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Reeferzilla Meets NIMBY-Ra 

And unfortunately it's not science fiction. It's San Francisco politics, and the winner used some interesting jujitsu.

Wednesday, Oct 12 2005
Since the dawn of consciousness, mankind has pondered the Big Questions.

Godzilla versus Mothra?

Jesus versus Santa?

Cheech & Chong versus Willy Wonka?

Last Thursday, 140 San Franciscans packed a City Hall committee meeting to consider the greatest outcome puzzle of all: NIMBYs versus Potheads?

The putative issue at hand: how might San Francisco regulate the three dozen or so marijuana dealerships that have sprung up around the city under the aegis of the 1996 Proposition 215, which permits toking on doctor's orders.

The clubs have pissed off neighbors with their riffraff, crime, stench, and filth, while pleasing the rest of San Francisco, which feeds off an image of itself in which long-haired waifs toke unperturbed in loose-fitting, colorful clothes. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi represents the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood that's the setting for this collective historical fantasy, and he's spent the better part of this year working on legislation aimed at preserving the maximum number of dope stores while fending off neighbor complaints. He's enlisted his own staff; employees at the City Attorney's Office, the Health Department, and the Planning Commission; and the full-time services of a Harvard-trained city planner who wrote an inch-thick report, drafted reams of detailed maps and graphs, and otherwise playacted in a Mirkarimi-directed game in which sprinkling marijuana stores around San Francisco was the most significant city-management issue of our time.

Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval represents a blue-collar district in southwest San Francisco with little patience for such nonsense. Residents have deluged his office with complaints about three crime-generating dope stores in a four-block stretch. Mindful that political ideas become sacred here when couched as efforts to preserve the city in an imagined previous form, Sandoval wrote up a bill of his own that said, in essence, you can have your precious pot stores anywhere you want, but keep them away from my constituents.

Reeferzilla, it seems, met NIMBY-Ra, and for the moment Reeferzilla has prevailed. Sandoval's measure died in committee Thursday. Mirkarimi's version, which sets minor limits on pot stores such as keeping them 500 feet from schools, will be heard by the full Board of Supervisors next week. Sandoval plans to reintroduce his no-pot-stores-in-my-backyard provision as a proposed amendment.

Whether or not Sandoval prevails, his maneuver to me seemed to be a brilliant bit of political jujitsu, offering a possible route out of our age-old malaise in which policy discourse consists of narcissistic fretting about an imagined version of what San Francisco was once like.

Herb Caen's ghost seems to hover over this city, tut-tutting whenever San Francisco appears poised to press beyond an old Encyclopædia Britannica version of itself. As we feed off images of an imagined past, real issues such as crime, housing, government spending, public safety, and the quality of schools languish in favor of nostalgia-driven topics such as "preservation of neighborhood character" or medical marijuana, a supposed health-care issue the legitimate medical profession won't touch.

By fighting sacred bullocks with sacred bullshit, Sandoval has invented a technique by which San Francisco might for once begin attacking real problems. In the world I'm envisioning, bereft ideological titans battle to the death, and real policy rises from the rubble.

In my imagined future, Reeferzilla versus NIMBY-Ra is just the beginning of a fortuitous cinematic festival.

In Progressive Supervisor-Ra versus Country Club Scion-zilla, a left-wing politician and the wealthy members of the San Francisco Tennis Club face off. From the wreckage, hundreds of needed new apartments rise South of Market.

In Green Party-zilla versus Political Correctness-Ra, the left-wing activists who recently hounded our schools superintendent from office don't get to appoint their union-backed hero in her place, as they apparently wish to. Instead, they're forced to accept a real professional manager.

A few weeks ago Ditty Deamer, a retired business consultant who used to help U.S. manufacturers relocate operations to China, came to my office with an unusual request. The owner of the ultraexclusive San Francisco Tennis Club at Fifth and Brannan streets not long ago sold the property to a private developer who intends to build condominiums on the site. The Bay Area oligarchs who lunch at the club had formed a task force called Save the San Francisco Tennis Club to try to halt this. I had recently written an article about how Supervisor Chris Daly had -- in my view, unethically -- extracted $50 million in fees from a condo-high-rise developer, much of which would go to nonprofit groups that support him politically. Deamer had been assigned to meet with me for advice on how to approach Daly to cut a similar deal.

"Some of the members of the club, they brought up the idea to make a deal with Daly, like the deal he did with Rincon Hill, in which he could get some money to move the club somewhere else," Deamer explained. "We're wrestling with whether to do this gutsy move, where what we would say is, as the constituents with the most critical input, we would not oppose them getting a permit if we could get enough money out of it to build another club. There would be enough money left over so that a portion of it could go to Daly's interest groups. It would be similar to his other deal. It can't be publicized, though, before we adopt that as our strategy. At this point, we're trying to find out how to approach him."

The club members have sent letters to the Board of Supervisors, have met with Daly and at least one other supervisor, and have attempted to recruit residents of the club's Fifth and Brannan neighborhood to their Save the S.F. Tennis Club cause. The jury is still out on how successful this incipient campaign will be.

Their apparent chosen technique, of combining heartstring-tugging neighborhood preservation rhetoric with the potential of a political deal left open, suggests great promise, however.

Even though they're rich, largely out-of-town tennis club members, Deamer and her friends, and anyone who opposes new condos, are friends of neighborhood activists and the supervisors who represent them. And though Daly's a brazen wheeler-dealer known for steering money to his political friends, he has managed to explain away the aforementioned Rincon Hill condo-permit-for-political-slush-account deal by using the language of S.F. political nostalgism. New apartments would "destabilize" the largely uninhabited former industrial SOMA neighborhood. What was needed was a $50 million "neighborhood stabilization fund."

In my San Francisco monster movie, this is all good. As noxious as it sounds, Deamer's proposed pact probably represents the most efficient possible way for getting apartments built in this city. The developer would avoid the normal eons of battles with preservationists. The well-heeled tennis club members would get another facility. Daly would extend his political career with even more money going to his friends. At first, citizens would flee in fear and disgust. In the end, however, San Francisco's gargantuan housing shortage would retreat.

In the ongoing saga of San Francisco's beleaguered schools, Green Party activists hounded test-score-raising, financial-books-improving Superintendent Arlene Ackerman from office. Among her crimes: declining to let kids out of school to protest the Iraq War and offending labor unions that represent school employees on some matters. Ackerman resigned last month and will leave next June. Left-wing activists have proposed she be replaced by Supervisor Tom Ammiano, the moral successor to Harvey Milk, the one-time hope of the San Francisco progressive movement, and an ardent supporter of the interests of the Service Employees International Union.

In a recent twist, Ackerman's antagonists have sought to rub salt in the school district's wounds, and draw attention to their Green Party-run school-system cause, by circulating a petition asking the superintendent to give back her $375,000 in severance pay, using the refrain "Think of the children."

As much as these turns of events have saddened many San Francisco parents, I believe good could come of Greenzilla versus Policorrect-Ra.

Ammiano, you see, has likewise taken tens of thousands of dollars from property-tax-funded schools thanks to the logic of Proposition 13, the 1978 law that guaranteed that homes could not be reassessed for tax purposes at their real market value until they were sold. Ammiano has owned his Bernal Heights home since 1974. It's currently assessed at less than $42,000 and he pays around $425 per year in property tax. Real estate professionals I spoke with said the house would fetch around $700,000 on today's market, meaning Ammiano's saved, over the years, around $57,000 in property taxes, according to napkin calculations. This tax money, like Ackerman's severance pay, can be argued to be the rightful property of schoolchildren.

Using Sandoval-style jujitsu, San Francisco parents can use the Green Party's force of logic against it. Why not circulate a petition demanding that Ammiano give back the $57,000? Chances are he'll balk. In Ammiano's place, the city can hire a real professional manager, rather than a mere left-credentialed politician, to run San Francisco schools.

With these issues out of the way, local humankind can go back to contemplating life's deeper questions.

Who wins, in the end, when Naomi Campbell battles Iman?

Richard Simmons versus Pee-wee Herman?

Anthony Robbins versus Gavin Newsom?

In my movie, we're all winners as long as both sides beat each other to a pulp.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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