Stop us if you've heard this one: A developer and a city planner walk into a bar ... Actually, it's not so much a bar but a "gala." And all the drinks are free — paid for by the developers, land-use attorneys, architects, preservationists, and others who have pending business before the San Francisco planning department.
Last week, builders and the city planners whose decisions can make or break their projects were rubbing elbows at the packed Friends of San Francisco City Planning annual fund-raiser within the elegant confines of the Julia Morgan Ballroom at the Merchants Exchange Building. Hundreds of donors seeking approval from the city paid the $60 entry fee; a few "sponsors" shelled out $2,500, while "patrons" paid $3,500.
Employees of the planning department got in for free.
Friends of City Planning (FOCP) is one more "friends of" group in a city teeming with them — just about every park or branch library seems to have more friends than Tila Tequila's MySpace page. And yet friends of the parks or libraries don't do daily business with the parks or libraries. Friends of City Planning does.
A quick glimpse at a poster thanking the 59 donors on the group's 2008 list revealed a bevy of companies that have mountains of dollars riding on the planning department's rulings. Among them: the city Building Owners and Managers Association, Webcor Builders, and Lennar Corporation, which is poised to sink billions into revamping the Hunters Point shipyard.
In the past decade, Friends of City Planning has given more than $225,000 to the planning department toward training, technology, and junkets. According to its grants list, the nonprofit gave $25,800 to the department in 2008, nearly all of which was applied toward attending conferences. Attending, say, the American Planning Association conference or receiving "land-use growth allocation software" sounds like unmitigated good for the department. Yet when such a gift comes courtesy of a developer dead-set on pushing a job through planning — or a preservationist dead-set on stopping it — it raises eyebrows. No matter how much Friends of City Planning officials or donors talk about altruism or "firewalls," it's hard to look past the organization's inherently conflicted nature. This is the kind of thing that gets good government types to rapidly evoke the phrase "it fails the smell test."
If planners are "reliant upon the very economic interests they are created to oversee, that creates some real potential problems," said Derek Cressman, the director of California Common Cause's government watchdog program. "If [junkets] are being funded by interests that have business before the commission, then that does pose a potential conflict of interest and strikes me as inappropriate."
FOCP president Steve Rule says his group simply wants to provide the planning department with gadgets, trips, and training not covered by the city's General Fund: "They come to us with grant [proposals]," he said. "We don't tell them what to ask for."
And, Deputy City Attorney Jon Givner adds, this is all well within the law. City employees and officials are forbidden to individually take gifts from a "restricted source" — essentially, someone who is in the midst of business dealings with the employees' department, or someone who has attempted to influence them over the past year. But even a restricted source can legally toss money to the city department, whereupon it becomes city money. And, so long as that department discloses the donation, it can spend the money however it sees fit — by, say, throwing a party.
In fact, that's just what the Public Utilities Commission got for Christmas. Its disclosures indicate that 16 contractors with financial ties to the department donated $36,350 toward its lavish holiday soiree.
As a registered nonprofit, however, Friends of San Francisco City Planning isn't legally mandated to disclose its donors (one official declined to provide a list to SF Weekly, despite the fact it was displayed prominently on the wall behind him during the fund-raiser). FOCP leaders said this nondisclosure is all part of the aforementioned "firewall": No planning department employees can say that Developer X funded their trips to the historic preservation workshop. On the other hand, every planner at last week's gala could, literally, see the writing on the wall or simply eyeball the nametags of the men and women toting martinis.
"It's natural human tendency to want to return a favor to someone who has given you something," Cressman said. "Certainly, planners are aware who those donors are. It seems natural they should be appreciative toward those donors."
This squeamishness about funding sources is not limited to outside activists. Jill Slater, a city planner from 1997 to 2005, said she and some of her friends in the department considered Friends of City Planning "a conflict of interest. The people that were funding that party were many developers ... so you're sort of entertained and provided for at this event, but behind it are people who eventually will likely need something from you if you are someone who approves permits."
Slater's feeling was far from unique. The most recent audit of the planning department by the office of the city's budget analyst noted: "Department employees have mixed reactions to the use of 'Friends' funding, in part due to perceived conflict of interest and in part because of the perceived unavailability of any alternative funding for staff development activities."
Some critics wonder why the FOCP exists at all. Noted development opponent Calvin Welch pointed out that when the nonprofit was founded in the mid-1990s, the city planning department was severely underfunded. Now, he claims, it's flush. A glimpse at the mayor's proposed 2007-08 budget reveals that General Fund support for the department jumped from $451,699 in 2005-06 to $2,021,226 in 2006-07. The proposed allotment for the 2007-08 fiscal year was $2,890,067. Welch bluntly sums up the FOCP's raison d'être as allowing donors "to ingratiate themselves with staff. ... They should pack up and go away."
Those words rankle Joe O'Donoghue. The longtime former president of the Residential Builders Association said his group long ago gave up donating to FOCP because complainants — including Welch — wrongly accused them of currying favor. "Some people just like to give," O'Donoghue said. "It takes a warped mind to put a stigma on that giving. When we were criticized for making those donations, I said, 'Fuck it! Let them fund it!"
Planners sipping Chardonnay at the gala couldn't muster O'Donoghue's fighting spirit. They said they enjoyed the party and appreciated the cell phones, PDAs, computers, digital cameras, junkets, or brown-bag lunch pizza supplied by FOCP. But it'll take more than pagers and pepperoni to corrupt them. "I don't think any planner is saying, 'This pizza was paid for by Friends of City Planning,'" deadpanned Lois Scott, the planning department's chief of enforcement.
"I've come to several of these [galas] and I've never talked to anyone but my colleagues," planner Scott Sanchez added.
Yet Brett Gladstone, an attorney for developers, was working the room, schmoozing with gusto. "This is a good place to talk to your adversaries — and we have many — about what topics we have in common," he said. "When you interact with people with a drink in your hand, you can get a lot done."