Derailing the Jaye Train

Why Matt Gonzalez should stick with his progressive roots, and ignore pressure to act "responsibly"

There are tales of lives transformed, political dues paid -- an apparent demonstration of seeming [if unproven] quid pro quo. The list includes live-work loft subcontractors and corporations appealing city tax decisions. There are subcontractors hand-picked by Brown's office, in apparent violation of city contracting rules, who, according to a city audit, did inappropriate and superfluous work on an abandoned project to expand airport runways. And there are numerous contributions from Brown appointees to various boards and commissions.

The links between Willie Brown and money have been pointed out elsewhere and often. But I think it's important, during a week of pitched political battle over two of the city's most important commissions, to reiterate the radical transformation Willie Brown worked on San Francisco government during his eight years in office. Politicians everywhere give jobs to friends. Brown created a system of rule-by-sinecure so hermetic as to be unique.

This system, through which hack after hack has been placed in this or that position of influence, created an atmosphere of incompetence that led every city commission with a significant mandate to wind up overseeing administrative collapse. The Airport Commission presided over massive fund diversions and cost overruns. The Housing Authority allowed significant amounts of money to simply disappear. The Public Utilities Commission issued millions of dollars in debt for projects that were never completed. And the Port Commission allowed itself to be manipulated by the Mills Corp. into approving a $200 million waterfront project that ignored important benchmarks identified in the commission's own request for proposals.

To gain further insight into Brown's impassioned fight for control of the PUC, I spoke with Rich Bodisco, who served as chairman of the Public Utilities Infrastructure Task Force set up by Mayor Brown in April 2000 to review the operation of the Hetch Hetchy system. He recalled the unusual process by which the PUC obtained twice the money it needed to repair the ancient water mains and other infrastructure associated with the city-owned Hetch Hetchy water and electricity operation.

Bodisco recruited economists, finance attorneys, engineers, environmentalists, and other real experts to evaluate the Hetch Hetchy system, from its dam in the Sierras to its storage facilities on the Peninsula. They identified reconstruction and repair projects necessary to insure the safety, reliability, and capacity of the system during coming decades. They asked the Hetch Hetchy system's Silicon Valley customers for a construction wish list, and added it to the proposed construction program. They urged the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to create a long-term strategic plan, so the money would be spent wisely. The committee identified 17 necessary infrastructure projects, costing some $800 million.

For a reason Bodisco says he doesn't comprehend, Brown pushed for a bond issue of twice that amount. "The mayor seemed to disagree with us," Bodisco said. "He wasn't going to go along with the recommendation of the task force."

The mayor subsequently helped raise the money for a campaign to put a $1.6 billion Hetch Hetchy bond before voters.

"To me, they have a lot of money without a plan," said Bodisco, who hasn't spoken with the mayor since the Hetch Hetchy bond election. "I didn't like that."

Given Supervisor Aaron Peskin's reputation as a water expert, an environmentalist, an anti-government-waste gadfly, and an ally of Gonzalez and Daly, I called to ask him about the PUC bonds, the Chris Daly flap, and Gonzalez' Rubicon.

But his mind was preoccupied with other things.

"Yesterday at noon the phone starts ringing in my office. My answering machine fills up with messages that say, 'We were transferred over to you, and we supported the YMCA on the waterfront.' I got 50 of those calls. Nobody else is getting these calls, only my office. Why is Mills spending this kind of money?" he said. "These calls, ones where people wait to be transferred, cost at least $2 each."

Peskin, up for reelection to his North Beach district next year, says he expects to be punished for introducing a resolution that would urge the Port Commission not to extend, beyond January, the exclusive right to negotiate with Mills Corp. for the Piers 27-31 renovation project. Backed by Fisherman's Wharf merchants represented by anti-growth attorney Sue Hestor, Peskin says the Mills project defies the original request for proposals, which emphasized recreational facilities over retail shops and offices. The Mills project includes 140,000 square feet of retail space, 220,000 of offices, and 88,000 feet of outdoor recreation facilities.

I'm not convinced Peskin took the right course here; yanking project approval when a developer's already invested $10 million, as Mills Corp. claims it has, sounds like a dangerous policy course. And when Sue Hestor rounds up a group of complaining clients, ordinary San Franciscans ought to look around quickly, to see if any of their interests are missing.

But Newsom's backers shouldn't be allowed to convince anyone this is a battle between good and evil; there are few clean hands in this affair. Eric Jaye's highly organized campaign to sway the Port Commission in favor of the Mills Corp. proposal, and away from a competing plan for a sports complex, was unseemly in the extreme; even in San Francisco, city commissions are supposed to pretend to evaluate proposals on their merits.

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