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Bum Advice 

Ignore the trumped-up complaining; it is time to throw the bums out of the Housing Authority

While San Franciscans were savoring the spectacle of another Willie Brown acarreado1 parade earlier this month, I was in Mexico City, watching political herdsmanship of a more original sort.

It was the first of May, which outside the U.S. means International Workers Day, and I was jostling along with a mob of white-suited Boing!2 workers, making my way to Mexico City's Zócalo, or central plaza. There, the members of a few score of labor unions stood in the smoggy sun facing a large platform where speaker after speaker called for worker solidarity, denounced a proposed government sales tax hike on medicine and food, and mocked President Vicente Fox's rumored plans to sell electricity to the United States. It was nearly identical to the half-dozen or so May Day rallies I'd seen here in years past -- a few thousand workers listlessly marching through the heat, endless speeches heard through an inadequate sound system, oft-mouthed phrases mouthed some more. But there was a crucial difference this time.

Previously, the event had been a traditional show of force by the ruling party and its government-controlled unions; now, for the first time in decades, the annual May Day workers' rally was about denouncing the president. Mexicans, having recently evicted a 70-year-old authoritarian government, were reveling in that grand piece of social technology known, in America, as Throwing the Bums Out.

The idea that when government leaders do an awful job it's best to replace them is hardly new; witness the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Muerte al PRI, etc. Given its lengthy track record of success, one might have expected Throwing the Bums Out to have become prosaic. But it's still a controversial notion in many parts of the world -- including, it seems, San Francisco, which has treated the aforementioned Willie Brown acarreados as if they were a spontaneous reflection of popular will, rather than, well, acarreados. (For those of you who save the footnotes until you're done reading the article, this word means "trucked-in ones," and is a Mexican political term referring to supporters herded to rallies to cheer for the ruling party.)

To reprise and explain: Matt Gonzalez, a lawyer elected to the Board of Supervisors last fall, has for the past couple of months been calling attention to the fact that the Housing Authority -- the agency charged with managing the city's 6,000 public housing units and 7,200 low-income housing vouchers -- has been run as if by a band of hoodlums. A federal audit report released just over a month ago charged that more than $18 million in Housing Authority funds had not been accounted for. The report referred to this missing money as "possibly excessive" costs. Judging from the context and tone of the report, which states that the authority tossed money around willy-nilly with only the barest excuse for an accounting system, this appears to be a euphemism for "money that could very well have been stolen."

Last year, the same federal auditors denounced the agency for squandering, between 1996 and 1999, hundreds of thousands of dollars via suspect contracting practices and inflated administrative salaries. To ice the cake, in March an Ohio federal grand jury indicted San Francisco Housing Authority Director Ronnie Davis on charges of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money while working for the Housing Authority there; he is now on leave of absence from the S.F. authority.

It's not as if the federal audit or the federal indictment should have come as unexpected news. As has been reported repeatedly in this publication and elsewhere, the Housing Authority has given plenty of indication that it was a criminally influenced organization for years. Peter Byrne's recent story, "The Great Minnow Hunt" [Dec. 6, 2000], turned up allegations that the agency was run as a massive bunco scheme in which prospective tenants were shaken down for bribes, housing vouchers were sold as scrip, and agency executives lied on federal grant applications worth tens of millions of dollars.

In keeping with this atmosphere of criminality, the Housing Authority employment office had meanwhile become a hiring hall for ex-cons, with jobs, often high-paying ones, going to suspected crack kingpins and gangbangers. The result was an exacerbated atmosphere of fear at the city's housing projects, as described in the SF Weekly investigative story "Crime and Patronage" [Aug. 19, 1998].

If ever there were a problem that Throwing the Bums Out was designed to solve, the Housing Authority imbroglio would seem to be it. To this Out-Throwing end, Supervisor Gonzalez proposed to dissolve the Housing Authority Commission -- the members of which are currently appointed by the mayor -- and to bring the commission under the purview of the city's Board of Supervisors, which, at least, does not have a record of actively ignoring criminal activity in public office.

In a First World city, this move would probably be seen as simple, and obvious. In such a city, Gonzalez would either have been ignored -- why should doing the obvious be worthy of note? -- or praised mildly, for doing good where good obviously needed to be done.

In San Francisco, of course we were treated to the acarreados of Willie Brown, a group of around 200 presumed public housing tenants who packed a City Hall policy hearing earlier this month to denounce Gonzalez's plans to dissolve the Housing Authority Commission. Gonzalez has since been vilified as a racist, apparently, and entirely, because he is white and wants to throw the bums out of Housing Authority management. (Many of the agency's current employees are black, as are many residents in its buildings.) Supporters of that management suggested that, by asking acting Housing Authority Executive Director Gregg Fortner detailed questions about a recent Inspector General's audit of the authority, Gonzalez had showed himself to be prejudiced against African-Americans.

"You have brought racism to a high point!" the Chronicle quoted one such meeting attendee as saying.


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