Back in March, Supervisor Susan Leal got into a tangle with a new board colleague, restaurateur Gavin Newsom, who was trying to kill Leal's proposal to raise inspection fees on food service establishments. The fee increases — which finance the health inspections of restaurants and bars and such — were minor; the fees had not been raised in five years. Still, Newsom, a co-owner of PlumpJack Cafe (prawn risotto $16) and PlumpJack Wine Shop (1995 Edna Valley chardonnay $13.99) decided to toss a hissy fit.
He complained about the deleterious effect fees generally have on small business owners (such as, say, GAVIN NEWSOM) and the drain the inspection-fee increase would specifically have on restaurant owners (such as, perhaps, GAVIN NEWSOM). After Newsom blocked, delayed, and amended the increase proposal, Leal decided she'd had enough.
“If I could get a reservation at your restaurant,” Leal said to Newsom at one board meeting, “I would come down and have the one dinner it would take to help you pay for the fee increase.”
Leal was trying to make a point, and she was being politely obtuse. What she really wanted to say (and should have said) was this: “Yo, Gavarooney. Gavadavadingdong. Buddy. Pal. Colleague o' mine. Don't you have a seething and glaring conflict of interest on this matter, and shouldn't you put a sock in it?”
As it happened, the Gavinator did have a conflict of interest on the matter — an obvious and serious one.
Determining whether the Gavivisor's action violated the state's conflict-of-interest law is not a simple matter. City Attorney Louise Renne could, of course, make a ruling on the legality of the inspection-fee hijack job. But Renne, more political animal than lawyer, never takes such proactive steps; they might offend one of her fellow pols. (Julie Moll, the conflict-of-interest specialist in the City Attorney's Office, says the attorney-client privilege prevents her from telling us whether Newsom asked the city attorney to decide if he had a legal conflict. Julie, Julie, Julie — aren't we your clients, too?)
And the notion that District Attorney Terry Hallinan would attempt to prosecute a Democratic officeholder is, of course, quite absurd.
So we took a look at the state conflict-of-interest law for ourselves; we quickly determined that Newsom passed (or is it failed?) all of the Yipes, Do I Have a Conflict of Interest Here? tests contained in the law, with the possible exception of one. The tests are these:
Does the officeholder have a significant interest in a business? The Gavirestaurateur certainly does.
Did the officeholder engage in official conduct that could affect the financial fortunes of that firm? Yes, the Gavivisor certainly did.
Only the third test leaves any doubt about whether Newsom is a conflict-of-interest criminal. His actions would violate the Political Reform Act only, it seems, if they benefited his restaurant materially. Materiality is a technical term of high finance that translates roughly to the English word significance. And unless Newsom and his partners (Summer Tompkins and Billy Getty; yes, those Gettys and those Tompkinses) show their accounting books to us, we just can't make the calculations necessary to determine whether the Gaviweaseler's actions on the inspection-fee matter had a material impact on his restaurant. Flava-Gav says the city attorney advised him that he had no such material conflict.
But whether the Gavster broke the law is really not the point. The point is that every time we turn around these days, Newsom is voting on, or mouthing opposition to, or lobbying his colleagues over an official matter that has a direct financial impact on his businesses. His actions could be very legal. But it's clear that they are sleazy and wrong.
And things on this front are growing ever more wrong. Last week, Newsom moved from reactive to active chicanery, actually authoring legislation that would likely increase the profitability of his cafe. He introduced a proposal to allow restaurants and bars to serve booze outside their establishments on the sidewalk. This would allow patrons at, say, PLUMPJACK to stand on the sidewalk twirling chardonnay glasses to determine their “legs” while they wait for tables. This would make it more fun for people to wait for tables, meaning more would wait and wait longer, and consequently increase the nightly number of customers and the nightly wine and beer sales at an establishment something like, say, PLUMPJACK.
Now ordinarily, we'd rush to support any proposal that would facilitate the increased ingestion of alcoholic beverages by the citizenry of San Francisco. (As long as it didn't cut into our supply.) But on this one we have to object, so …
Gavinasciousness. Dude. What the hell are you doing? We know you've said there's no way in hell you'd ever serve on your sidewalks. But you don't say that in your legislation. And even if this stuff doesn't officially tread over the line between what's legal and what's not, you are certainly dancing on that line and thumbing your nose — by design or honest mistake — at the entire concept of political ethics.
The ethics issue aside, Gavirillo, there's an effectiveness problem here: You are on the board to represent all of us, not just restaurateurs, and as far as we can tell you are spending an inordinate amount of time on a narrow interest that has little importance to the rest of us (and a narrow self-interest to boot).
What's worse than anything is the trend of this behavior; it's becoming habitual. One incident would raise our eyebrows. Two would make us grimace. But there have been three of these sleazy pro-restaurant moves.
First came the dreaded fee increase. Third was the sidewalk-sipping ordinance. These were done brazenly, in public. But there was a second little Newsom play that was done behind the scenes.
Again, this incident involved fees, restaurants, and Supervisor Leal.
Of course, we feel obligated to tattle.
For years, Leal has fought to mitigate the havoc irresponsible purveyors of spirits can wreak on communities. She tells a story to explain her passion for the issue: During a drug-awareness appearance in the Mission, Leal, accompanied by young children and teen-agers, passed a seedy bar at the corner of 19th Street and Mission just as an overserved woman grabbed at a man's crotch, on the street, and offered to fellate him for some money — presumably, the money needed for one more drink. (We rush to add something here: We are absolutely not implying — in any way — that this sort of behavior happens at PlumpJack. Cow Hollow blood just doesn't run that hot.)
Experiences such as the aforementioned crotch-fondling led Leal (in concert with the police and the city attorney) to draft legislation imposing penalties on restaurants, bars, and liquor stores that foster the kinds of drunken behavior that reduce the quality of life in our fine city.
Leal's plan to crack down on “bad bars” and the like required money to hire investigators and hearing officers. Raising that money meant increasing fees on alcohol-purveying businesses, including, say, PLUMPJACK WINE SHOP. Learning of this proposal, Sir Gavalon stormed into Leal's office and told her in no uncertain terms he would oppose her plan, and he did one more thing: He stirred up a group of small-business people, and they lobbied Leal.
Leal realized that her colleague and his friends had a point. The state already regulates the behavior of liquor-serving establishments, and restaurants already pay fees to support such regulation. So Leal dropped her proposal, and is waiting to see if state regulators will begin to crack down on booze-abusing businesses in S.F.
But it doesn't matter whether Leal's plan was intelligent or stupid, necessary or duplicative. The Gavman's use of his office to oppose the plan is Strike 3 for him.
Mayor Willie Brown appointed Newsom as a supervisor in February. Since then, he has used his official post three times in ways that seem to advance or protect his personal business interests.
So what's next on Newsom's horizon? The possibilities stagger the imagination:
I rise today to introduce what I hope to become a model piece of legislation, a trailblazing bill that will further a compelling social and humanitarian need: The Tax-Free Zone for Gavin Newsom Act. This act will create a tax-free zone that will stretch for 500 feet in all directions from me, GAVIN NEWSOM, wherever I shall travel. This will protect me, GAVIN NEWSOM, from paying any government assessment whatsoever, from sales tax on a stick of gum to property tax on my restaurant, PLUMPJACK, where you can get a creamy Caesar salad for a mere $6 and where, I dare say, we do some pretty fancy things with creme fraiche on our butternut squash soup.
In all seriousness: Gavin Newsom (lowercase, no boldface) is a pleasant guy; he's not a self-important jerk, which sets him apart from several other supes — with and without conflict-of-interest problems — whom we could name. We know he's recused himself, on conflict-of-interest grounds, more than a dozen times from Board of Supervisors votes because of some SOMA property he owns. We'd like to believe Gavin's just been incredibly thoughtless as he's made well-meaning but clumsy attempts to advocate for small business at the Board of Supervisors.
We'd also like to believe that he will cut out this restaurant-aiding crap, posthaste.
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,