The Sacred and the Profane
It seems that you need goat entrails, tea leaves, the blood from roosters slaughtered at the stroke of midnight on All Hallow's Eve, and various other tools of mystic ritual to figure out what's going on as the Public Transportation Commission and the Municipal Railway struggle to award a $66 million contract to provide public transportation for disabled people.
Eventually, the contract will go to a "broker" firm that will enroll, and arrange taxi and van rides for, some 13,000 disabled San Franciscans. But eventually has already been a long time coming, and it seems like who gets this contract may depend more on the political needs of Willie Brown than on the transit needs of disabled people.
To recap the odd-looking process to date: In January, Muni put the para-transit brokerage contract out for competitive proposals. Three companies responded, including the current broker, a company called Cerenio Management Group Inc. CMG's main competitor was a national firm, Intelitran, which runs the disabled transit service for several East Bay cities.
City contract proposals are judged on two main grounds: 1) how much they cost the city, and 2) who has the better proposal for providing service to the citizens of San Francisco. If parts of this judging process are subjective, the judging results usually are not. A bidder gets a score, in points. Whoever has the most points wins. And when the Muni staff and a committee of experts added up the scores in April, CMG won on both the cost Muni must pay, and on the firm's proposals for serving the disabled.
But the Muni staff recommended that the Public Transportation Commission give the contract to Intelitran.
The commission sent that staff report to the dustbin, telling Muni staffers to start the process for evaluating the bids all over again.
About four months later, acting on the same information used in the first evaluation, the Muni staff decided that Intelitran had actually scored higher than CMG in the competition. So the staff again recommended Intelitran to the Transportation Commission.
This time the commission tabled the contract award. And that's where it stands, and may continue to stand until the end of October, when the current contract expires.
So far, this strange delay in contracting has flown under the radar of most local media. The San Francisco Examiner has reported on the controversy, but poorly, and no one else has said much about it at all. Certainly, nobody has addressed the troubling central question about the bizarre bidding process: Why are Muni staffers recommending that the city hire a company that will cost more, and proposes to do less, than a firm that has been doing the job, and from most accounts doing it well, for the better part of a decade?
Surely, politics is involved. But what kind? Whose shoes are getting shined?
Although specifics -- the who did what, exactly, to or for whom -- may take voodoo to unearth, the broader answer to this question is not hard to discover. And that answer comes in the form of a rather unsavory tale -- one we are getting accustomed to reading -- about how Willie Brown has disfigured the city contracting process, and scattered the appearance of favoritism into almost every nook of City Hall. In this case, the tale might be titled:
"How a Contract to Serve Disadvantaged San Franciscans Became Confused and Compromised When It Intersected With Willie Brown's Appetite for Political Money."
CMG has had good relations with the city's disabled community for the last eight years as it has provided quality service to the 13,000 disabled people for whom it arranges rides. It has not received a single complaint about its services from Muni staff, its president, Virginia Cerenio, says.
It was no surprise, then, that CMG was able to offer more and better service, yet bid $1.1 million less, than Pennsylvania-based Intelitran in the first round of competition for the disabled transit contract, just as it was no surprise that CMG was given the top score in that competition.
And that's why it was a such a shocker when the Muni staff bucked the scoring its own members had helped calculate and recommended that Intelitran get the deal. Immediately, disabled activists orchestrated an outpouring of support for CMG. When the Public Transportation Commission heard the first staff report recommending Intelitran on April 6, it faced an angry crowd of disabled people defending CMG.
"The community got on the phone and did that," says Bruce Oka, chair of the Para-Transit Coordinating Committee, a body that advises the Public Transportation Committee on disabled access issues. "We heard what had happened, and we said, 'This doesn't smell right.' "
And the Transportation Commission actually did its job, listening to the complaints and ordering the Muni staff to reconsider its contract approval process.
But then the San Francisco Examiner decidedly didn't do its job.
On July 21, the Examiner ran a queer little story that claimed CMG was under fire from lawyers and disabled groups because, allegedly, scores of eligible elderly people had been denied places in the para-transit program in violation of federal guidelines. The story, however, was all sizzle and no steak. The evidence cited to back the story's main assertion -- that CMG was denying service in violation of the law -- was weak and unconvincing. It was, to my eyes, a classic hit piece.
I'm not sure how the Examiner story originated. It would not shock me to the bones to learn that Intelitran had something to do with it. Whether Intelitran was or was not involved in the piece's origins, however, I am quite sure it would gall the Examiner -- a paper that has covered apparent corruption of the city contracting system better than anyone -- to know that its story helped a campaign aimed at steering public money in the direction of a Brown ally and campaign fund-raiser.
It's come time to introduce Jacqueline Besser and explain her role in the para-transit contracting mess. I make this introduction not so much for the benefit of the Monarch of the Dailies, though I hope the Ex does get something out of it, but for the people of San Francisco, who are nearing the day when they will cast votes, and decide whether they want Willie Brown and his gaggle of intimates to continue as a kind of joint-mayor.
You probably don't know Ms. Besser. She is, after all, new to the city, having arrived from Los Angeles in mid-1996, mere months after Willie Brown was inaugurated.
Jackie, as she is called, was one of many Willie pals who decamped to San Francisco after the election. Brown had appointed her to a post on the California Commission on Aging in his last days as Assembly speaker, but the Willie Party Train carried her on to San Francisco. The train also bore Besser's husband, Stephen, an L.A. lawyer who wound up striking what is perhaps one of the smellier deals our mayor has taken part in. Which is saying something.
Monsieur Besser used to work at Christensen, Miller, Fink, Jacobs, Glaser, et. al. In the waning years of his time in the Assembly, Willie also served Christensen, Miller in an "of counsel" capacity. When Willie became mayor in January 1996, the city charter required him to give up the private law practice he had been allowed to engage in while speaker of the Assembly. At about that time, Christensen, Miller "bought" Brown's law firm. Stephen Besser registered as a lobbyist in our fair city and started representing clients with business before the city.
As public money flowed to Besser's clients, and Besser was paid handsomely for successfully representing clients before Willie Brown's government, the law firm he worked for was turning around, each year, and paying money to Willie for "buying" his law firm on some strange kind of installment plan.
But this paper has already discussed Steph-o; this time, we're talking about his wife, Jackie, who is, to be respectful, a player in her own right.
Shortly after arriving in the city, Jackie formed a company called Daja Inc., which does a number of things, including employment services, public relations, lobbying, and airport traffic control, depending on whom you talk to and what city contract is involved. (Besser did not return repeated phone calls last week.)
Jackie is obviously tight with the mayor.
He made her the spokeswoman for his Women's Summit in April 1998.
Willie also made sure Jackie Besser was certified as an officially recognized minority and woman-owned business by the mayorally appointed Human Rights Commission. That designation makes her very attractive to bidders on city contracts. If they toss her a piece of the action, they get points for having a "disadvantaged" subcontractor. Points that give them -- pardon the expression -- advantages, in the competition for city contracts.
So it seems only too natural for Jackie Besser to join the Intelitran contract proposal for the para-transit brokerage. Besser had, after all, already struck up a relationship with a sister firm, Shuttleport, which was vying for a much larger contract managing the shuttle vans, limos, and cabs that serve San Francisco International Airport. (Interesting Note No. 1: Intelitran and Shuttleport are both subsidiaries of ATC/Van-Com. Interesting Note No. 2: Officials told me last week that Jackie Besser and her co-bidders received the highest score in regard to managing vans, limos, and cabs at the airport, and will now enter exclusive negotiating sessions with the airport.)
With Besser riding shotgun, Intelitran could earn points with Muni for having a minority on board its contracting team. Never mind that she would play a small role. And never mind also that Virginia Cerenio is a minority, a Filipina. Besser brought more to Intelitran than her race and gender. She brought oh-so-much more. She brought Willie Brown points.
Jackie Besser is a close friend of the mayor, according to the mayor's campaign spokesman, P.J. Johnston, as well as the wife of a former law partner. That's Brown influence points, squared. She and her husband are also likely to raise scads of money for the mayor's re-election effort. (Jackie, by one report I believe, has already started.) That's Brownie points cubed.
And oh what magic Brownie points work, when it comes to the spending of taxpayer dollars in San Francisco.
If Intelitran comes out the winner in the disabled transit contract war, Besser will apparently benefit. And if Intelitran wins, the city will have definitely set a disturbing precedent in its contracting procedures.
According to Marc Soto, the Intelitran general manager in the East Bay, Besser's company would help Intelitran hire minorities, if the firm won the para-transit contract. These minority employees would be hired through Besser's company, Daja Inc. They would also be employees of Daja Inc., Soto says.
(As I listened to Mr. Soto, I was thinking: Isn't this a convenient way for Besser to grow her company at taxpayer expense? Oh wait, I am being cynical now, aren't I? Please forgive me. Of course the Daja employees who would work on Intelitran's dime would work only on para-transit matters. How awful of me to think otherwise, even momentarily.)
But that's not the disturbing part of this contracting mess. The truly disturbing part is this: Besser's subcontract with Intelitran would give her firm $15,000 a year for five years to ... lobby the government!
Yes, that's right: Under the contract proposal the Muni staff seems hellbent on approving, Intelitran could well become the first company in San Francisco history to have a taxpayer-funded lobbyist.
So yes indeed, let's introduce Madame Besser. Welcome to San Francisco, Jackie. So sorry we in the press have not been paying you due attention. You clearly have the kind of moxie worthy of rapt observance.
After CMG was scored as the best bidder, based on written proposals, for the city's para-transit contract, the companies bidding on the contract gave oral presentations. Again, CMG was scored highest. Which isn't surprising. Prominent disabled activists in San Francisco say CMG does a fabulous job; whether the firm's case is represented orally, or with black ink on white paper, shouldn't make much difference.
But since CMG was rated, unsurprisingly, as the best bidder for the disabled transit contract, everything Muni's done has been a surprise.
Normally, after a company scores the highest and bids the lowest for a city contract, the city negotiates solely with that company, turning to other bidders only if talks fall apart. In this case, for some reason, Muni decided to negotiate toward contracts with both Intelitran and CMG simultaneously.
Unable to find major flaws in CMG's proposal -- the firm had been doing the job for the better part of a decade, after all -- the staff nit-picked. Why didn't CMG describe its field experience more completely? (This of a company that has provided the city with services for eight years, and of a woman, Virginia Cerenio, who had worked in the para-transit program for 20 years.)
Why hadn't CMG discussed the computer database it uses to track rides? (Because Muni didn't ask the bidders for that information.)
Worst of all, Cerenio alleges, Muni staff took the CMG proposal, which was built on eight years of practical experience in San Francisco, showed it to competitors, and simply asked if they could do what CMG had been doing and had proposed to do.
"Those were our ideas," she said in an interview. "We weren't very happy at all. All we have to sell is what we know. They took our ideas and used it to negotiate with our competing firm. We were very surprised."
When Muni staff presented its report to the commission, it singled out for praise, and cited as a key reason why Intelitran was a better choice for the city, the company's software package for scheduling and dispatching rides for disabled people.
With all due respect to Intelitran's software package, Cerenio says, the para-transit broker in San Francisco does not run the scheduling and dispatching programs. The cab and van companies that actually move the disabled people do. At least, Cerenio says, the cab and van companies always have run the scheduling and dispatching of their vehicles, and Muni did not signal in its initial requests for bids that it meant to change this arrangement.
Another big plus on Intelitran's side, Muni staff told the commission, was that the company had a deep and comprehensive knowledge of eligibility guidelines.
Those guidelines are contained in a manual formulated by a company hired by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional policy body. Those guidelines were disseminated by the company itself, when it went to para-transit operators in nine Bay Area counties and trained para-transit brokers.
After the Transportation Commission ordered Muni to reassess the para-transit bidding process, the staff didn't ask for new information or proposals from the bidders. Working from the material submitted the first time around, the staff scored Intelitran higher than CMG. Cerenio doesn't understand why she was scored lower the second time around, because she has yet to see the new staff report to the commission.
Muni staffers declined to return my phone calls, so I don't understand their reasons for the flip-flop, either.
From April to July, the period between the two Transportation Commission hearings, both Intelitran and CMG worried about their prospects. And wondered about how to improve them.
Around this time, Cerenio heard that Besser was holding fund-raising parties for Mayor Willie Brown.
A local activist told me Besser had bragged to him that she is tirelessly raising money for the mayor. "She told me that she has been exhausted lately because she has been all over the country raising money for Willie," the activist said. "She said last week she was in Texas and Illinois."
The activist's report did not surprise Johnston, the Brown campaign spokesman. "I'm sure, given their long friendship with the mayor, that Jackie and Steve will be holding fund-raising parties for the mayor, if they haven't already," Johnston said.
Not to be outdone, Cerenio set up her own party for the mayor. This is a woman, after all, who has been involved in San Francisco politics, and Filipino community politics, all her life. Better than most, she knows how to put people in a room and separate them from their money. On June 1, in between the two commission hearings, Cerenio helped organize a Filipino community fund-raiser that netted $80,000 for the mayor.
Could this explain why, when the Muni staff recommended Intelitran a second time for the para-transit contract, the issue was tabled indefinitely?
Could it be that our mayor divined that he now had two parties interested in his electoral success, both with fund-raising capabilities?
Could it be that Willie Brown, the master of sensing an advantage the way sharks sense movement in the ocean miles away, saw he could easily have two companies compete for a city contract, and also compete to see who could raise him more campaign money?
He could only enjoy being in this unique position as long as his commission could find some way to prolong the contract award process. And, it seems, the commission has found just such a method. The Public Transportation Commission has tabled an award of the para-transit broker contract until October.
October. Isn't that just one month before the general election? And isn't Willie likely to face a crowded field in the general election, and therefore likely to need a nest egg to finance a runoff election campaign in November and December?
Doesn't it suit him just fine to have two putative contractors eager to please him, rather than having just one contractor to deliver the goods?
Could it be that our mayor has developed yet another highly refined way to use his position as elected chief executive to further his narrow self-interest?
Of course this couldn't be true. I am just being horribly suspicious, cynical, and unfair to the distinguished man under the gold dome.
I am sure there's a perfectly reasonable explanation why the Transportation Commission and Muni staff are at open war over the award of a contract. I'm equally sure there's a perfectly innocent story that explains why a firm can score the highest and bid the lowest in the competition for a city contract, and still lose, and how those scores can change overnight without new information entering the picture.
And because the Muni staff won't tell me what those innocent explanations might be, I guess I'll just have to strip naked, slaughter roosters, smear the blood on my face, and dance ooga booga in the moonlight in hopes of divining the truth.
Night of the Living Dead 2
Allow me to apologize to the entire City and County of San Francisco for Angela Alioto's corpse escaping from her sarcophagus. It surely is a frightening sight. I saw it the other morning, and I almost lost my breakfast - from a week ago.
I fear I am partly, inadvertently, responsible.
Two weeks ago, I wrote a column complaining about the pitiful state of the mayor's race, which I said was populated with the evil political dead (Frank Jordan and Clint Reilly). In the opening paragraphs I celebrated how, by contrast, we had successfully dispatched the wretched, recurring political corpse that was Angela Alioto.
That same week, I ran into Examiner columnist Rob Morse. He complimented me on the column and chatted about how stupid Frank Jordan was as mayor, and then we went our separate ways. Shortly thereafter, a matter of days actually, Morse called up Angela and asked her why wasn't she running for mayor.
I am well acquainted with the reanimation of political corpses, and with this one all you have to do is whisper in her ear. She must have immediately seen visions of Roman glory in her head: The press still calls me! Rob Morse called me! I still have that old magic! The press wouldn't call me otherwise!
While Alioto was musing inside her tomb about a mayoral run, the hacks at the Channel 2 morning news show, Mornings on Two -- which, by the way, I am hopelessly addicted to; I think it has something to do with Sal Castaneda hypnotizing me with those eyes of his -- were reading Morse's column and deciding to invite Angela down to have a chat.
I'm guessing, but the conversation could have gone something like, "Hey, Angela, if your skin hasn't completely fallen off your bones, would you come down and sit across from poor brain-damaged Ross McGowan as he rephrases the same question ('Are you running for mayor?') over and over again for a few minutes, so we can pretend we are paying attention to the mayor's race, and poor Ross can pretend for a few minutes that he doesn't actually have a sick crush on Willie Brown?"
This, of course, set the corpse's rotting flesh a-tingle:
People do want me! Television wants me! Rob Morse wants me! Ross McGowan wants me! Those rumors about him and Willie Brown aren't true!
So the corpse made her television appearance.
(Now we all know this corpse stuff is just a joke, right? It's a rhetorical device. But, oh sweet Jesus, did you see Angela on the TV? One word: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
Anyway, the corpse left the Channel 2 studios and headed right down to City Hall, where it picked up and signed papers announcing an intention to run for mayor. While Angela was down at City Hall she nearly ran into Capt. Richard Cairns of the SFPD taking out papers of his own.
Now you gotta know what that is all about.
Cairns is buddies with evil political reanimator Jack Davis. Davis is currently, unofficially running Willie Brown's campaign. Davis, it seems, needs to get a spoiler in the race to suck votes from the candidates on Brown's right, Jordan and Reilly. So Davis gets his buddy Cairns to join the race.
And that's how we develop mayoral candidates in San Francisco, folks.
Sorry-ass media hacks prod the dead and the dumb with sticks until they react. Then sleazy political consultants manipulate the process for their own ends.
I may be overreacting here, but isn't it time to get some pitchforks and torches together and have an enraged villager party?