Little People Win!

A bland supervisor, a high school student, an industrious bureaucrat, and Pamela Anderson prove that any of us can change the world for the better

There was once a young bureaucrat named Tony who worked as executive assistant to the mayor of a small city. He spent his days following his boss to ribbon cuttings, speeches, and any other grip 'n' grin where there was a need for a briefcase-holding yes man to be seen standing next to the mayor. One day, while at one of these events at a bus station near downtown San Francisco, the mayor said something that captured the bureaucrat's imagination.

"I was an aide for Mayor Alioto in his first term of office in the 1960s. I remember being down there at the bus terminal. There's a picture of it somewhere. I remember him talking about this being the single most important project to come to San Francisco, a terminal that would accommodate bus, rail, everything. That was four decades ago. He was talking about bringing millions of people to San Francisco without cars, to North Beach, to Fisherman's Wharf, and what a tremendous boon that would be for the economy," said Supervisor Tony Hall when I caught him last Wednesday, a few hours after he'd finished a Tuesday board meeting that went until 3 a.m. "That stuck in my mind."

Alioto was talking about the Transbay Terminal, a train, bus, and trolley interchange that city planners have envisioned since the turn of the last century and that is only now getting off the ground. Wednesday morning, after the board spent nine hours listening to testimony on an environmental study that would allow the $3 billion terminal to get built, Tony Hall cast his mind back 40 years and somehow let rip a piece of oratory encouraging colleagues to approve the environmental documents.

I happened to be asleep at 3 a.m. But people at the hearing say Hall, a middle-of-the-road politician whose core issues include yawners like city golf courses and condominium rules, unleashed oratory rivaling Willie Brown's. "He said there was little that we do that is going to be as significant as this in the future of our city. He was using that kind of language, in that wonderful voice of his," effused pro-terminal activist David Schonbrunn. "It was amazing."

Before the speech, opponents and supporters of the motion to approve the study believed the vote could have gone either way. Following the speech, the board voted 11-zip to allow the project to go forward.

Chalk one up for the little guy.

I once met a boy named James, a tall, large-framed, quick-witted high school senior who exuded a type of curiosity that translated as charm. Notwithstanding these attributes, he didn't enjoy a privileged lot in life. When I met him, he was attending a special high school where my wife worked, a school focused on kids who weren't coping well in ordinary classrooms. There were plenty of reasons for James to be in that school, including a heartbreaking litany of family problems I won't go into. Suffice it to say that James' brilliance, like that of so many people shunted through our public schools, had been hidden under a bushel. One day two years ago, James mentioned to my wife in passing that one of his relatives had learned of a police incident at a Mervyn's store not far from his school. I looked into the case, and discovered that San Francisco police officers had inadvertently asphyxiated a man while arresting him for the alleged theft of a blender. It turned out that an extraordinary SFPD policy of secrecy made it nearly impossible to obtain the official record of how and why the man died. And until now, it's been an informal policy of the department to use a loophole in state public records law to withhold public records involving police killings until the hubbub has died down, and there's little possibility that news stories might be written, or that they might cause the public to question police behavior.

I wrote three columns on the case of dead shoplifter Gregory Caldwell, denouncing the unofficial, but very real, Police Department policy of concealing official public records that detail citizen deaths involving police officers. That was the last I heard of it; no other news media ever mentioned Caldwell's seemingly iconic death.

Two weeks ago, in a passageway outside a City Hall meeting room, I grabbed the elbow of Jayson Wechter, a city bureaucrat who investigates formal allegations that arrive at the Office of Citizen Complaints, the city agency that monitors the police. Wechter, fortysomething, perennially flustered, and obviously dedicated to his little-noticed job, had just made a recommendation to the San Francisco Police Commission that would end the secrecy surrounding police-related deaths and require police to make public as much information as possible, without, of course, hampering official investigations. Wechter said he began his inquiry into police secrecy after the asphyxiation of Caldwell, which had followed the death that summer of Idriss Stelley, a computer student whom police gunned down at the Metreon shopping center.

Wechter called me earlier in the day to tell me about the recommended policy change, which seems to have a good chance at approval now that we have a Police Commission that's become a genuine oversight body -- rather than the police-crony rubber-stamp machine it used to be -- thanks to last November's Proposition H. "Homicide routinely orders all incident reports to be sealed. This is a policy that has gone on for quite some time," Wechter said in his presentation, in which he recommended that it become department policy to provide as much information as possible without endangering an investigation, witnesses, or police officers. Among documents Wechter presented to commission members was a column high school senior James had spawned.

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