Derailing the Jaye Train

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

As the son of preachers, I've always fancied great oratory. I'm also a fan of Biblically proportioned drama. So I felt quite content as I witnessed a daylong pageant of passion-play politics last Wednesday at City Hall.

In the morning, I attended a Board of Supervisors Rules Committee hearing to take in the proselytizing stylings of Willie Lewis Brown Jr. The committee was considering appointments Chris Daly made to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission last month while serving as acting mayor. In defiance of Brown, Daly appointed two environmentalists to the commission. Brown had appointed (but had not sworn in) Andrew Lee, the son of a political backer, and had planned to appoint an unnamed African-American. The City Attorney's office last week determined that only one of Daly's appointments, former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach, would stand, because Brown had appointed Lee before Daly took advantage of his status as acting mayor.

But both the Werbach appointment, and the decision of City Attorney Dennis Herrera that upheld it, were, for Brown, complete outrages.

The mayor approached the dais, paused a moment, then spoke for half an hour, without notes, without averting his gaze from the faces of Supervisors Tony Hall and Matt Gonzalez. Approving Daly's appointments would spoil the decorum that binds San Francisco, Brown said, adding that he has prided himself on an open, collaborative approach to naming experts to city commissions. Daly's PUC picks, he said, were made in secret, in a back room.

"This is a road down which you do not want to go," Brown said.

The dramatic battle between Brown and the progressives he considers his enemies continued in the afternoon, when the board's Budget Committee considered a measure, introduced by Supervisor Aaron Peskin, that would kill a Brown-linked $200 million waterfront project, already in advanced planning. Brown's camp again went into full court press mode, characterizing Peskin as grossly irresponsible, and suggesting that the board's liberal members would prove they're not real leaders but irresponsible yahoos if they approved Peskin's measure.

By day's end, mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez faced a Rubicon: He could stand pat in support of the erratic actions of his progressive allies, Daly and Peskin, and thus prove to voters he's not adult enough to be mayor. Or he could take the high road, reject his colleagues' antics, and alienate the left-wing constituents that voted him into next week's mayoral runoff.

By this manner of thinking, Wednesday was a grand day for mayoral frontrunner Gavin Newsom. But I'm not so sure.

The extraordinary fuss Brown is raising about his right to control the Public Utilities Commission should certainly raise eyebrows, but not in the way he or the Newsom campaign would like. That agency sits atop $1.6 billion in funding authority dedicated to a massive rehabilitation of the Hetch Hetchy water system. Experts that Brown himself enlisted to study the matter told him that's $800 million more than the Commission needs to do the job. Brown ignored the advice and went to voters asking for twice the needed amount; can anyone say "slush fund"?

Brown's platitudinous defense of his committee appointments shouldn't fool anyone, either. As I've said before, PUC appointee Andrew Lee is a patronage hack.

Publicizing the can of worms that constitutes the dispute over developing Piers 27-31, meanwhile, flatters none of the participants. Newsom's chief campaign consultant, Eric Jaye, ran the peculiar, Willie Brown-backed, mau-mauing campaign that helped the Mills Corp. win exclusive negotiating rights to build an office, retail, and entertainment complex on the piers. For that matter, Jaye seems to take a starring role in all the political issues that have been set before Gonzalez.

Jaye skippered Andrew Lee's failed campaign last year for a Board of Supervisors seat.

He was campaign consultant for last year's Proposition A, Brown's Hetch Hetchy bond.

Now, supporters and opponents of Brown have been debating the odd notion that Matt Gonzalez risks showing himself to be an unfit leader if he defies the interests of Jaye's clients.

No matter how eloquent Brown's speechifying, or how numerous the automated telephone calls to voters, Gonzalez doesn't have to decide between proving himself a lonely statesman or a popular yahoo. Actually, he's faced with an easy choice: He can buck Willie Brown's legacy of quid pro quo politics, and thereby champion public integrity, or he can act like a go-along hack.

After Brown finished his speech last Wednesday, I headed down to the City Hall basement to look through the files of the Department of Elections. There I found the Willie Brown Rosetta Stone, also known as the 1999 list of contributions received by the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. Thanks to recent upgrades in the city government's electronic database technology, the list can be cross-referenced to show committee appointments, city jobs, favorable city rulings, and lucrative government contracts obtained by those who have given campaign contributions.

During the mid-to-late 1990s, Brown used the little-noticed central committee bank account to funnel campaign money from favor seekers to political campaigns. After the 1999 elections, the committee slipped from his control, and, unfortunately, the department has discarded filings prior to 1999. Even so, the 1999 donation list provides a sort of road map through the seamless melding of money and politics that has characterized San Francisco during the past eight years.

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.

According to city campaign finance records, the Mills Corp. campaign, led by Jaye, spent $10,000 on calls urging city residents to contact the Port Commission and ask members to vote for the Mills project. The Jaye-led campaign spent $10,000 more on flyers. The campaign spent $15,900 renting buses to transport a crowd to the Port Commission to "encourage" members to support the Mills project. The campaign paid extra consultants $6,600 to help assemble this crowd. And it spent $2,100 on temp workers to help manage this "mobilization."

Last fall Eric Jaye's political consultancy, known as Storefront Political Media, took in some $1.7 million, more than half of all money spent on city political consultants in the last quarter of 2002. He steered the successful Care Not Cash initiative, which posited Gavin Newsom as a new kind of young politician possessing bold new ideas. He worked the Prop. A campaign, obtaining $1.6 in bonding authority for the PUC, $800 million in excess of what the mayor's own experts said was required.

Now, paid callers are working over Aaron Peskin. And people in some political circles are suggesting that Matt Gonzalez faces a choice between sticking with his friends or proving himself a responsible leader.

In my view, he can accomplish the latter by doing the former.

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