GREEN'S GONE: GOOD
Former planning director played key role in Mayor Willie Brown’s pay-to-play administration
By Savannah Blackwell
SF Progressive.com editor
On Friday, October 28, Gerald Green’s career on the city’s payroll came to an ignominious end. That morning, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Green, formerly the head of planning, accepted a $12,000 gift membership to the tony Olympic Club in early 2000 – around the time when lobbyist Robert McCarthy was working him for permission for the club to expand its downtown structure. Later that day, Public Utilities Commission General Manager Susan Leal decided Green's relatively recent employment in her agency was over.
The payment, as the Chronicle reported, apparently violates the state’s Political Reform Act.
Sounds sleazy, doesn’t it? But it pales in comparison to the magnitude and impact on the city of other dubious moves Green pulled during the 8-year-term of former Mayor Willie Brown.
Let us be clear, however. These more significant departures from ethical and legal conduct were not his own idea. Green’s most under-handed acts, including violating the City Charter to let powerful broadcast outlets avoid public scrutiny (the subject of an ongoing FBI investigation) and twisting the city’s planning codes to allow rampant dot-com development (forcing the displacement of untold numbers of lower and middle income San Franciscans) -- were a direct result of Brown’s demands or secret policy mandates.
And what was motivating Brown? Nothing less than power, specifically the desire to hang onto his seat for a second term.
This story goes back to November 2, 1999. The usually confident mayor was nervous, very nervous. In a history-making move, Tom Ammiano, his constant and most vocal critic on the Board of Supervisors, had catapulted into second place in the general election for mayor on a write-in-ballot (see Gabriel Roth’s and my “Ammiano’s Miracle,” published 11/10/99 by the San Francisco Bay Guardian). Brown, and along with him -- traditional downtown interests as well as those of the burgeoning multi-media industry -- were worried that the grassroots-based, neighborhood-oriented and renter-friendly movement behind Ammiano would propel the gay activist into first place in the December 14, 1999 runoff.
This just could not happen. An Ammiano victory would have been an unbearably embarrassing amd personally painful defeat for the former Speaker of the California Assembly. Moreover, it also would have turned the city’s power structure on its head. So Brown became the beneficiary of an unprecedented (and carefully orchestrated) $2.64 million soft money campaign that would secure his re-election, which ultimately cost $5.8 million. (see Bob Porterfield’s and my “Soft Money Shuffle,” SFBG, 2/16/00) Were it not for the total blitz of TV ads, campaign mailers, billboards and onslaught of other pricey pro-Brown campaign propaganda, Ammiano just might have won. And things, as they say, would be very different.
Other than expenditures by labor, the lion’s share of Brown’s soft money came from landlords, real estate developers and builders, many of whom had projects pending before the city’s planning department and later, generally, got their way.
Fourteen percent of the soft money total came from two key development lobbyists, McCarthy and Debra Stein and their clients. The two (who, at the time worked together out of McCarthy’s office) pitched in $21,250. Their clients ponied up $356,000, including $105,000 from SKS Investments – a major player in the development of multi-media office space.
McCarthy and Stein’s generosity made them important to the mayor. Over his lengthy career as an elected official, Brown endeavored to take care of those who took care of him. That was a key part of his success.
In late 1999, McCarthy and Stein needed some help from planning officials. They were representing the consortium of broadcasters that own the city’s most hideous monstrosity located in a neighborhood: the 977-foot eyesore Sutro Tower. The broadcasters, which of course included those who ran ads for Brown, were in a a jam. Residents living near the tower, represented by attorney Christine Linnenbach, had busted them for installing some 179 heavy and potentially hazardous telecommunications equipment on the tower without getting permits. On Dec. 9, 1999, Linnenbach formally asked Zoning Administrator Mary Gallagher whether Sutro’s changes to the tower necessitated special permission (a “conditional use” hearing) from the planning department.
It was over Gallagher’s decision that Green carried Brown’s water and broke city law.
According to Gallagher, concern for the mayor’s political career was influencing how the department would handle SutroTower. She wrote in a May 23, 2000 declaration read at a meeting of the Board of Appeals that Green had told her to hold off on a decision until after the runoff. (If memory serves, a certain up-and-coming North Beach activist who is now President of the Board of Supervisors, read her letter into the record.)
On Dec. 17, 1999, Gallagher decided that Sutro Tower needed special permission for the antennae and two underground fuel tanks.
At that point – three days after the runoff – the mayor went ballistic, and Green freaked out, according to sources close to the involved parties.
Brown demanded that Green get Gallagher to change her decision or else Green would lose his job. As planning director, Green served at the pleasure of the mayor.
Gallagher, confident of her judgment and put off by the intense lobbying she was getting from Stein as well as the stench of corruption, refused to acquiesce, sources close to the matter have told me.
On Dec. 24, Green wrote a letter to Linnenbach claiming Gallagher had resigned and that he, as Acting Zoning Administrator, had chosen to “rescind” Gallagher’s decision. Robert Passmore, who served as Zoning Administrator for decades, said no planning director had ever pulled such a move. The Chronicle reported five days later that Gallagher had resigned, without attributing the information.
But a thorough investigation of planning department documents obtained by myself and former Bay Guardian reporter Lucia Hwang, proved that Gallagher, in fact, did not resign as zoning administrator. Indeed, on Dec. 27, Gallagher signed a document as zoning administrator. Green considered her zoning administrator as well. (He signed a document “Gerald Green, for Mary Gallagher Zoning Administrator” on Dec. 29) She was paid as zoning administrator until one day after she resigned on April 13, 2000. (see Hwang’s and my “Sutro Sleaze” SFBG 5/31/00)
The City Charter states that a zoning administrator’s decision is final unless appealed to the Board of Appeals. No appeal was filed until after Gallagher resigned in April. Green’s Dec. 24 action, therefore, violated city law. At the time, Green refused to discuss the matter with us, as did Brown.
According to sources close to the federal investigation, Green did not point the finger at Brown when he was questioned by FBI agents.
Will he be less reluctant now that Brown called him “stupid” in Matier & Ross’ Oct. 30 column?
DOT COM DOUGH
Gallagher was going to be a problem for Brown and Green for another reason. She had indicated to colleagues that she would not be willing to ignore planning department policy (and city law) and agree to deem proposed large multi-media office developments something other than “office use.” Doing so would allow these projects’ sponsors to skirt the city’s limit on office space growth, avoid payment of impact fees and ultimately displace moderately-priced housing for residents of San Francisco’s vulnerable southeastern neighborhoods – most notably the Mission, Potrero Hill and SOMA.
This was a brainchild of McCarthy, or at least something in which he had a hand. On Feb. 9, 2000, he gleefully told affordable housing activist Calvin Welch that he and representatives of other multi-media office developments were going to undermine the city’s 1986 landmark growth law, Proposition M, and jam through the projects. Those projects’ backers had dumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into Brown’s runoff. It is not unreasonable to think that they hoped to benefit from their largesse. (see Hwang’s “Giving Away the City” SFBG 10/18/00) M
McCarthy jabbed Welch in the chest and declared, “We’re going to fuck you guys!” (At the time, McCarthy did not respond to phone calls seeking comment. see my “Battle for San Francisco” SFBG 10/18/00)
The idea was simple enough – though outrageous. Dot-com office developments – for which the demand seemed endless at the time – would get called something else, say “research and development” or “business services.” And under Green’s guidance, that’s what happened. Larry Badiner, who was appointed zoning administrator after Gallagher left to work for the planning department in San Mateo, went through all sorts of mental gyrations to justify that dot-com offices were in fact, something other than offices. He cooperated so fully with lobbyists close to the mayor that in one case, planning sources told Hwang, a firm faxed over its own determination for Badiner, who then signed it the same day.
By the summer of 2000, Welch and land use attorney Sue Hestor figured out what was going on. In scores of so-called “live/work” lofts -- exempted from stringent planning requirements because they were specificed for artists -- employees of dot-coms were working away at their computers. Meanwhile, after sanctioning months of talks between activists and downtown interests over how the push for dot-com office growth might fairly be accommodated, Brown scuttled the compromise at the behest of dot-com contributors who weren’t at the table. McCarthy was one of them. Shortly after Welch, Hestor and activist Debra Walker went to work on a proposition to protect the basic tenets of Prop. M, Brown produced his own office growth measure. Evidence showed McCarthy and lobbyists close to the mayor had prior knowledge of its terms. The battle was on. Ultimately, both measures failed at the November ballot.
EAT, DRINK AND BE MERRY
These were high-rolling times. Dot-com money was flowing, and the good fortune was showered on officials whose decisions would affect that interest. One dot-com development consulting firm alone, Baker and McKenzie, took Green out for drinks, lunches or dinners usually twice each month for roughly two years. The firm also treated Brown to breakfasts and entertained planning commissioners.
Following Green’s Oct. 29 firing, Beyondchron’s Randy Shaw called for an investigation into whether gifts were routinely made in an effort to influence government decisions. I can say, based on my own reporting at the time, that this was commonplace. A lot of it can be seen in lobbying records at the city’s ethics commission. Some of it is harder to prove. For example, sources in and close to the planning department told me checks covering travel and other types of gifts were routinely dropped on the desks of key planners. But going on the record often risked a source’s job.
I don’t think much would be gained at this point in calling for interrogation of planning staffers. Many of the conscientious and experienced planners from the Brown administration were either forced out or quit. A few might be found here and there in other parts of the city’s bureaucracy. (However, it might be useful for supervisors to question Green. He might offer more information now that Brown no longer controls the city and his job.)
Something good did come out of all this corruption and greed. And that was the revolutionary Board of Supervisors’ elections in 2000. Fed up with reports of improprieties, San Francisco voters rejected Brown’s handpicked cronies and elected a slate of reform-minded, neighborhood-oriented supervisors who took office in Jan. 2001-- just as the dot-com economy bombed and seven months after the Board of Appeals rolled over on Sutro Tower. Ironically, they, in no small part, owe their offices to the wheeling and dealing of Willie Brown.
p.s. On Nov. 9, I feel compelled to add this note: Given yesterday's vote by the Board of Supervisors approving the Home Depot store, it's clear "the bloom is off the rose," in terms of the 2000 progressive slate (as Green Party activist Marc Solomon put it). It's shocking that Board President Aaron Peskin, who as an activist -- fought a chain drugstore in North Beach and as a supervisor implemented anti-chain store legislation in that district -- provided the swing vote giving the OK for the retail box outlet to locate in Supervisor Sophie Maxwell's district. Also strange was his support for approving Comcast's cable franchise.
That said, Supervisor Chris Daly still clearly holds the progressive flag high, and Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi follows his lefty heart as well. Supervisor Jake McGoldrick remains far to the left of his district. And of course, Supervisor TomAmmiano has moved firmly back to his progressive base since the ill-fated decision in 2002 to move to the middle in anticipation of making another run for mayor.
While some recent decisions by members of the Class of 2000 have disappointed progressives, it's important to remember that their election did much to reign in the power of former Mayor Willie Brown (such as over the planning commission) and signalled the end of the Brown-Burton machine's stranglehold on San Francisco politics.
Email SFProgressive editor Savannah Blackwell at firstname.lastname@example.org