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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Has Willie Brown Outfoxed the Board of Supervisors -- Again?

Posted By on Wed, Jun 24, 2009 at 3:30 PM

Why was Willie Brown -- that's him on the left -- involved in sponsoring an Assembly bill the city's Board of Supervisors is madly hoping to derail?
It probably wasn't really Mark Twain who said "Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over." But until the day 80-proof distilled spirits begin rolling in via the tunnels from Hetch Hetchy, it seems the city of San Francisco will have a hard time winning any water wars when one Willie L. Brown, Jr. is on the other side.

This story is a wee bit complicated -- maybe a spot of whiskey would be just the thing. It starts with the city's multi-billion dollar Water System Improvement Project to the Hetch Hetchy system. A $26 million contract for a portion of the program last year went not to the truly behemoth engineering corporation Parsons Corp. but its partner company AECOM (a deal that had disturbing elements of its own). The reason Parsons didn't get its share of the pie was due to a city attorney's decision: Since Parsons was instrumental in designing the scope of the project, the city felt it would be a violation of state law to pay Parsons to do work it essentially drew up the specs for. The result: AECOM, which had joined forces with Parsons for this venture, took sole possession of the city contract.

So it came as something of a surprise for city officials when a state bill aimed at retroactively undoing the city attorney's decision and landing Parsons its supposedly rightful loot sailed through the state Assembly last month with a 66-7 vote; two of those ayes came from San Francisco legislators Tom Ammiano and Fiona Ma. The bill was penned by San Jose's Assemblyman Joe Coto, but the real eye-opener was its sponsor: Willie Brown. San Francisco's former mayor had gone behind the city's back to spark a water war.

Naturally one begins to wonder: Why is Brown carrying Parsons' water?

That's a question a number of folks in city government are pondering -- but it's taken a back seat to attempting to quash this bill. Supervisors David Chiu and David Campos this week hurriedly penned a resolution which the board could pass as early as June 30 referring to "AB 746" as an "ex post facto law" and urging the legislature to spike the bill -- which is due for a July 1 hearing with the senate's Local Government Committee.

Yet if the city had gotten the ball rolling sooner -- this bill was introduced in February and voted on in May -- there's a good chance AB 746 could have been stopped dead in its tracks before it passed the Assembly. Ammiano told SF Weekly that "there was no opposition," and no one contacted him regarding the bill (Ma's Capitol Director told us much the same). When asked if he wished the board had reached out to him prior to the May vote, Ammiano answered "Yeah, of course."

Ammiano did notice that the man who beat him in his race for mayor in 1999 sponsored the bill, which he chalked up to "Willie having a career after office" -- but it's not so simple. Brown hasn't been listed as a lobbyist with the state since 2006, and Parsons wasn't recorded as one of his clients. When asked why Brown took his pet bill to San Jose's Coto instead of a San Francisco representative, workers in Coto's office were unsure; our calls and e-mails to Brown have not yet been returned.

Terry McHale, a lobbyist with the firm Aaron Reed and Associates, told SF Weekly that Brown called his firm on behalf of Parsons -- "he said Parsons had an issue and asked if we could help on it. So we did," recalled McHale, who was tracked down on his cell phone and spoke extemporaneously. "I think Mayor Brown works with Parsons also."

And yet, Brown is -- again -- not listed as a lobbyist on the state registry, and Parsons is not listed as a firm employing lobbyists. While Aaron Reed is on the registry, and McHale told us his firm works for Parsons, Parsons is not listed as one of their clients on the official state registry.

It remains to be seen if the city's stated opposition to AB 746 will have an influence on the state senate -- Senator Mark Leno hasn't yet returned our call. Behind the scenes, some observers told us that Parsons has made a pretty good case -- the company claims it would never have accepted the San Francisco Public Utility Commission's invite to serve as a consultant and help draw up those specs if it knew doing so would preclude it from bidding on the project.

It's also unclear what, if anything, Brown has gained from tossing this monkey wrench into the city's plans. If he's gotten some sort of financial compensation out of this, he'd be gratuitously breaking the law -- but that's not Brown's style.

When SF Weekly described the Brown-Parsons-AB 746 scenario to ethics expert Bob Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies -- without using any names -- Stern noted that unless "the private individual" took $2,000 or more from "the engineering firm" or spent more than a third of his time working for the firm, then he wasn't a lobbyist in the eyes of the law.

When we told Stern that the private individual in question was Willie Brown, Stern laughed out loud. No rules were broken -- guaranteed.

"Willie will make sure he is complying with the law," said Stern. "I'm sure Willie knows what all the rules are. He is very, very careful."  


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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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