Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

The Grid 

Wednesday, Aug 6 1997
Comments
Campus High Jinks
Euphemism is an important political tool. No one but a naif should expect a president (for example) to acknowledge that foreign policy successes were attributable to a Russian counterpart's drunkenness. Ambiguity can aid the public good.

Here in San Francisco, however, political euphemizing has been taken to extremes. Mayor Brown always seems to be announcing some glorious future that could be brought to us via this or that "public-private partnership." In fact, we would not be surprised to hear that the mayoralty itself had been recast as a public-private partnership, and that Mr. Brown was being introduced at public events in this way:

And now, please welcome the Shorenstein Company's Mayor of San Francisco, Willie Brown.

(Or maybe he would rather be known as the Catellus Mayor. Chiron Willie Brown? Your Honor of Gap? It's hard to be sure. There are so many possibilities.)

But back to the point: Whenever you hear a public official praise public-private partnerships, you should cringe. We cannot prove that all public-private partnerships are created to effect an illegitimate transfer of public assets to the private sector. But enough of them appear to be formed with improper intent that you should scour the landscape for evidence of graft -- or, at least, bad governance -- whenever you encounter one.

And nowadays in San Francisco, whenever you find a public-private partner-ship, you're all but certain to run into a nonprofit corporation. The nonprofit seems to be the preferred vehicle for blurring the line between what belongs to the public and what the suits from the private sector can grab for themselves, under the pretense of doing the public's business efficiently.

The list of Bay Area nonprofits assigned to tasks that the government should be doing is lengthy.

There is the Presidio Trust, which will run a national park for us, even though the National Park Service should actually plan and run it.

There is the Treasure Island Development Authority, which will sell and lease off perhaps the most valuable Bay Area property ever to come on the market -- even though the San Francisco Board of Supervisors should properly control the island.

There is something called UCSF Stanford Health Care, the nonprofit that will run the combination of the UCSF and Stanford University health care systems, if the University of California regents are so bold and corrupt as to transfer $250 million of UCSF assets to the private sector with scarcely a hint of payment in return.

And now there is something called the Bay Area Life Sciences Alliance.
Technically speaking, BALSA (and ain't it a kindly, soft-wood kind of acronym?) is a nonprofit public benefit corporation. Actually, it is a group of businessmen who formed a tax-exempt corporation about a year ago to do something they wanted done. They'd rather not say precisely what that something is, but we have no problem telling you:

They're injecting themselves, it seems, into every possible aspect of the planning and construction of UCSF's new campus in Mission Bay and the big-money biotech research-burg that will surround it, so they or their friends will make as much money as possible.

Of course, that's not how BALSA describes its mission.
BALSA uses euphemisms, because BALSA wants you to think it is public-spirited.

The public face and voice of BALSA is its president, Clifford Graves, who ran the city's Redevelopment Agency until Willie Brown decided Mr. Graves should go away. When asked about the nonprofit he now manages, Graves veritably purrs, insisting that the members of BALSA's board of directors are motivated by the purest of intentions.

"These [board members] are all publicly spirited citizens," Graves explains.
The way Graves lays it out, publicly spirited citizens founded BALSA so it could undertake the task of keeping UCSF's new campus in San Francisco. The prestigious university that bears the name of our fair city was about to move to the decidedly unprestigious shores of Brisbane or Alameda, where property owners were willing to give land for free.

BALSA, Graves explains, was needed to bring together powerful people who personally knew Nelson Rising, the CEO of Catellus Development Corp., which owns Mission Bay, so they could convince him to donate a new campus and keep UCSF at home.

And now that Mission Bay has been designated as the site for the new campus, will BALSA disband, and let the University of California go ahead with building the new University of California at San Francisco campus?

Of course not. That would be unpublic-spirited.
Now, Graves intones, BALSA must make sure the public gets the best new UCSF campus possible. Toward that end, he says, BALSA has decided to offer its considerable expertise to guide the land use planning for UCSF at Mission Bay.

This proposal, which sounds so pleasant and helpful and public-spirited, is actually an arrogant power grab that serves as an excellent illustration of just what is wrong with BALSA and its nonprofit brethren.

Acting out of what can only be described as preternatural high-handedness, BALSA has decided it, rather than the University of California, should hold a contest to determine which architectural firm will get to create the master plan for the new campus at Mission Bay. The nonprofit feels so strongly about providing this service that, Graves says, it will pay for the competition and, most likely, the master plan itself.

"It will be a gift to the university," Graves says.
Where BALSA plans to get the money for this gift is, like so many other things at BALSA, unclear.

But here's how this deal is working so far:
BALSA invited three dozen firms to compete for the plum master plan assignment. Which firms were chosen to play was up to ... drum roll, please ... BALSA board members and no one else. How they decided who could play is another point on which Graves is vague. (To be fair, he did say something about the best and the brightest being involved, another euphemism which should make us all feel better.)

Next, BALSA set up a 21-person committee that sorted through proposals and narrowed the competition to five finalists. This committee, Graves insists, held its meetings in public view. Anyone could come, he says. That is, anyone could come, if anyone knew there were meetings. It could have been an innocent oversight, or it could have been effrontery, but BALSA didn't see fit to actually publicize the time and place of the meetings.

"People who wanted to know about the meetings would call, and we would tell them about them," Graves says.

This month, the five lucky finalists will go before a jury of architects who, we are sure, all have the necessary talent to make the final choice. They must. Listen to Graves explain how they were chosen: "These were people recommended by people."

Uh, which people, Clifford?
"Frankly, I'd rather not say. They come out of ... you know, you talk to a lot of people, and you get a lot of names."

It only takes a second or two of sniffing this BALSA arrangement to smell at least one large, unwashed rat.

If BALSA is allowed to continue operating as it has to date, a private organization funded by god knows who (nonprofits aren't required to disclose the names of donors) will be able to control the development of a master plan that will determine how tens of millions of tax dollars will be spent. More important, BALSA will be in a position to control campus design elements that would directly affect parcels of land immediately adjacent to the new campus. Plans for the Mission Bay development make it clear that those parcels have been set aside for biotechnology research facilities.

And who is on the board of directors for BALSA? Might they have a connection to the biotech industry? Let's look at just three of the eight board members, and try to count the potential conflicts of interest:

* William Rutter is the chief executive officer of Chiron Corp., the second-largest biotechnology firm in the world. Chiron almost certainly has its eyes set on the research and development parcels beside the new campus. (Surely it is coincidental that the architect who designed Chiron's Emeryville complex was placed on the panel of judges who will choose the winning campus master plan.)

* John Larson, former chairman of the Chamber of Commerce and a partner with the law firm of Brobeck, Phelger & Harrison, which was named in recent published reports as the outside law firm representing Chiron. (Larson and his firm were, in fact, the incorporators of BALSA; according to the group's bylaws, the incorporators appointed the board's original members. But surely it was coincidence that Chiron's law firm got to appoint BALSA's directors.)

* Sanford R. Robertson, an investment banker whose firm (recently acquired by Bank of America) has played a major role in capitalizing the biotech industry and who, it seems, can't stop pumping money into the pockets of major politicians. (Federal Election Commission records show that during 1995 and 1996, Robertson gave an astounding $244,000 to candidates, the Democratic National Committee, and other soft-money spigots.)

These men are, clearly, competent professionals. They also, clearly, should have nothing to do with decisions about the new UCSF campus. Even if they had the souls of saints, these men would be surrounded by the appearance, the possibility, the potential for conflict of interest.

If BALSA had been content with providing UCSF with a master plan and then closing shop, the Grid would have written this week about other weaselry in other parts of the city.

But this nonprofit has grander ambitions. Graves went so far as to suggest that BALSA could expand its role from simply helping plan the new campus to somehow affecting other parts of the massive, 250-acre-plus Mission Bay development.

Ideas, frankly, are flowing like wine at BALSA board meetings. Problem is, Graves doesn't want to share the bottle with outsiders, and his organization's meetings are closed to the public.

"I'd rather not say," he says when asked about the ideas BALSA is kicking around.

"I don't want to, because I can't really attach any level of probability to them," he says when pressed.

Well, frankly, Clifford, we don't think you should be able to simply not say this or that, or answer questions about public business only when the probabilities suit you. We don't believe a private corporation of business insiders should be able to take over the job of planning a new public university. In fact, Cliff, old sport, we think BALSA should be disbanded -- yesterday.

The whys go far beyond the simple grubby, grabby sense of possessiveness BALSA has shown toward the new UCSF campus.

If the university regents and administration were to perform what is rightly and properly their job, they would plan the new UCSF campus under the constraints of public meeting and public records laws. Stringent conflict-of-interest and corruption laws would apply to their behavior.

A whole series of legal protections of the public interest would come into play. These protections have been created through the decades to shield the public from sleazy, evasive, obscurantist politicians. We shouldn't have to rely on the euphemisms of businessmen to be assured the public pocket isn't being picked.

George Cothran (gcothran@SFWEEKLY.COM) AND JOHN MECKLIN (JMECKLIN@SFWEEKLY.COM) WELCOME TIPS, SUGGESTIONS, INNUENDO, AND COMPLAINTS. THEY CAN BE REACHED AT SF WEEKLY, ATTNo The Grid, 185 Berry, Lobby 4, Suite 3800, San Francisco,

About The Authors

George Cothran

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular