A Vote of Competence

This is no time for softheaded governing. In this election, Prop. F and Dennis Herrera pass the confidence test; MUD fails completely.

I was wondering: Are the rest of you feeling as confident and well-served as I am, now that Robert Mueller is head of the FBI?

Mueller was, after all, the guy credited by the local press with turning around the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco, and when President Bush named him FBI director earlier this year, Mueller was almost universally described by the national press in fawning terms: Princeton grad; stalwart Marine; hard-working, apolitical straight-arrow; successful prosecutor of complex criminal cases.

But I remember the Robert Mueller who headed the Justice Department criminal division about a decade ago, when it was “investigating” an entity known as the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, almost certainly the most corrupt financial enterprise of all time. BCCI acted as a front for a multibillion-dollar variety of worldwide criminal activities, holding accounts for (as the Washington Post put it) “shady customers ranging from terrorists and spies to drug runners and dictators.” Among those terrorists were the legendary Abu Nidal and, according to a number of news reports, Osama bin Laden. Some of bin Laden's wealthiest and best-connected Saudi supporters were, in fact, intimately connected to BCCI and went on, apparently, to keep him in murderous clover through the 1990s.

I remember Mueller, you see, because I remember him being trotted out before a congressional investigating panel in 1991 to claim the Justice Department had been vigorously tracking down BCCI criminals — when I knew better.

I knew better because widely respected Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, who actually was going after BCCI, and a host of other investigators had publicly accused Justice of stonewalling the investigation into the Bank of Crooks and Criminals. I knew better because I had spoken in private with people in and around the Manhattan DA's Office and the Senate subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics, and international operations, and I knew, when these people spoke privately, that stonewalling was the nicest term they used to describe Justice's butter-soft “investigation” of BCCI.

And as I remembered Mueller back in 1991, I moved on to recall that, right here in San Francisco, he was the guy who couldn't find the sewerlike San Francisco Human Rights Commission, the reeking San Francisco Housing Authority, or the odoriferous Willie Brown doing much of anything wrong at all. And in my reverie, I began to wonder: Is Robert Mueller precisely the right person to lead the FBI in its worldwide investigation of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden?

As I mused on Mueller, I couldn't help going on to wonder …

– whether Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who suggested that the first in the recent series of inhalation anthrax cases might have begun when the victim “drank water out of a stream,” has any qualification for running our country's public health response to bioterrorism beyond an ability, as a Republican governor, to attract votes in ordinarily Democratic Wisconsin;

– if the people who directed the bombing of a clearly marked Red Cross complex in Kabul twice in 10 days, effectively cutting off humanitarian aid to that battered city, had attended the same bomb-targeting school as the officers who had NATO planes bomb the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade;

– which medical officials made the decision to test Capitol Hill bomb-sniffing dogs for anthrax exposure long before off-Hill postal workers were tested, and how those officials graduated high school, much less medical school.

Although the Bush administration has gone to great lengths to convince us we are involved in a war on terrorism, that terminology overemphasizes things military. The country is in a long-term conflict more continuously lethal than the half-century known as the Cold War, yet less all-encompassing and fiery than, say, World War II. Let us call our current situation, for the moment, the Luke War.

If anything, Luke War requires greater sophistication and competence on the part of government than either its cold or hot cousins. To have any hope of dismantling a host of well-concealed and -funded terror networks, military, diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, and public health/public safety measures are going to have to be well-planned, well-executed, and well-coordinated, domestically and internationally. Read that last sentence again, and think about the performance of the Bush administration over the past few weeks.

For competence to become the chief attribute by which government operates, government will have to be grabbed by the shoulders and shaken vigorously, because competence hasn't played that role in national life since George Patton led the 1st Armored Division across Europe. Niceties have to be done away with; the press needs to stop treating the government with cotton-candy gloves. All the officials responsible for the failure to quickly test postal workers for anthrax need to be cashiered — publicly. The targeters who led our planes to bomb, a second time, a Kabul Red Cross warehouse should be demoted, as should the commanders who oversaw those targeters — and the demotions should be announced by press release. Tommy Thompson must receive an offer of private-sector employment that he cannot refuse; leakers must put out that his resignation was forced.

This may be Luke War, but it can still be lethal to thousands, and we ought not settle for John Ashcroft (the most political and least worthy attorney general since John Mitchell) and Robert Mueller when the country really needs Eliott Ness, or at least Rudy Giuliani.

“Competence” is not a word that can accurately be used in describing the proposal, on next Tuesday's ballot, to create a municipal utility district, or MUD, that would take over the electric power system (and perhaps other utilities) in San Francisco and Brisbane. Competence doesn't apply largely because the MUD is a brainchild of San Francisco Bay Guardian Publisher Bruce Brugmann, who has given himself and his “newspaper” over to an obsessional, 30-plus-year public-power campaign that has — by sheer repetition, an inability to distinguish wish from fact, and a refusal to conform to the ethical norms of journalism — given the good idea of public power a bad name. [page]

What's wrong with the MUD? Well, the ballot measure's been so incompetently drawn and managed that, should it pass, it will almost certainly be nullified in the courts on any number of grounds. Among other things, before they put their measure on the ballot, MUD-backers forgot to perform the feasibility study required by law and common sense. (The MUD-formers did commission a ridiculously incomplete and useless study from a man previously convicted of defrauding government, but that's another story.) The lack of study and other legal defects would doom the MUD to years, and maybe decades, of legal wrangling — and, very probably, eventual courtroom defeat — should San Francisco's electorate be silly enough to pass it.

What's wrong with the Guardian's role in all this? Well, among other things, the paper has bankrolled much of the MUD campaign, donating $100,000 in cash and free advertising, some of which it hid for a time inside a group dedicated to open government. (Who said the pewter-dull, lecture-filled Guardian is irony free?) In an impressive trampling of journalistic ethics even by Guardian standards, the “paper” also has managed to mention its financial support of the measure only very, very occasionally during a deluge of one-sided, anti-credible “stories” on public power.

So are you faced with some horrid Hobbesian choice here?

Vote for one only:

Incompetent, legally defective, propaganda-spattered public power entity created because Bruce Brugmann wants a capstone for his undistinguished career.

Decades of continued subjugation to the conscienceless rapacity of the Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

Luckily, no.

Also on Tuesday's ballot is a proposal that Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano put together, with the help of members of the City Attorney's Office, when it became obvious to just about everyone that the MUD measure wouldn't stand even cursory legal examination. Ammiano's measure — Proposition F — would create a seven-member elected commission to oversee a new Municipal Water and Power Agency that would replace the city's Public Utilities Commission. The agency would immediately gain the expertise of the workers at the PUC, who already run an electric system sparked by the hydropower of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in Yosemite National Park. Unlike the MUD, the agency would be subject to important checks and balances at City Hall — a move to acquire PG&E's power lines or generating facilities would, for example, still need approval from the city's Board of Supervisors. And because the agency's board wouldn't be elected until next year, approval of Prop. F would allow time for the in-depth feasibility study everyone should demand before anything so complex and expensive as the acquisition of an entire electrical system is undertaken.

The thinness of the argument in favor of PG&E control of San Francisco's electric future is reflected in the political campaign under way against the two public power proposals on Tuesday's ballot. The campaign, largely bankrolled by PG&E and other utilities, is one based on fear; it focuses on the unknown and probably high cost of moving to a public power system, calling both Proposition F and the MUD proposal (Measure I) “too risky.” The fear-mongering does not, however, spell out a compelling reason to retain PG&E as an electricity provider.

If not the all-powerful Prince of Darkness the Bay Guardian has found under beds for three decades now, PG&E is an unnecessarily negative influence on public life in San Francisco. More than many utilities, the company has pushed and squeezed itself into position as a political power broker and kingmaker — pushed so far and squeezed so well, in fact, as to inspire books to be written. Now, in an accident of electricity deregulation, the company is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization; any sensible person would fear that as it emerges from reorganization, the utility will attempt to use its political influence to gain approval to stick ratepayers with huge and unwarranted costs.

There is nothing particularly risky about a studied takeover by government of the electric power utility. Cities across the country run their own electric operations, generally with good results. What's risky would be an incompetent version of public power, created just because a small band of ideologues wants an empty political victory. (And a MUD victory would indeed be empty; if Measure I alone passes, it is all but certain to lose a lengthy court battle. If the MUD measure and Ammiano's Prop. F both pass, ballot language meant to smooth the path to public power legally links the two measures, most likely throwing both into years of litigation.)

The time to begin being rid of PG&E is here. Voting against Measure I and for Prop. F is the sensible, legally viable way to take electric power public in San Francisco.

Over the past month or so, I met at some length with the three candidates I considered best qualified to become the next San Francisco city attorney; oddly, I found none worth savaging.

Jim Lazarus, state director for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, seems a quick-minded guy with a strong grasp on what a good city attorney can, and cannot, do in office, and the level of legal and governmental experience needed to be effective in the political minefield of City Hall. If one were of an Establishmentarian stripe (given that the Establishment in San Francisco would be considered quite liberal and quite Democratic anywhere else in the country), Lazarus might be a reasonable choice.

Steve Williams seems a genial (if excitable) man who sincerely believes that moneyed interests have gotten the upper hand at City Hall, and who also believes a city attorney ought to be focused on doing something about that imbalance. If one were well-planted at the “progressive” end of San Francisco's political spectrum, a vote for Williams could seem a vote well and dutifully cast. [page]

But everyone who wants government to work as well as it must in these extraordinary times ought to vote for Dennis Herrera. He's been a top-flight attorney, an administrator (he was chief of staff at the U.S. Maritime Administration during the Clinton presidency), a labor negotiator of real accomplishment, and a president of the Police Commission who seems to have gained the confidence both of police and of those who have the job of investigating allegations of police misconduct.

Right now, we have a Board of Supervisors that is overconcerned with ideological windmill-tilting and a mayor overinterested in the cutting of deals and corners. Both need legal advice they can accept as well-researched and politically neutral, even when they disagree with it, and both need a counterbalance — someone who will stand in public, and speak directly — when they are poised to infringe the public interest.

I've heard Dennis Herrera speak in public, and I've sat across the table from him a couple of times now. He's not going to set any auditoriums on fire with his oratory. But I think you probably want him at the table, as your legal representative, when it's important that things get done competently, because what's being done is important, in a sense of the word most of us didn't fully understand before this September.

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