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Choke Hold on City Hall

Wednesday, Aug 25 1999
Here's a stomach-turning little tale about how corrupt San Francisco has become under the auspices of Mayor Willie Brown: A young man is tackled, shoved, choked, and gagged inside City Hall by two prominent supporters of the mayor, and the police go out of their way not to investigate the matter. The cops, in fact, actually lied to me in an effort to excuse their refusal to call the mayor's buddies to account for the incident.

Let's be clear here. We don't know yet if a crime occurred. The alleged assailants have said they acted in self-defense, and were themselves the subject of an attack, though eyewitnesses raise serious doubts about their version of events. But what's most troubling here is that the police are stubbornly refusing to look into the matter.

Ever since the alleged attack occurred two weeks ago, a growing army of eyewitnesses, some of whom have filed police reports detailing the fight, have been champing at the bit to testify against the alleged assailants.

The police even have this: One of the combatants, the developer-lobbyist and general blowhard Joe O'Donoghue, admits freely and on the record to choking and tackling the victim, says the victim is lucky he got off so light, and promises the victim will be assaulted with greater force and injury if the two men ever join in combat again.

And still the Police Department refuses to investigate the matter, saying only that it is too busy to do so.

I kid you not. That's the official word out of Willie Brown's Police Department. They are too busy to investigate a case involving two outspoken supporters of the mayor, one a major campaign contributor. And they won't even look at the police reports on the incident unless the victim and the eyewitnesses make them. Really and honestly, that's the indefensible crock the cops are offering up.

It seems we have become like the Wild West town of Shinbone in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, wherein the title character, played with malicious brilliance by Lee Marvin, goes around town beating people with a whip and shooting them dead for their political views, and does so with impunity because the fat and lazy marshal is too scared to stand up to the beast.

The alleged butt-kicking took place on Aug. 9, shortly after the Board of Supervisors met to discuss a proposed six-month moratorium on the construction of those so-called live-work developments, which are really nothing more than yuppie condos. Developers, the vast majority of them members of O'Donoghue's politically powerful Residential Builders Association (RBA), have for the past four years been exploiting a loophole in the planning code that allows them to build massive (and god-awful ugly) condo complexes in industrial zones of the city, while avoiding paying their fair share of developer fees for the city's schools or obeying the law that requires developers to make a certain percentage of units available at affordable rates.

The mayor, his Planning Department, his Planning Commission, and his Board of Appeals have been complicit in allowing the RBA to flout the live-work ordinance, which was meant to legalize existing buildings where artists (actual artists, not IPO-fattened yuppies) lived and worked and added to the cultural life of the city.

This cynical mistreatment of the law, this Willie Brown-designed fix, has created conflicts between industrial businesses and their new residential neighbors, self-absorbed yuppies who think the world ought to bend to their needs every single time. Businesses have been displaced and harassed. Rents have risen precipitously near live-work projects when adjacent owners see the gold rush in action, displacing even more blue-collar jobs.

The Brown administration has allowed this incredibly thoughtless urban planning disaster to occur for one very shallow reason: The RBA, under the leadership of its president, O'Donoghue, commands campaign dollars and votes and, as an extra convincer, throws its weight around in a most thuggish manner, threatening people with lawsuits and other manner of Liberty Valance-type behavior.

Naturally, people with respect and concern for the law and the city have objected to the live-work boom, as well as the behavior of O'Donoghue and the RBA. These good folks were particularly angered in April, when the Planning Commission approved a so-called reform of live-work development - several years late and millions of dollars short. The commission set up a scheme of restrictions on live-work development, and classified the projects as residential, bringing them under the law that requires affordable housing set-asides and a full payment of school fees. But the commission rendered its reform meaningless by not applying the new rules to the 1,500 units' worth of live-work applications the Planning Department has yet to approve.

Longtime affordable-housing and land-use activists, gathered under the aegis of the Coalition for Jobs, Arts & Housing, got Supervisor Sue Bierman to propose legislation to bring all existing live-work permits under the new rules. The Bierman bill was passed out of committee in late June and was to be voted on by the entire board on Aug. 9.

When the board convened that day, the RBA saw that its golden goose was about to be cooked. So O'Donoghue's army went into thug mode. Somewhere between 500 and 1,000 RBA members showed up at City Hall Aug. 9 and occupied the joint, yelling at Bierman supporters, shoving people, trying to take down fliers posted by anti-live-work activists, and generally acting in a threatening and intimidating manner.

Realizing she didn't have the votes to pass the legislation, Bierman asked for and was granted a continuance.

As the bill's supporters left the board chambers and began to descend the stairs toward the first floor of City Hall under the world famous rotunda, they were forced to pass through a gauntlet of more than 200 screaming RBA members waving placards and signs and scaring the daylights out of people.

About The Author

George Cothran


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