By Erin Sherbert
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By Rachel Swan
The San Francisco Veterans Affairs Commission has declared war, but the field of battle is not on foreign shores. Rather, the commission is engaged in full-scale combat with one of its own.
Since the Board of Supervisors appointed Navy vet John Caldera to the 15-member commission last year, his fellow commissioners say they spend more time bickering than working on veterans' issues. Things got so bad last month that 11 commissioners approved a letter to the supes asking that Caldera be removed from the commission or, at least, told to play nice.
"Caldera has demonstrated not only a lack of integrity and honesty to his fellow commissioners, but also an inability to engage in mature resolution procedures," the letter reads. "For over two and a half decades this commission has been in existence, and we have never had this kind of problem."
Commission president Wallace Levin says Caldera, who is a volunteer aide to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, has hampered planning for the Memorial Day Ceremony, the Veterans Day Parade, and a July health and job fair for homeless vets with his endless demands.
Commissioners claim Caldera is more interested in self-promotion than in working with others. Levin points to a press release Caldera issued when he was selected as one of 80 torchbearers in the Olympic torch relay on April 9. "He mentions himself 12 times in the thing," he says. "You wouldn't know the Olympics will be in China from reading it."
Things got heated in January when the commission voted down Caldera's proposal to hang 4,000 computer disks from trees in Civic Center Plaza to honor soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. A miffed Caldera turned whistleblower and demanded the commission hand over its financial records, continuing to ask for them even after it was gently explained to him that it manages no funds. Levin says until recently he used his own money to mail meeting information to the commissioners: "I've probably spent thousands over the years."
Then commissioners discovered Caldera had quietly gone to Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin to complain about poor meeting attendance and to insist the commission be reduced from 15 members to 11. Peskin initially agreed to write an ordinance, but later refused to submit it after learning of the personality conflicts.
Levin admits attendance could be better, but says the commission's members range widely in age, including vets from Vietnam, Korea and World War II, some of whom have won the Purple Heart and other medals of valor. "Life happens to these people," says Levin, who claims that in his 25 years on the commission he has missed only five meetings. "After all, we're not the Police Commission; we meet once a month and make some recommendations. But we've always had a quorum."
Despite the diversity of the commission, which includes one transgender member, Caldera calls his colleagues a network of "good old boys" and "good old girls" who resent him because he's different. "They're out of touch with what's going on, out of touch with the needs of veterans," the 43-year-old says. "The problem is they see me as someone who is different from them, I'm the only openly gay commissioner and I'm Latino and I'm young."
If the torchbearer intends to sit on the commission for the rest of his four-year term, you'd hope he would learn that a scorched-earth strategy just burns everybody.