Merry Christmas to Emilio Cruz, Amos Brown, and Especially Willie Brown Jr.
The look and feel of the city -- the skaters at Embarcadero Center, the crowds on Union Square -- always put me in a happy, reflective mood at this time of year, and so I found myself thinking back the other day, and wondering ... why do so many San Francisco public officials behave as though they want to be perceived as sleazy? An example that pops hilariously to mind: the Breda streetcars Muni has been buying. The Bredas are overpriced Italian barking dogs, entirely mismatched to San Francisco's needs. But Muni has spent almost half a billion dollars on them (yes, that's billion with a "b") and gone out of its way to make sure anyone more worldly than a swaddled babe would suspect something other than good-government impulses was at the bottom of this business.
Muni made a none-too-persuasive show of taking competitive bids before buying its first 35 Breda streetcars in 1991. But after this, the agency tossed aside any pretense of competition, buying another 101 of the vehicles over time on a "sole source" basis. Of course, there is no "sole" source for streetcars -- many firms make them, all around the world -- and so there was and is no compulsion to use the too-loud, too-long, too-fat, too-breakable Bredas. But Muni keeps on paying ever-escalating prices for this laughingstock equipment, all the same.
Virginia-based Booz Allen Hamilton has been the consultant on the Breda buys, and so has gotten the lion's share of Breda blame. But Peter Byrne's recent investigation of Muni quoted a Booz Allen spokesperson as saying that post-1991 streetcar contracts could have been put out to bid, which would have given Muni management streetcar choices other than the troubled Bredas, but "Muni asked us not to." (Emphasis mine.)
Because I'm so caught up in the spirit of the season, I've just got to ask: Are we all supposed to laugh "ho, ho, ho" when our public transit officials take special pains to make $400 million in no-bid streetcar contracts look like some kind of a weasel deal? Or have the Public Transportation Commission and top Muni managers just become so comfortable in the role of Santa Claus to Breda that they don't even notice when they are making themselves into potential grand jury fodder?
As long as I'm on the subjects of Muni and bad appearances, I may as well throw in this travel story:
In April of last year, Muni General Manager Emilio Cruz and seven high-ranking Muni officials flew to London, where they toured a rail system that was using the same type of computerized train controls as Muni. Cruz and crew were joined by an official with STV Inc., the auditor hired by the U.S. government to watch over Muni expenses.
After four days in London, Cruz et al. took sleeper berths on the Eurotrain to Paris, and then rode on to Florence, Italy, where they were joined by two more high-ranking Muni managers, a Booz Allen Hamilton consultant, and yet another STV Inc. auditor. The purpose of the trip to Italy? "To meet with Breda and inspect construction of the [streetcars]." The meeting and inspecting took three days.
According to Muni expense reports, the airfare, hotels, and meals for the Muni officials cost the government a little more than $27,000, plus another $8,000 for the auditors and consultants. That's $35,000, over and above the salaries of the people involved, to find out ... well, it's hard to say what they found out. Sixteen months after these officials studied the train control system in London, Muni's similar system all but shut down the Market Street subway for weeks. And this October -- reams of negative reports on Breda's streetcars notwithstanding -- Muni tossed another $167 million, no-bid contract to Breda Costruzioni Ferroviarie S.p.A.
There are no stupider newspaper stories than those that criticize reasonable travel designed to give government officials the backgrounding necessary to make intelligent decisions about large and complex public projects. But is there anyone who really thinks it reasonable to send 10 Muni officials to Europe to not fix our light rail problems?
Of course, the holiday season means holiday parties that raise our spirits, remind us of our obligation to the less fortunate, and confirm San Francisco Supervisor Amos Brown as the most inarticulate and malaprop-afflicted politician in the Bay Area. At least, a recent holiday gathering for a San Francisco good-government group accomplished those three tasks.
The fete, held in the tony Forest Hills clubhouse, drew a series of politicians and other notables, many of whom were offered the opportunity to address the revelers. Most realized that this was a party, not a political rally, and kept their comments reasonably short and general. (Supervisor Mark Leno, apparently sensing Judaism deprivation in the crowd, felt a need to explain the meaning of Hanukkah, but at least his version of the Feast of Lights did take less than eight days.) Upon being introduced, however, Supervisor Brown launched into a full, bombastic, incoherent recitation and defense of his governmental philosophy and accomplishments, full of straw men that needed to be stomped down, one upon another, ad nauseam. Eventually, the feeling of Amos Brown captivity became so strong that the otherwise genteel crowd began to murmur in discomfort, and exchange glances, and shift feet. But the snickering in absolute disbelief did not begin until Brown declaimed, in stirring tones, that one of his foremost policy goals was an "impossible possibility."
I didn't want to leave you with the notion that Muni managers have no respect for money whatsoever. So listen up: Last July, Emilio Cruz, then being paid more than $100,000 a year to run Muni, filed an expense report that, among other things, claimed reimbursement for 20 cents he put into a Chicago parking meter.
No holiday column would be complete until I expressed my concern for those who have suffered undeserved turns of fortune in the past year. This group includes Mayor Willie Brown Jr., whose popularity has fallen greatly, according to recent public opinion polls, even though he has done nothing, recently, that he has not been doing for a long time. So I'll offer this little holiday note, my best shot at cheering the mayor up as he heads into next year.
I realize that many in the press and electorate do not appreciate your accomplishments. Where you see rebuilt islands and renewed financial opportunity, they see only suspicious deals and two-hour cross-town commutes.
But I know you've done something truly extraordinary this year, and I feel duty-bound to make this singular accomplishment widely known. Call it my Christmas present to you, Mr. Mayor, in honor of your own Christmas present to the citizens of San Francisco.
Last week, Mr. Mayor, you finally came within sight of a longtime goal: replacing all those terrible old ugly newsracks in this town with new, spiffy centralized ones. With your wise guidance, the Department of Public Works finally offered up the contract under which a street furniture firm will install the new centralized racks, each of which will hold six different newspapers. Once the Board of Supervisors approves the contract -- which can't take more than another week or two -- you will have set this city on a brave new course. Evil, dangerous, unsightly individual newspaper racks will be forcibly removed from city streets, to be replaced by large, good, beautiful, safe, multipaper racks, adorned with advertising and other information approved by the government.
The Public Works director will, from this point forward, decide what newspapers can be placed in San Francisco newsracks, and, therefore, what publications San Franciscans can and cannot read. Any print news organization that criticizes you -- or any future mayor -- in an unfair, or harsh, or factual, or effective way can be reined in, cut off from distribution outlets, and set on the path of official truth, as seen and defined by the mayor himself.
When the newsrack contract is approved later this month, Mayor Brown, you will have reason to thrust out your chest in pride. Other San Francisco officials may regularly make themselves appear suspicious. But you are unique in this city's history. Once the newsrack ordinance is signed, you, Mr. Mayor, will have established yourself as a ruler willing to suppress a fundamental constitutional freedom in the name of a phony threat to public order. Spurious demagoguery, transient commercial advantage, and petty political vengeance will have slowly, slyly, and finally defeated those nattering nabobs of negativity in the press. Mayor Brown, you have entered the pantheon. Through long and determined effort, you have remade yourself in the image of a Southern sheriff and won the right to be known as San Francisco's first redneck in high elective office.
Do have a happy election year.
John Mecklin (firstname.lastname@example.org) can be reached at SF Weekly, 185 Berry, Suite 3800, San Francisco,