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Monday, March 16, 2009

SF Gov InAction: Meet the Guardian's Imaginary Friend and Congratulate the Department of Technology on Its Fictitous $750,000 Tech Center

Posted By on Mon, Mar 16, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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When your whole government shuts down so that it can go to Washington D.C. and lobby for handouts, you know you've reached a point of no return. Economically it's a sign of total defeat, an acknowledgment that we are a zombie municipality that needs fresh infusions of federal blood just to go through the motions. Culturally it's a sign of egos run rampant over common sense. Or is there somebody in this town, besides David Chiu, who actually thought "Thank God David Chiu's going to Washington! They'll listen to him!" Don't laugh, Bevan Dufty: You went too. That's why I'd like to begin this week's Gov In Action with a special shout-out to Supervisors Michela Alioto-Pier, John Avalos, Chris Daly, Sean Elsbernd, and Ross Mirkarimi, for having the courage and foresight not to go to Washington D.C. last week. It is only through their commitment to San Francisco that anything got done here at all. Thanks to these five brave Supervisors, we still had at least the appearance of a functioning legislative branch. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Meanwhile, this week is now packed to the very top of city hall's dome with meetings that should have happened last week. Because apparently the city doesn't just go away if you ignore it -- even if you're Eric Mar. Monday, March 16 11 a.m. - Public Safety Committee Has anybody noticed that our police department is pretty dysfunctional, too? Like the way the police chief decided to retire and sat on it for over a month, not even mentioning it to the Board of Supervisors when she addressed a major meeting to plan public safety strategy, because she was waiting a few more days to announce it on the mayor's weekly radio talk show? That kind of dysfunctional? Anybody notice that? This week the public safety committee will hold a hearing about how to get a new chief who will return their phone calls.

1 p.m. - Land use & Economic Development Committee

All three members of this committee were in Washington last week, but I'm sure that all they talked about was land use.

"Jesus," said Barack Obama, after they met with him -- naturally he'd want to meet with the vitally important San Francisco delegation, what with it including David Chiu - "But they just wouldn't shut up about land use!"

Today they apply that experience, drawing on everything they learned in D.C,. and voting to accept some proposed improvements to Mission Bay streets.

They'll also be endorsing the recommendations of the San Francisco Fair Lending Working Group on how to address the wave of foreclosures in San Francisco.

Just how bad are the foreclosures in San Francisco? Well, according to the Fair Lending Working Group's report:

"The mortgage foreclosure crisis may be less severe in San Francisco than other jurisdictions, but it is equally compelling."

Which, I have to admit, I don't understand at all: If the crisis is LESS severe, isn't it also LESS compelling? Or are we judging crises by some other, non-crisis related, factor?

Regardless, the report's recommendations include:

• The city "should use its influence to demand more responsiveness by lenders/servicers to assist more homeowners"

• "Increase capacity at Mayor's Office of Housing to coordinate city-wide foreclosure efforts"

• Imposing "a 6-month foreclosure moratorium on owner-occupied homes and use its lobbying capacity to advocate and support statewide legislation on a foreclosure moratorium and accompanying loan workout program."

• Training 311 operators to send distressed homeowners to the appropriate services

All of which raises three crucial questions:

• Just how much "influence" does San Francisco really have? Really?

• How much new staff can the Mayor's Office of Housing afford to hire during a financial crisis?

• Just what exactly are 311 operators trained to do?

I mean, I love 311, but they've never been able to answer any of my non-MUNI related questions.

3:30 - Government Audit and Oversight Committee

Whenever anyone asks me what "LAFCo" is - which I admit doesn't happen often - I tell them that it's like the Guardian's imaginary friend.

It works like this:

When the Guardian's had a rough day because there are still wars even though Tim Redmond wrote a really tough editorial about that; when they've had to spend hours and hours getting the Progressive factions just to sit in the same room together; when they've almost begun to think that maybe 40 years of scolding people has turned them into middle-aged scolds ...

... well, then they sit down on a porch, pour themselves a glass of pinot noir, and talk to their friend LAFCo.

"LAFCo," says the Guardian, "I don't understand: Why are so many people choosing PG&E over us?"

"Well, golly," says LAFCo, "I'm your friend."

"I know you are, LAFCo," says the Guardian, fighting back tears. "You're my bestest friend."

"In fact, I'm staffed almost entirely by your allies, and charged with pursuing your long-term energy agenda," says LAFCO. "That's why nobody else in the world can see or hear me."

"Gee, LAFCo," says the Guardian, "you're better than the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers -- which I oppose because of their colonialist agenda. Others are against them because of their aesthetic failings, but not me! I judge people and places solely on their politics!"

"Good for you!" says LAFCo. "Would you like me to take care of that big, mean, old PG&E for you?"

"Would I!" says the Guardian.

"Well all right then," says LAFCo. "I will. All you have to do is close your eyes, squeeze them real tight, and wish for more funding! More funding! More funding!"

"I do!" says the Guardian. "I demand you get more funding! For the public good!"

There are other explanations, but that's really the simplest.

This week the Government Audit and Oversight Committee will consider a resolution to get the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to pay for two more LAFCo staff members. These staff members will be used by LAFCo to better advise the PUC on how it should be pursing the municipal electricity plan known as Community Choice Aggregation (CCA).

Nevermind the politics involved (I'm actually in favor of municipal power - see below): The Supes' budget analyst points out that there are several problems with this idea:

• "The Budget Analyst notes that there is currently no existing Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the PUC and LAFCo which provides specific details as to the ... individual responsibilities of PUC and LAFCo regarding CCA Program implementation and development; and Management and supervision of LAFCo's CCA staff.

• "The PUC only recently hired two initial CCA Program staff and is still in the process of hiring two additional CCA Program staff. As such, the PUC is initiating the development of the CCA Program, and, to date, specific CCA Program details have not yet been established."

• "the Budget Analyst recommends that determination of whether LAFCo requires the proposed second position ... be established subsequent to further implementation and staffing of the CCA Program."

What does that mean in plain English? That LAFCo is grabbing extra city money to pay for staff that it may not actually need in order to develop a program that has no clear lines of authority.

It's almost as if Gavin Newsom were in charge. Makes you wonder what's going on in the Guardian's unconscious.

Also up for consideration at this meeting, an amendment to the city's labor agreements with the city's supervising registered nurses that would reduce wage increases and other benefits that were just agreed to in 2007 -- back when nobody ever, possibly, could have imagined that S.F. was spending too much money.

Tuesday, March 17, 2 p.m. - Full Board of Supervisors

Speaking of PG&E, one of the Supes' first orders of business at this meeting is to agree to a settlement in a longstanding disagreement between PG&E and CCSF.

I'm not a lawyer, and my best legal advice is generally "The opposing counsel is just as scared of you as you are of him," so I'm not going to try to describe the details of the conflict. Suffice it to say that the settlement involves PG&E paying CCSF -- and that's a pretty good way to keep score.

The next interesting item is a measure by Mirkarimi and Maxwell ordering the city's Recreation and Parks Department to work with the PUC to maximize water conservation -- and to develop a water conservation plan by 2009, among other measures.

I understand what Maxwell and Mirkarimi are thinking: The Recreation and Parks department, after all, controls an awful lot of water through the city's parks, golf courses, recreation areas, and irrigation facilities.

But I wish they'd considered the department's track record, too. Based on how well Recreation and Parks has handled the city's Recreation and Parks ... failing to keep track of office hours or employee absenteeism, handling cash without records, allegedly employing phantom workers ... I think the city might be better off turning over its water supply to a troop of Girl Scouts.

They, at least, promise to be honest, fair, "and responsible for what I say and do." Has Rec and Parks ever lived up to that standard?

Next the Supes will decide who gets to sit on two commissions -- which is a routine matter made exciting only by the fact that after Michela Alioto-Pier announced that she would rather not sit on the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District (which directly impacts her legislative district) and would prefer to sit on the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission instead, Chris Daly told her to go to hell. In fact, he tried to force her to sit on a commission that she didn't want to sit on.

Daly couldn't do that -- and it's somewhat creepy that he would even try -- but he is the chairman of the Rules Committee, which handles appointments ... and so it's quite difficult to get named to a commission without his say-so. Alioto-Pier doesn't have that kind of clout. So instead, it looks like David Chiu will be appointed to the Conservation and Development Commission.

This is becoming classic Chiu: Wherever there is a power vacuum, he'll be there. It's a lucky thing Pelosi didn't have to step out of her office while the Supes were in D.C.: She might have come back and fond Chiu already changing the drapes.

Meanwhile the Supes have a measure before them to appoint "Member of the Board of Supervisors" to the Golden Gate Bridge authority. Smart money says that once they've cut her off from the Conservation and Development Commission, they try to get Alioto-Pier to take it again.

Finally, you will all be pleased to know that as a result of swift, decisive, action on the part of the Board of Supervisors, March 16 to 20 will be declared "Mediation Week" in San Francisco. It's sponsored by Carmen Chu and the San Francisco Superior Court, and you can look for them to engage in all kinds of educational activities alerting you to the benefits of mediation. Although ... really ... how good could it be if the Supervisors don't use it?

Wednesday, March 18, 11 a.m. - Budget and Finance Committee

In addition to what is becoming the depressingly usual round of hearings on new budget cuts, this committee will discuss releasing $750,000 in reserve funds so that the Department of Technology can purchase a new permanent city "data center" that will support IT projects including new human resources and payroll systems, security enhancements, and an upgrade of the city's email system.

Except that, according to a Budget Analyst's report, the money spent won't actually do any of those things. It will instead go to housing a new temporary data center that will be operational until the permanent data center goes online -- at an undetermined location, at an undetermined time -- and none of the money spent on the temporary data center will reduce the cost of the permanent data center at all.

Furthermore, this project was put on hold by the Supes last year, because the Department of Technology couldn't provide a detailed expenditure plan ... which they have still not done.

So, to be clear, this is a bill to pay $750,000 for undisclosed electronics that will need to be replaced by other undisclosed, equally expensive, electronics at a time not yet determined.

No wonder this city's broke.

Also on the agenda is a measure by the Mayor and Carmen Chu to approve a 25-year power purchase agreement with Recurrent Energy to finance, construct, own, operate, and maintain a solar power plant on the rooftop of the North Storage Basin Reservoir and adjacent property, and to sell all electricity generated through the project to the city's PUC.

Oh boy.

At the risk of opening up a can of worms that will keep the Guardian outraged for months, why exactly DOES the city want to hire itself a new middle man?

According to the terms of the agreement, we'd be purchasing a base $2 million of power per year, escalated by 3 percent annually, for 25 years. The city's Budget Analyst lists the total cost of the program for the city at $68.5 million -- although it could very well be more than that if the power plant operates over its predicted capacity, because the city is required to purchase whatever it produces.

Can we really not build a solar power plant for less than that? Sure we can: The PUC estimates the cost of the facility at $45 million -- and that's using numbers developed by Recurrent, not the city or an independent third party.

After seven years, the city will have the one-time option to buy the installation for $33 million: Again, those numbers come from Recurrent, not independent evaluations. It seems entirely possible that we could afford to build the facility for less than $33 million, and then NOT have to buy the power ... meaning that by putting more money up front we'd save over half the current total project cost within 25 years.

Why not do that? The idea that, hey, we just don't have the money to put up front strikes me as a poor rationale. Didn't short-term thinking get us into this mess? But so far it's the only kind I've come across.

Thursday, March 19

10 a.m. - Rules Committee

Commission appointments, Commission appointments, settled litigation, settled litigation ... you know, without Tom Ammiano or Aaron Peskin, this committee's got nothing for me.

Say what you will about Chris Daly (everyone does), but he does not run a fun meeting.

3:30 p.m. - City and School District Committee

Let's bring this on home.

Item one: A hearing to learn what kind of support the city provides to Hilltop High School's program for mothers and expectant mothers.

Item two: A hearing on the student emergency response volunteer program.

These are both worthy items, I acknowledge. But does anybody care enough for me to go on at length about them? Going once ... going twice ....

Have a great week.

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Benjamin Wachs


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