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The Grid 

Wednesday, Mar 19 1997
Demon Dumb
Last June, when S.F. Supervisor Mabel Teng heard that a popular ice cream parlor in her Inner Sunset neighborhood was being forced out of business by a steep rent increase, she reacted as lawmakers are wont to react.

She held hearings.
And in the fine tradition of lawmakers everywhere, Teng also created the appearance of a large problem where only a small one existed -- and then drew a simplistic but politically beneficial conclusion about its cause. In the case of Old Uncle Gaylord's Ice Cream Cafe, Teng decided, there was a culprit, and its name was demon alcohol.

"There was a notice for a liquor license posted on the window," she recalls. "People noticed that property owners were forcing out small businesses. Activists said that fancy, trendy, yuppie restaurants were coming in and offering twice as much rent. That's when I became involved."

(Actually, Teng's assertion has little if any connection with factuality. The ice cream shop did face a 50 percent hike in its rent. But the shop had operated without a lease since 1992; the rent increase was meant to make up for inflation and five years of flat lease rates. But such pesky financial realities apparently never entered into Teng's calculations.)

Having latched onto a media-friendly cause and come to a wrongheaded estimation of the underlying problem, Teng was ready to become truly hazardous. All she needed was a little help from her friends.

And her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors, who knew better, were more than ready to accommodate.

Teng swung into action early in September. Borrowing from strategy used to fight a real alcohol-and-crime problem in the Mission District, Teng began creating the illusion of a similar problem in the Inner Sunset by railing at state alcoholic beverage regulators. She alleged the bureaucrats in the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control had allowed an overconcentration of liquor outlets in the Inner Sunset, which in turn had led to street crime increases, which now were threatening the neighborhood's civility.

To buttress Teng's alleged point, a loyal mayoral staffer and neighborhood Democratic club player, Andy Olshin, was shuffled to a hearing where he testified about being accosted by a drunk as he passed an Inner Sunset bar.

Oh, the horror.
Once the official alcohol horror hearings had gone on at sufficient length, Teng was ready to offer her solution to the problem of crime in the Inner Sunset: a moratorium on new liquor licenses for bars and restaurants there. Choosing collegiality over common sense, the other supervisors agreed to Teng's moratorium plan on March 3.

And that's a stupid shame.
It's a stupid shame because the moratorium won't help the owners of the ice cream parlor, a Cambodian immigrant couple who had scratched and saved for 10 years to buy the business, way back in 1989. No, Koy Hour Ly and her husband, Chi Kong Ly, closed up shop, and they are not coming back.

Also, it's entirely uncertain whether the liquor license ban will have any effect whatsoever on crime. The police cannot document that alcohol sales are a major factor in Inner Sunset crime statistics.

But Teng's moratorium will help someone.
The moratorium will give aid and comfort to some 38 bars and restaurants that already hold licenses to sell booze in the newly minted Inner Sunset Alcoholic Beverage Special Use District. Unless the law of supply and demand is repealed (and even Mabel Teng would have difficulty rounding up the votes for such a measure), these 38 businesses and the liquor licenses they own will now increase in value, because there is a limited supply of such licenses -- by government fiat.

And the moratorium also seems awfully likely to help Supervisor Teng herself.

In coming years, Teng can look forward to pleasant dealings with, and regular support from, a highly solicitous corps of Inner Sunset tavern owners and restaurateurs. And why shouldn't they be solicitous? During the next two years, Teng and company will decide whether the moratorium becomes a permanent fact of Inner Sunset life. And if it does become permanent, guess which 38 businesses will compose a government-enforced monopoly that will all but qualify as a license to print money?

There were plenty of warning signs that Teng's moratorium was phony or misguided, or both. In fact, the other supervisors should have seen those warnings from a mile away.

But never underestimate the logrolling and back-scratching capabilities of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Other supervisors had to know that the Mission District liquor license moratorium was based on a situation far more severe than anything seen in the Inner Sunset, no matter what Mabel Teng said.

With one liquor license for each 87 residents, the Mission is all but overrun by bars and liquor stores -- and the type of street crime that seems, intuitively, to be linked to a skid row atmosphere. The liquor license situation in the Inner Sunset cannot be considered even statistically similar, unless one ignores the fact that the population of that area effectively doubles each weekday, when University of California at San Francisco Medical Center employees arrive at work.

Supervisor Susan Leal, who authored the Mission moratorium, clearly knew that Teng's moratorium, which applies only to bars and restaurants and (bizarrely) not to liquor stores, was oddly constructed.

"This is a restaurant town," Leal said back on Sept. 9. "And I know that many residents, including residents of the Inner Sunset, like to have a wide variety of eating establishments to choose from."

She added: "I think that if you are seriously going to crack down on sales of alcohol in an area, you should definitely include off-sale liquor stores and corner stores."

But that's as far as Leal went.
In two subsequent votes, Leal joined Teng to help pass the ill-conceived Sunset measure.

Newly elected Supervisor Leland Yee also appeared to recognize the contradictions inherent in Teng's Sunset liquor proposal.

When Teng cited above-average crime rates in the Inner Sunset in support of the liquor license moratorium, Yee correctly pointed out that police had not been able to draw any causal relationship between liquor sales and crime in the neighborhood.

"I was concerned that all we were doing was stifling competition," says Yee, who acknowledges that he "went along" with Teng because, well, she lives in the 'hood and he didn't need to pick a fight with her two months after being sworn into office.

Now, the question is whether the supes will compound their errors. They will if -- in the absence of some rational connection to criminal conduct -- they continue to grant and extend liquor license moratoriums that are little more than welfare for existing alcohol purveyors.

Supervisor Leslie Katz has already proposed extending the Inner Mission liquor license moratorium to her Bernal Heights neighborhood. Hearings on that silliness could open as soon as next month.

And Teng has a second moratorium working, this one for the villagelike West Portal neighborhood, where merchants are divided on the wisdom of the proposal. There is one sign of rationality on the moratorium front: Teng had arranged for the board to vote on the West Portal proposal March 3, but withdrew it, saying she'd discovered some dissent.

The reversal of position shows Teng is capable of re-corking the bottle when political conditions call for it. But, her flip-flop also raises a question: Might a six-month moratorium on all Teng initiatives be in order?

That Stupid Sunshine
Mayor Willie Brown used his biweekly press briefing of March 11 to criticize the city's Sunshine Ordinance, which spells out civilians' right to monitor policy-making. He called the ordinance phony and nonsensical, so we asked him if he had a problem with public access to government.

Eyebrows flared in pique, Brown answered this way: "I obviously don't. That's a lousy question, and you know it's a lousy question. Long before you were old enough to be a reporter, I was protecting the rights of free speech."

Awhile later, the mayor got back to the point: "The Sunshine Ordinance does not allow people to candidly engage in dialogue for appropriate discussion purposes where they can appear to be an idiot -- by some people's standards -- or [in the alternative] appear to be seeking a nice comment in one of your newspaper articles or one of your television programs."

"The public doesn't go to your press assignments ... your process by which you determine your editorials. The public doesn't go to any of this."

It took a few moments, but the mayor did eventually come back to the Sunshine Ordinance once again: "That's all so stupid. It is just so stupid. It has nothing to do with access. You know it has nothing to do with access. You know it has nothing to do with revelations of activities and comments that go on in public policy making."

It took us another few minutes to digest that answer. Then, we asked the mayor a second question. What did he think about the University of California Board of Regents and the way it had handled the recent merger of the Stanford and UCSF medical centers (see "Temperature Rising," Page 4)?

And this is what the mayor said: "I would tell you I think that process works perfectly. ... I believe that the process that the university engages in is an appropriate one. I wouldn't change one item of it."

The Board of Regents. That would be the body that was forced last month to acknowledge that back in November it had conducted an illegal, closed-door session focusing on university accounting discrepancies. To be exact, $100 million in accounting discrepancies.

But the mayor, who served as a regent for 15 years, is probably right. It is stupid to be concerned about $100 million snafus created by university accountants. Absolutely idiotic.


About The Authors

George Cothran


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