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Friday, July 26, 2013

About David Chiu

My old friend and former colleague Steve Jones has a piece that talks about Board President David Chiu as the new go-to supe, the person who has pulled together compromises on some very tough issues. But it's worth putting this in a bit of perspective: When you are the swing vote, the person in the middle, on a lot of major issues, it's easier to be the one who cuts the compromise -- both sides need you. I agree that Chiu pulled Scott Wiener's CEQA plan and condo-conversion proposals out of the disaster area and helped turn them into something acceptable. But none of that would have been possible if there weren't several solid progressives on the left demanding that the rights of tenants and neighborhoods be protected; if there's no strong left flank, held down by Sups. David Campos and John Avalos, then the center moves to the right.

So when we give Chiu credit for being the guy in the middle, let's not forget that he's ... the guy in the middle.

Oh, and Mr. Board President: Would you please stop using the term "shared San Francisco values?" To quote a well-worn and time-honored phrase: Gag me with a spoon. I don't share the same values as Ron Conway. I don't share the same values as Ed Lee. I didn't declare the class war that's raging in San Francisco, but I won't pretend it isn't happening. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

SF Weekly finds Communists!

Wow, there's a huge scoop in SF Weekly: There are Communists -- real, live, Communists -- at the Trayvon Martin demonstrations!

And the paper has exposed them for what they are: Commies!

Let me explain something to those who are relatively new to the SF protest scene: The Revolutionary Communist Party is always there. Antiwar marches, police brutality marches, immigration-rights protests, labor actions .... where ever three or more San Francisco leftists are gathered, someone from the RCP shows up and hands out newspapers.

RCP members help organize protests, too. They seem to have a lot of time on their hands, which a lot of the rest of us don't, and they're good at printing up fliers and calling the Workers of the World to action.

Nobody takes them seriously. They are no threat to American Democracy or (sadly) Global Capitalism. There was a time -- oh, about 45 years ago -- when the RCP was actually a political movement of sorts, but that era is long over. The tiny number of devoted members are only newsworthy when somebody who hasn't been around long enough to know all of this "discovers" them.

They're not recruiting anyone, really, since nobody with any sense can handle more than one meeting  (seriously, how many times have you read "Combatting Liberalism?") They're just who they are -- harmless, irrelevant, and a kind of silly way to generate "red scare" headlines and discredit popular movements.

Free wi-fi (but no sleeping) in parks

San Francisco parks are going to be better places for people to telecommute (or look at porn), but not so good for homeless people to sleep.

That's  the direction this city seems to be going in.

The mayor is thrilled that Google is going to put up a few hundred thousand dollars to power wifi in (some) parks, and sfist points out that "the dream of being able to work from Dolores Park might become a beautiful, frolicking reality." Good for the Mission hipsters who have jobs that they can do from the park.

I looked at the list of parks and the map that Google and Mayor Lee are showing off, and while the photo quality isn't that good, it certainly appears that most of the wired parks will be in the parts of the city where people who need free wifi the least will use it the most. There are a few in the Southeast part of the city, which is nice -- since the Southeast has the greatest digital divide. But just a few.

BTW, I'm happy that Google is doing anything at all for the city without demanding money or marketing payback. But it still drives me crazy that the city hasn't moved to install municipal fiber every time the streets are torn up for sewer or utility work and that we have to look to Google for $600,000 to provide a public service.

And in the meantime, homeless people (most of whom won't be using the free wifi) will have an even tougher life if Sup. Scott Wiener's legislation officially closing the parks at night gets approved.

I realize he is aiming at a real problem -- people vandalizing the parks and stealing stuff, particularly valuable metal -- but those things are already illegal, right? Will it really be easier to stop crime in the parks by "closing" them at night and allowing cops to ticket you just for being there? I don't think so.

I do think it could impact the hundreds of people who sleep in the parks, particularly Golden Gate Park, at night, because they have nowhere else to sleep and the park is better than the streets. There have been people sleeping in the park for decades; it's not a perfect situation, particularly when it comes to sanitation (the bathrooms are already closed at night) but the city isn't perfect, and housing is a major problem, and all of the tourism types and downtown businesses who complain about seeing too many homeless people aren't going to be happy if Golden Gate Park (where homeless people are able to stay relatively quiet and out of the public eye) empties out.

Maybe Google will give them all laptops and they can work from Dolores Park instead.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The largest employers in SF: Not tech

The Biz Times just came out with its list of the 100 biggest employers in the Bay Area, and it's no surprise -- except to people who think that the only area of job growth or major employment in the region is in tech. Yes, Twitter makes the list -- as number 98. But six of the top 10 are public-sector agencies, and there are only three tech firms -- Genentech, Oracle, and VMWare -- in the top 20. None of them are in San Francisco.

The number one employer, with 30,000 jobs, is Kaiser Permanente (health care). CPMC, Stanford Hospital and Clinics, and John Muir Health are all in the top 20. Dignity Health is number 24.

There's finance (Wells Fargo at number 7) food (Safeway at 5) and travel (United Airlines at 11).

But of the top 40, more than half are either public-sector or health care.

That's changed somewhat in the past 20 years; at one point, finance and corporate HQ offices were huge employers in SF, but Bank of America is now a branch office, Crocker Bank is gone, and Wells is smaller. Chevron has moved to San Ramon. The days when one big company had 20,000 workers in the city are long over.

San Francisco's employment base is now much more in small outfits -- and in government and health care. 

Those aren't bad employment sectors; they tend to be more stable than finance, insurance, real-estate and even tech. But they also employ a lot of people who make middle-class wages and don't earn enough to buy (or even rent) median homes. That's a way bigger problem than the need to build housing for the wealthier people in the smaller tech sector.

Will Lee abandon Healthy San Francisco?

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the Golden Gate Restaurant Association are moving to gut the employer mandate in San Francisco's landmark health-care law -- and Mayor Ed Lee is so far refusing to take a firm stand on the issue.

The Business Times notes that the restaurant group -- which has long balked at the notion that businesses have to pay for employee health care -- wants Healthy San Francisco changed to eliminate that requirement.

The argument: Obama's Affordable Care Act ought to replace Healthy SF and with the new requirement that everyone buy insurance, the city program is no longer as necessary.

It's odd, since at the same time, the national press is giving Lite Guv Gavin Newsom props for creating the program (although it was really Tom Ammiano who proposed and pushed it, and Newsom had to be dragged kicking and screaming into supporting the idea). And Healthy SF is, for the most part, pretty complementary to the federal Affordable Care Act.

"ACA still leaves so many gaps," Sup. David Campos told me. "Why aren't we all talking about how brilliant San Francisco was in creating a program that can close those gaps?"

For one thing, the cost of insurance under the new federal program is still way too high for a lot of people -- particularly low-income people who don't have employer-paid policies and self-employed people who will enter a pool that offers little of value for less than $500 a month.

A lot of those people may simply chose to pay the $100 fine for failing to secure insurance instead of paying a rate they can't afford for coverage that's limited anyway. And there are perhaps 20,000 people who take advantage of Healthy SF who lack legal documentation and thus won't be protected by the federal law.

Oh, and it appears the employer mandate in Obamacare will be delayed until 2015 anyway.

So there will still be a need for Healthy SF. And if companies that don't pay for employee health care are able to duck out of the mandated payments to the city for Healthy SF, the program's going to run into money problems.

I get where the GGRA is coming from; health care is expensive. But I didn't see the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce lining up business leaders to pressure Obama and Congress to create a national health insurance system or even a single-payer option that would make this whole debate moot.
 Mayor Lee with this week with Ammiano and Campos, and Campos said he made it clear that there will be a strong push-back against any effort to weaken the program.

So where is the mayor? Well, he gave the BizTimes about the most cryptic and meaningless statement I've seen from a politician in a long time. Check this out:

“We are very grateful that President Obama and Leader Pelosi have pushed hard for federal health care reform, and made it happen. That effort has been more than 50 years in the making, and our country is now on the path to providing insurance for all. Healthy San Francisco, which San Francisco started in the absence of any universal federal or state insurance programs, has been a great success, providing health care access for over 116,000 uninsured adult San Franciscans since 2008. But, in our policy discussions, we have always been very clear in acknowledging that health insurance is a better option for our residents than just health access. Approaching 2014, we as a City are focused on how best to implement federal health care reform. We are deep into the process of working with our Department of Public Health, our community health care experts, the business community, and workers’ rights stakeholders to make sure that we support San Francisco in its implementation of this new federal policy; that we maintain our Healthy San Francisco program to provide medical access to those not eligible for federal benefits; and that we identify those populations who need support in accessing the Medi-Cal expansion and the new Covered CA insurance exchange and work together as a City to help them successfully take advantage of the benefits of the new federal program.”
 You got that?

I'm not sure I do -- but if I can see any message here, it's that the mayor is open to what the restaurant folks are saying and is ready to move to amend the employer mandate. That will be a huge battle.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Big setback for homeless shelter in the Bayview

Hi, folks, been out of town for a few days but I'm back, and I want to share this report I just got from former Guardian staffer Yael Chanoff about a delay in plans for a homeless shelter in the Bayview:

Plans for a homeless shelter in the Bayview may be on hold.

The proposed shelter would be an extension of the United Council of Human Services, also known as Mother Brown’s. The organization currently provides meals and services to a couple hundred homeless people per day. 

At night, the staff sets out plastic chairs throughout the building, where dozens of people-- sometimes 100 or more-- sit down to sleep every night.

“They have nowhere else to go,” says Gwendolyn Westbrook, executive director of the United Council of Human Services.

There is no shelter with permanent beds in the area. Providence Baptist Church on McKinnon creates a similar nightly temporary shelter, laying out mats on their gym floor.

But for years, Westbrook has wanted to create a permanent shelter. When the building next door to Mother Browns became available earlier this year, she jumped on the chance to turn it into a shelter. The landlord agreed to the plan, and since, Westbrook has been in touch with the city’s Human Services Administration about how to make the shelter happen.

But yesterday, after HSA met with Sup. Cohen to discuss the proposal, it seems to be stalled.
“As of right now there will not be an expansion of Mother Browns,” Cohen said.

Cohen said that she wanted to perform a needs assessment in the area, mapping out what resources are available to the homeless and what needs exist in the neighborhood.

“I don’t doubt that there’s a need,” Cohen said. “But does it warrant a full-on shelter?”

The HSA released the results of their biannual homelessness survey in June. District 10 was found to be home to 26.3 percent of the city’s homeless, the second highest percentage by district. The highest percentage was 44 percent in District 6, which includes much of downtown and South of Market.

Cohen also cited potential code violations at Mother Brown’s as reasons for not supporting the expansion. She listed planning, DBI, and fire safety as the types of code violations present at the current building. 

Yet Westbrook says that in the past two weeks, there was a fire safety inspection, a building inspection and a health inspection performed at Mother Browns. "They didn't give us any citations," Westbrook said, surprised to hear about the alleged code violations.
Cohen also said that "meeting with residents and listening to their concerns and fears," contributed to her decision not to support the shelter.
David Eisenberg, who owns food-testing company MicroTracers across the street, led opposition to the homeless shelter.

Eisenberg said his main concern about the shelter was that the block is a designated industrial zone. “Our forklift could be running in close proximity to a large number of people,” Eisenberg said.
Mother Browns, and MicroTracers across the street, is on the border of an industrial and a residential zone. Residential homes already exist across the street from Mother Browns and MicroTracers.

“The project isn’t dead, because the need is too great,” Cohen said. Yet its unclear what the path forward may be for the proposed shelter.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The other spying scandal

We're all appropriately outraged at the federal government spying on us and monitoring our cell phone use. But the threat to privacy isn't just governmental; in fact, in some ways it's even more frightening what the private sector knows about us. Check out this piece from Advertising Age. The author notes:

We marketers don't talk about this issue much, probably because it's so complicated and thorny. But it haunts our best hopes for the future. And, while people may let Snowden's tale end up a somewhat distant espionage adventure, the scarier story is what's done to every consumer in the name of efficient commerce. Without a far more creative and strategic approach to telling it, I fear others (or other events) will tell it for brands.

Big City College rally and march doesn't make the Chron

I flipped through this morning's Chronicle to see how the paper would cover the big, impressive, loud march to save City College, but I must have missed it. Or maybe it wasn't there. Maybe a thousand people taking to the streets to tell the Department of Education that it needs to act to save one of the city's most important institutions isn't news.

Labor, of course, was out in force. But so were students and activists and a whole lot of people who are just pissed that an unelected, unaccountable agency can in effect shut down a school that serves 85,000 students -- and on an educational level, does it very well.

I ran into Alvin Ja, who was marching with crowd. A middle-aged UC Berkeley grad, he's been taking classes at City College for more than 25 years -- classes in Spanish, Japanese, geography, and more. The teaching, he told me, was universally excellent, at least as good if not better than what he found as an undergrad at Cal. And that, of course, is the larger point here: Whatever administrative issues the school has, it's doing a good job at education students.

John Rizzo, chair of the elected (but now powerless) Community College Board, told me that the decision by state officials to take over City College and appoint a special trustee to run it made no sense. "I've looked at the state law and what's required to take over a community college, and it's all about serious financial problems and malfeasance," he said. "Those are not the conditions at City College."

In fact, the school now has a healthy reserve and is financially stable, particularly since local voters approved a tax measure to shore up revenues.

The march demonstrated how much support City College has in San Francisco -- and now supporters need to think about what to do with that energy. There's a meeting tonight (Wednesday July 10) at the Mission Campus, 6 pm, and the Save City College Coalition has more details here. But as I watched all those people chanting out in front of the local offices of the Dept. of Education, I kept thinking: The next march needs to be somewhere else.

In fact, the people who need to feel the pressure are Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

If Pelosi picked up the phone and called Education Secretary Arne Duncan and told him that she would not tolerate this threatened shutdown of City College, we'd see immediate action. If Feinstein and Boxer got on the issue and put pressure on the administration, and explained how out of control the ACCJC is, the feds would pay attention.

But all we've gotten from our people in Washington is platitudes.

Now much more from the mayor, either. Sup. Jane Kim got a last-minute question in at Question Time and asked Mayor Lee what he was doing to save City College, and he gave a rambling answer saying he was working with everyone. Actually, he's been working with the state officials who just took power away from the elected local board.

My suggestion: Take all of this energy and use it to demand that Pelosi help out. She has spent much of her career building a national leadership position, but she still represents this city, and this is one of those times when the clout she's developed ought to be put to use on behalf of the people who put her in office.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Willie Brown's $750 K "lobbying" payday

Nice scoop by J.K. Dineen in the Business Times (how would any of us understand local commercial real-estate without him?) He reports on a recent bankruptcy court decision involving developer David Choo, and notes that as part of the settlement, former Mayor Willie Brown "stands to collect $750,000 for his lobbying efforts, according to court documents."

Wow. That's a lot of cash, even by local lobbying standards. And it dwarfs what other attorneys involved in the case are getting; the highest-paid law firm, Reuben and Junious, is getting just $211,000.

What's most interesting: Dineen reports that Brown is getting paid as a lobbyist. That makes sense; Brown certainly isn't known as a bankruptcy lawyer. What he typically does is make phone calls and help cut deals. 

But if Brown was working as a lobbyist while Choo was trying to get his now-failed buildings approved, then most likely he was talking to people at City Hall, since land-use decisions are local. And if he does that, he's supposed to register as a lobbyist -- which during the entire period in question, he never did.

Nobody else is looking at the story, but it's actually pretty big news. It sheds light on the huge amounts of money that get thrown around when someone's trying to build a commercial office tower in San Francisco. It shows how much of a player Brown is and how much influence he's seen to have under the Lee Administration. And it may help the push for tighter ethics rules that would require attorneys like Brown, who hide behind their professional privilege, to register and file lobbying reports, just like everyone else in the business.

I, of course, called Brown to ask what he did for all that money. If he calls me back I'll let you know right away.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The "hard choices" at City College

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a pretty good piece on the dis-accreditation of City College, and it lays out the dilemma:

Regaining accreditation on its own through appeals or further reform looms as a long shot. Merging with an accredited institution is fraught with improbabilities. And the college appears to be too large to just shut down entirely.
 Those are, indeed, "hard choices" -- if we choose to look at the situation that way. Or we can say that there is no choice at all -- the city has to come together to overturn this decision. City College can't shut down -- "entirely" or largely. It has to remain open; there's too much at stake.

If you look back at this, a lot of the problems have to do with the defunding of education in this state. City College has faced a lot of "hard choices" in the past decade, and the College Board has, by and large, chosen to cut administration and overhead instead of classroom instruction. That was, by and large, the right direction to go if you want to continue providing the best possible education to the most people (oh, and by the way, CCSF's educational outcomes are better than most community colleges in Calfornia).

But it wasn't what the accrediting commission -- which, by the way, is not well respected among education leaders in the state -- wanted. Barbara Beno, the president of the ACCJC, has said in numerous interviews that she's just responding to the federal government's demand for greater accountability and results in higher education. But if educational results are what they want, City College ought to have passed with flying colors.

By the way, I'm not the only one who thinks this is all about pushing toward a privatized and corporatized model of education.

So the organizing campaign to overturn this decision needs to kick into high gear. It starts with a march tomorrow afternoon (Tuesday, July 9) starting at 88 Fourth St. And it only ends when the ACCJC is forced to reverse its ruling.

Because more than City College is at stake here; this is the first clash in what will be an ongoing battle over the shape of community college education in California.

The media attacks on BART workers that miss the real story

I'm glad to see that Willie Brown, who is going to pick up a check for $750,000 for his role in a recent bankruptcy case, thinks BART workers who earn $60,000 a year are overpaid:

So it was easy for BART management to hammer home its side of the argument: Operators and station agents average $62,000 a year in salaries, another $10,000 or so in overtime, a health care plan that costs employees just $92 a month for the whole family and a pension to which they don't contribute a dime.
Most people riding the trains don't have that type of deal. Getting people to see the unions' side, that it amounts to fair and honest compensation, is all but hopeless: Explaining how those benefits came to be practically requires a one-on-one conversation.
Actually, explaining how those benefits came to be is relatively simple. It's called "collective bargaining."

In past years, before the housing bubble and the stock market crash, a lot of public-employee pension funds were doing just grand. Government agencies were projecting that the pension systems were fully funded into the distant future. So when employee unions came to the table to talk contracts, management (including, by the way, then-Mayor Willie Brown) were happy to avoid big raises (which would require tax or fare hikes) by offering to pick up the cost of pension contributions.

Which were, at that point, free, since the stock market was doing so well.

The unions (properly) saw pensions at what they are: Deferred compensation. Instead of taking a bigger paycheck today, they settled -- in fair negotiations -- for more money later.

Now, of course, after the bankers screwed up the economy, those pension funds aren't so healthy and public agencies have to put in money to make good on the deal they cut -- with their eyes wide open -- during the good years. Not the fault of unionized workers that they negotiated a decent contract.

If you don't like what BART pays its workers, look at the BART Board, where most of the current members were around the last time a contract was approved.

The idea that most private-sector workers don't get these kinds of pensions is nothing new -- it's the result of a decline in private-sector unionization and a push to relieve employers of pension obligations by turning them into 401 (k) plans. Is that the fault of the BART workers?

In the meantime, here's the story that getting missed:  BART's hired gun -- the guy who is taking point on the contract negotiation -- works for a company that has a history of moving to privatize public transit. Thomas Hock works for Veolia Transport, a French company that not only has worked to undermine funding of public transit in Congress but has a bad record of taking over formerly public bus systems and cutting service to make a profit.

Some union members tell me they fear he wanted to precipitate a strike -- just so that the public would be inconvenienced and support for the union would dwindle. If that's the case (and I haven't been able to reach him for comment) then the Chronicle is playing right into the game.

Of course, it may not be working -- Randy Shaw says that the unions have already won the strike. I think that's a little optimistic -- I don't see BART backing down right away, and there's a lot of work yet to be done -- but when I talk to people about this, and explain the background, they all wind up supporting labor.

Friday, July 5, 2013

How to save City College

I’m not sure San Francisco – what with the BART strike and the holiday – has quite had a chance to come to terms with the magnitude of what the accreditingcommission overseeing City College has done to us.

This unelected, unaccountable body has shattered one of the most important public institutions in the city, damaging the economy, the workforce, and the hopes of tens of thousands of students. And it’s done so for the worst possible reasons.

I’m not going to argue that the administration of City College is perfect, or that the school hasn’t been plagued over the years by sometimes criminal misconduct (and by some very incompetent majorities on the Community College Board). The board’s better these days, but there’s a lot of mess to clean up.

Still, in my mind, the heart of what accreditation is about is ensuring that an institution is providing valuable, credible education – that a degree from the school means something. It’s a way for employers and other institutions to have faith that City College graduates know enough about their chosen fields that they are prepared to enter a four-year school or the workforce.

And nowhere in the long, critical, accreditation report is the value of a City College education ever seriously questioned.

Four-year schools accept City College graduates – and I’ve seen no evidence anywhere that Cal or State find those students unprepared. (In fact, I’ve had a lot of interns from the journalism program at City, and I can tell you that they’re as well trained as the students from State, sometimes better.) Health-care institutions hire people with nursing and other training, and consider City College degrees a valid indication that their employees will know what they need to do the job. Same for employers around the city.

So what did the ACCJC complain about? Administration. How decisions were made. Lack of centralized accountability. All valid points – but in the end, they don’t speak to the central question: Is a City College degree valid? By any reasonable account, yes.

Question asked and answered. Decision simple. If you’re an accreditor, you push for all the administrative changes you think are needed (most of which, by the way, City College has given them) but you renew accreditation because the quality of the education in the classroom is good enough to merit it.

That’s not what happened.

There may still be some form of salvation. What the ACCJC really wants, apparently, is for City College to eliminate much of  its traditional mission and become a simple junior college, aiming at moving High School graduates through a two-year program and into a four-year college. In the end, “saving” City College might mean cutting it back to, say, 10,000 students, eliminating all of the centers and campuses outside of  Phelan Avenue, and wiping out the opportunities that the school offers to immigrants who want to learn English, seniors who want to learn and stay active, people who aren’t going to a four-year college but need job training, and everyone else outside of a narrow demographic group.

“It would be a dramatic downsizing,” City College Trustee Rafael Mandelman told me. “And that will be called a victory.”

Which would be a disaster for San Francisco.

What would happen to all the public buildings that the taxpayers have funded? Well, they’d be sold off – most likely to private institutions like the Academy of Art University or the University of Phoenix or Heald, or the California Culinary Academy, where students could learn trade skills – for maybe $30,000 a year – and graduate heavily in debt. We’re taking about the privatization of basic education in San Francisco.

What happens to the $15 million a year that the voters approved for City College under Prop. A? That can’t go to private schools (or, for that matter, to the San Mateo college district, if it chose to take over CCSF).

What happens to the tens of thousands of people who need low-cost English as a Second Language classes to survive in this city? Where are the immigrants going to go?

Why are we allowing this to happen to us?

Well, for one thing, we don’t have a lot of choice. The ACCJC operates under federal Department of Education sanction, but there is no way to appeal its decision to the feds. The only “appeal” is to ask the same commission for a rehearing. Yes, the feds can revoke ACCJC’s charter – and the California Federation of Teachers is pushing for such a move – but even that wouldn’t give City College back its accreditation.
It’s such a bizarre system. There’s nobody accountable to the public involved at any level. The commission doesn’t seek or care about public input. And now the state chancellor will appoint a trustee (probably the same person the elected College Board already hired) who will be able to act without any public comment or oversight. He could, for example, start selling of City College property. And nobody would be able to stop him.

The College Board has been trying so hard – too hard, it seems now – to work with the accreditors and the state, to go along with unpleasant and often wrongheaded changes in the hope that everyone was acting in good faith. That was clearly a mistake; the board did pretty much everything it was asked to do – and still got completely screwed. 

“If anything, we’ve been too accommodating,” Mandelman said.

So now it’s time for the city to step up. So far, the mayor has been awfully weak, siding with the state and never indicating that the accreditation commission did a terrible, unprofessional, and unjustifiable thing. It’s tough, because the supervisors, the state Legislature, even Congress is powerless to stop this fiasco. But at the very least, we need some outrage. We need the city family to make it clear that this decision can’t stand.

The ACCJC needs to know that it’s not just CFT pushing the folks in Washington to investigate – every city official and elected leader ought to be in on that complaint. Rep. Nancy Pelosi should be calling the Department of Education to make sure that proper steps are taken.

And somebody needs to file a lawsuit.

Only a judge can find the accreditation report biased and invalid. It’s not clear who would be able to sue (City College as an institution could, but that won’t happen now). An individual trustee could – if we could raise the money and find a lawyer who wants to help. Could the teachers’ union sue? Maybe.

Here’s another thought: Can the city attorney sue, alleging that the shutdown of City College would bring irreparable damage to the City and County of San Francisco? That’s an easy claim to make; I don’t know if the courts would give Dennis Herrera standing (or if the mayor or the supervisors would go along) but we ought to be looking at it. (Hardly anyone’s working at City Hall today, so it’s hard to get answers, but I’ll let you know as soon as I do.)
The BART strike and the America’s Cup have pushed this out of the headlines for the moment, but the emergency is still there. The damage is imminent. And we can’t just sit here and take it.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The future of City College

I'm sure the more progressive trustees at City College feel like they can't win: They held their noses "so tight," a Board President John Rizzo put it, and made a lot of changes they (and the community) didn't want, and still, the accrediting board wants to shut the place down.

That's what it means, of course: At then end of 2014, if this isn't reversed, City College won't be able to operate unless another institution takes it over. And for the next year, while the school can still operate, it will be very difficult to recruit new students.

Now a state trustee will take over (apparently with the full support of the mayor) -- but it's unclear if that person's mission will be to hold down the fort and prepare students to go somewhere else -- or to aggressively fight to overturn a very bad decision.

I say a very bad decision not because City College is perfect; there have been serious management problems in the past. But the accreditation report wasn't really about the key issue -- the value of the education the school provides. I once had a college professor who told me that teachers are what really matter: "We could hold the classes in quonset huts, and if the teachers are good enough, students would come and learn." And very little in the report suggested that the teaching quality was flawed.

And nobody can argue about the importance of this institution to the city.

So the next step for all of us is to fight to get the accreditation back, and the board has to lead the way. They tried doing what the accreditation panel wanted; now it's time to take back our college.

City College loses accreditation. Holy shit

I didn't think this could ever happen, but Joe Fitzgerald, the Guardian freelancer who has done the best coverage of the whole City College mess of anyone in town, just called with this scoop: City College has lost its accreditation.

It's horrible. It's unimaginable.

I just got off the phone with John Rizzo, president of the Community College Board, and he's livid. "We did so much," he told me. "We did everything [the accreditation board] asked us to do. We fired half the deans. We did five management restucturings. I can't believe it."

The mayor is holding a press conference by phone with the state chancellor -- and none of the current board members are allowed on the call. "It's a stolen press conference," Rizzo said.

Possible outcomes: Of course, the board can and will appeal. The state chancellor could take over the district. Some other district (say, San Mateo) could take it over.

But no matter what, it throws Prop. A, which allocates $15 million a year to City College, in doubt -- that money can't go to the state or to San Mateo.

What a mess. I'll keep you posted as I learn more.

Chuck Nevius plays old divide-and-conquer game

I didn't expect the Chron's C.W. Nevius to be sympathetic to the BART strikers; he's a pretty conservative guy when it comes to economic issues, and public-sector workers aren't his fave. But it's worth talking about his column today, because it represents a very frustrating, if time-honored, approach to bad-mouthing unions.

Nevius argues that the BART unions lack public support, in part because their members don't contribute to their pensions and make a (moderately) decent living:

If there is one paragraph that shows up in news stories over and over — and is repeated again and again in comments about the strike — it is the one about health care and pensions.

“Currently, BART employees, union and non-union, make no contribution to their state pension plans and pay $92 a month for health insurance,” a Chronicle story said Monday.

That’s doesn’t evoke much sympathy for many workers in the Bay Area who are finding their health care costs are rising and pensions are evaporating. And the salary, over $60,000 with benefits and overtime, doesn’t sound so bad either.

BART workers say they haven’t had a raise for several years, but join the crowd. Lots of us can say that. And the fact that BART middle management have already accepted terms and are back at work now doesn’t help the cause.
 The Nation has a good take on how the media is fueling resentment against the workers, and the unions tell their side of the story here. But there's a serious problem with the Nevius argument that goes beyond what's been printed so far.

Here's the deal: If you're a General Motors worker in the 1930s, and you threaten to strike for better wages, should unemployed people scoff at you? Should management be able to say that there are plenty of people who are worse off and will take your job if you make too many demands?

Because that's what Nevius is saying. If you work for a company that doesn't provide decent pensions or health care, you shouldn't sympathize with workers who get those benefits? Labor ought to be divided because some areas have more effective union representation? The private sector (which lost many of the same gains the BART workers have with the decline in unionization) should hate the public sector?

Pensions are part of a labor negotiation. BART workers agreed in the past to accept lower wages in exchange for better pension contributions. That's common in contracts. The Chron's unionized workers probably cut a different deal.

But creating this kind of anger by saying that the unionized workers are doing better than non-union workers (duh) is really pretty low.

Oh, and BART management? The ones who settled more quickly? The average pay for those folks is well above $100,000 a year.

As we feared, Skinner voted with the cops

The really bad police-discipline bill that was before the state Assembly Public Safety Committee has passed, 4-1, with only the chair, Tom Ammiano, voting against it. And as I feared, all the other Democrats, including the normally progressive Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, voted the wrong way.

It's a demonstration of the power of PORAC, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which was able to push through a measure that police chiefs, sheriffs, the ACLU, the League of Cities and the County Supervisors Association of California all opposed. Now it goes to the floor, where defeating it will be a huge task.

America's Cup: What happens if it doesn't?

It's probably all just blustering; it seems highly unlikely that, after all the build-up and fuss -- and public money -- the America's Cup races will just be scuttled. But what if that happens?What if the regatta director (who is acting like Larry Ellison; it has to be his way and his rules or he will shut it all down) really asks the Coast Guard to pull the racing permit?

Again:You'd think the shitstorm that would be created would force all parties to the table and they'd work something out. But that doesn't always happen. If this fight over rules and safety escalates, and the races are either cut way back or don't happen at all, how about all the money the San Francisco taxpayers put up for this billionaire boat race? The America's Cup Organizing Committee can't raise money for an event that doesn't happen (in fact, it's got to be hard raising money for an event that is looking more and more shaky every day). So does San Francisco wind up footing the bill for all of the preparations -- and get none of the rewards from the projected economic benefits?

Maybe the mayor and his staff should have thought about that from the start.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Willie's World: Private firm with public backing

Matt Smith has a doozy of a story at CIR on former Mayor Willie Brown's ties to a firm that's trying to lure investors from China to put money into the Hunters Point redevelopment project in exchange for immigration visas.

The former mayor's role isn't new; the Guardian broke the news more than two years ago that Brown was involved with a company that essentially brokers green cards for people from other countries that want to become Americans and are willing to invest more than $500,000 in a US business.

But what makes the story so much fun is Brown's denial that he's part of what really looks like an inside deal with local officials pushing for the private investments. He tells Smith over and over that he's never heard of a company that lists him as a partner and touts him in pitches to Chinese investors as the "chairman." Mayor Ed Lee claims he doesn't know anything about it either. Amazing.

BART talks to resume -- what you can do

The parties are getting back to the table, which is a good sign because the commute this morning was worse than yesterday, and people who can't get to work are going to be more and more frustrated and angry. (The other good news: Maybe more employers are finding that telecommuting, for some jobs, isn't such a bad thing. My friend Alex Clements posted a list on facebook of jobs that you can't telecommute to -- barrista, judo instructor, and prostitute were on his list. A lot of other jobs, you can.)

So at this point it's important to put the pressure on the BART Board.

This strike is going to be settled by politics, not just traditional negotiation. The board has to direct staff to get this done -- and not to play games by trying to delay, increase popular anger, and blame the unions for the traffic mess on the bridge. BART is paying $400,000 for a labor consultant (whose job is apparently not to settle things, because if that was his job he should have been fired.)

I have to say, I've supported Tom Radulovich for years, but he's been very disappointing as board president here; just about every other elected official representing his district has come forward in support of the unions, and he's been largely on the side of management. But he's accountable to progressives, so we need to let him know that this can't drag on.

Generally speaking, the BART Board members are aloof, hard to reach, and lazy. They don't have individual email addresses. But there's a roster here, and you can email them at

I've had a lot of conversations with union folks, both leaders and people on the picket lines, in the past couple of days, and they really want a new contract. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it has to include a pay increase (that's not 100 percent eaten up by higher health-care costs.) That doesn't seem impossible at all. Let's make the BART Board do it.

(BTW, Chris Carlsson points to this fascinating piece of BART history.)

Feinstein? "Liberal Lioness?" Gak.

I'm topped by Calitics to the fact that the The NYT, in what's otherwise a fairly typical and predictable profile, calls Sen. Dianne Feinstein a "liberal lioness."

Wow. Where has that reporter been all these years?

Feinstein has never been a "liberal" anything. Yeah, she's good on gun control (having seen first-hand what happens when a a dangerous guy gets a gun and starts shooting), and she's always been pro-choice. But that's about it.

As mayor of San Francisco, she was, for all intents and purposes, a Republican. She handed the city over to developers and once vetoed a resolution declaring "reproductive rights day" because she thought it would be "too divisive." She never once attended a Pride parade.

She was highly critical of Gavin Newsom when he first broke ground on same-sex marriage. She has been, at best, a moderate on economic issues, and was always untrustworthy on labor stuff. She was never good on the Bush wars.

I've had my disagreements with Sen. Barbara Boxer, but there's no doubt that she's been a progressive voice. Not so her colleague.

The Times clearly wanted to make the story look interesting by contrasting Feinstein's current stand on spying with her more left-leaning record. But there's nothing to contrast. She's always been a moderate-to-conservative politician.  No story here.

The Chron's big duck on the BART strike

You think that, in a labor town, the major daily newspaper would be ready to play a leadership role in resolving the BART strike. But the Chron's editorial on the issue is about almost unimaginably weak, essentially saying: Gee, the strike is a bummer, and it's tough to negotiate in good times, and nobody should win. Here's the money quote:

What's needed is a balanced outcome, not a victory for one side. The polarizing lists of unrealistic demands and counterproposals in the BART dispute offer a template of what not to do.
That's really, really helpful.

Not: The BART Board, elected to run this essential transit agency, needs to tell its management team to get back to the table and talk. Not: The unions deserve at least some reasonable pay increase after five years without a raise. Not: The money lost to the economy by the shutdown of the transit system is soon going to eclipse what the workers are asking for, anyway.

The Chron was happy to report that former Mayor Willie Brown (who is also a Chronicle columnist) is eager to help, the way he did in 1997.  But the only useful historical analysis of why this all happened comes from Randy Shaw at Beyond Chron.

 This is a big, big deal in the Bay Area, the start of what could be a long list of public-sector labor challenges. It's embarrassing that the major daily can't even take a stand.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Cops pushing horrible bill in Sacto

The Peace Officers Research Association of California, the most powerful statewide lobby of law-enforcement officers (with the possible exception of the prison guards' union) is pushing a bill that would seriously undermine the ability of local agencies to cut down on police misconduct. It's so bad that it's opposed not only by the ACLU but by the California Police Chiefs Association and the California State Sheriffs Association.

It sailed through the state Senate and it might make it to the Assembly floor -- if progressives, including Assemblymember Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, cave and vote for it in committee.

The bill, SB 313,  deals with the way police agencies handle something called the Brady decision. That's a US Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which held that prosecutors have to turn over to the defense in a criminal case any evidence that might be exculpatory -- including any evidence that police officers who might be called to the stand have past disciplinary issues that might reflect on their credibility.

So whenever a cop has a history of misconduct -- say, lying to investigators -- he or she gets what's called a "Brady jacket." Somewhere in that cop's file is a notice that if he or she is going to be a witness in a criminal case, the prosecutors need to tell the defense.

Brady officers tend to make lousy witnesses, since they can easily be impeached. So officers with a Brady jacket might not be good candidates for jobs (say, homicide detective) that will inevitably involve a lot of courtroom appearances -- and in which their credibility could be central to a case.

But SB 313 would bar any police department from denying promotion to any officer on the basis of a Brady jacket. It would say, in essence, that even if a cop has been caught, and disciplined, for lying or cheating or planting evidence, that can't be used as a factor in future personnel decisions.

It's crazy: A cop who was caught falsifying evidence in a robbery case wants to be promoted to homicide detective. His or her superiors realize that the Brady jacket makes it virtually impossible for that person to be effective on that job. But too bad -- you can't take that into consideration.

You can see why the police chief's don't like this.

But PORAC is a serious player in Sacramento, and if this disaster gets to the Assembly floor, it might pass.

Assemblymember Tom Ammiano chairs the Public Safety Committee. It's a thankless job, but progressives tend to be put there so they can dispose of the worse kinds of right-wing law-enforcement stuff without forcing the more moderate Dems to deal with it on the floor. And this is one that ought to die in committee.

But PORAC is forcing a vote this Tuesday (July 2) and it's going to be close. Ammiano, of course, is against it. But there are seven members on the panel, two of them Republicans, which means three of the four remaining Dems have to vote with Ammiano. Every vote counts, and I'm nervous about Nancy Skinner.

Skinner's been a solid progressive all her life. But she's looking at the Senate seat of the retiring Loni Hancock,and will no doubt be facing Sandre Swanson, who wanted the seat in 2012. Swanson's much closer to the police unions, and that puts Skinner in a tricky place.

I've tried to get her on the phone to talk about it, but nobody from her office has called me back. I know I'm not the powerful Bay Guardian editor I used to be, but I've known Nancy since her days on the Berkeley City Council in the 1980s. If she's not talking to me, maybe she doesn't want to talk about SB 313.

Behind the BART strike

On my way to the noontime BART protest at United Nations Plaza, I stopped off at the 24th Street station. It's normally packed at rush hour, and busy pretty much all day; it was a ghost town. The security screen was in place; no entrance, no people, no trains. Although there is word that management might try to run some trains, the main corridor through San Francisco was utterly shut down.

At the rally, Larry Bradshaw, who's with SEIU Local 1021, told me that the governor had asked both sides to keep talking, but there were no negotiations scheduled. "We're on strike," he said.

If BART wants the workers back on the job, Bradshaw said, management is going to have to come forward with "a substantive new offer."

The problem with the current stalemate, on the surface, is that BART is offering a pay raise that would be, at best, equal to increased pension and healthcare payments, which means for all practical purposes no raise at all. And after five years without a pay increase (while, as you may have noticed, the cost of living in the Bay Area has gone way up) the BART workers are fed up.

But there's a larger issue here, and it's a signal that the BART strike may not be the last job action by public employees in the region.

Jerry Brown is a smart politician, one of the most canny governors in California history. But 35 years ago, he made a huge political mistake, one that has caused irreparable damage to the Golden State. In 1978, thanks to Brown's frugality (and rapid growth in California) the state government was running a billion-dollar surplus. The same growth, though, was driving up property values -- and thus property taxes -- on longtime residents, some of whom were on fixed incomes and faced the loss of their homes.

Property taxes were local government's business, but no matter: Seniors who couldn't pay a soaring tax bill saw the governor sitting on a billion dollars -- and doing nothing to help them.

So nearly every county in the state voted in favor of Prop. 13, which has decimated public education and local services and created a mess of the state budget.

Brown, in retrospect, should have used some of that state surplus to help local governments cut property taxes; that might have staved off the Great Tax Revolt. But he was thinking short term, and made the biggest error of his life.

So now Brown is proud to have signed a balanced budget, and the state's finances are looking better. BART ridership is way up. The SF city budget is better than it's been in years.

But for a decade, public employees have been accepting pay cuts; BART workers gave back $100 million. That's a lot more palatable when your agency (and the state) is broke and everyone knows that sacrifice is needed. But now there's a lot of pent-up demand, and politicians at every level need to be aware of it.

BART has capital needs, and has to put aside money to replace aging trains and buy new ones. Everyone knows that. But BART workers, like other public employees, have their own needs after years of austerity -- and it's up to BART management to recognize that.

If the governor and local officials want to avoid widespread public employee strikes in the next year or two, they ought to remember the lesson of Prop. 13. Yes, balance the budget. Yes, be prudent. But also recognize that you aren't starting from zero here; working people have given up a lot in the lean years, as as things get better, they want their share.