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Doublespeak With Forked Tongue 

When dealing with Chris Daly and his political objectives, it's best to leave reality behind

Wednesday, May 3 2006
Rarely does testimony at official City Hall gatherings meet high literary standards of eloquence and pith.

But then few forums want so badly for such qualities as a Board of Supervisors committee hearing, such as the one last week where politicians spent the better part of an hour engaging in surreal doublespeak in order to bad-mouth the nonprofit builder Mission Housing Development Corp.

"Supervisor, you can put that forked tongue back in your mouth," said Mission Housing's director of resident services Damon Harris, after Supervisor Chris Daly interrupted him during a public comment. In keeping with the truth-avoidance tenor of the proceedings, Harris' microphone was immediately turned off.

Harris was referring to a two-year-old political dispute, in which Daly has sought payback against a nonprofit housing developer for being more interested in housing than Daly's personal brand of politics.

Daly has worked to punish Mission Housing directors ever since they acted four years ago to stop what they saw as improper diversion of tax money away from building and managing low-income apartments, and toward supporting Daly's favorite partisan political causes.

Daly has absurdly characterized this crusade as a case of sound public stewardship. That's no surprise. Daly speaks from a private semantic universe when characterizing his own actions.

Yet outrageously, the mayor, the city controller, and other supervisors have aided Daly in this whitewash.

The controller issued an audit report in December that didn't bother to address the political fund-diversion issue at the heart of the Mission Housing dispute, in which former employees of Mission Housing were alleged to have used company time to campaign and lobby for political causes of interest to Daly. It's legal for nonprofits to spend a minor part of their budgets on lobbying that serves their organizational interest. But, Mission Housing directors came to believe, that policy had morphed into a full-fledged, government-funded political operation.

The Mission Housing Board of Directors eventually sought to end this practice and fired their executive director when he resisted this change. The board thus earned the ire of Daly, who's ever since attempted to hobble the organization's housing development work however he can.

Controller's audits should aim at rooting out waste or misuse of tax dollars. Yet the recent audit of Mission Housing, requested by Daly and his allies, did not delve into the most pressing issue, that of diverting government funds into partisan politics. The audit instead quibbled about accounting and management issues that arose after the group's previous executive director/political organizer was fired.

The mayor's housing director joined in last week when his aide in charge of housing issues said he'd permanently deny Mission Housing some $360,000 in government funds that two years ago had been earmarked for the organization, yet had been frozen at Daly's urging. Supervisors on the city's Budget and Finance Committee requested the move as punishment for the "mismanagement" that has been the rhetorical theme behind Daly's misleading anti-Mission Housing campaign.

It's as if city leadership had agreed to adopt as our official language George Orwell's 1984 concept of Newspeak, where government officials replace unpleasant terms and concepts with new ones, which describe the same things without seeming to.

In the case of Daly's Mission Housing vendetta, the result has been all good at City Hall, as adoption of Newspeak has enabled the mayor to get along with his political opponents. It helps Controller Ed Harrington to stay below everyone's political radar. It allows supervisors with competing interests to pose as a happy family. And it permits Daly to behave outrageously without people taking much notice anymore.

Yet city government as a whole loses when what should be an inquiry into allegations of the diversion of public funds toward political aims turns into a personal vendetta driven by an alleged beneficiary of that same supposed political impropriety.

In what's now a distant memory, a half-decade or so ago, all political divisions in San Francisco in some way revolved around what was called the "dot-com backlash," an anti-development movement spurred by resentment of tech businesses moving into once-run-down neighborhoods. Chris Daly was part of a millennial crop of new supervisors elevated to power by this movement. Then, where one stood on his issue of "dot-commies" and "displacement" was promoted for a brief period as shorthand for an entire worldview.

At the vanguard of this movement was the Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition, run by Mission Housing staff, with executive director Carlos Romero and programs director Eric Quezada at the helm of both groups. Phone numbers publicized as belonging to the Anti-Displacement Coalition, meanwhile, rang at Mission Housing headquarters.

"There were a number of people who were supporting various organizing activities in support of certain public policy issues, ballot measures, candidates, and so on," said current Mission Housing executive director Larry Del Carlo. "There was a very blurred line between their own time and company time, and that's when we got concerned, when we saw people showing up at various events during work time."

Mission Housing received around $2 million in public money during the five years surrounding the dot-com boom-and-bust period. A tax-exempt nonprofit is allowed by law to spend a minor percentage of its budget on political advocacy that's in line with the group's goals. The sort of wholesale politicking del Carlo describes, however, is not appropriate. Former Mission Housing staff have since denied having done political activity on staff time.

Beyond allegations of using employee payroll to staff political campaigns, there's evidence the Romero-led organization may have used its political clout to exact pressure on business rivals. One 2002 letter from a broker engaged by Mission Housing offered to buy a Mission Street building that had been slated to become an apartment complex, after the group's employees, acting as representatives of the Anti-Displacement Coalition, had lobbied public officials to withhold permits for the project.

The broker's letter told the property owner this situation might change if he sold to Mission Housing, which "has the wherewithal and the political juice to complete the project."

In 2002, after the board of directors fired Romero, citing concern that these sorts of activities might be illegal, Daly rousted support for a move to halt payments of government funds distributed to Mission Housing through city programs. And a year ago, Daly and his supporters ordered a city audit of Mission Housing accounts. The audit was released in December.

Remarkably, the audit brushed past allegations of improper use of government-funded company payroll for political ends. Instead, Harrington's office assembled a laundry list of accounting and management complaints. The audit said the group needed to hire more accounting staff, and should hire additional staff employees, rather than negotiating deals with other nonprofit groups, to provide services to residents in apartment buildings managed by the nonprofit group.

Mission Housing, for its part, said they'll beef up their accounting. But the group says that allying with other neighborhood nonprofits has proven a good way to provide resident services.

As fixable as these stated problems may seem, Board of Supervisors committee members last week used the audit as cause to informally request that the mayor permanently remove government funding the group had been counting on. And Matt Franklin, director of the mayor's office of housing, agreed at last week's hearing to find another use for the $360,000 that two years ago had been slated for Mission Housing.

Franklin did not return calls to his office for comment. Calls to the Controller's office went unreturned. Daly tells me he has adopted an official policy of not speaking to me, calling my coverage of issues such as this "unfair."

During the hearing, Harris, the straight-talking Mission Housing worker who identified Daly's Newspeak for what it is, had worn a union T-shirt without being a union member. Daly questioned this choice. Harris tried to respond when Daly interrupted, eliciting the "forked tongue" remark.

Even Harris didn't return a call I placed to his desk line.

And I can't say that I blame him. Publicly speaking the truth in this town is a good way to get in trouble.

The safest bet, for anyone wishing to preserve San Francisco's current political peace, is to exercise doublethink.

In Orwell's words, that's telling "deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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