The Grid

Treasure Island Giveaway
At a Board of Supervisors meeting last month, San Francisco Supervisor Leland Yee ruined everyone's good time for a moment by doing the extraordinary -- asking an on-point question of the Mayor's Office.

His query was as simple as it was welcome: Why in the hell do we need to create an incredibly powerful, private nonprofit corporation to develop Treasure Island?

Larry Florin, the mayor's point man on Treasure Island, stood up and uttered words to this effect: We hired a consultant; the consultant told us these corporations are a good thing; so we think they're a good thing, too.

Even though the mayor's variation on Descartes' maxim -- I outsource, therefore I think -- is what's commonly called a non-answer, Yee accepted it. And even then, his fellow supervisors treated him as if, by asking an intelligent question, he'd just spit on Harvey Milk's grave.

Amos Brown blared: "If we are going to get things done, we need to approach this in a special way, so it doesn't take from now until eternity to get things done."

Michael Yaki scolded Yee, too, calling for "comity, cooperation, and goodwill" among the mayor and board members.

Sue Bierman managed to rouse herself from her normal somnolence and unconditionally stated her support for the redevelopment of Treasure Island -- missing the point under discussion by several miles.

When the posturing was, mercifully, complete, the supervisors voted nine to one (Yee dissented) to create the Treasure Island Development Authority. The authority will be a private, nonprofit corporation run entirely by mayoral appointees. By creating it, the willfully ignorant supes gave to Mayor Willie Brown total control of the most beautiful and valuable piece of property ever at the disposal of municipal government.

Because the supervisors ceded all control of the authority to the mayor -- an abdication of power the mayor always enjoys watching -- and because the acronym for the authority -- TIDA -- is less than inspiring, this new real estate development firm needs a name.

It should rightly be called Willie, Inc.
What will the mayor do with Treasure Island, now that his namesake corporation has complete control over its future?

The short answer: Almost anything Willie Brown damn well wants.
State law deems Treasure Island to be public trust land; by law, trust lands must be used for the public benefit. But the law is pretty broad in defining public benefit. Generally, projects related to the maritime industry, public recreation, and environmental restoration are allowed. One thing state law absolutely won't condone is housing, so all this talk about building homes for the homeless out on the island is just that -- talk.

The only other public interest laws Willie, Inc., must adhere to while selling, leasing, and dealing away Treasure Island are the California public records and public meeting laws, and the rules and regulations of the city's budget process.

Those safeguards, however, cannot prevent Willie, Inc. from doing almost exactly as it pleases. The public meetings law allows closed-door meetings when real estate transactions are discussed. Since that's pretty much all Willie, Inc. will be discussing, the nod to the state open meetings law is meaningless. Likewise, public records laws generally allow access to documents related to real estate deals only after the deals have been struck.

And even if Willie, Inc. discusses its land deals in open meetings and hands out paperwork by the ream, the deals will likely be ignored by a City Hall press corps that is generally more interested in sodomy than the intricacies of sleazy land play.

And believe us -- believe us -- the potential for sleaze in the disposition of all but priceless Treasure Island is amazing.

Under the deal approved by the Board of Supervisors, the mayor gets to appoint all members of the board of directors for Willie, Inc., and remove them at his pleasure. Ergo, Willie Brown and Willie, Inc. are one and the same, and they will control something of almost inestimable value.

Ask yourself: How much is Treasure Island worth? How many billions of dollars? Two? Three? Nine? Could it be more? There is, after all, only one Treasure Island; the supply of available Treasure Islands is low. There are many people who would love to have a piece of the incomparably beautiful, strategically located island. Demand, clearly, is high.

Competition, then, would probably set a very, very high price on the sale or lease of any land on the island.

But it is quite clear that competition was not an important concept when Willie, Inc. was conceived.

Once Willie Brown has named the Willie, Inc. board, the corporation apparently will be able to sell or lease the unique property known as Treasure Island entirely as the board sees fit. At least nothing in the founding documents for Willie, Inc. suggests that its unelected board will have to follow the competitive bidding or proposal requirements placed on California governments. And no one in the government -- including the Board of Supervisors -- will be able to reverse stupid or crooked deals that Willie, Inc. cuts.

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