The Grid

Campus High Jinks
Euphemism is an important political tool. No one but a naif should expect a president (for example) to acknowledge that foreign policy successes were attributable to a Russian counterpart's drunkenness. Ambiguity can aid the public good.

Here in San Francisco, however, political euphemizing has been taken to extremes. Mayor Brown always seems to be announcing some glorious future that could be brought to us via this or that "public-private partnership." In fact, we would not be surprised to hear that the mayoralty itself had been recast as a public-private partnership, and that Mr. Brown was being introduced at public events in this way:

And now, please welcome the Shorenstein Company's Mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown.

(Or maybe he would rather be known as the Catellus Mayor. Chiron Willie Brown? Your Honor of Gap? It's hard to be sure. There are so many possibilities.)

But back to the point: Whenever you hear a public official praise public-private partnerships, you should cringe. We cannot prove that all public-private partnerships are created to effect an illegitimate transfer of public assets to the private sector. But enough of them appear to be formed with improper intent that you should scour the landscape for evidence of graft -- or, at least, bad governance -- whenever you encounter one.

And nowadays in San Francisco, whenever you find a public-private partner-ship, you're all but certain to run into a nonprofit corporation. The nonprofit seems to be the preferred vehicle for blurring the line between what belongs to the public and what the suits from the private sector can grab for themselves, under the pretense of doing the public's business efficiently.

The list of Bay Area nonprofits assigned to tasks that the government should be doing is lengthy.

There is the Presidio Trust, which will run a national park for us, even though the National Park Service should actually plan and run it.

There is the Treasure Island Development Authority, which will sell and lease off perhaps the most valuable Bay Area property ever to come on the market -- even though the San Francisco Board of Supervisors should properly control the island.

There is something called UCSF Stanford Health Care, the nonprofit that will run the combination of the UCSF and Stanford University health care systems, if the University of California regents are so bold and corrupt as to transfer $250 million of UCSF assets to the private sector with scarcely a hint of payment in return.

And now there is something called the Bay Area Life Sciences Alliance.
Technically speaking, BALSA (and ain't it a kindly, soft-wood kind of acronym?) is a nonprofit public benefit corporation. Actually, it is a group of businessmen who formed a tax-exempt corporation about a year ago to do something they wanted done. They'd rather not say precisely what that something is, but we have no problem telling you:

They're injecting themselves, it seems, into every possible aspect of the planning and construction of UCSF's new campus in Mission Bay and the big-money biotech research-burg that will surround it, so they or their friends will make as much money as possible.

Of course, that's not how BALSA describes its mission.
BALSA uses euphemisms, because BALSA wants you to think it is public-spirited.

The public face and voice of BALSA is its president, Clifford Graves, who ran the city's Redevelopment Agency until Willie Brown decided Mr. Graves should go away. When asked about the nonprofit he now manages, Graves veritably purrs, insisting that the members of BALSA's board of directors are motivated by the purest of intentions.

"These [board members] are all publicly spirited citizens," Graves explains.
The way Graves lays it out, publicly spirited citizens founded BALSA so it could undertake the task of keeping UCSF's new campus in San Francisco. The prestigious university that bears the name of our fair city was about to move to the decidedly unprestigious shores of Brisbane or Alameda, where property owners were willing to give land for free.

BALSA, Graves explains, was needed to bring together powerful people who personally knew Nelson Rising, the CEO of Catellus Development Corp., which owns Mission Bay, so they could convince him to donate a new campus and keep UCSF at home.

And now that Mission Bay has been designated as the site for the new campus, will BALSA disband, and let the University of California go ahead with building the new University of California at San Francisco campus?

Of course not. That would be unpublic-spirited.
Now, Graves intones, BALSA must make sure the public gets the best new UCSF campus possible. Toward that end, he says, BALSA has decided to offer its considerable expertise to guide the land use planning for UCSF at Mission Bay.

This proposal, which sounds so pleasant and helpful and public-spirited, is actually an arrogant power grab that serves as an excellent illustration of just what is wrong with BALSA and its nonprofit brethren.

Acting out of what can only be described as preternatural high-handedness, BALSA has decided it, rather than the University of California, should hold a contest to determine which architectural firm will get to create the master plan for the new campus at Mission Bay. The nonprofit feels so strongly about providing this service that, Graves says, it will pay for the competition and, most likely, the master plan itself.

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