The Grid

Have You Heard the News?
Every so often, the Grid discovers that journalists thousands of miles away have dug up information that would astonish San Franciscans, if only they knew it. In most such cases, we access the information through the magic of the Computer Age, do the proper amounts of rewriting and crediting, and deliver the result in urgent tones that say: Hey! Aren't we amazing journalists?

But today, instead of trying to impress you with our spontaneous brilliance we'll just out-and-out admit it: We're cribbing. Other people, across the country and around the world, unearthed these scoops. We're mere conduits.

Even so, Mayor Brown and the Board of Supervisors may feel some surprise when they read our secondhand news. After all, it's not every day you learn that a firm part-owned by a man who's been a genuine public anti-abortion zealot and a company under official investigation by the French department for fraud control are among the leading bidders for a major contract to be let by the San Francisco government.

Here's what's up: Mayor Brown is pushing a plan to ban all individual newsracks in the city, and replace them with what city bureaucrats call "pedestal mounted" racks. Under this plan, the city would license contractors to build up to 1,000 of these "pedmounts" -- single installations that would hold multiple newspapers -- replacing the 12,000 or so newsracks that are now scattered across the city. The pedmounts, supposedly a cure for the "blight" of newsracks, would, of course, have advertising slathered all over them. And newspapers would have to pay the city for space in the newsracks.

If someone decided space were available.
We have all sorts of conceptual, constitutional, and aesthetic problems with the mayor's newsrack plan, which would, if implemented, cut circulation rates so dramatically as to almost certainly drive many small and alternative publications out of business. And to be sure, SF Weekly, as a business, has a selfish interest in the pedmount newsrack proposal, because the Weekly would be financially hurt if it were forced to throw away its current stock of newsracks, and distribute through someone else's racks.

If someone decided space were available.
But today the Grid is eschewing self-interest in favor of pragmatic public service. That's because today the Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a hearing on the newsrack plan. We think everyone at that hearing -- whatever his or her feelings on central newsracks -- should be entirely up to speed on the practical realities of the program. So today we're focusing on the businesses that would build the 1,000 centralized, advertising-slathered newsracks all across town, if the supervisors give their approval.

Let's start off with the firm that seems to be closest to Mayor Brown's heart, the French purveyor of public toilets, bus shelters, and other street furniture, JC Decaux, a private business owned by a reportedly reclusive millionaire, Jean-Claude Decaux.

Decaux, the firm, already has put up some toilets and other street furniture around town; now it wants the newsrack contract. We know that the firm has hired Willie Brown's friend and aide, Billy Rutland, and paid Billy Boy $67,000 last year to lobby the city on street furniture. We know the Examiner has reported that Billy Boy is "so familiar a figure at the mayor's office these days that he passes through Brown's security as if he were an administration staffer."

Otherwise, though, we don't know much about Decaux's relations with the government, except for what we read in the European papers -- which is absolutely fabulous.

The Independent (London), April 25, 1998: "The French department for fraud control ... is currently investigating Decaux's dominant position in the market for street furniture such as bus shelters and toilets. ... The Independent has seen a copy of the draft report. ... The report proposes that Decaux be fined 14.3 million French francs (u1.3 million, or about $2.39 million). ... The draft report targets two specific practices of Decaux's which it calls 'improper.' First, it criticises the length of street furniture contracts with local authorities, which usually run for 15 years. Second, the report points out that additional clauses in the contracts often allow Decaux to extend the contract indefinitely without going through a competitive bid."

The Observer, April 21, 1998: "In July 1992, a Belgian court convicted Edouard Close, Mayor of Liege, for accepting millions of francs-worth of campaign support from Decaux in return for granting the company contracts. Jean-Claude Decaux received a year's suspended sentence for his part in the scandal. The burgomaster and his associates were given free holidays on the Cote d'Azur, in Spain, Corsica, Paris, Mauritius, Yemen, Sardinia and Senegal. 'At night, there were dinners in exquisite restaurants,' startled Belgian journalists recorded, 'after which they would let it all hang out among hip-swaying girls in leading Parisian cabarets'. ... [I]n 1996, Pierre Cauchie, the Belgian manager of JC Decaux, was convicted in Antwerp for his part in the provision of fraudulent invoices to finance political parties. Last year, the Mayor of San Francisco said he opposed a contract giving Decaux the rights to install street furniture in his city. He and his entourage were flown to Paris, wined, dined and presented with gifts. The Mayor changed his mind."

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