The Grid

More Heat, Less Light
During the summer of 1995, a federal judge came within a hair's breadth of throwing the book at S.F. for failing to make sufficient strides on remedying race- and gender-based discrimination at the Fire Department. Specifically, U.S. District Judge Marilyn Patel, overseeing department management under a 1984 civil rights lawsuit, was miffed because S.F. hadn't met dictates to clean up hiring, training, and promotion practices -- changes Patel considers key.

Showing patience, however, Patel gave the city one more chance. S.F. hired a $400,000 consultant to write an explicit plan to meet Patel's demands. But the report was junked when S.F. elected a new mayor.

At Willie Brown's inaugural, a reformist wind blew. Brown appointed Bob Demmons, a plaintiff in the civil rights suit, to lead the department. He became S.F.'s first black fire chief, and made it clear that meeting the consent decree's mandates by its June 10 expiration date would be his top priority. To be forced to accept another extension would be a serious political embarrassment -- for both Demmons and the mayor. Alas, as Demmons is learning, those old station house demons die hard.

According to sources familiar with the thinking of Tamar Pachter, the monitor appointed by Judge Patel to eyeball city progress, S.F. is now extremely unlikely to be released anytime soon from the consent decree under which Patel oversees Fire Department management. The reason: Demmons has been painfully slow in producing a new hiring, training, and promotions plan for Patel. Indeed, he only finished it last week. "I have already told the department that, based on the work plan, it doesn't seem they will be able to demonstrate compliance with the consent decree," Pachter says.

This politically costly delay is a classic story of good intentions gone awry.

First, the Mayor's Office. Mayor Brown's in-house affirmative action adviser, Johnnie Robinson, delayed everything by months when she insisted last spring that Demmons restart bidding contracts for experts to draw up the game plan. Robinson objected to the list of consultants Demmons had compiled, because they didn't comply with the city's minority- and local-business hiring ordinance.

Then, Demmons changed his own game plan, deciding he didn't need outside experts at all. He proposed his department administrators draw up their own blueprint. This move touched off a feud with Pachter, who said insiders would be reluctant to challenge the institution. Pachter was rebuffed.

Now the feud will move into federal court in June with Demmons defending his in-house plan and asking Patel to end the consent decree over Pachter's objections. Problem is, all Demmons has is a piece of paper -- and one without the patina of outside expertise. Plus, with the report being so late, he didn't have time to test drive it -- so the court is again being asked by an S.F. fire chief to simply trust his intentions.

Look for Pachter, the court's own representative, to argue that actions count more than words. "The department has had a bad record over time," says Pachter, "and that has not changed measurably over the last 12 months."

Luddites at the Library
With the presumed resignation of City Librarian Ken Dowlin Jan. 21, library staffers and their union were set to claim victory in a bid for more power in the $35 million-a-year system.

But that wasn't enough for them. In a Jan. 16 memo to the Library Commission, Service Employees International Union Local 790, the largest city employee union, made a series of proposals on how to reduce the $1.2 million deficit that has been Dowlin's undoing. Rather than prudent fiscal suggestions, however, the list of recommendations reads more like a wish list on how to protect union influence -- and paychecks. A dose of vengeance is added for good measure.

Enemy No. 1: Technology.
The putative Luddites who run the 790 contingent at the library hated Dowlin's affinity for on-line services for library patrons. Which explains why suggestion No. 1 on the union's list is to get rid of the superfast phone lines that hook to the Internet in the New Main Library. Sure, getting rid of the T1 lines would mean patrons waiting longer to access information. But it would increase the demand for live librarians.

The union also wants to scrap the S.F. Digital Library, an ongoing attempt to scan into graphic databases valuable research materials like all the photo originals from the old San Francisco Call-Bulletin newspaper, and a remarkable collection of sheet music dating back to the turn of the century. And, finally, the union would scotch all computer databases, other than the on-line catalog.

True, the union has offered to consider voluntary reductions in staff hours. But the clearest indication of its real motives comes in its last suggestion: Get rid of the Library Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for the system and holds private functions after hours at the New Main to raise said dough.

Yes, the foundation tends to represent corporate, black-tie, noblesse oblige types who are clearly capable of snooty elitism. But it also raised more than $35 million for the New Main. The foundation is a threat to librarians because with purses come strings, and the foundation has played a role in deciding how to spend money on collections, previously the sole domain of the library staff and administration.

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