to the city every once in a while, and the rest of the time the place is empty.

quote marks

In 2010, only 794 units were sold but unoccupied. In 2015, that number was 1547.

By 2019, after a luxury condo boom, it was 8,039—a 419 percent increase.

That suggests that roughly 22 percent of all the new units built in that period have never had anyone living in them.”

So that’s more than 16,000 units that aren’t available for full-time residents.

One of the more dramatic elements of the report: In 2010, only 794 units were sold but unoccupied. In 2015, that number was 1547.

By 2019, after a luxury condo boom, it was 8,039—a 419 percent increase.

That suggests that roughly 22 percent of all the new units built in that period have never had anyone living in them.

From the report:

This type of vacancy may be due to owners buying new units while they are still under construction, but it may also be due to owners purchasing them as investments or cash havens with no intention of moving in or renting them out.

Add in the 8,565 units that are basically pieds a terre for very rich people, and you get a picture of a very warped housing market.

There are also apartments and condos that landlords are holding off the market because they think they can sell it or rent it for more money in the future. Some is also corporate housing.

The data is based on American Community Survey data from the Census Department, and it’s all aggregate: That is, we know the total numbers, but we don’t know which specific buildings are empty.

A report by 48hills several years ago found a lot of evidence that a lot of the new condos getting built are not occupied, at least not full time.

Fred Brousseau, who wrote the report, told the supes that the city’s rental registry, which will come on line later this year, will provide more information. But that doesn’t cover condos that are not on the rental market.

Brousseau said that registry could fairly easily be expanded to cover the rest of the city’s housing stock.

As I noted earlier, there’s another way to track vacant units, and that’s through water bills.

The report suggests a range of policy options, and the most obvious one is a vacancy tax. Other cities, including Vancouver BC, have tried that approach:

Vancouver. Photo by Bert Kaufmann, Flickr — Courtesy

Like some U.S. cities, Vancouver, British Columbia, imposed an Empty Homes Tax on certain vacant units in 2016. The tax is a surcharge on the assessed value of vacant units, identified through a self-registration process. The city reports that their overall vacancy rate decreased from 4.3 to 3.1 percent as a result of the tax and that 1,676 units were returned to occupancy in 2018, followed by an additional 220 in 2019. This number is expected to decline in subsequent years, seemingly a sign that the tax is having its intended impact.

Vancouver’s Empty Homes Tax generated the equivalent of approximately $21.3 million US dollars in 2019, the net proceeds of which were used by the city for affordable housing initiatives. Exemptions to the tax are provided for reasons such as the property being in the process or being transferred, the owner being in a care facility, and others.

More important, perhaps:

The City of Vancouver reported a 21.2 percent reduction in vacant units the first year after its vacancy tax was adopted.

Oakland also has a residential vacancy tax. The report suggests that the city could raise a lot of money from that kind of levy:

Assuming an estimated 4,600 to 7,300 vacant units in San Francisco that would be subject to a vacancy tax, we estimate San Francisco could generate between $12.2 and $61.2 million per year in net revenue initially, or an amount in between depending on whether it adopts a tax similar to Oakland’s on the low side or Vancouver, B.C.’s on the high side. Our mid-range net revenue estimate is approximately $38.9 million per year.

Dean Preston
Supervisor Dean Preston

And that money, of course, could go for affordable housing.

“If one in ten units in the city is vacant, this is a very significant policy issue,” Sup. Dean Preston, who asked for the report, said during the hearing. “We need to activate these homes.”

We also need to recognize that the idea that San Francisco can let the private market build us out of this crisis—the central assumption of the Yimby movement—has no basis in fact. If almost a quarter of all the new units that developers are building are empty, and as many as half or more are either empty or only occupied part-time by people who use them as occasional vacation homes, then that strategy is just going to fail.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond

Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

February 2020

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Major S.F. Bayfront Developments Advance Despite Sea Rise Warnings


An apartment tower rises in Mission Bay, bringing new neighbors for Jack Wickert, 78, a retired music teacher and playwright who lives in a houseboat on Mission Creek. Asked if he was worried about sea level rise, he quipped: “I’ll rise with it.” Photo: Peter Snarr / San Francisco Public Press

Builders plan to invest more than $21 billion in offices and homes in flood-prone areas, where waters could climb 8 feet above today’s high tide by the end of this century

Editor’s Note: This is a truncated version of a SF Public Press exclusive. Click here for the full report.

Like every body of water that opens onto a global ocean, San Francisco Bay is virtually guaranteed to rise several feet in coming decades, climate scientists say. But that has not deterred real estate developers from proposing and building billions of dollars worth of new homes and offices in bayfront areas that current climate change predictions show could flood by century’s end.

Land-use records and environmental applications reveal that the building boom, fueled by a white-hot tech economy, is moving too fast for regulators to keep pace. Most cities and regional agencies have not yet adopted tools to address flooding in areas where thousands of acres are threatened by sea level rise.

Developers say they have engineering and financial solutions to deal with any reasonable future flooding risk. But critics, including climate scientists, urban planners and environmental activists, say the current wave of construction might leave taxpayers on the hook for enormously expensive emergency protections and repairs.

Researchers studying climate change predict that the rise in ocean levels will accelerate later this century as the atmosphere heats the ocean and melts glaciers. Many of their models show that by 2100, occasional flooding could reach as high as 8 feet above current high tide, in the event of a severe coastal storm.


“It may be unwise — and expensive — to require immediate measures to adapt to wide-ranging, highly uncertain SLR projections further out in time,” (Mayor) Lee wrote.”

Even the scenario widely considered “most likely” — 3 feet of permanent rise — would put thousands of acres of the current shoreline underwater.

Developers are planning or currently building at least 27 major commercial and residential complexes around the bay on land lower than 8 feet above high tide, as estimated by recent aerial surveys. And more than a dozen Bay Area cities continue to issue permits for plans that address future flood risks vaguely, if at all.

Google, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Facebook are among the marquee corporate names driving the bayfront explosion. Some cities are even courting companies to build near sea level, often on landfill created in the mid-20th century in former salt marshes. Much of that land could return to the sea, unless cities erect seawalls, levees and other monumental edifices.

In many areas new development includes desperately needed housing. Projects now in the pipeline in San Francisco would add 25,000 new apartments. On Treasure Island alone, developers are ready to break ground on a forest of residential towers that could house 12,000 people, and at Mission Rock and Pier 70, developers have pledged to build more affordable apartments than the city requires.

Public Costs

flood Plains

Corporate and government data show that the highest-profile building projects on the shorelines of San Francisco, Silicon Valley and the East Bay will cost more than $21 billion to build, excluding the value of the land underneath them.

That does not account for the likely public cost, coming within decades, of protecting these settlements with dikes, levees and artificial wetlands — or for the economic toll of abandoning development in designated buffer zones as waves rise.

A few local governments, including Mountain View, are beginning to spend money on sea level rise infrastructure projects that can protect waterfront business districts.

And San Francisco is in its second year of interdepartmental planning to address sea rise. But the city has yet to update its flood plain ordinance or planning and building codes to address increasing flood risk on the waterfront.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has updated its flood maps, which guide public works investments, but other agencies do not impose those guidelines on private property.

Mayor Ed Lee and the Board of Supervisors last year resisted a call from the chair of the city’s civil grand jury to stop approving new shoreline development until stricter building rules are passed. Officials said that changes to city codes might be necessary, though until now state environmental laws and reviews have been sufficient.

Official maps upon which the city’s 2008 flood ordinance is based do not account for future sea rise. Developers say this means the city lacks the legal grounds to prevent building there.

In the past five years, San Francisco land-use agencies have approved residential, entertainment, retail, medical and office projects on nearly 50 waterfront parcels that are less than 8 feet above sea level. Major projects are somewhere in the approval process for Treasure Island and in parts of South of Market, Pier 70, Candlestick Point and Hunters Point.

The most contentious is the Golden State Warriors’ $1 billion plan for a mixed-use facility in the Mission Bay neighborhood south of downtown. Opponents of the project, centered around an arena for the 2015 NBA champions, have focused on how it would affect traffic and bay views. But the basketball team’s engineers admit in an application for environmental review that the site could under some scenarios temporarily flood “to depths between 2 and 4 feet” by the year 2100.

Team engineers express confidence that they can design the buildings to resist storm surges by raising entrances, waterproofing basements, installing floodgates in the garage and judiciously deploying sandbags. The Warriors are expected to present the proposal to the Planning Commission this year before the scheduled release of a city-sponsored report showing Mission Bay’s vulnerability to sea rise.

Also at potential risk are hundreds of millions of dollars worth of facilities that opened this year in other parts of Mission Bay, where many streets and sidewalks are less than 10 feet above the bay’s current level. That includes University of California, San Francisco, Benioff Children’s Hospital and the San Francisco Emergency Services Center, where the city’s Police and Fire departments have set up new headquarters.

Some nearby projects do include plans to address sea rise. At the San Francisco Giants’ $1.6 billion Mission Rock development, which includes 1,500 apartments with views of AT&T Park, the plan is to elevate the land to accommodate 4.6 feet of sea rise, plus storm surge.

Development projects are springing up all around the southern half of the bay, from San Francisco to San Jose, and north to the Port of Oakland and the island of Alameda.

Maps created for the San Francisco Public Press by graduates of the Geography Department at the University of California, Berkeley, using published development plans and oceanographic data, show that current or proposed building projects that are at least partly in low-lying areas add up to more than 5,100 acres.

Climate change science is still evolving, but the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission found that government and academic experts, including the National Research Council, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Climate Assessment, state and regional climate agencies and independent research groups, largely agree on a matrix of predictions that endorse the 3-foot “moderate” benchmark.

None of the 13 cities surveyed requires developers to prepare for the less likely 4.6-foot scenario. The debate in local planning circles is whether to plan for the moderate outcome, or a less likely high-end one.

Several public and private science groups have posted interactive maps online in the past three years that show which areas would flood under various scenarios. But their creators say it has been hard to persuade city planners to use them to assess flood hazards.

In a 2009 report for the California Energy Commission, the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based research group advocating for corporate environmental stewardship and social equity, estimated that property lost in the event of 4.6 feet of sea rise by 2099 would cost the Bay Area $62 billion (nearly two-thirds the cost for all of California). This inundation would require rebuilding the airports serving San Francisco and Oakland, and moving parts of interstates 101 on the Peninsula and 80 in the East Bay. It could also put 270,000 people in danger during severe floods, the report warned, and “continued development in vulnerable areas will put additional areas at risk and raise protection costs.”

Follow the Money

“Now is the time to look seriously at what will happen 50 or 100 years down the road,” said Gary Griggs, who directs the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and contributed to the National Research Council’s most recent report on sea level rise on the West Coast. “What is the value of making a development, housing project or mall if we know it will have to be removed later, except for some short-term temporary gains?”

Developers stand to profit handsomely from the waterfront land rush, but governments also benefit in the short run. The proposed megaprojects promise tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue. Some cities are offering developers tax credits, low-cost land and flood-control infrastructure to encourage building on their shorelines.

But there are signs of change. The Port of San Francisco in 2012 sketched a $2.7 billion concept to wrap a 10-mile-long, elevated supplemental pier around the existing Embarcadero piers, and is considering adding pumping stations and dikes.

Acting alone, cities risk pushing floodwaters into neighboring areas. In the short term, to avoid ringing the whole bay with barriers, communities could surround themselves with small levees and extend them inland up creeks. This would keep water from neighboring communities out, until it got too high.

The Bay Conservation and Development Commission, formed 50 years ago to stop developers from filling in the bay, is urging caution and trying to play a regional coordinating role. But its jurisdiction stops just 100 feet inland from the current shoreline. The commission was chartered to ensure public access to the land, not to tell developers how to build.

To address the commission’s concerns, many development plans propose a strip of grass — heralded as “parkland” or “open space” — separating buildings from the bay. This does little to protect property if seas rise even a few feet vertically, sending floodwaters thousands of feet inland.

The common roadblocks that environmentalists face nationwide in raising concern over adaptation to climate change, such as distrust of science or lobbying by the fossil fuel industry, play only a small role in Bay Area politics. Here, the obstacles involve pressure from the real estate, construction and tech businesses emphasizing short-term economic opportunity over more precautionary environmental perspectives.

Capitalizing on Uncertainty

San Francisco planning staffers say they evaluate each application for its response to the threat of sea level rise and suggest a range of adaptation strategies. According to public records, in the last five years the city has approved more than 50 projects, each worth at least $1 million, in low-lying waterfront areas. The estimated development costs of these projects exceed $4.5 billion.

A report in June 2014 from the city’s civil grand jury — a volunteer committee that examines local government — concluded that San Francisco was not moving nearly fast enough to protect public safety in the event of sea rise. David Behar, climate program director for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission who last year headed the city’s interagency Sea Level Rise Technical Committee, said scientists’ increasing confidence in their projections and the degree of agreement among them support taking action.

This year, Mayor Ed Lee convened a new panel, the Sea Level Rise Coordinating Committee, chaired by Gil Kelley, the director of citywide planning, and Fuad Sweiss, the city engineer. He said the group would produce a “high-level assessment” of risks and vulnerabilities, and consider recommending stricter rules for private development.

Maryta Piazza, corresponding secretary of the civil grand jury, told a Board of Supervisors committee in September 2014 that the city should impose a moratorium on private developments until its codes are updated.

“If we don’t stay ahead of the trend,” Piazza said, “as we are now we’ll be forever catching up, fixing up, and ending up spending much more money in the long run.”

Kristina Hill, an associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental planning at UC Berkeley, said long-range planning is essential because sea level rise will be exponential.

“We are living in the last two stable decades of sea level rise,” Hill said. “Around 2045, 2050 or 2060, it’s going to get faster.”

Roger Kim, a representative of Lee’s office, said more research was needed. Lee said in a memo to the civil grand jury that requiring new buildings to withstand sea levels projected for 2050 or 2100 was unnecessary because many developments are not designed to last that long. He echoed developers, who often argue that if sea level rise becomes a problem, future generations can find engineering and financial solutions.

He added that any future regulation should be written with more nuance than determining whether a new building will flood. Rather, each development faces a different threat from storms, depending on its unique geography and the consequence if it is flooded. For example, a park is resilient to flooding in a way that an electrical substation is not. Regulations need to let planners adapt approvals to the circumstances, he said.

“It may be unwise — and expensive — to require immediate measures to adapt to wide-ranging, highly uncertain SLR projections further out in time,” Lee wrote.

Rethinking Mission Bay

On April Fools’ Day 2009, the cover story of Synapse, the student-run weekly paper at UCSF, was headlined “Mission Bay: The Underwater Campus.” With sea waters likely to threaten the health science school’s new campus within decades, the paper joked, adaptations could include a “campus housing fishing hole,” “surgical scuba gear,” and a 10-block “Third Street Ridge” cutting through Mission Bay to act as a seawall. Little did the editors know that at least one of these farcical suggestions could become reality.

In September 2014, consultants drafting a report to the city’s Public Utilities Commission and the Capital Planning Committee said sea level rise should not be addressed in a piecemeal fashion. The 303-acre neighborhood, which was an inlet of the bay before it was filled and used for a sprawling rail yard, must be rethought comprehensively. One suggestion from the consultants is to put Third Street on top of a levee that would reduce flooding risk in most of Mission Bay.

“The entire shoreline is too low to be protected, so what can we do about that?” Laura Tam, environmental director at SPUR, a Bay Area urban planning and advocacy group, asked at a City Hall hearing. “We cannot just protect individual buildings. We need something that protects the whole area in the long term.”

Tam co-authored the forthcoming report with Peter Wijsman, a consultant with the Dutch engineering firm ARCADIS, which has engineered solutions to sea rise in the Netherlands. Wijsman said options for Mission Bay ranged from “learning to live with water” to “armament” for the shoreline. Officials also discussed a “Venice-style” system allowing water to flow around flood-proof ground-level shops and building entrances. (See video.)

When UCSF began planning its new medical center in the 1980s, it stabilized the land in Mission Bay by adding more fill on top of the sand brought in from SoMa during the 19th century and debris added after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Paul Franke, a senior planner for the medical center, said the grade was raised by 2 to 5 feet to ensure that hospital and research buildings could withstand 3 feet of sea level rise. He said that was meant to make the project last “in perpetuity.”

When the city reviewed Mission Bay’s original sitewide permits in 1998, officials generally planned for 100-year floods, those with a 1 percent chance of happening each year. They used older predictions of sea rise and less precise topographic mapping, focusing on relatively short time horizons (8 inches by 2025). But Franke said UCSF will monitor the science over the next 50 years to ensure “we were not tragically off in our predictions.”

Meanwhile, the hospital is planning more facilities even closer to the bay and recently bought a parcel east of Third Street near 16th. As an arm of the state, UCSF gets its permits from the Division of the State Architect, not the city. But San Francisco planners do have regulatory power over the Warriors arena. Developer Strada said it plans to explain in reports mandated by state law how it will safeguard the facility, whether by raising the land, permitting some flooding or building barriers.

With the Warriors’ environmental review scheduled months before the Mission Bay sea level rise report is due, and given the mayor’s unwavering support for the sports facility, it is hard to see the Planning Commission derailing the plan because of the threat of sea level rise.

Representatives of Prologis, the developer overseeing all Mission Bay planning, did not respond to repeated calls for comment on long-term plans.

Costly Fixes

At Treasure Island, the towers approved by city officials will include 8,000 homes and 235,000 square feet of retail space. Kheay Loke, a manager with development firm Wilson Meany, says the project makes sense because the area already has roads and electricity, so developing there is more environmentally sustainable than building in the suburbs. For the company, it means not having to install new infrastructure.

For years, the property’s developers have emphasized their plans to conserve energy, maintain open spaces and build walkable neighborhoods, linked to the rest of the city by public transit, including ferries. In an interview in a downtown conference room with a view of the island, Loke said there was an easy — if “sacrilegious” — solution to sea level rise.

“Fill in the bay,” he said. “You go 50 feet out, and you build yourself a levee.”

Wilson Meany and co-developer Lennar Urban already plan to fortify existing berms around the 400-acre island to make them broad enough to build higher in the future. And they plan to raise the land, at a cost of $1.2 billion. Construction will continue through 2035.

“We can adapt and protect,” Loke said. “Sea level rise and flood protection are problems that money can solve.”

In this case, the money probably will come from the island’s future taxpayers. Treasure Island property owners will pay a special fee, called a Mello-Roos tax, to fund any future adaptation measures needed after the developers leave.

Brad McCrea, regulatory program director at the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, said Treasure Island’s developers brought “eyes-wide-open expertise” to their planning. But he said he was skeptical of applying this kind of technology-centered approach everywhere around the bay, given that sea level rise could continue for centuries. “At the end of the day, this will be a levee-protected community,” McCrea said. “There’s no getting around that.”

McCrea said Bay Area communities should be talking about retreating from the riskiest shoreline areas. “This is not about Treasure Island, but there are some basic questions here about where is the right place to build.”

Will Travis, who headed the commission for 16 years until 2011, said the region needed a more “thoughtful, reasoned, rational and financially sound solution.

“It will buy you 50 years of time to get our heads around this notion of ‘permanent temporary’ development,” he said. “Getting developers and local governments to think half a century ahead is very hard.”

Developers are spending millions of dollars on public relations to persuade voters that they are building safe and environmentally benign projects. In November, San Francisco voters approved Proposition F — which technically exempted Pier 70, a development south of Mission Bay, from height limits, but in effect endorsed the construction of commercial space and 2,000 homes (600 affordable) on 28 waterfront acres. Our maps suggest that large portions of the former industrial area could be submerged under several feet of water by 2100 in the event of 6.4 feet of flooding (the intermediate prediction for sea rise and extreme storm surge).

After three years of public outreach, developer Forest City spent almost $3 million on the campaign, including paying $15,000 to the San Francisco Democratic Party, $10,000 to the Republican Central Committee and $25,000 the Sierra Club for mailing campaign fliers. The project won endorsements from the city’s last three mayors, all 11 current members of the Board of Supervisors and more than 50 community groups. Activists with the Sierra Club’s local chapter told a reporter last fall they never pressed the developer about sea rise.

Forest City has not yet sought environmental permits, so its specific plans are not public.

Other proposed waterfront projects that still need some approvals include the sprawling Hunters Point development that includes 1,600 homes now under construction at the old Naval Shipyard, and a commercial and residential complex rising at Candlestick Point to replace the eponymous stadium. Developers are raising the land there to keep buildings, streets and key infrastructure above the moderate estimate of the 100-year flood level — a few feet of storm surge on top of 3 feet of sea level rise.

Planners Value Flexibility

Chris Kern, a senior environmental planner for the city, said the lack of firm city codes allows easier adjustment to new scientific projections. It is sufficient that state law requires the city to assess whether new projects “expose people or structures to a significant risk of loss, injury or death involving flooding,” he said.

The SF Public Utilities Commission’s Behar said it was common for government to test regulations by applying them to public property before forcing compliance in the private sector. Piazza, the civil grand jury member, said San Francisco should halt the rapid pace of development until it adopts comprehensive policies that protect both public safety and private property. If the city takes too long, all the gaps in the waterfront skyline will have been filled in by the time the rules go into effect.

Tam, a longtime advocate for regional climate adaptation planning at SPUR, sees hope in the city’s new approach.

“Five years ago, this topic was virtually unknown,” she told John Upton, a reporter for Climate Central, a nonprofit that researches and reports on climate change. “Today, many city departments have not only participated and worked together to produce this guidance, but they are working collaboratively to develop solutions.”

Kelley, the director of citywide planning, said it was too soon to recommend new planning codes. “We need to know what the problem is before we come up with an answer,” he said. “This will lead to some discussion of what we might do.”

In recent years, researchers in many disciplines have mapped detailed projections for potential flooding as sea levels rise. And, importantly, these models now mostly agree. The Public Press compared these models against local and regional policies and with recent building permit data. The research reveals that billions of dollars worth of planned development could be threatened by rising waters within a human lifetime.

Editor’s Note:This is a truncated version, Click here for the full report.

Also grab a copy of the summer 2015 print edition, on sale now

September 2015

Should Mayors Influence Commissioners?

Best of the Net:

Planning Commission
Planning Commission hearings are Thursdays at Noon in Room 400 at City Hall

According to the May 17 SF Examiner, a San Francisco Planning Commissioner changed their vote on a key short-term rental policy after getting a text message from Mayor Lee’s liaison to the commission. The vote switch angered Planning Department staff and other proponents of the policy, which would have prevented home-sharing platforms from advertising short-term rentals that are not city- certified.

The Examiner quotes Sara Shortt of the Housing Rights Committee who said, “It seems like commissioner Johnson was voting on the actual merits of the issue related to the policy, and then was called out by her boss and realized she better vote based on the interests of the mayor.” Mayor spokesperson Christine Falvey defended liaison Nicole Wheaton’s text to Johnson, saying “She is the mayor’s liaison to commissions, the board, and state and federal legislators, so informing commissioners of policy priorities and positions is entirely appropriate.”


I want elected officials to be accountable for the actions of their appointees, whether they be commissioners or department heads. I don’t see why anyone would prefer shifting the power to set city policies to an appointed commissioner accountable to no one.”


Putting aside the merits—and I supported the Commissioner’s original position on the policy—do we want commissioners to vote their own conscience on major policy questions or to follow the recommendations of the mayor or Board President who appointed them?

The interests of political accountability and democracy are best served by the latter.

The Role of Commissioners

From the time I arrived in San Francisco in 1979, Commission votes were always seen as “political.” That term was used to reflect the common understanding that the Planning Commission under pro-development Mayor Dianne Feinstein would cast pro-development votes. One of the biggest reasons neighborhood activists backed Art Agnos in his 1987 campaign was his commitment to appoint Planning Commissioners who would not rubber stamp every downtown development project.

Many believe that Feinstein (and later Willie Brown) personally called Commissioners before key votes. That practice was called politics.

When appointive bodies are acting in a quasi-judicial capacity, such direct legislative intervention is likely illegal. But that is not the case for most Planning Commission votes, and its short-term rental actions were purely advisory.

The notion of “independent” commissioners sounds good until you think about what it means for the democratic process. Democracy is undermined when voters elect a mayor to back specific policies only to have their appointed commissioners promote a contrary agenda.

The Examiner quotes “long-time California good-government advocate Robert Stern” saying that mayoral appointees “often vote with the mayor’s interest because they need to go along with them or they’ll be replaced.” But San Francisco Planning Commissioners have four year terms which cannot be curtailed midstream.

The Short-Term Rental Hearing

The Planning Commission’s short-term rental hearing was not its finest hour.

Mayoral appointees Johnson and Hillis seemed particularly uninformed about the nuances of key issues. I watched first in disbelief and then growing anger as Johnson criticized a nonprofit enforcement provision that Mayor Lee had publicly endorsed. My feeling was not “It sure is great that this appointee is ignoring the policies of the mayor who appointed her.” To the contrary, I felt that the mayor’s staff either failed to educate Johnson about this critical issue or that she had failed to do her homework. Had Wheaton texted Johnson about the mayor’s position on the issue I would have welcomed it.

To be fair, the Board of Supervisors did not exactly distinguish itself for knowing key facts when it approved the short-term rental measure last fall. But after people on all sides of the debate acknowledged that a rushed process made for bad legislation, six months of additional time—plus very detailed policy analysis by planning staff—should have brought the Planning Commission up to speed on the issue

But this additional time did not result in a more informed Planning Commission debate. Instead, one got the impression that certain commissioners had not asked any of their questions about short-term rental policies prior to the hearing, and were almost drowning amidst complicated facts and policies that they did not understand.

For me, that was the real scandal of the Planning Commission’s short-term rental hearing.

I understood that the Planning Commission votes on the measures were purely advisory, and this might have impacted how much time Commissioners devoted to the issue. But when commissioners demonstrate by their questions that they do not understand the underlying policy issues the people of San Francisco are not well served.

I want elected officials to be accountable for the actions of their appointees, whether they be commissioners or department heads. I don’t see why anyone would prefer shifting the power to set city policies to an appointed commissioner accountable to no one.

I don’t think the Planning Commission’s actions will change a single vote on the Board of Supervisors. It should, however, inspire the full Board to get the facts and engage in a more knowledgeable debate on this issue than we have seen in the past.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses some key Planning Commission actions of the past in his new book, The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco.

The Best of the Net features outstanding journalistic efforts to assure that our readers are the best informed in the City. Think we’ve missed something? email:

July/August 2015

Best of the Net:

Violence and Intimidation at the DCCC?

I didn’t see it, and I was there

uproar at the DCCC
The Chron’s story, by a reporter who wasn’t there, presents a very misleading picture of how people expressed their feelings on the Mission Moratorium
Protesters chant “shame” (while Examiner reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez videos the scene) — but I didn’t see anyone acting violent or intimidating

Iam, I have to say, a bit boggled by a story that ran in this morning’s Chron. The report made it sound as if the Democratic County Central Committee meeting on the Mission Moratorium was a near-riot, with supporters of the Campos measure threatening and shoving the committee members who didn’t vote with them:

Campos’ frequent sparring partner on the Board of Supervisors, Scott Wiener, described the moratorium supporters as scary. “It was going well beyond passionate advocacy and attempting to intimidate and silence people who oppose the moratorium.”


We were chanting ‘shame’ at the end, but I didn’t see anyone push or attack anyone,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who was among the leaders of the movement in favor of the moratorium. “It was a pretty typical San Francisco political meeting.””

“Some of them got in my face,” he added. “I had a concern I was going to be assaulted.”

By the end of the night, one committee member said she had been assaulted.

Leah Pimentel said the meeting had ended minutes earlier when she felt someone shoving her. Pimentel said the person — who she identified as Rosario Cervantes, a consumer affairs representative at the California Public Utilities Commission — told her, “you’ve shown your true colors.”

I was there. The Chron reporter, Emily Green, wasn’t. And I didn’t see anything remotely resembling what Wiener and Pimentel complained about.

Neither did any of the folks I talked to who were at the meeting with me.

“We were chanting ‘shame’ at the end, but I didn’t see anyone push or attack anyone,” said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who was among the leaders of the movement in favor of the moratorium. “It was a pretty typical San Francisco political meeting.”

There are strong feelings on both sides of this issue. Both sides showed up at the meeting. Both sides applauded when their speakers made points, and both sides made noises when the other side spoke.

The chair, Mary Jung, had to keep reminding people not to make noise when others were speaking.

If you’ve been to contested hearings at the Board of Supes, that’s pretty standard practice. And it’s not surprising that there’s so much passion and even anger in the air – people who live in the Mission are seeing the fabric of their community literally ripped apart by displacement and speculation.

This has been going on for several years now – and it’s not surprising that a lot of people believe City Hall doesn’t see it as a crisis and has been ignoring the disaster that just keeps escalating.

The difference between the board and the DCCC is that the supes operate from behind a railing, and leave through a back door. At the DCCC, the elected members and the crowd have to exit together, through a fairly narrow doorway.

So the people who voted with the developers and the people from the Mission who are terrified of what is happening to their neighborhood were all forced together for a few minutes.

Wiener told me:

“As I was walking off the stage and out of the auditorium, a number of the moratorium supporters crowded around me and made it pretty hard for me to even get out of the room. I was definitely concerned that I was going to be assaulted. After I left the building, a few of them followed me down the empty street for a block or so screaming at me.”

I don’t know what happened to Leah Pimentel. I didn’t see it happen. I’ve tried to get the police report from SFPD public affairs, but I haven’t heard back.

I know that I didn’t see any police arrive on the scene. Neither did anyone else I know who was there.

I am told that the police report mentions an 11:17pm call from a woman who said she was pushed. Maybe that happened. Maybe it was accidental – there were a lot of people in a small space. Again, I didn’t see it.

My friend Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez was there reporting for the Examiner. I am pretty sure we were the only reporters in the room.

He took video that shows the end of the meeting. In the video, Wiener walks back to talk to other DCCC members while some activists shout “shame.” I see nobody threatening him.

The person in the red jacket, who is at the front of the protest, shouting and gesturing, is Avicolli Mecca. Tommi’s loud; he’s also a die-hard pacifist who was a conscientious objector in the Vietnam War. Tommi disdains violence.

In fact, he told me that he was watching the crowd pretty carefully because he didn’t want to see anything ugly break out. “We were making a lot of noise,” he said. “I even had some discussions with the folks from the other side. But I didn’t see anything resembling violence.”

Kay Karpus Walker, who was at the meeting, told me:

The people chanting were nowhere near Wiener but situated near the front of the seats and near the door. He might have passed through them (as I did) but so did a lot of other people at that time and the group made room to pass. Scary? What a crock. The chanters behaved like the small groups of people who express their anger on the steps of City Hall on a weekly basis. Considering the conditions in the city, they, we, are restrained and behaving in a traditional and time honored manner.

I don’t know everyone who was on the scene, but I know a lot of them, and I can’t see anyone in that group doing anything violent to anyone.

The video gets messy at the end because there was, in fact, someone following Wiener out the door and down the hall – that was Fitz the reporter. A consummate professional, doing his job. I saw him walk out with Wiener, politely talking to him about housing policy. I saw them standing at the door to the building.

Then I saw Wiener walk away down the street. Some of the activists shouted at him. I saw nobody follow him.

Laura Clark, who is on the board of GrowSF, told me that some of her members were afraid to speak because they felt intimidated. “People have said they felt uncomfortable,” she said.

I feel bad about that; everyone in the city has the right to speak at any public hearing, and shouldn’t feel intimidated. But honestly, from everything I’ve ever seen, the folks from the Mission who were at this hearing, and who will be at the Board of SupesTuesday, are not a violent group.

They are, as I said, upset, scared, angry. But they aren’t out in the streets breaking things (all of the very large marches have been peaceful; even the occupation of the Maximus development meeting was peaceful).

Folks: This was not a riot. The people who are complaining are way, way, overreacting.

And the message that gets sent is disturbing. It suggests that supporters of the moratorium (many of them Latino) are somehow thuggish, while the opponents (many of them white) are victims of fear and intimidation.

It wasn’t like that. At least, not the meeting I attended.

Tim Redmond is the Editor of 48 He is the former editor of the Bay Guardian.

We’re proud to feature “The Best of the Net”—stories that are exceptional. Click to see the video of the event.

June 2015

As Parents Get More Choice, S.F. Schools Resegregate

Board Member Rachel Norton at Marshall Elementary
San Francisco Unified School District board member Rachel Norton at the Mission District’s Marshall Elementary, which has 81 percent Latino students. Photo by Anna Vignet

This article was reprinted with permission by the San Francisco Public Press, a six-year-old member-supported noncommercial news organization. In print quarterly and online daily at

San Francisco faces a challenge: promoting educational options without undermining classroom diversity

Each January, parents across San Francisco rank their preferences for public schools. By June, most get their children into their first choices, and almost three-quarters get one of their choices.


Choice is inherently inequitable,” San Francisco Board of Education member Sandra Fewer said at a December meeting on student assignment. “If you don’t have resources, you don’t have choice.”

A majority of families may be satisfied with the outcome, but the student assignment system is failing to meet its No. 1 goal, which the San Francisco Unified School District has struggled to achieve since the 1960s: classroom diversity.

Since 2010, the year before the current policy went into effect, the number of San Francisco’s 115 public schools dominated by one race has climbed significantly. Six in 10 have simple majorities of one racial group. In almost one-fourth, 60 percent or more of the students belong to one racial group, which administrators say makes them “racially isolated.” That described 28 schools in 2013–2014, up from 23 in 2010–2011, according to the district.Kids in a multiracial classroom

But the San Francisco Public Press has found the problem may be even more stark: If Asian and Filipino students are counted together — the standard used by the Census — together the number of racially isolated schools in the last school year rose to 39.

The drive toward racial isolation in the district parallels a larger trend in the city: With many wealthier families opting for private alternatives, the public school system is becoming racially and economically isolated from the city as a whole.

Why does it matter whether schools are diverse? One reason is academic performance. Recent studies from Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, show that many students do much better on tests when placed in integrated classrooms, and that all kids are much less likely to grow up with racial stereotypes and prejudices. Far from being opposed to each other, excellence and diversity go hand in hand.

How did this resegregation of schools happen in a city where almost everyone from district leaders to parents supports the ideal of diversity?

Dramatic income inequality, shifting demographics, rising housing costs and the proliferation of language programs are fueling the trend. But the biggest culprit, say outside researchers and local education leaders, is the feature that defines the student assignment system: school choice.

The district provides parents with a dizzying amount of information about the schools. The application process requires time, language skills and access to technology — advantages that often come with education and financial resources. “Choice is inherently inequitable,” San Francisco Board of Education member Sandra Fewer said at a December meeting on student assignment. “If you don’t have resources, you don’t have choice.”

Orla O’Keeffe, the district’s policy director, said affluent, educated parents compete for the small number of seats at the highest-performing schools. Children from poor and working-class families, disproportionately black and Latino, often end up in underperforming schools.

The district currently has few tools to address the problem. “If you’ve got racially isolated choice patterns, then your capacity to create diversity using a choice mechanism is constrained,” O’Keeffe said. “There’s none of that in our system. It’s all about what families want.”

The choice system tries to make the schools diverse by giving more preference to students who live in neighborhoods with low average test scores, a proxy for measuring poverty. But some Board of Education members are acknowledging that mechanisms intended to promote diversity are flawed.

“The story of our efforts at student assignment is the story of unintended consequences,” said Rachel Norton, a board member since 2009. “In some ways, it’s a perfect mismatch of intent and results.”

Norton, Fewer and other education leaders are pressing for major changes to help re-integrate schools. One idea is to use language tracks to attract white and middle-income families to racially isolated schools, from both district and private schools.

Such changes could shape the city for decades to come, affecting its culture, income distribution and real estate patterns. But if parents have inadvertently helped to resegregate the schools by seeking the best opportunities for their own children, it may take individual and collective efforts by those same parents to create the diverse public schools many of them say they want.

Why are schools so segregated?

Money is the key factor. Parents are asked to navigate a system that is essentially a competitive marketplace, where affluence confers advantages.

Consider Carrie and Scott Tanabe. Carrie is a family therapist for the district; Scott is a planner with a technology company. Like many parents, they started researching kindergartens last October, nearly a year before their daughter would start school, starting online and then continuing with school tours and conversations with other parents.

The application the Tanabes submitted on Jan. 16 allowed them to rank all 72 elementary schools, including charters, if they chose to. From there, a computer algorithm will try to slot their daughter into their first choice, Grattan Elementary, near their Cole Valley home. Because Grattan usually has far more applicants than slots — 1,202 applicants for 67 kindergarten seats in 2013 — the Tanabes will face a series of tiebreakers under San Francisco’s school assignment system.

The system, often erroneously called a “lottery” because it contains an element of randomness, is in fact a carefully constructed and complicated set of rules that give preference to children who:

• Have siblings already at the school

• Enrolled in an attendance-area pre-kindergarten

• Come from a neighborhood where the average test scores are low or

• Live in the school’s attendance area.

The Tanabes’ daughter satisfies only one tie-breaker, living in the school’s attendance area, and that may not be enough to keep her from being bumped down the ranked list they submitted, until she finally hits one where there is room. By law, the family’s Chinese-Japanese-Jewish heritage cannot be considered by the district in the assignment process.

The period from January to June, when the final notifications go out for those still on waiting lists, is one of high anxiety for many parents. Perhaps even more so for those who have done enough research about each of the schools to feel strongly about their options.

“I knew that the chances of getting into the school you wanted weren’t very good,” Carrie Tanabe said in her living room. “There were some parents we knew who developed these very elaborate spreadsheets, and put so much thought and time and energy into preparing to apply. I thought they were kind of crazy, honestly.”

“We have a spreadsheet,” interjected Scott, as their youngest daughter wiggled in his arms.

“But we didn’t make it,” she replied with a note of defensiveness. “We got it from another parent.”

The five-tab sheet includes test scores and information on enrichment activities, languages and afterschool programs for all elementaries. Shared over email through an informal network of affluent, educated San Francisco parents, the spreadsheet illustrates the advantage the Tanabes have in a competitive marketplace, one that Scott recognizes.

“We have options,” he said. “We can send our kids to private schools. We can travel across town. Not every parent can.”

May the best parents win

A San Francisco woman whom we will call Adalina Hernandez is one of those parents without many options. An undocumented immigrant who asked that her real name not be used, she does not own a computer or even have an email address. She arrived in the Mission District from Mexico in 2004 and is still learning English.

The older of her two sons attends third grade at Bryant Elementary in the Mission, which is almost 90 percent Latino, and she aims to send her four-year-old there next year. At school, her son qualifies for free lunch, a statistic used by researchers and administrators to measure poverty.

For her, choosing a school was simple: “I went in person to the school district, and they told me that Bryant was my neighborhood school,” she said.

A cousin already attended the school, but what Hernandez liked most was that many of the families at Bryant were also Mexican immigrants. She could communicate and feel part of a community. Test scores were not important, she said, adding that in any case she did not know what they meant or how to investigate them.

Bryant is in fact one of the district’s worst-performing schools, in part because so many students are learning English or come from extreme poverty.

Parents face many of the same linguistic and cultural barriers as their children. Despite having been through the process once before, Hernandez said many aspects of her younger son’s application to go there next year confused her. She was unsure if she should give the application to the school or the district office. She did not know whether he needed a placement test.

Other Latino immigrants interviewed on Mission playgrounds shared Hernandez’s confusion about the process, as well as her preference for proximity to home and a community of Spanish speakers. Yet they also said biculturalism was a major educational goal for their children.

“My kids learn more here than in Mexico,” said Olga Ramirez, whose son and daughter attend Redding Elementary in Nob Hill. In San Francisco schools they can learn both English and Spanish, and encounter different kinds of people. Both women see the schools as a way out of isolation by race, language and social class.

Reducing isolation is a goal shared by Carrie Tanabe, who said she moved to San Francisco from Marin for the city’s diversity. “I want our kids to be exposed to a lot of different cultures and ethnicities,” she said. “So when I go to a school and I look at a classroom, I look to see how diverse it is.”

Hernandez, Ramirez and the Tanabes want many of the same things for their children, but their different approaches reveal how some families end up at the district’s most disadvantaged schools while others end up at the best.

The stakes are highest for kindergarten applications, because each elementary school feeds into a middle school, which will in turn feed into a high school.

But many black and Latino families do not even participate in the first round of applications, said the school district’s O’Keeffe. Twenty-one percent of African-Americans and 15 percent of Latinos submit their applications late or not at all, compared with 4 percent of whites and 3 percent of Chinese-Americans.

“The irony is that a system that has very complicated, precise rules, that encourages you to go out and see and evaluate a bunch of schools, obviously benefits the most advantaged families,” said board member Norton. “But many of the most advantaged parents think they’re disadvantaged by that system!”

Schools diverge from neighborhoods

The Hernandez and Tanabe families are actually unusual in that they are aiming for their attendance-area schools. Last year, only 21 percent of families put their attendance-area school as their first choice, and district data show that most students leave their neighborhoods when they go to school. As a result, few schools look demographically like the surrounding neighborhoods.

For example, almost half of students at Alvarado Elementary in Noe Valley live below the poverty line, while the median household income in the neighborhood is $115,700 — 53 percent above the city median. Only one-tenth of Noe Valley residents were Latino in the latest census, but last year 43 percent of Alvarado’s students were Latino.

This pattern holds throughout the district: Poor students of color are embedded in many high-income, high-cost neighborhoods where residents are either childless or send their children to private schools. Though San Francisco has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and one of the highest income levels, 58 percent of its public school students are poor. And almost all the poor children are Asian, Latino or black.

Though the number of racially isolated schools jumped by 22 percent over three years, according to a district study, to date none are more than 60 percent white. Yet in a broader sense, white children are the most isolated in the city.

Whites are 42 percent of the city’s overall population, 33 percent of the children but only 12 percent of public school students. Why aren’t more white children in public school? Again, money appears to be the key factor: The average white San Franciscan makes three times more money than the average black resident. Whites on average also make 66 percent more money than Latinos, and 44 percent more than Asians. Possibly as a result of this wealth, white children are much more likely to be enrolled in private schools than other racial groups.

Since the new assignment system went into effect, the white children who do attend public schools have started to concentrate in just a few. In the 2009–10 school year, there were no schools in which whites were the simple majority. By last year, there were five, including Grattan. Meanwhile, at half of elementary schools, the white student population is now at or below 10 percent. At one-quarter of elementaries, the student population is 2 percent white (or less) — making them “apartheid schools,” according to some researchers.

Costs of racial isolation

Can’t schools just be great regardless of who attends them? In general, no.

In 2009, SF Unified asked Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford University to study the academic effects of racial isolation. She found that black and Latino students did better at diverse schools than they did at ones where their race was in the majority. And black and Latino students at racially isolated high schools were 11 percent less likely to graduate than their counterparts at diverse schools, even after controlling for other factors such as poverty. (She did not study white children.)

Darling-Hammond also found that the achievement gap between different racial groups was widening, and subsequent developments have confirmed her insight. From 2010 to 2013, according to district reports, the number of racially isolated schools that have performed at the bottom third of standardized tests rose by 56 percent.

One possible reason: San Francisco schools with a majority of Asians, Latinos or blacks are far more likely to have inexperienced teachers compared with similar schools across California, according to a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Education. The data also show that teachers in the city’s racially isolated schools are among the lowest paid in the state.

Not all racially isolated schools underperform. KIPP Bayview Academy, a charter middle school, outperforms the other predominantly black schools, making it one of a handful of outliers. In addition, almost all of those dominated by Asian students test in the upper third — the inverse of the picture at black- and Latino-dominated schools.

In San Francisco, “there’s a lot of pride in the Chinese community in having created educational enclaves,” said Prudence Carter, a Stanford sociologist who studied parent choices for the district in 2010.

But a San Francisco Public Press analysis of school district statistics found that achievement correlates with income, not race. On average, Asians at racially isolated schools are more affluent than blacks and Latinos. Class seems to matter for all groups. Poor Asians struggle almost as much on standardized tests as do other impoverished students.

Asian students may also fare better at diverse schools. At the city’s most diverse high school, Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, the academic performance index (which rates schools on a scale of 200 to 1,000) for Asian students is almost 900. But at the two high schools where the Asian population is highest, Galileo and George Washington, they score closer to 800.

UC Berkeley economist Rucker C. Johnson analyzed the life trajectories of 8,258 children born between 1945 and 1970 to understand the long-term nationwide effects of racial segregation. He found that minority children who attended segregated schools were not as likely to graduate from high school or go to college. As grown-ups, they also were more likely to be poor or go to jail. Importantly, whites showed no measurable disadvantages after attending integrated schools.

But all students had one thing in common in Johnson’s study: Attending a segregated school made it more likely that they would live in a segregated neighborhood when they grew up. And their own children were more likely to attend segregated schools — thus perpetuating a cycle of social isolation.

Part of a national trend

San Francisco hardly exists in a vacuum.

Last year marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that ended government-sponsored segregation in America.

This is a shortened version of the report. For a complete story and for more stories on public school segregation from the winter 2015 edition of the San Francisco Public Press, visit”

jeremy Adam Smith

Jeremy Adam Smith has led two reporting projects for the Public Press that won excellence in explanatory journalism awards from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. In 2010-2011, Jeremy was a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University.

April 2015

Saving San Francisco

Mission Bay
San Francisco native Ron Blatman is making a new TV series called “Saving the City,” which follows his PBS series “Saving the Bay

Saving the Bay is an Emmy award-winning PBS series about the local activists and environmentalists who fought and stopped development plans in the 1960s that would have filled in San Francisco Bay until it became a river.


The difference is striking. Tall, skinny housing towers in Vancouver leave lots of green, open space between the structures for families to picnic and play. Schools and recreation centers anchor the high rises to create a vibrant community.”

Now the documentary filmmaker and San Francisco native who told the “Saving the Bay” history is working on an even bigger and more immediate topic: “Saving the City.”

Vancouver development

Ron Blatman, 57, sees that San Francisco is in a crisis without enough housing, public transportation and infrastructure for all the newcomers driving up the cost of living.

At first glance, Blatman looks like the anti-change and not-in-my-backyard demographic who wants to strictly preserve and protect San Francisco’s neighborhoods with the same playbook that saved the Bay. But the solutions in Blatman’s “Saving the City” will surprise fans of “Saving the Bay.”

Start with Blatman’s view of the No Wall on the Waterfront campaign that fought against new housing by the Bay.

“Where was the wall? The plan I saw wasn’t on the water. It would have turned a parking lot on the westside of The Embarcadero into something really nice,” Blatman said. “San Francisco is so afraid of its waterfront, but that’s where people go in other great cities.”

For Blatman, a saved urban Bay is squandered when people can’t live or recreate near it.

Initial footage of “Saving the City” compares San Francisco’s newly developed Mission Bay neighborhood to a similarly situated area of Vancouver, British Columbia.

Vancouver’s Mission Bay has tall, skinny housing towers and lots of green, open space for families to picnic and play.

The difference is striking. Tall, skinny housing towers in Vancouver leave lots of green, open space between the structures for families to picnic and play. Schools and recreation centers anchor the high rises to create a vibrant community.

Short, squat buildings dominate Mission Bay because anti-height activists got their way. Sites for schools and parks to attract and retain families remain empty.

“San Francisco likes to get mired in its planning process without concern for the end product,” Blatman said. “Now we have Mission Bay, which is broken from the start. It’s blocky and sterile with no sense of place. Community facilities should have come first, not last.”

Blatman’s expertise goes beyond filmmaking: He was City Hall’s director of business development in the early 1990s and he has masters degrees in city planning and business administration from the University of Pennsylvania. He studied architecture as an undergrad at UC Berkeley.

Blatman said he wants his “Saving the City” series — 13 hours of public television with a $7 million budget — to teach lessons and change mindsets by letting people see for themselves what works and doesn’t work in today’s cities.

“The Transbay [Transit Center] we’re trying to build in San Francisco is a mess,” Blatman said. “But everything our Transbay [Transit Center] is supposed to be, Denver’s Union Station is.”

While Blatman calls for more density and height in San Francisco, he is a not an urban purist. For example, he doesn’t believe cars are the enemy.

“It’s ludicrous to think people don’t need or won’t use cars,” Blatman said. “How can we enforce people to live like we have the Paris Metro when all we have is Muni?” Blatman also said neighborhoods with single-family homes are good for keeping larger families in San Francisco, as long as adjacent transit and commercial corridors provide more multistory housing for young professionals, couples and downsizing seniors.

“You don’t want to see 10 stories in West Portal, but four stories of condos above retail will retain its village quality,” said Blatman, who grew up near West Portal Avenue. “Just don’t touch the family homes behind it.”

In his effort to save San Francisco, Blatman’s series will highlight successful cities willing to embrace change to meet future needs — cities that know what to preserve and what to let go.

“The idea that everything should be frozen is nuts,” Blatman said. “Cities change, and if they don’t, they die.”

Joel Engardio lives west of Twin Peaks. Follow his blog at Email him at Photos courtesy of Ron Blatman

March 2015

Julie Christensen Is Designer of Change at Sf City Hall

Supervisor Julie Christensen
Julie Christensen is the recently appointed city supervisor for District 3

When you think about the ways government touches our lives — through public transportation, its tax and license bureaucracy, how it regulates what our streets and cityscape look like — the concepts of good form, function and design probably don’t come to mind.

We marvel at the beautiful aesthetic and flawless execution of our privately made smartphones while cursing the line at a government office that still uses paper files. Then we curse again, waiting for a public bus that seems to never come.


Change is frightening for people who can’t imagine things another way,” said Christensen, who grew up in Louisiana and came to San Francisco in the 1970s when her generation was transforming The City into its own preferred paradise.

"But life is not a tableau. It is a parade. We can’t stand frozen and expect everything to stay frozen around us."

Imagine if City Hall was filled with politicians who could engineer solutions that embrace innovation and streamline operations while paying attention to the user experience. Maybe there would not be such an embarrassing gap between the analog way San Francisco is run and its designation as the tech industry’s global hub.

Thankfully we have Julie Christensen, the recently appointed city supervisor for District 3 in North Beach, Chinatown and several more neighborhoods. Christensen is a trained painter and sculptor with a prelaw background. She is also a successful entrepreneur who left a major design firm early in her career to start a business dedicated to elevating the look and feel of the mundane gadgets in our lives.

“The KitchenAid candy apple red mixer is what I’m most proud of,” said Christensen, who has created the surface designs for a variety of tech and consumer goods including computer speakers, gaming devices, MP3 players, modems, washing machines, desk lamps and even Pyrex tops.

Christensen’s re-examination of the lowly mixer changed people’s relationship to it, boosting KitchenAid’s mixer sales nearly 40 percent. Perhaps this is what we need when it comes to all the lowly aspects of government we are forced to endure.

“My design career requires me to imagine things that don’t exist, and that prepares me for my civic work,” Christensen said. “I got into civic work for the aesthetics — this park is ugly and we can make it beautiful. I stayed when I saw the impact of building a neighborhood.”

Christensen has spent 30 years running her company while giving back to her North Beach and Chinatown communities. She led efforts to plant hundreds of new street trees, replace a dilapidated library, renovate a century-old playground and organize support for the Central Subway extension to North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf.

While historically significant, North Beach is becoming more isolated and irrelevant compared to today’s popular SoMa and Mission neighborhoods. That’s why Christensen calls the subway extension a “savior.” By making all of District 3 accessible to the rest of San Francisco, it will allow small businesses and startups to fill empty second-story office space while providing an influx of customers for a renaissance of ground floor restaurants and retail.

However, critics driven by nostalgia versus a need to plan for the future want to keep Christensen from getting elected in November.

“A new library and better transit shouldn’t be controversial,” Christensen said.

“But the same forces vilifying me now have been fighting against common-sense improvements for a long time. I am flummoxed by the resistance they have to change.”

At 61, Christensen said she is a good choice to help manage San Francisco’s inevitable evolution because she has been around long enough to appreciate the past her critics are holding on to. Yet Christensen has continually adapted to change, from an early divorce to bold career choices to remarriage and becoming a stepmother in her 40s.

“I leaned in,” she said.

The newest addition to her life is a 3-year-old Aussie shepherd-hound mix named Cooper.

“Change is frightening for people who can’t imagine things another way,” said Christensen, who grew up in Louisiana and came to San Francisco in the 1970s when her generation was transforming The City into its own preferred paradise.

“But life is not a tableau. It is a parade. We can’t stand frozen and expect everything to stay frozen around us.”

The Best of the Net is a feature in which we present an outstanding journalistic effort to assure that our readers are the best informed in the City. Our choice is Joel Engardio’s blog. Joel lives west of Twin Peaks. Follow his blog at Email him at

February 2015

Will there be a mayor’s race in 2015?

Four more years — without opposition?

Mayor Ed Lee

With Mark Leno officially taking himself out of the 2015 mayor’s race, there’s a real possibility that Mayor Ed Lee will run essentially unopposed – and that would have a ripple effect on more than the city’s top job.

An empty race with no serious contenders or issues would depress turnout – impacting the series of initiatives likely to share the ballot next November.


And I’d hate to think that a decision as important as a race for mayor of San Francisco could be controlled by a few unelected private hired guns who make money running political campaigns. Ick.”

There’s certain to be a measure more tightly regulating Airbnb and other short-term rentals. There could be another attempt at addressing speculation and evictions. There might be a downtown and tech-driven move to modify (read: gut) the 1986 slow-growth measure Prop. M.

Low turnout almost always skews conservative. If the turnout had been five points higher last month, David Campos would have won the state Assembly race. The Airbnb measure cuts across political lines somewhat: The Apartment Association is supporting the concept at this point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Sen. Dianne Feinstein was on board. West-side low-density neighborhoods don’t like short-term rentals because they want to stick with single-family housing.

But without a serious candidate challenging Lee on the issue, there won’t be the sort of discussion about rezoning the city that really ought to happen. And with a very low turnout, it’s impossible to tell what will happen.

A low-turnout election would absolutely hurt any tenant measure and would make it harder to defeat an attack on Prop. M.

And, of course, it would give Lee and his allies grounds to say that the mayor has a popular mandate for his pro-growth, pro-tech policies.

Why isn’t Leno running? He’s a savvy politician, and he knows the race wouldn’t be easy, but that’s never stopped him before. It was a huge uphill battle to unseat incumbent Carole Migden for the state Senate seat he now occupies. But he really, really wanted that job; I’m not sure he wants the Mayor’s Office that badly.

Randy Shaw’s argument that the lack of a campaign manager dissuaded Leno is a bit disturbing. Yes, the senator has always been close to the folks at BMWL, but Northern California does not lack in talented political consultants, and after all his years in Sacramento, Leno could have found someone else.

And I’d hate to think that a decision as important as a race for mayor of San Francisco could be controlled by a few unelected private hired guns who make money running political campaigns. Ick.

I think the Ron Conway factor was also at play here.

Conway paid for a serious of vicious attacks on Campos. He will almost certainly put up as much money as it takes to try to damage anyone who dares to challenge Lee and the hegemony of the new tech oligarchy. Leno is a highly respected legislator, but he’s had to put up with his share of ugly shit in campaigns in the past. I’m not sure how much more he wants to take.

This, of course, is the problem with having one or two people so utterly dominate local politics. It’s as if the days of the Brown Machine are back – but it’s not even an elected mayor at the center. It’s a billionaire plutocrat who likes to get his way and is accountable to nobody.

Leno could only have won if he’d had the solid support of the left – and if he’d endorsed Campos, that would have been an easier task. With his record in Sacramento and his leadership on Ellis Act reform, he would have been an easy choice for tenant groups. But he’d have to go out and convince labor and the allies of Campos and Tom Ammiano not just to endorse him but to go out all for the Leno for Mayor campaign.

In the end, that might have happened. But it hadn’t happened as of last week.

So now what happens? I don’t know.

I talked to Ammiano today. There’s a lot of Run, Tom, Run talk out there, and of course he’s flattered by all the support. He told me he’d love to be mayor – but he doesn’t want to run a symbolic campaign. There would have to be the organization, the money, the structure to make it possible for him to win – and right now, that’s a stretch.

He also said that it’s worth thinking about whether progressives should be talking longer term – focusing the next four years on getting good supervisors elected, fighting evictions and pushing tenant ballot measures and working on things like Charter reform, and looking toward electing a real progressive mayor in 2019.

Art Agnos and Aaron Peskin have demonstrated that you don’t need to hold elective office to play an effective role in local politics. Ammiano might do well in that kind of role as he contemplates the future.

Another four years of Ed Lee will be rough. We survived Willie Brown and Gavin Newsom, but I’ve never seen the city in such a crisis of survival as a progressive community. I wonder how many of us will be left after this economic earthquake settles down.

The protests in the streets, the grassroots fights, the ballot measures, the resistance – all the stuff that works when City Hall is against you – that’s going to be our lifeline. And the good news is, we’ve done it before – and there are new generations of activists joining the fight.

But wouldn’t it be nice to have someone in Room 200 who we didn’t have to fight all the time?

Our choice for Best of the Net is Tim Redmond’s — the secrets of San Francisco.

The Best of the Net is a feature of the Observer in which we present an outstanding journalistic effort of particular local interest in our effort to assure that our readers are the best informed citizens of San Francisco. If you have a suggestion for our “Best” feature, email:

December 2014

Part II — The Willie Brown Money Machine

Mayor Ed Lee sworn-in with Willie Brown looking on
Mayor Ed Lee sworn-in with Willie Brown looking on Photo Luke Thomas / Fog City Journal


Brown-Lee Partnership Spells Money, Also Trouble

As Mayor, Brown was viewed by many – including federal investigators – as playing fast and loose with city contracts going to contributors and allies.

This March, Brown’s controversial handling of city contracts came back to put Mayor Ed Lee in the news – and in a courtroom witness stand — as Brown’s factotum in approving a contractor alleged to be “fraudulent from Day One.”

According to a sworn deposition by the lead official in the process, the company went directly to Brown after failing to qualify. After Brown’s meeting, which was facilitated by Terrance Goggin later to be part of Brown’s team in pitching the Rapid Rail contract bid, Lee directed that the firm was to be allowed to bid.

According to a Chronicle story on the case, Lee was hit with a bout of forgetfulness when it came to the details of how that happened.

“Lee, when asked in his deposition whether he had a role in approving Government Computer Sales as a vendor, replied: “I’m unclear about that. I can’t recall a lot of details about that.”

The most extensive examination came in 2000 by the Chronicle’s investigative reporters, Lance Williams and Chuck Finnie, headlined “Willie Brown, Inc.”

“Corporations and people with close ties to the mayor have received hundreds of millions of dollars in city contracts, development deals, subsidies and grants, records show,” the paper reported.

“In deal after deal, bidders who are associates of the mayor — or who have retained Brown’s associates as lobbyists or consultants — have won out over others with less political clout, sometimes after intervention by the mayor or his aides.”

“During the FBI’s corruption investigation, court records show, agents made inquiries regarding contracts worth more than $1 billion and 63 different companies, people and other entities, many with connections to Brown.”

Brown Re-Invented (lol)

Now out of office for close to a decade. Brown has reinvented himself, according to the Chronicle, which hired him as a star columnist.

In an August 2011 Chronicle article that dismissed the likelihood that Brown’s association would harm Ed Lee, the paper helped ease Brown into his new persona by failing to quote a single Brown critic and treating Brown’s way of doing business as an irrelevant past.

“Part of the reason is that the FBI probes, patronage and allegations of pay-to-play politics that swirled around Brown’s administration a decade ago have largely faded from memory — or were never known by voters who weren’t here then, analysts said.

“Brown left under “more than a cloud — a thunderstorm,” said University of San Francisco political scientist Corey Cook. But now Brown, a Chronicle columnist, is a tremendously popular figure in the city, viewed by many as an avuncular man-about-town, elder statesman and a uniquely San Franciscan character.”

“It’s not the same electorate it was a decade ago,” Cook said. “The Willie Brown they know is the Willie Brown giving them movie reviews and restaurant tips. He sort of transcends his last years in office.”

But if the Chronicle has aided in Willie Brown’s reinvention, by no means does it follow that Willie Brown no longer does business exactly as before.

Out of office, Brown now enjoys the luxury of secrecy denied to officials and lobbyists who must disclose contracts, finances and contacts.

A hedge on Brown when he was in office was the necessity to meet the expectations of voters. He needed to deliver – or adjust – to meet the varied demands of San Francisco’s political microclimates. When he went too far in one direction the voters would push him back, as they famously did in rejecting his appointees to the Board of Supervisors in the 2000 election.

Ed Lee: The Inside Man

Ed Lee became Willie Brown’s Inside Man almost two decades ago, when Brown turned to him to approve minority contracts for his backers. Lee went on to hold positions where he could tweak the requirements for contractors, order “re-evaluations” where necessary, even reverse his staff and his own earlier findings on behalf of contractors tied to Brown.

Some of those instances were reported during the 2011 mayoral campaign or were seized on by Lee’s opponents. They ranged from contracts awarded for computer services later determined to be fraudulent to contracts at the airport to a bidder that twice failed to get top ratings to a “nonprofit” that didn’t actually exist and that federal official ordered its grant returned to the city.

By 2011, when Ed Lee became the Interim Mayor, many of the economic engines that powered Willie Brown’s machine had peaked or soon would.

Brown had been mayor during economic golden years for the city, including the opportunity to become the master developer for the richest, untapped city acreage that wrapped around San Francisco’s edge — Treasure Island, the Hunters Point shipyard and Mission Bay. The opportunities were unparalleled

One by one, the winners of the leases and options went to Willie Brown’s former clients or partners – Mission Bay to the University of California, Hunters Point to Lennar, Treasure Island to Darius Anderson and Ron Burkle.

Each time, the decisions were made by city officials who reported to Willie Brown or were approved by a Board of Supervisors dominated by Brown’s own appointees.

The city, like the rest of the nation, hit an economic slump by the end of Gavin Newsom’s term as mayor. The easy route to riches was gone.

At the same time, it was critical to protect the gains already made when Governor Jerry Brown managed to close down redevelopment agencies statewide. New projects were off the table, but existing projects like Treasure Island and Hunters Points could continue under the auspices of a “successor agency.”

Mayor Lee asked that the state legislature exempt San Francisco from the requirements of other jurisdictions, where appointments are shared with the local city council or Board of Supervisors, to allow the mayor to make appointments for the city. The result is that the new Oversight Board includes the mayor’s Planning Director, Housing Director, and his Public Finance Director. There are no appointees from the Board of Supervisors.

Under the requirements, BART has one seat; Lynette Sweet, an unsuccessful Brown backed candidate for the Board of Supervisors and former treasurer of the nonprofit Third Street Economic Development Corporation found to have failed to meet its financial responsibilities, holds that seat. The main activity of the nonprofit appears to have been to hold annual birthday celebrations for then-mayor Willie L. Brown, Jr. Later she was named to the Redevelopment Commission where she cast the deciding vote for Lennar to control the Hunters Point projects.

A New Day, A New Door to Open

With those projects secured, the hunt was on for new economic opportunities. What hadn’t changed was the formula that relied on San Francisco’s City Hall to help accomplish their goals.

And no one knew City Hall, so it seemed, like Willie Brown.

“You’re seeing a generational shift,” said Mark Mosher, a political and policy consultant who once led the Committee on Jobs, which advocated on behalf of the city’s largest companies. “Who is going to lead this new era? The good news is that San Francisco is a place that is always going to attract the best and the brightest,” observed a Chronicle columnist.

Faster than a high speed Internet connection, Willie Brown was showing up with a Silicon Valley “angel investor,” Ron Conway. By August, when Lee announced he would change his mind and run for a full term, Conway had launched an independent expenditure campaign that would raise more than $600,000. One of the speakers at a Conway fundraiser was Willie Brown.

In turn, Conway became an advisor to Ed Lee, who told reporters that he was listening to Conway on how San Francisco could launch a new boom with tax incentives aimed at high tech industries.

Lee urged approval of a special tax district on Market Street, encouraging Twitter to move its headquarters to mid-Market. To do that, the owner of the Market Square sold the building to Shorenstein Properties, a longtime Brown ally. Twitter got the tax break and moved into the building facilitated by Brown.

Later the companies estimated their savings at more than $30 million.

Lee, in a moment of irrational exuberance, then announced he would seek to replace the short-term tax holiday with a permanent one. The boom was on.

Lee’s election night victory party was hosted by Willie Brown, according to the invite, but the man writing the checks was Ron Conway and the tech industry leaders he had brought on board. The evening included a replay of a video ad for Lee “2 Legit 2 Quit” that featured MC Hammer – and Willie Brown.

It also was underwritten by Conway.

The night before Lee’s Inauguration, Brown held an invite-only dinner for 300 at the Palace’s Garden Court, and once again, there was no disclosure of who paid for the fete.

The next day, Lee’s Inaugural Host Committee included Ron Conway, once a man in the shadows and now on the City Hall grand staircase.

Two years earlier, Conway, in a reference to Progressives who populated the Board of Supervisors, had famously told a business group “We have to take back our city.” Now he was climbing the steps with the new mayor and the former mayor.

The New Partnership

On Friday after the Inaugural, Conway launched “San Francisco Citizens Initiative for Technology and Innovation” with the intention “to improve civic life and the city’s technology section”

Mayor Lee pledged his support.

The San Francisco Business Times gave more specifics.

“Surging technology companies have become some of the fastest-growing employers and commercial tenants in San Francisco. Now they’re poised to become an organized force at City Hall.

“Republican Silicon Valley “angel investor” Ron Conway will announce today that he and roughly 80 high-tech firms – including microblogging service Twitter, cloud-computing company and social-game designer Zynga – have formed an interest group to engage city officials on public policies that affect them.

“It starts with job training and lending tech expertise to government problems, but city officials expect the focus to expand to issues like overhauling the city’s payroll tax and improving Muni funding.”

The following week, Lee got himself named to lead a U.S. Conference of Mayor’s task force “on the role technology and innovation can play in fostering jobs and government efficiency and transparency.”

Lee’s statement was a virtual echo of Conway’s announcement the previous week.

“Cities must be laboratories for innovation across the nation to create new jobs, improve government transparency and efficiency and build new public-private partnerships,” read Lee’s statement.

“Lee said among other things the task force will address tax reform in an effort to treat business sectors equally, promote training of local residents for high tech jobs and look for ways to increase access to public data.”

Once again, any obstacles such as regulatory rules appear to be giving way to political pressure from the mayor’s office, as the Bay Citizen recently reported.

A plan to allow one high tech company to offer its services to allow customers to pay taxi fares ran into objections that the collected fares were not reported in the city’s system, allowing for an unacceptable leeway between actual receipts and recorded ones, according to the Matt Smith article.

Mayor Lee knew just how to handle this hiccup.

“We’ve been in discussion with people in the Municipal Transportation Agency’s taxi division to get off of initial positions that were held out of fear, and embrace what could be a technology that benefits everybody,” Lee told the Bay Citizen.

The company is one of those where Ron Conway has put his money.

Another is Airbnb which would like to be exempted from paying the city’s hotel tax when rooms are rented through its services. That too now is the subject of City Hall discussion, the Bay Citizen reports.

If these serve as reminders of the way City Hall operated under Willie Brown, it’s not likely at this point to present any real problems for Lee.

If anything, the prospects may get even rosier. City Assessor Phil Ting is a favorite to win an open seat in the state assembly, and if he wins, so does Ed Lee who then can appoint a new city assessor. That’s the spigot for all property tax assessments notably when properties change hands – and the current boom in commercial property hinges on the tech industry.

As San Francisco turns to implementing this tech agenda, Willie Brown’s money machine is ready. The Department of Technology’s spokesperson is Brown’s former press secretary and frequent companion at movie showings. The contracts themselves will go through the Chief Administrative Officer, Naomi Kelly.

The Chronicle, home to Brown’s column, can be counted to play its supportive role. It has been converting space at its historic Fifth and Mission Building into a farm for tech start-ups and owners of companies now enlisted in Conway’s group.

In a cheery note, the Chronicle weighed in on this bright future.

“As Conway noted, if the result is that San Francisco residents end up landing the high-paying jobs anticipated at Twitter, Zynga, Square, Dropbox, Yelp and other city-headquartered companies that are doubling their workforces every year, then “just the taxes we all pay will make a massive difference.”

All this is well and good – and for the betterment of the businesses and the city.”

The Willie Brown Money Machine is up and running.

Our featured story is from The Best of the Net is a monthly feature of the Observer in which we present an outstanding journalistic effort of particular local interest in our effort to assure that our readers are the best informed citizens of San Francisco. If you have a suggestion for our “Best” feature, email:

June 2012

Inside the Willie L. Brown Money Machine

money machine

For several generations of San Franciscans, the mention of a political machine meant one thing: the Burton Machine. Under the auspices of Phil Burton, a loose coalition of liberals united on issues as diverse as opposition to the Viet Nam war and urban poverty, along with environmentalists and disenfranchised minorities, began to cooperate on an agenda to wrest power away from San Francisco’s traditional Republican establishment.

It gained control of the city’s Democratic County Central Committee, helped launch careers for George Moscone, Willie Brown, Art Agnos and sent Phil’s brother John first to the state legislature and then to congress to serve alongside Phil.

Phil Burton’s signature statement is inscribed on his statue, where a paper peeks out of his pocket with the scrawl, “Terrorize the Bastards.” They were fearless in taking on powerful interests (in Congress Phil Burton’s Democratic Study Group used the same tactics to move the House against a Democratic President over the Vietnam War).


There was one other recognizable feature of the Burton Machine: it was about empowering people who had little or no say in the decisions that affected them.
And it certainly wasn’t about helping the rich get richer.”

But what made the Burton machine recognizable to all was its issue-driven agenda: human rights, health care, the environment, unions with job protection and decent working conditions, and an urban renaissance in the face of a decline affecting many cities.

There was one other recognizable feature of the Burton Machine: it was about empowering people who had little or no say in the decisions that affected them.

And it certainly wasn’t about helping the rich get richer.

While elder John Burton continues the tradition, Willie Brown left the machine and started a new one…the Willie Brown Money Machine.

Helping the rich get richer, primarily in order to make oneself richer, is exactly what the Willie Brown Money Machine is all about. In the classic words of Walt Kelly’s Pogo, “We have met the enemy and it is us.”

Brown’s money machine, like his mayoralty and his career in public or private life, relies on personal relationships and owed loyalty. Mayors at their best have an array of skills that make them effective. They combine an ability to see an opportunity with a vision that sets the pace and direction for change. They know what will be required and they learn to see in people things even their own mother never saw and how to use that. Sometimes they know the rules and where the advantages can be gained through them.

Above all, the asset that makes those elements come together is a relationship built on a singular loyalty to the person at the top of the machine. More than a title or an office, that is the power that can keep a machine producing results in or out of office.

The network of former Brown aides and campaign workers now populate top positions in city agencies or have moved on to posts with major city contractors or as lobbyists.

They include Tiffany Bohee, new head of the “Redevelopment Successor Agency,” Linda Richardson, new President of the Treasure Island Development Authority, Naomi Kelly, newly named Chief Administrative officer overseeing all city contracts, Kelly’s husband Harlan Kelly in charge of the multi-billion dollars PUC infrastructure program, the reappointments of Eleanor Johns, Brown’s former chief aide and current Executive Director of the Willie L. Brown Institute, to the Airport Commission, her husband Richard Johns to the Historic Preservation Commission with the power to open doors to tax benefits, as well as others at the Public Utilities Commission, Recreation and Park Commission, and down the list.

Mohammed Nuru is only the latest in a list that also includes Supervisor Malia Cohen, Ron Vinson, a senior official with the Department of Technology, Bevan Dufty, Lee’s new homeless coordinator and seeking to be elected chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, among many others.

Add to the list of former staffers and their partners those who have signed on either directly or through proxies like Rose Pak, and up comes Doreen Ho, newly elected President of the Port Commission with a hands-on role for the America’s Cup.

The most important, of course, is Ed Lee, the mayor Brown shoehorned into office and who has done favors for Brown by retaining or naming Brown allies to key posts where they can continue to do favors for Brown clients and allies.

Brown made sure that he had a virtual army of loyalists when he increased the number of mayoral “special assistants” – hired and fired at will outside civil service – from the 119 he inherited to 521 with a request in the 2000 budget for an additional 100 special assistants.

The Corporate Boardroom Meeting

It’s a room where none of us are invited.

But on May 4, 2004, a dozen corporate leaders gathered around a conference table on the 25th floor of a downtown San Francisco office building.

They had been invited by Willie L. Brown, Jr. to hear his proposal for using his decades of government contacts to do them favors that would net multimillion dollar contracts and put a half million dollars in his own pocket to start.

Just four months earlier Brown had left the San Francisco mayor’s office, ousted by term limits.

Brown told the corporate leaders – each had a potential financial interest in a proposed California high-speed rail effort – that he had the contacts to get the Legislature to start the approvals.

Among those gathered were the Parsons Brinkerhoff’s CEO and three top officials of the California High Speed Rail Authority.

Brown, according to the Oakland Tribune’s account at the time, took his seat at the head of the table to propose that he, and his former colleagues former Los Angeles Assemblymember and Transportation Chair Richard Katz and former Assembly member – attorney Terence Goggin, a fixture in Brown’s money machine, be paid $1 million. Each of the dozen firms would provide $100,000 to start.

“In return, they would steer a favorable budget into law by lobbying all the key state politicians. Then they’d launch a campaign to convince California voters to pass a $10 billion rail bond,” the paper reported.

Brown, Katz and Goggin followed three days later with a memo repeating the proposal.

“The memo, obtained by ANG Newspapers, confirms a picture that emerges from interviews with more than half of the participants and dozens of transportation sources familiar with high-speed rail,” the paper told its readers.

“Over the next 60 days we propose to concentrate our considerable political resources and campaign experience,” the memo states. “This will require a substantial initial consultant retainer for our fees and expenses of $400,000.”

“Another $600,000 was needed to start the bond campaign, the memo said. Overall, Brown would get half of the $1 million, while Katz and Goggin would split the rest.”

According to the article, at least some of the industry representatives viewed the proposal as a “classic shakedown” although trolling for money from potential beneficiaries of government spending is not illegal.

Brown called the group “Friends of California High Speed Rail,” and the meeting and memo appear to be its only event. The organization never registered nor did Brown, Katz or Goggin register as lobbyists. At that time, Brown’s proposal appeared to be shelved.

In May 2010, a photograph of the groundbreaking for the first Bullet Train terminal showed that one of those wielding a shovel was Willie L. Brown, Jr. By then the Parsons Brinckerhoff government relations director was Stuart Sunshine, formerly Willie Brown’s Director of Parking and Traffic.

One indication that this took place almost a decade ago comes from the report that Brown’s cut was to be $500,000. According to sources approached by Brown recently, his asking price is now double to $1 million.

Brown’s effort to make a handsome living from the contacts he developed as an elected official is nothing new in the world of post-politics.

Nor is it unusual for companies that might gain from public works projects to bankroll measures to first earmark public funds for those projects.

Funding a campaign to convince voters to put money into a project that in turn holds the promise of contracts is very much the way business is done. It was true of the November bond measure for street repair, where just over $150,000 in campaign contributions set the stage for more than $250 million in spending. It was true for the BART extensions to the airport, and for the city of San Francisco’s other bond measures. Unions whose members are most likely to get work also are among the campaign contributors. No law restricts donors to ballot measures, only to candidates for office.

Still, it surprised some to find that Brown was using his considerable network of contacts in the state legislature where he served for 16 years as Speaker of the Assembly and self proclaimed “ Ayatolla” against the interests of San Francisco, the city he once led.

In 2009, Brown reportedly turned to the state legislature to overturn a San Francisco law that prevented Parsons from bidding on a city contract with terms it wrote. Parsons then sought to share in the $26 million Public Utilities Commission contract.

Brown went behind the city’s legislators to have the measure introduced by another members of the Assembly. Not satisfied with proposing that the San Francisco law be overturned, Brown had the measure written to take effect retroactively to allow Parsons to bid.

San Francisco’s City Attorney already had deemed Parson’s attempt to bid on the project to be a violation of state law.

Brown’s end-run came as a surprise to the Board of Supervisors, where Brown’s actions were viewed as an “attempt to strong-arm the city on behalf of a global conglomerate,” according to a San Francisco Weekly article that first broke the news. A resolution opposing Brown’s play quickly was introduced.

The Chronicle took a swing at the measure in an editorial.

“There is something inherently unfair about going back to rewrite a law after a possible infraction.

“AB746 is more than a technical clarification to the law. It’s the type of special-interest lawmaking for the well-connected that gives Sacramento a bad name,” opined the Chronicle.

The Chronicle noted that the “well-connected” in this case was their own columnist, but also admitted that the paper was unable to get its columnist to return calls.

“Brown, who writes a weekly column in The Chronicle, did not reply to messages seeking comment,” stated the June 30, 2009 editorial.

The next day, the state senate pulled the bill for the year.

Today, the way into the office of the mayor handpicked by Brown to warm the seat until a new mayor could be elected, and then for a full four-year term, is out the elevator and through the atrium that now holds a bust of Willie Brown. It was moved up outside the mayor’s door from its previous place in the basement.

City officials claim the move was necessitated by nothing more that a repair needed at the former location.

Brown does not register as a lobbyist or disclose his consulting contracts, hiding behind the attorney client loop hole, but in the past two years, he played a role in the sale of the Market Street building that now is Twitter’s new offices, has ties to AECOM, the company involved in the Transbay Terminal, the Central Subway, the new Public Utilities Commission headquarters, with Recology and more.

San Francisco’s lobbyist law, unlike Los Angeles and other jurisdictions, only counts those who directly contact city officials and not those paid to be “big game hunters.” They help bag city contracts and permits by advising whom to contact, what persuasion to offer, how to work around any rules and to loom in the background as available muscle.

(San Francisco also leaves a loophole allowing contributions from those seeking development and other permits, banning only contractors from making contributions).

In fact, Brown maintains a higher profile than Mayor Lee as the go-to guy in San Francisco through his San Francisco Chronicle column of name-dropping and insider gossip featuring himself.

Raffling Hunters Point to Asian Investors

Last fall, as Brown protégé Ed Lee nailed down a four-year term as mayor, Willie Brown was also stepping into a new role.

He became a broker for pay-to-play overseas investors to obtain visas in exchange for funding projects, aimed first at Hunters Point and then at Treasure Island.

Brown became a principal in Golden State Renaissance Ventures that simultaneously launched the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Center approved by Washington to facilitate EB-5 visas for those willing to invest $500,000 in disadvantage communities and $1 million in other locales.

Brown’s venture, headed by his longtime attorney Steven Kay, intends to generate $300 million in its first five years.

“The first fund, which also will be marketed to potential investors in India and Russia, will seek $27 million from 54 investors for the Hunters Point project’s infrastructure,” the San Francisco Business Times reported in its March 16 edition. “The next fund will support the residential phase of the project…[the] center also could get involved with the Treasure Island redevelopment project and a life sciences incubator, but those plans aren’t yet solid,” the Business Times reported.

Participation in the program through a Center like Brown’s carries one huge advantage, in addition to Brown’s contacts. The program requires that the investment create 10 new jobs, but if it is arranged through a Center, the job count can be based on a real estate model rather than an actual job count so that things like taxi business and restaurant increases far from the disadvantaged neighborhood would count.

It’s a loophole that would make Willie Brown proud.

Applicants will pay around $40,000 each to Brown’s Center for their work facilitating the match up on investment opportunities and the government paperwork for the visas. After two years, the investor can apply for a green card for permanent residency for themselves and their families, including children they hope can enter American universities. Best of all, they go to the head of the line while poor and middle class applicants for visas wait.

Brown’s connections to Bohee and Linda Richardson are like money in the bank.

The Best of the Net Our featured story is from is a monthly feature of the Observer in which we present an outstanding journalistic effort of particular local interest in our effort to assure that our readers are the best informed citizens of San Francisco. Our featured story is from If you have a suggestion for our “Best” feature, email:

May 2012

City Enters Uncharted Territory in Mirkarimi Case

Rules on official misconduct proceedings are vague to nonexistent

Ross Mirkarimi and family celebrate victory on January 8, 2012
Ross Mirkarimi and family celebrate victory on January 8, 2012

When San Francisco Supervisor Ed Jew faced the prospect of an Ethics Commission hearing on official misconduct charges in 2007, his attorneys filed motions attempting to shut the process down, and when that failed, recommended that Jew resign rather than face an untested process with vague, and even nonexistent, rules.


“It’s making it up as you go. If people say different, they’re not telling the truth,” said Stuart Hanlon, a lawyer who represented Supervisor Ed Jew in 2007 when he faced charges that he’d extorted business owners and falsely claimed to live in the district he was elected to represent. “What’s the burden of truth? If hearsay comes in, what do we do? Who gets to ask questions? Is the standard a preponderance of evidence? Is it clear and convincing evidence? Nobody knows. They make it all up.”

Now, with Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi confronting official misconduct charges, the process is not much clearer.

“It’s making it up as you go. If people say different, they’re not telling the truth,” said Stuart Hanlon, a lawyer who represented Supervisor Ed Jew in 2007 when he faced charges that he’d extorted business owners and falsely claimed to live in the district he was elected to represent. “What’s the burden of truth? If hearsay comes in, what do we do? Who gets to ask questions? Is the standard a preponderance of evidence? Is it clear and convincing evidence? Nobody knows. They make it all up.”

Mayor Ed Lee suspended Mirkarimi without pay for official misconduct Wednesday, two days after he was sentenced to three years’ probation for falsely imprisoning his wife, Eliana Lopez, during an argument on Dec. 31. The case now moves to the city’s five-member Ethics Commission, which must consider charges that Mirkarimi failed to uphold the standard of decency required of elected officials by committing acts of domestic violence against his wife.

The commission won’t meet to consider the charges for at least three weeks, said the body’s executive director, John St. Croix, who said he needs the time to hire an outside attorney to advise the commission, and to arrange a date that fits with part-time commissioners’ schedules.

According to the city charter, after a mayor files official misconduct charges, the commission must hold a hearing and pass a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors, which meets to decide whether the officeholder should be dismissed. But city rules don’t define exactly how such hearings are supposed to work.

After Mayor Gavin Newsom announced he would pursue official misconduct charges against Jew in 2007, commissioners took great care to devise rules and procedures that would be fair to both sides, St. Croix said.

“It was highly deliberative. Everyone was being extremely careful,” he said.

But he acknowledged that, unlike a court of law, neither side knows the rules until commissioners come up with them. In fact, commissioners’ first order of business at special misconduct hearings will be to devise ad hoc rules under which the rest of the sessions will proceed.

“Because the charter is vague, the interpretation is a little on the broad side,” St. Croix said.

Mirkarimi’s new attorney, David P. Waggoner, did not respond to a telephone message requesting comment.

The case of Ed Jew was complicated, his former attorney, Hanlon, noted, because Jew’s criminal trial had not yet begun when his misconduct proceedings took place, and giving testimony before the Ethics Commission could have jeopardized his criminal defense.

Mirkarimi’s case is far more nuanced, and thus will be even more difficult for commissioners to decide, according to Bill Fazio, who represented Jew in 2007 before leaving over disagreements with his client. Jew allegedly defrauded voters into thinking he lived in their district, and then sought $80,000 in bribes for exerting influence as a public official — conduct that fit clearly within the definition of official misconduct.

Mirkarimi’s alleged acts didn’t occur while he was sheriff; he was still a member of the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 31. And his actions during the argument with his wife didn’t involve the exercise of official duties — a so-called legal “nexus” that might provide a logical link between the terms “official” and “misconduct.”

In the charges filed against Mirkarimi Wednesday, Lee writes that the city charter “does not require that the wrongful conduct at issue occur while the officer held the office from which the Mayor seeks to remove him,” and that the wrongful conduct does not have to be “related to the specific duties” of Mirkarimi’s office. But Fazio says the lack of a clear connection complicates the case.

“I have little doubt the commission was unprepared or ill-prepared last time. And this case is more difficult. Ed was charged with felonious conduct. Mirkarimi was charged with a misdemeanor. And when he committed the offense, he wasn’t the elected official they’re trying to remove him as,” Fazio said. “I hope Mirkarimi takes this one to the mat.”

This is reprinted from The Bay Citizen/ The Best of the Net is a monthly feature of the Observer in which we present an outstanding journalistic effort of particular local interest in our effort to assure that our readers are the best informed citizens of San Francisco. Our featured story is from If you have a suggestion for our BON feature, email:

April 2012

DA Gascon Has Dropped Hundreds of Domestic Violence Cases, Denies Records Exist

DA Gascon and Rose Pak

District Attorney George Gascon failed to file criminal charges in as many as 1,000 domestic violence cases that involved physical assault in 2011, his first year as District Attorney, according to records maintained by the Police Department’s Domestic Violence unit.

Police Department records show 3,515 police reports were filed, including 1,928 physical assaults with hands, feet or an object, 21 involving a gun and 40 involving a knife.

The District Attorney’s office informed the Police Department that it filed 245 misdemeanor cases and 240 felony cases out of the 3,515 police reports filed.

When CitiReport requested records from the District Attorney’s Office under the Sunshine Ordinance, Chief of Staff Christine Deberry wrote, “The District Attorney’s Office does not have a record…”


The District Attorney’s office informed the Police Department that it filed 245 misdemeanor cases and 240 felony cases out of the 3,515 police reports filed.

According to police officials, some of the reasons that charges are not brought include a non-cooperative victim who declines to press charges.

The Domestic Violence unit has one of the largest caseloads in the Police Department, according to officials there, with about a dozen officers assigned a total of 1,470 cases in 2011. In all 3.515 reported cases, police or other officials contact the reported victim directly and either proceed with the case or make referrals to a counseling agency.

Law enforcement actions in addition to criminal charges in domestic violence cases included 342 motions to revoke probation, 93 arrested because of holds on probation or parole, 124 referred to probation and 51 referred because of parole violations. There were 278 cases that involved violations of court-ordered restraining orders.

The District Attorney’s office reported to the Police Department that by including those cases along with misdemeanor or felony charges it charged in 880 cases.

At the same time, the District Attorney’s office declined to take action in 590 cases referred to it by the Police Department following their investigations.

The issue of domestic violence has risen to headline status as a result of misdemeanor charges brought against Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi following a report from a neighbor. Mirkarimi’s wife has refused to file a complaint and is regarded as a non-cooperating victim.

The District Attorney has filed with the court an expert witness on domestic violence who will testify that victims often refuse to file charges.

That was ultimately the situation when the spouse of Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White made an emergency 911 call to complain he had been assaulted and the family’s children endangered.

It also was the case for the partner of Julius Turman, a political activist named first to the city’s Human Rights Commission and now serving on the Police Commission. His partner originally filed a police complaint but later withdrew it and accepted an out-of-court settlement for damages he suffered in an alleged beating. In that case, Turman was arrested on a felony domestic violence charge.

In both cases, then-District Attorney, Kamala Harris, declined to pursue criminal charges.

While some have raised these cases to suggest favoritism by the District Attorney’s Office – the Fire Chief as a fellow department head and Turman as a campaign donor to Harris – Police Department records appear to indicate that the District Attorney files criminal charges in only a fraction cases.

The District Attorney’s office, in the Mirkarimi case, repeatedly has claimed that it is handling this case the same way it handles all other domestic violence cases.

Reprinted from Each month the Westside Observer features an outstanding website or blog that informs the citizenry in ways that the major newspapers miss. If you have a candidate for Best of the Net, contact

March 2012

Ranked Choice Voting Before Rules Committee

Activists and academics were joined by workers and voters yesterday to advocate in favor of an expansion of ranked-choice voting in city elections, and against a proposal that would return the city to old-fashioned runoff voting, in a meeting of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors Rules Committee. Although a few dissenters from the business community made their presence known, the overwhelming majority of public comment was in favor of ranked-choice voting.

The committee members themselves — District 2 Supervisor Mark Farrell, District 9 Supervisor David Campos, and committee chair and District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim — kept their own prefatory comments brief and factual in nature before turning over the floor to public comment. At issue were two competing amendments to the city charter, one which angled to repeal ranked-choice voting and return to conventional two-stage runoff elections, and one which called for an expansion of the system that would allow voters to rank as many candidates as currently available tabulation technology would allow.

One of the earliest speakers in favor of ranked-choice voting, a citizen named Judy Cox, set the tone for much of the public comment session, arguing that ranked-choice increases voter turnout, cuts costs by eliminating expensive second-stage elections, and increases diversity of ideas, ethnicities, and gender among elected officeholders. “I see these people who want to get rid of ranked-choice voting and I keep asking myself: what is the problem they want to solve?” said Cox. As she listed off the advantages of ranked-choice, she bracketed each by asking, “Is that a problem?”

A representative from the Asian Law Caucus weighed in later, explaining that electoral systems need more time than ranked-choice voting has received, to have a complete evaluation of its effectiveness. He also argued that changing up the way elections are held is confusing and discouraging to voters, and to the organizations, activists, and community elements trying to drive up voter participation.

As more and more citizens, labor union representatives, community activists, and policy academics spoke out in favor of ranked-choice voting, many of the repeated refrains were familiar ones in the debate over ranked-choice voting. Among the most often cited were statistics from the most recent mayoral election. In Ed Lee's 2011 victory, 73% of voters used all three of their rankings, and that another 11% used two. Ranked-choice voting activists argue that this disproves the theory that the methodology confuses voters.

Another familiar argument was the example of Portland, Maine. Ranked-choice voting was recently used in Portland's mayoral race. In that election, voters were able to rank all 15 candidates on a simple, user-friendly ballot. In that race, argued ranked-choice supporters, there was no clear frontrunner and not much talk of confused voters. Said one speaker wryly, “But then again, there aren't so many political consultants in Portland.” Community activists also argued that the two-stage system, with more opportunities for campaign spending and what academic and ranked-choice architect Stephen Hill has called “an older, whiter, wealthier, more conservative electorate,” favors stakeholders in the business community such as landlords and the Chamber of Commerce.

In general, as has tended to be the case throughout San Francisco's debate on the subject, the voices against ranked-choice voting were conservative political types and angry, gesticulating commentators afraid of their votes being somehow cheated or stolen. The voices most strongly in favor of ranked-choice voting were similarly unsurprising: activists, organizers, and academics with a stated, strong, lifelong interest in make the electoral process more democratic, as well as ordinary voters themselves.

Reprinted from - the Best of the Net is a monthly feature of the Observer presenting an outstanding journalistic effort of particular local interest. If you have a suggested blog or column for our BON feature, email:

February 2012

Rose Pak Makes Deals, Gains Influence

Rose Pak at Board of Supervisors

Rose Pak had more in mind than a light Thai dinner when she walked into the now-shuttered Bong Su restaurant, with David Chiu in tow, on 3rd and Folsom in March 2009.

Harlan Kelly, her old friend who is assistant general manager for infrastructure of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, was waiting for the pair. Pak had been Chiu's date for the first few months of his time as Supervisor of District 3.

At Bong Su that night it was a rendition of "Getting to Know You," Rose Pak-style.

She introduced the two of them, highlighting how wonderful it was that Chiu was a Harvard graduate, and that Kelly was an old friend. Pak had slipped into a black dress for the occasion. Chiu was in his characteristic blue suit. Kelly stuck with shirtsleeves.

Nursing her whiskey after the initial chit-chat, Pak dived into the nitty-gritty of the meeting: Kelly manages billions of dollars in contracts; how might those (nudge, Chiu) be made available not just for the international players, but local contractors, too?

It was left unsaid that "local contractors" meant businesses that could later throw money at Pak's political projects on call. The conversation didn't get that far. Chiu wasn't ready to commit to anything and he had another function to attend, so he excused himself after about 45 minutes, according to an individual sitting at an adjacent table who heard the entire exchange. When asked about the encounter, Chiu said he couldn't remember clearly. He said that he might have been with Kelly and Pak at a table together at some time.

Rose Pak has been a power broker in San Francisco politics for two decades, but how she acquired that power is something of a mystery. She is not registered to vote, is not a registered lobbyist, and is not reported to receive any remuneration from her sole reported place of employment, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce. Yet friends and foes alike credit her with being someone who gets things done.

"For the people who have gone down that road, it's very difficult to figure out…what you find is one percent of the iceberg, the other 99 percent nobody can see," says Aaron Peskin, a former confidant and now political nemesis.

Pak's influence has waxed and waned across the over two decades she had been involved in city politics. But the trend has always been upward.

She is a short, rotund, loud, and cantankerous woman known for her foul-mouth and frequent drinking and smoking. She also craves attention, and has been comfortable calling elected officials late at night to list her demands: sitting on the balcony of her condo, with a bourbon and a cigarette nestled in her hands, she gets ready to settle into long, late night conversations.

In some cases, the other party gets fed up with it. Former Mayor Art Agnos, for example, whom Pak exercised significant sway over, frequently tried to get off the phone. Pak would portray her suggestions as being in the interest of the mayor or his administration, without suggesting that it was in her interest, according to Larry Bush, former aide to Agnos.

She was most dangerous when trying to exclude members of the Asian community that she did not like, Bush says. "There was a constant intimation of loyalty tests."

Agnos and Pak later had a falling out over the demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway, which was damaged with the Lomo Prieta earthquake in 1989.

Under Frank Jordan, the mayor from 1991 to 1995, Pak had less influence. Jordan was supported by Pak's opponents in Chinatown, like Pius Lee. But while she did not have the inside track to the mayor as she did under Brown and does under Ed Lee, she did her best, plying chief of staff Jim Wunderman, for example, with an all-expenses paid trip to China.

Pak's influence hit the stratosphere when Willie Brown became mayor. Brown and Pak had been good friends since at least the early 1980s, and shared a close relationship with a similar outlook: essentially, that political power is meant to benefit the friends of the victor.

In Gavin Newsom's term beginning in 2004, Pak was on the outside again. Newsom, with national political ambitions and a war chest filled with old money from the Getty family, had no time for a backroom dealer from Chinatown. He was notorious for ignoring her phone calls.

Pak still made sure she still had her people on key commissions, and she raised money to help elect progressives to the Board of Supervisors, which gave her sway.

Pak will be looking at a thorough political renaissance with a full-term Lee administration.

She also paints a picture with two brushes, as the Chinese saying goes. While Pak is manipulating commission seats, funneling money into political campaigns, and having ceaseless meetings with city officials, she also carries on a long-term relationship with the Communist Party of China.

And there is often some overlap between the two.

The list of names on a typical China junket organized by Rose Pak can end up being a roadmap to influence and patronage. In a late 2007 trip, for example, there was Ringo Wong, a former president of the Chinese chamber of Commerce, donor to the "Run Ed Run" campaign, and a man whom Pak helped get a restaurant concession in the international airport terminal; Robert C. Chiang, a builder so "flagrantly incompetent" for the public projects he has been awarded that he has cost the city millions of dollars, according to the SF Weekly, whom Pak has protected for years; Harlan Kelly, another Pak loyalist who has helped steer contracts to Pak's friends and protected them when problems arose with their work (like with Chiang); Tilly Tsang, current or former board member of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce; Simon Snellgrove, who heads the development of the waterfront project "8 Washington," which will be one of San Francisco's most expensive destinations when completed; P.J. Johnston, who was Mayor Brown's press man and now works for Simon Snellgrove; Johnston's wife Karin, who works for Snellgrove's lobbying firm, HMS Associates, whose head, Marcia Smolens, is good friends with Pak; Shih-Wei Lu, a former World Journal reporter who became Lee's spokesperson almost as soon as he became interim mayor; Kinson Wong, owner of the R&G Lounge in Chinatown, which is a Pak-preferred haunt; David Lem, a contractor who was helped by Pak and Brown in getting a contract to rebuild the Asian art museum; and Louis Goudeau, former staffer in the Mayor's Office of Protocol and a Brown loyalist.

Each has their own story with a Pak twist. Pak was helpful in pushing Snellgrove's 8 Washington project through, according to several people who saw it play out.

Along with advancing the interests of the project in City Hall, Pak also had the Chinatown Community Development Center withdraw from a coalition of local groups that were opposed to it, according to attorney/author Phil Ryan, who for twenty years was a legal associate of Willie Brown. Ryan was on the Golden Gate Tenants Association when he witnessed Pak's machinations. "It really showed her muscle," he said.

Both Ryan and Peskin are confident that Snellgove returned the favor: "I guarantee she's getting paid," Peskin said. Ryan: "How do I know she's getting paid? Because I have an IQ over 104."

P.J. Johnson, spokesman for Pacific Waterfront Partners, said he did not know all the lobbyists on the project, and downplayed its significance by describing it as "our tiny project."

Chiang is another case of a friend getting a good deal. His friendship with Pak helped him keep his job when his work on the Martin Luther King pool project spiraled out of control. The project had a perfectionist architect, Harry Overstreet, who required a monolithic pour of concrete for his design. The first attempt was not up to his standards and it was scrapped, running up the project cost.

In a Department of Public Works meeting about the debacle, someone suggested simply firing Chiang and bringing in the bonding company.

Harlan Kelly, who was in the meeting, gasped and said: "What about Rose? Robert Chiang is her guy!" according to someone who was in the meeting.

Pak's blustery manner has made her friends and enemies.

"She is good at the theater of politics," Peskin says. "If I was at dinner or a public event, she would come and sit next to me and make it appear that we were close to one another, even though I had no desire to talk to her."

He continued: "You'd be at an event and she'd be talking loudly next to you, so everybody could see she was talking to you… it's a brazen, childish, and immature technique…"

Chris Daly, a former Supervisor, describes Pak as "insufferable."

He remembers a commemoration ceremony for September 11, soon after he became a Supervisor. He arrived at the City Hall event and sat up the front, the place reserved for politicos and VIPs. A few minutes later, after the program had begun, Pak turned up and sat next to him. "She proceeds to start talking to me, during the most solemn program, saying things like "look at what DiFi's [Dianne Feinstein] wearing, where does she get those dress suits…" Daly recalls.

The current mayor, Ed Lee, does not find Pak's boorishness as bothersome, or perhaps thinks he has no choice. According to David Chiu, Ed Lee told him that Lee only ran for mayor because he was "having trouble saying 'no' to Willie Brown and Rose Pak."

Observers of San Francisco politics worry that if Lee wins the election, it will be open season for, as Aaron Peskin put it, "Ms. Pak and Mr. Brown and the money influences that they represent."

Reprinted from, the online version of their publication The Epoch Times is Here and another on the same subject by Matthew Robertson Here. Photo: Kerry Huang

The Best of the Net is a monthly feature of the Observer in which we present an outstanding journalistic effort of particular local interest. This December/January issue we have two featured articles (See page 9 for our 2nd BON. If you have a suggested blog or column for our BON feature, email:

December 2011

The Dog Killer and the SF Art Commission

PJ Johnston, Chair SF Arts Commission

The 59-year-old Brooklyn-based artist Tom Otterness has forged a very successful career as a maker of cartoonish bronze sculptures that often look like outtakes from a Ziggy comic strip. Governmental bureaucracies in charge of public arts funding love his work because it's whimsical, inoffensive, and he's a brand-name artist who has created work for the feds (a courthouse in Los Angeles, for instance), the state (in Sacramento, among other capitals) and cities (famously in Manhattan's 8th Avenue/14th Street subway station).

Otterness also occasionally puts in digs at capitalism in his cute sculptures, and this is one reason the right-wing New York Daily News calls him "depraved". The other reason is that a conceptual art piece Otterness created in 1977 when he was a 25-year-old immigrant to New York City from Wichita, Kansas consisted of adopting a shelter dog, tying the animal to a fence, and then shooting it for a looping film for a gallery. At the time, art critic Gary Indiana in the New York Village Voice wrote a condemning article about the stunt, but then somehow people forgot about it in the age before the internet, and Otterness reinvented himself as a successful public sculptor over the last three decades.

The news of the dog killing has been resurfacing in recent years with animal rights activists especially upset, such as the woman above who was at a special San Francisco Art Commission meeting last Wednesday afternoon urging the group to cancel their two contracts with the sculptor. It seems that on the Art Commission's recommendation, both the General Hospital rebuilding, and the proposed Chinatown Central Subway to Nowhere have $750,000 contracts for sculptures with Otterness for their new spaces.

SF Arts Commission

The Brooklyn library, through a patron, commissioned bronze statues of two lions and their cubs from Otterness a couple of years ago for the same amount, but animal lovers caused an uproar when word spread about the artist's dog killing past, and the commission was eventually cancelled. In September, Joshua Sabatini at the San Francisco Examiner picked up the story and the tabloid paper produced a lurid front page to trumpet the tale. Since that time, members of the San Francisco Art Commission have been in public relations spin overdrive trying to figure out what to do.

Finally, behind closed doors, a decision was made and offered up to the full commission by President PJ Johnston. He is pictured above left, next to the similarly abbreviated JD Beltran, the interim Executive Director of Cultural Affairs who replaced Luis Cancel, the Brooklynite who was recently ousted from the high-profile post for absenteeism and the bullying of influential staff members.

PJ Johnston is a fourth-generation San Franciscan and son of a former California State Senator. He has a "communications" business that does public relations for outfits like Stellar, the New York developers of Parkmerced, which is in the process of evicting its elderly tenants from their 1940s garden apartments so they can build high-rise housing.

While doing research for this post, I stumbled across an online article in 7x7 by the society columnist Catherine Bigelow that chronicles PJ's 40th birthday two years ago at the Purple Onion nightclub which seemingly everyone who is currently in charge of San Francisco attended. The photo above (website only) is of PJ and Chinatown fixer Rose Pak, and the photo below features former mayor Willie Brown Jr., Tosca owner Jeanette Etheredge, PJ, and Richard and Eleanor Johns, who are recent controversial appointments by Ed Lee to the Historical Preservation Board and the Airport Commission.

Captain Greg Suhr, the newly appointed San Francisco Chief of Police, was there, and so was Steve Kawa, the Mayoral Chief of Staff under both Newsom and Lee. Seemingly the only person who wasn't there was Ed Lee, or maybe photographer Drew Altizer just didn't get his picture. In Bigelow's article, there is a quote from former Mayor Willie Brown, Jr., once again reveling in his own corruption.

"If you know PJ like I know PJ, then you'd agree that we are all amazed he arrived at this moment tonight," teased Mayor Brown, referring to PJ's active lifestyle. "We've actually long been celebrating his eventual demise because of all the secrets he has on us!"

PJ announced that he was offering a motion for the General Hospital contract to continue forward, but that he was recommending the cancelation of the MTA subway contract. There were a few timid demurs and questions from the commissioners, but this looked and sounded very much like a rubber-stamp commission, and they quickly passed the motion 11-1.

This didn't make the animal activists particularly happy, as the Solomon-like decision to cut the baby dog in half seemed rather grotesque, but the reasoning was as much economic as anything. San Francisco had already paid Otterness $375,000 for the General Hospital sculptures and wouldn't get anything back if they pulled out now, so the reasoning was, "let's not let our moral fervor get in the way of fiscal prudence."

The questions of how these commissions were approved and vetted never came up, and neither did the central question of why San Francisco government agencies who constantly preach "hire local and buy local" don't do the same thing with publicly funded art. PJ Johnston mentioned at one point that "hiring only San Francisco artists would be illegal because there are federal funds involved," missing the point completely.

Infusing and circulating money into the local economy through local grants should be mission statement number one for any San Francisco bureaucracy, particularly an arts commission, and it's not as if the Bay Area doesn't have enough great creative artists needing work. Johnston also mentioned that "San Francisco is an international tourist destination, and we should have world-class public art," implying that the local stuff was too provincial. In truth, there's nothing more provincial than requiring a New York imprimatur for something to be considered "world-class," and the idea that an international tourist would travel to San Francisco to see anything sponsored by the San Francisco Art Commission is seriously delusional.

To add to their problems, the Arts Commission has fallen under the eyes of open government activists Peter Warfield and Ray W Hartz Jr. (pictured above flanking an unknown lady). These are the people who take the time to sit through boring meetings and pore through self-serving, poorly written minutes in order to inform the clubby bureaucrats that what they are doing is illegal and completely against the spirit and intent of open government laws. The minutes of Wednesday's meeting were filled with notifications of expenditures but in some cases without any amounts or explanations for what the money was being spent upon. This did not amuse Mr. Warfield or Mr. Hartz, who politely expressed their displeasure at every moment that public comment was legally required, an activity that brought them nothing but disdain from the commissioners, even though their motives are ethical and, in a minor way, heroic.

Reprinted from, by SF Mike (Michael Strickland)

The Best of the Net is a monthly feature of the Observer in which we present an outstanding journalistic effort of particular local interest.

December 2011

Wolf in sheep's clothing

Sowing Discord

by Julie Pitta

Big money ‘neighborhood’ groups step up their campaign of take-over tactics in 2024 elections.

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Popular bay view

Say NO to expanding yacht harbors for the wealthy

by Evelyn Graham

Rec and Park’s plan expands access for the privileged few bupkis for the rest of us.

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New proposed site

New proposed location for Ocean View Library is ideal

by Glenn Rogers

Few were surprised when Supervisor Safai learned the library was not to be built in the Greenbelt — he feared the worst. No library at all.Since 2023, the Library Commission has been considering 466 Randolph Street, where the I.T. Bookman Community Center and the Pilgrim Community Church are located.

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SF from Alameda Point

San Francisco. In Alameda? Wait, what?

by David Osgood

When the runways for the Alameda Naval Air Station were extended out into the bay—using dredged bay fill, the same way Treasure Island was created — they crossed over the city line. The federal government apparently didn't know or care.

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Man in Wheelchair

San Franciscans need nursing home care

Will Laguna Honda Admissions Start Soon?

by Dr. Teresa Palmer

The survey attests to a quality of care that is higher than in for-profit private nursing homes. But there are ongoing problems.

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parking tickets for RVs on Winston

RV residents on Winston Drive face uncertain future

by Thomas K. Pendergast

A four-hour parking limit is going to make things even more difficult for RV residents.

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