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The Grid 

Wednesday, May 6 1998
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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."

Agence France Presse, Nov. 29, 1996: "Gaullist politician Jacques Valade, deputy vice-president of the Senate and a former scientific research minister, was indicted on Thursday on charges of favouritism in awarding a public contract. ... Valade awarded the 12-year contract in 1992 to urban furniture installer Jean-Claude Decaux. ... The contract, worth three million francs ($600,000) was for the installation of electrical notice-boards in the region's 160 high schools."

Will everybody stand, please, and give a warm round of welcoming applause to San Francisco's newest corporate citizen, JC Decaux!

Now, on to a company called City Solutions. Like JC Decaux, City Solutions participated in a pilot program on centralized newsracks, and wants to bid on building a whole slew of them. Tom Trento is a founder and co-owner of City Solutions, a private firm started a couple of years ago in south Florida. We don't know all that much about Trento, except what he told us in a short interview, and what we read in Florida newspapers and a book he compiled and edited: Prolife Resource Manual, published in 1989 by the Standing Committee in Support of Life, a Boca Raton, Fla., anti-abortion group.

Let's start off with the news and book roundup:
The Miami Herald, Sept. 24, 1989: "VERO BEACH -- The anti-abortion battle won't be won or lost with a special session of the Legislature in October, a West Palm Beach activist told a packed rally of 450 people. ... Tom Trento, an anti-abortion advocate and leader of a group called 'Why We Stand,' addressed the rally, sponsored by the Christian Action Council. ... Trento likened the abortion issue, 'classically and historically,' to the slavery debate: 'The unborn are entitled to liberty and equality and we are a group of people fighting to restore those rights to the unborn.' "

Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Jan. 24, 1988: "Doctors who perform abortions have 'lost their high calling and ... ought not to be referred to as doctors,' said Tom Trento, a featured speaker who has experience as a pro-life speaker and demonstrator."

The Miami Herald, Jan. 24, 1988: "Tom Trento, the son of a Teamster from Newark, stood Saturday before a sea of people bearing signs such as 'God Loves All Babies,' and 'Hitler Would Have Loved It.' 'Fifteen years of abortion ... 22 million babies killed,' began Trento, an anti-abortion activist and general manager of a West Palm Beach advertising publication, Show & Sell. Trento, a veteran anti-abortionist, has been arrested for trespassing in a Denver abortion clinic. Since moving to Boca Raton two years ago, he has organized picketing at local abortion clinics. To Trento, abortion, and its 15-year-old legal rationale, are products of an 'elite philosophy ... a radical feminist philosophy.' "

The Prolife Resource Manual (Editor: Tom Trento) seems to be a -- how should we put this? -- committed anti-abortion manual. Meaning that it expresses far-right views on abortion with the absolute, religious certainty that would set most supporters of Mayor Brown and the Board of Supervisors on fire, if they only knew.

The manual has a "God's View" section. (God doesn't like abortion.) A medical facts section, full of gory photos of aborted fetuses. (Included is a chart, "American War Casualties," in which fatalities of the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War are dwarfed by those of the War on the Unborn.) And of course, the Prolife Resource Manual contains an "Action!" section, which includes an article by former Nixon staffer Chuck Colson titled "Are We Ready for a Long Battle?"

In an interview Monday, Trento insisted that six months of newsrack experience in Florida shows that any views he has on abortion will not affect newspapers distributed through his firm's racks. He also noted that San Francisco's proposed newsrack ordinance specifically does not allow contractors who build central newsracks to choose which newspapers occupy the racks.

"I am a hard-core proponent of the First Amendment," Trento said. "I believe the public rights of way are for any types of speech that are legal."

Trento added that he has not participated in anti-abortion activism for "probably 10 years." Then he noted that we hadn't asked what his views are now on abortion. When we did ask -- twice -- he played cute, saying he would give an answer "next time." Whatever that means.

But don't misunderstand us. Abortion is an emotional issue about which decent and intelligent people can strongly disagree. Mr. Trento certainly has every right, as an American, to make his views on that issue known, whatever they are, and whenever he has them.

But it seems to us that a Board of Supervisors that regularly ties eligibility for city contracts to a long list of liberal causes might want to question Mr. Trento about the Prolife Resource Manual, his views on abortion, and whatever connection there might be between that manual, those views, and centralized newsracks in San Francisco.

We also think that the supervisors might want to see a report on the current French investigation of JC Decaux, as well as all the official law enforcement documents on past allegations of JC Decaux wrongdoing, before deciding to tie the city to a long-term contract with the firm.

You're welcome. We're always at your service.

About The Author

George Cothran

About The Author

John Mecklin

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