By Anna Pulley
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By Erin Sherbert
Sometimes at the beginning of a potentially mistrust-driven relationship -- jailer-convict; husband-wife; columnist-reader; etc. -- it's best to come clean. Here goes: The following column is on a topic of utterly no interest or perceived consequence to the majority of readers, voters, and residents of San Francisco. It's a story that's been told a googol of times in ways that differ only superficially, and it reports on nothing unusual, thus defying the journalist's dictum that you report on the airplanes that crash, and ignore the ones that land.
If it's not already obvious, this is a story about possible corruption at San Francisco City Hall. It's about the appearance of political favoritism that, some claim, will cost the city hundreds of thousands of dollars. It's about an ongoing dance of impunity in which the melody changes, but the less-than-subtle beat seems to remain the same. A billion or so in malodorous cost overruns at the new airport extension -- Thud! Hundreds of millions in real-estate-speculator tax breaks -- Thump! Public school finance quagmire draws state investigators -- Thud! Dollar-dishing at the Mayor's Human Rights Commission alerts FBI agents -- Kawhump!
Talk to almost anybody who routinely deals with the city on public construction contracts, planning decisions, minority set-asides, public education spending, or anything else involving legal tender, and he or she will probably tell you that this city is soaked to its last fiber with juice. It's slathered in grease. It's oozing with slime. A big waste of tax dollars. (Yawn!)
But loss to the public treasury isn't the primary reason I'm going to tell you yet another banal tale of apparent slime and greasiness. You see, I'm a Bay Area native who not long ago moved back to San Francisco after residing for six years in Mexico City; there, I learned that the sort of corruption that's now burrowing tendrils into our town can grow until its rhizomes have spread through all of life. And the cost of that kind of generalized corruption far exceeds the amount of governmental funds wasted, and winds up infecting the way everyone, honest and dishonest, is forced to live. Eventually, both victims and perpetrators are diminished, as roles blur, and become increasingly less distinct over time.
Three years ago, following a decade of battles with citizens who opposed the project, San Francisco's Parking and Traffic Commission approved the construction of a new 300-space parking garage in North Beach, on Vallejo, between Stockton and Powell. As is ordained by state and city statute, the city asked construction companies to submit bids to build the garage. And, in accord with the city's affirmative action policies, the city asked that each bid assign 20 percent of the work on the project to a minority-owned firm certified by the city's Human Rights Commission.
The winning bid of $5,640,000 came from Ronald Arana's A.R. Construction Company, which fleshed out its minority subcontracting requirement by hiring LTM Construction Co., owned by builder Keith Lennon. But -- and here's the nub of an ensuing lawyerly pissing match that included clashing charges of corruption -- Lennon filled out his bidding information on letterhead for a firm called LTM Formworks, rather than the city-certified LTM Construction. Because of the difference between "LTM Formworks" and "LTM Construction," the Human Rights Commission, which is responsible for certifying so-called minority disadvantaged firms, disqualified Arana's entire bid. The contract was given to MH Construction, a company owned by Matthew Huey, which had put the cost of the garage project at $5,986,213, or nearly $350,000 more than A.R. Construction had bid on the job.
Lawyers for Arana and Lennon immediately claimed that "LTM Formworks" had been listed on the bid in error, that they really meant to submit the city-certified LTM Construction as the minority partner on the job. But Human Rights Commission officer Veronica Ng wasn't swayed. This was no mere clerical error, she said, both in correspondence with Arana's lawyer and in a recent telephone interview. "They were using another company," she said.
So this Friday, at around noon, Matthew Huey will join city officials in a groundbreaking ceremony for the new garage.
Arana, Lennon, and their lawyers all declined to be quoted for this story, saying they didn't wish to draw the attention of city officials, and in a city whose government has a reputation for handsomely rewarding its friends and shutting out its enemies, such reticence might not be unreasonable. But Arana and his allies clearly think they've gotten the bad end of a rotten deal. This view is spelled out in a pile of memos sent between their lawyers and the Human Rights Commission, a lawsuit by the Building Trades Council, and a letter of complaint sent to Mayor Willie Brown by that same trade union.
Early last year, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trade Council stepped into the dispute, writing Mayor Brown to protest A.R. Construction's disqualification, calling the move a "direct violation of city law." Under a fair bidding process, council contended, the Commission would have allowed the error, in which "LTM Construction" was replaced with "LTM Formworks," to be corrected.