Is it us, or has the Board of Supervisors gone soft?
It's been barely a year since our current batch of supes was elected on a tide of anti-Willie Brown sentiment, vowing to curb the mayor's influence at every turn. Few of their tough-talking proposals were more controversial than Matt Gonzalez's plan to seize control of the much-maligned San Francisco Housing Authority. Even in the face of a scathing HUD audit and an indictment against the authority's former director, the very idea created an eruption last spring: A large group of mostly African-Americans, who said they were Housing Authority residents, branded Gonzalez a racist; Chronicle columnist Ken Garcia fumed that the "gauche" plan would put "our civic saviors" in way over their heads. (In truth, the plan only called for supervisors to wrest some commission appointments away from the mayor and to improve the department's oversight, not run the authority's day-to-day operations.)
And that was the last we heard of the board's plan to take over the Housing Authority. Until now.
Gonzalez told SF Weekly last week that the plan is still very much alive and will find itself on the ballot in March. Sort of. What voters will likely see is a nonbinding referendum, allowing them to weigh in on the issue so their supervisors don't have to.
"In the past, supervisors who have taken an interest in the Housing Authority have scared easily," Gonzalez said. "When African-Americans start calling you a racist and this and that, most folks say, "You know what? It's not worth the trouble.' But we need to have a substantive dialogue about this."
He also needs a minor miracle to make the takeover happen. Gonzalez, who estimated he'd have four to six votes on the board if the issue came up right now, was recently told by the City Attorney's Office that he'd need a "supermajority" of eight votes to rescind the Depression-era ordinance that gave sole Housing Authority appointment power to the mayor. That's a highly unlikely outcome, unless, perhaps, voters overwhelmingly support the takeover.
"It's easy to put this on the ballot," Gonzalez said. "If the votes support it, we'll have a mandate. ... And if we don't have the votes to continue this, we'll retreat."
James Sparkman is 71 years old, so he remembers when the Chronicle was a good newspaper.
Twenty-five years ago, he read the Chron with pleasure; back then, Art Hoppe was in his glory days, Herb Caen was three-dotting along, and the paper felt important and interesting to Sparkman, a wonderful companion to that first cup of coffee. But Sparkman can't understand what happened. When did things start to go so bad? "I feel insulted and violated," he writes on his Web site, Chronwatch.com. "More importantly, the taste of that first cup of coffee is ruined."
Sparkman, a retiree living in Alamo, has operated Chronwatch.com since May. Like a lot of Internet media critics, he keeps his eyes open for evidence of reporting bias. But Sparkman takes the Chron's flaws much more personally, and he's more passionate in his anger. Plus, he's funnier: He depicts Chron editors as monkeys and columnist Stephanie Salter as a goofy-looking clown doll.
Sparkman is a hawkish conservative -- the site's mission-statement page has a map showing how much territory George W. Bush won in the presidential election -- but he insists he's more interested in balance than in gagging what he calls the Chron's "liberal domination." Still, most of his invective is reserved for the Chron's touchy-feely columnists. The clown image of Salter (dubbed an "alleged journalist") has her saying, "I do my best stuff on hotel mirrors, stickers on fruit, birthday greetings for my Dad, bashing Bush, locating hard-to-find "victims', and knowing God's whereabouts." A recent Jon Carroll column about the Middle East evoked this response from Sparkman: "If we back off and allow 100 additional terrorist attacks on our citizens, will Jon Carroll then feel we have done enough penance for our past transgressions? As I've said before, we're going to be lucky if these ultra-liberals don't get us all killed."
Hell, mister, why don't you just cancel your subscription? "A lot of people ask me that," Sparkman says, laughing. "I thought about it, but I decided not to give up so easy. I've been reading the Chronicle for 25 years, and it's my paper, not their paper. Besides, there really aren't any alternatives. They kind of got you in that respect."
Sparkman claims Chronwatch.com attracts only about 250 visitors a day, though he admits he hasn't been doing much promotion. Regardless, he says he's received an excellent response to his new contest, in which readers can nominate the Chron scribe who writes the most irrelevant column of the week. It's called the Jon Carroll Award.
"I don't understand why he's in the paper," Sparkman says. "Filling space, I guess. I'm not trying to be mean. I just don't get it. So many of them [Chron columnists] are like that. It's just baffling to me. Are good journalists that hard to find?"