Pedal Power

Two politicians put their interests before a world-class event and a world of possibilities

All cultural spectacles contain a social lesson. Watching baseball, youngsters learn it's possible to hit a small leather sack over and over again. Observing football, youths ascertain that, if one really wants to, one can run into other people on purpose. People walking through the northern part of San Francisco this past Labor Day, however, encountered a more useful bit of schooling. The hundred or so wiry-legged bike racers making their way up Fillmore Street in the San Francisco Grand Prix showed how anyone can go anywhere under his own power, really fast, with nothing but a bicycle underneath. For kids especially, that's an amazing idea.

Tragically, a couple of San Francisco politicians employed the race as a vehicle for enhancing their own status at the city's expense, and just finished a grandstanding sprint that killed the race.

Monday the race's organizers issued a statement saying the event was canceled, thanks to jockeying over the amount they would pay for the cadre of S.F. police who provide traffic and crowd control for the Grand Prix, an issue that had become a cause célèbre for Supervisors Chris Daly and Aaron Peskin.

The race was canceled in part due to "periodic, emotionally charged Board of Supervisors meetings over the value of the event that make potential sponsors very nervous. Few companies will sponsor a politically charged event," organizers said in a statement.

In their final attack, Supervisors Daly and Peskin created a loud media flap over their contention that the race owed San Francisco $90,000 to cover pay for traffic cops, and therefore should be shut down.

Daly said he had "serious doubts" about the race, which was launched in 2001 with the help of S.F. banker Thom Weisel. The banker is, in Daly's eyes, a "multi-millionaire Republican politico," according to Daly's personal Web log.

Peskin, for his part, claimed the alleged $90,000 debt "is a problem, a very serious problem. I am outraged!" according to a press report.

Were these watchdog public officials savagely guarding the public trough? These two politicians would certainly like casual observers to think so.

But there are two other, quite different messages emanating from this affair, ones heard loud and clear by groups dear to these politicians.

Peskin is a master at playing San Francisco's version of the politics of picayune special interests. Since the Grand Prix's first edition in 2001, people living in the North Beach supervisor's district where the race takes place have complained mightily that it can be hard to park their cars on race day. I'm sure they'll cheer Peskin now that he's helped ruin what was one of the best things about San Francisco and has therefore cured their one-day-per-year parking difficulties.

Daly, meanwhile, is a crackerjack at San Francisco's progressive politics of extortion. Now that he's succeeded in canceling the San Francisco Grand Prix, it will be hard to misunderstand the reverberating message: Nobody does anything in this town without passing through Daly or his people.

In 2001 Mayor Willie Brown, who thought the idea of a world-class bike race was good for the city, allowed race organizers to incur a $350,000 debt for traffic and crowd control, and then ordered city bureaucrats to forgive that debt.

At this time Peskin was in a pitched personal battle with Brown. The fight over the cost of police redirecting traffic around the race became an extension of their feud.

Peskin sponsored a resolution, tailored specifically to fetter the race and its supportive mayor, that said that no event is allowed city permits if organizers owe the government money.

Mayor Gavin Newsom, like his predecessor, argued that the race provided cultural, social, and economic benefit to San Francisco, and sought to accommodate it by helping pay for traffic cops. Loath to back down from the position he had adopted during his feud with Brown, Peskin worked out a "compromise."

It's this compromise -- between the mayor's posture of encouraging the bike race and Peskin's "progressive" allies' position of nickel-and-diming it to death -- that formed the backdrop of a flap that was absurdly contrived into a matter of rich-versus-poor class warfare, involving a relatively small debt for traffic and crowd-control cops.

Small or not, the debt matter received a smothering amount of bureaucratic attention.

Under Peskin's negotiated deal, the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau paid private consultants to conduct an economic impact study, to determine how many sales tax dollars the event brought in.

The city would then forgive the event organizers part of the bill for traffic and crowd control, based on the amount of tax revenue the event supposedly generated.

The 2004 version of this study cost $38,000, with another $18,000 for a 2005 update.

Another private consultant, the Harvey Rose Accountancy Corp., conducted additional analysis of the race's economic and financial effects on the city, at supervisors' request. The firm issued a report that, in addition to its analysis of the race, also critiqued the earlier economic impact study. This report did not require an additional fee, but rather was included in the $2,543,296 the city will pay this fiscal year for various budget analysis work.

In a city government riddled with public-private partnerships involving billions of dollars over the years, this allegedly past-due police bill of $90,000 seemed an odd issue to stake a social struggle upon.

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