Mean People's Court

On many fronts, the spiteful are doing harmful things that you should know about

If bumper stickers had subheads — newspaper jargon for the teaser sentences that dangle below headlines — then "Mean People Suck" would be followed by, "And watch out because they seem to pop up everywhere trying to screw up people's lives."

To wit:

An S.F. cyclist-hater just succeeded in halting citywide bike lane construction with a lawsuit that rests on this absurd claim: replacing car commuters with bike commuters may harm the environment.

Meanwhile, a different group of mean people who wish to transform the Sierra Club into an anti-Mexican-immigration lobby also won a recent court ruling boosting their noxious cause.

And the mean-spirited Service Employees International Union this month has apparently renewed its efforts to limit the legal rights of the infirm, the elderly, and the mentally disabled who reside in nursing homes, as part of a lobbying deal with private, for-profit nursing homes.

The definition of meanness can change depending on who's watching, of course. Transit priorities, immigration, and tort reform are, after all, legitimate topics for public debate.

So here's a handy guide for determining whether someone's truly nasty, or just misguided. Mean people tend to hide their true motives. They're big fans of taking away rights from people who are already disadvantaged. And if their narrow agendas prevail, these people will make life worse — not just for their perceived opponents, but for everyone else as well.

I'm tempted to name the callous anti-bike zealot whose petty lawsuit hit pay dirt earlier this month by halting all San Francisco bike lane construction. But I won't, because San Francisco is the kind of town where nastiness and notoriety combine to bolster dreams of political grandeur.

In that spirit, this guy is a busy attention-seeker. He ran in 2004 to represent District 5 on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Nobody seemed to want what he was selling, however: He placed 18th. Since then he has maintained a blog inveighing against perceived enemies, with bicycle commuters residing near the top. Judging from the number of people commenting on his extended blog posts — mostly zero — he's one of those lonely yet harmless people who pass their time muttering about personal antipathies without actually hurting anyone.

The bike-hater changed that, however, with a recent lawsuit filed on the grounds that a citywide plan to connect various segments of bike lanes violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

The argument goes something like this: Any time traffic planners remove car lanes or parking spaces to make way for bike lanes, motorists end up having to spend more time in traffic. So the cars spew more smog. So bike lanes hurt the environment.

However, the idea behind bike lane networks in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, Sacramento — and in Münster, Germany, and elsewhere — is that making bicycle commuting safer with bike lanes, at the expense of space for cars, helps people drive less. Less driving eases traffic congestion. So there's less pollution. Bikes take up less transit space and parking space than cars, meaning there's less need for plant-smothering asphalt. And because car-free living is more compact in this way, it allows cities and suburbs to grow without as much Mother Nature-destroying sprawl.

But California environmental review guidelines assume incorrectly that the vast majority of people are always going to get where they are going by car, no matter what. Anything that impedes motorists' forward movement or access to parking spaces, this logic says, is environmentally harmful.

The anti-cyclist gadfly falsely told a reporter for the Chronicle that his lawsuit was merely aimed at making sure city officials followed all the proper bureaucratic processes, and that he had nothing against bicycling per se. Judging from his numerous Internet postings on the issue, he wasn't being truthful to the reporter.

He says he believes bicycle commuting is not a legitimate transportation mode. It's an irresponsible activity. It's merely a "lifestyle statement." Encouraging cycling by painting bike lanes is "wrongheaded, PC nonsense that, for utopian political reasons, has the city's progressive elite in its thrall."

I'm not sure he interviewed bike riders to determine that cyclists aren't engaged in a serious transportation mode. Personally, I would have told him that it takes me 11 minutes to get from my office to the Mission, a trip that takes 45 minutes by bus. I would have told him it costs our company thousands of dollars per year to pay for employee car parking, and nothing to park bicycles.

The mayors of cities such as Sacramento and New York, and all over the world, meanwhile, have implemented policies based on the belief that when it's safer and more convenient to commute by bike, more people do it.

That's because people tend to take car trips when they believe motoring is most convenient, and they move around in other ways when they don't. That's why San Francisco's car-unfriendly, transit-rich Financial District is not constantly frozen in automobile gridlock. And this is why painting bike lanes on Valencia Street resulted in a 144 percent increase in bike traffic.

To accommodate the flawed logic behind state environmental review policies, San Francisco now conducts an individual environmental impact study whenever they do a bicycle-oriented traffic improvement such as painting a bike lane. Each one of these studies seeks to prove that the improvement doesn't harm Mother Earth. But it so happens the city Department of Parking and Traffic didn't do a complete environmental review for the overall city plan for city bike lanes, which would have cost around $250,000.

Instead, the department has been operating under what's called a "common sense exception" to the Environmental Quality Act's review requirements.

The attention-hungry man filed the anti-bicyclist lawsuit he falsely claims is motivated by a concern about bureaucratic process. And a Superior Court judge ruled earlier this month, saying San Francisco is barred from installing "any signs, pavement markings, or making any other change to any street, traffic signal, building, sidewalk, or other land use or other physical feature in San Francisco to implement the plan or any part of it."

The city now must halt all bike lane construction, and leave in place an incomplete bike lane network.

As irritating as it is to buckle under to nastiness, the city is left with little choice but to spend whatever time and money it takes to conduct studies showing once and for all that encouraging people to commute by bicycle does not harm the environment.

Anti-bike zealots aren't the only ones exploiting the courts to subvert the accomplishments of the American environmental movement.

Outside agitators two years ago tried, and failed, to take over the Sierra Club and turn it into a lobby dedicated to keeping Mexicans out of the United States. Thanks to an S.F. trial judge, the anti-immigrants aren't going away.

Several years ago hard-core opponents of immigration, including some white supremacy groups, urged their members to send $25 checks to join the Sierra Club and vote for an anti-immigration board of directors.

They failed, and now they've been given the go-ahead in a lawsuit aimed at removing the Club's leadership on the grounds that the election was unfair. They claim the Club improperly used its own resources to influence the election outcome. In keeping with the mean-people ethos, these anti-immigrants mischaracterize their campaign as a struggle to ensure correct bureaucratic processes in the Sierra Club.

California's 1st District Court of Appeals six weeks ago affirmed a ruling by recently retired San Francisco Superior Court Judge James Warren — who coincidentally happens to be the same judge who issued the bike lane ruling — allowing the suit to proceed.

Whatever the technical merits, or lack thereof, of the anti-immigrants' election-rigging claims, it's clear that walling off foreigners won't save Mother Earth.

Growing human population worldwide may hurt the environment. But existing residents of countries such as Mexico don't disrupt the planet's ecology by coming to the U.S.

In practice, the U.S. has much more stringent environmental protection standards than Mexico, which considers these measures a desirable, yet very expensive, luxury that can take a back seat to fostering desperately needed development. That means when the U.S. population grows, it hurts the environment less than population growth in poorer countries such as Mexico.

Also, people tend to reduce their family size as they become wealthier, making riches-seeking, U.S.-oriented migration an indirect form of population control.

These arguments don't carry much water with people who don't like immigrants on principle.

So Sierra Club leaders raised an alarm back in 2004 when immigration opponents such as former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm led an attempt to take over the Club. And that Club-sponsored warning is now under judicial review as a possible example of election-rigging.

If the anti-immigrants prevail, Sierra Club members may vote in yet another election. And they'll likely be joined by thousands of immigration opponents who've joined the Club in order to exploit the Club's prestige for their cause.

Sierra Club members should stay on Mean People alert for the next few years, as the anti-immigrants may again try to overrun the bulwark of the environmental movement.

Sure, it's rotten to sabotage city efforts to make it safer to bike to work. And it's nasty to try and subvert John Muir's legendary Sierra Club for hateful purposes.

But the aforementioned antipathy pales compared to a coldblooded deal the Service Employees International Union cut with nursing home owners in hopes of adding more orderlies to the union's ranks. The deal involves using the SEIU's lobbying clout to pass legislation curtailing the rights of nursing home patients to sue when they're neglected, abused, or killed.

"They have no more right to take away our clients' rights than I would to take away their collective bargaining rights," said Deborah Doctor, a lobbyist for Protection and Advocacy Inc., which represents mentally and physically disabled people.

In other words, that's just plain mean.

Two years ago I wrote about how the union agreed to help the nursing home industry obtain its long-sought holy grail of limiting lawsuits that hinge on allegations of mistreatment of patients. In exchange, nursing home owners who signed on to the pact would not interfere with SEIU union organizing efforts in certain nursing homes.

In 2004 the union abandoned its effort to pass a nursing home "tort reform" bill after the SF Weekly column raised ire among advocates for disabled and elderly people, and among some rank-and-file union members. But, the pact never went away, and Doctor, the nursing home patients' advocate, said she recently attended a meeting where a union lobbyist described renewed efforts to address a nursing home industry "liability insurance crisis."

SEIU lobbyist Lisa Hubbard said the union was not currently pursuing a specific tort-reform bill for the current California legislative session, whose legislative deadline passed earlier this month.

Rather, the union is merely conducting "research" on the issue of a possible crisis in nursing home liability insurance, Hubbard said.

Hubbard refused, however, to rule out the possibility that the "research process" would result in tort-reform legislation during the next legislative session.

"It's couched in cost-containment language," Doctor said. "They've decided there's a crisis in obtaining liability insurance for nursing homes."

The liability insurance crisis, however, is bogus. State laws allow nursing homes to pass along insurance costs to the government.

And Greg Stapley, spokesman for the Ensign Group of nursing homes, which is not part of the pact, said the cost of insuring nursing homes has declined from a post-9/11 peak, when insurance for all kinds of risk skyrocketed.

Stapley says that his chain declined to join the SEIU's lobbying pact after union representatives urged the company to join several years ago.

Four years ago several nursing home chains and the SEIU, which has thousands of members who work in nursing homes, agreed to lay down their arms and pursue their mutual goals of more money for the nursing home industry and for union employees.

Nursing home operators had previously spent large sums of money battling union organizing drives, hoping to keep pay low. A new front group, California United for Nursing Home Care, was designed to change all of that. This alliance between private nursing home owners and the SEIU publicly advertised itself as dedicated to better care. But at the heart of the deal was a tradeoff: labor's support for increased government nursing home subsidies, and tort reform, in exchange for relaxed union- busting by nursing home chains.

In 2004 the SEIU began, then abandoned, efforts to pass a tort-reform bill. Instead, the union focused its energies in recruiting John Burton to help push a $3 billion nursing home subsidy bill, which passed at the end of that year.

Soon, however, the lobbying pact will be up for renewal. Nursing homes who joined are wondering whether it's worth it to continue their alliance with the union.

"You've got the providers staring at this and asking themselves, "Are we going to re-up with these guys a few more years? And will the union be demonstrating some value going forward?" Stapley said.

The biggest plum the union could give the nursing home owners would be a bill making it hard for patients to sue when they're harmed or killed by nursing home cost-cutting. As it is, government regulations of nursing homes is so meager that such lawsuits are the only way to keep nursing home abuses in check. Under a proposal SEIU shopped around Sacramento in 2004, a new law would cap judgments patients received for pain and suffering at $250,000. The proposal also suggested changing current law — which says nursing home owners may be liable for damages if they are proven "reckless" in caring for patients — so that nursing homes could be sued only if it could be proved that they willfully harmed patients.

SEIU lobbyists are "very careful what they call it. They call it liability reform," said Stapley, the Ensign Group spokesman. For her part, Doctor, the patient advocate, said she'll be working the phones in an attempt to head off an SEIU-backed last-minute nursing home tort-reform legislation.

"I'm making sure as many people as might be interested know this is in the works. I think this is important for civil rights people to know. It's important for people in the rank and file to know what their union is doing," Doctor said.

Bicyclists, meanwhile, must busy themselves to convince the mayor to pay for adding yet another layer of environmental review to proposed bike lanes. And environmentalists must fight against efforts to turn the Sierra Club into an anti-immigration group.

Mean people suck. And if we don't watch them closely, there's no telling the damage they'll do.

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