San Francisco Bay Guardian- March 17, 1999
By Savannah Blackwell
On April 12, 1997, Mayor Willie Brown attended the funeral of Sacramento legend Frank Fat. The renowned restaurateur ran “Frank Fat’s,” a Sacramento eatery Brown frequented during his days in the state assembly and the place where deals were cut like so many steaks.
Shortly after speaking to some 2,000 mourners at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Brown started moving on to other matters quickly – as is his style. He decided he needed to make a phone call, and he asked one of his supporters, lobbyist Billy Rutland, to rattle off the telephone number. As Rutland obliged, a San Francisco reporter standing by offered a notebook and pen so the mayor could record the seven digits.
Brown waved away the offer.
“No, no, no. I don’t write anything down. I keep it all up here,” said a grinning Brown as he placed a finger on his forehead. “How do you think I avoided being indicted all these years?”
The reporter, who told the story on the condition that he not be named, said Brown was joking. But the point was clear: one way to avoid scrutiny – and accountability – is to avoid creating a paper trail. And that’s exactly what Brown has done in San Francisco.
Ask for records of the deal Brown orchestrated with Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to stop the city’s efforts to buy the utility’s Hunters Point power plant – and stifle public power – and his office responds: Sorry, there are none. Ask for correspondence between Brown and Assemblymember Carole Migden (D-San Francisco) concerning the Migden bill that gave Brown unilateral control over Treasure Island, and his office responds: Sorry, there is none.
Ask for memos, correspondence, or other documents between the Mayor’s Office and Adshel Inc., the company that won the contract to build pedestal-mounted news racks to replace freestanding racks in the city, and his office responds: Sorry, no such paperwork exists.
It’s astonishing, observers say: The mayor of one of the nation’s major cities, overseeing a $3.9 billion budget and more than 25,000 employees, keeps precious few records of conversations or dealings with staff or outside organizations.
The mayor who may have given away more juicy deals to more big private contractors that anyone else in postwar San Francisco history doesn’t even take notes. The former Assembly speaker who survived an intensive Federal Bureau of Investigation probe into political corruption in Sacramento has apparently learned an important lesson: if the records don’t exist, they can’t get you into any trouble.
The problem, of course, is that the public winds up paying the tab – often a large tab – for Brown’s backroom deals. And if the mayor keeps no records, there is no way for the public to know who got what, how much the city gave away, or how badly the public interest has been undermined so that Brown’s friends and allies in the private sector can get rich. And in many cases there’s no historical record of anything Brown has done – except for his own self-edited recollections.
“Here we have the head of one of the largest cities in California basically operating in a black box. We have no way of discerning what decisions were made or why they were made,” Elizabeth Pritzker, staff attorney at Oakland-based public interest law firm the First Amendment Project, told the Bay Guardian. “It makes it impossible for a member of the public to know whether to approve or disapprove of any particular action or to figure out whether the person we charge with running the city is doing so in our best interest.”
No other mayor in recent history has gone to such great lengths to avoid a paper trail.
Former mayor Frank Jordan told us that he worked primarily by paper, generating memos to staff and expecting updates in return. “I never worked off the cuff or off the top of my head,” Jordan said. “How do you have accountability if you don’t?”
Art Agnos kept records. Mayor Dianne Feinstein kept piles and piles of records. But when Brown negotiates a deal, he usually writes no memos, and he expects staff and representatives of outside organizations to follow the same procedure. If he wants to articulate his position on a given matter or issue an order, aides say, he picks up the phone and handles it that way. Or he calls a face-to-face meeting. Aides to the mayor say that even after staff meetings lasting more than an hour, in which numerous subjects are discussed, no meeting notes are generated.
“The mayor does not do a lot of memos,” Brown spokesperson Kandace Bender told the Bay Guardian. “He prefers to be briefed orally.”
Bender said part of the problem is the mayor’s eyesight – he suffers from a disease that affects his vision and makes reading difficult. But Brown manages to read the newspapers every day – and on the rare occasion that he does demand a memo, his staff simply prints it in large type.
Hundreds of other political, business, and community leaders have managed to overcome bad vision without abandoning normal paperwork. According to Brown’s current aides and those who worked with the mayor during his tenure at the state legislature, Brown has developed a powerful memory – he is able to recall precise numbers exactly and remember details of conversations with staff members from several years before.
But since there is no paper trail, there’s no way for the mayor’s staff to contradict him – everything depends on how Brown happens to remember it.
“[Former mayor Joseph L. Alioto’s] staff meetings would always generate memos, notes of goals, and minutes,” Angela Alioto, former president of the Board of Supervisors and a member of San Franciscans for Sunshine, told the Bay Guardian. “It’s the documents that prove the efficiency of the inefficiency of the administration. The writings provide the way for the public to know whether you’re doing right or you’re doing wrong.”
Asked by the Bay Guardian why he conducts the city’s business without making written records, Brown replied, “The only way I acquire knowledge is directly from people who know things – not from paper.”
Pressed on whether that’s because he’d rather not have reporters review his dealings, he smiled and changed the subject.
From PG&E to Treasure Island
On deal after deal and project after project, Brown has given away public dollars or compromised the public interest behind closed doors – and then insisted there was no paperwork to release. A few examples:
The Bay Guardian, concerned because the deal stopped a plan put together by staff at the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and activists in Hunters Point for the city to buy the plant and because part of the deal called for the expansion of another power plant in the city, requested copies of all memos, documents, and other written matter pertaining to the talks. The mayor’s entire file on the subject consisted of three documents: an explanation to the Board of Supervisors of the city’s plan to purchase the plants from the PUC, a letter from Feinstein to the California Public Utilities Commission urging it to consider the local PUC’s position, and the final settlement agreement. Nothing more.
Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, told us that such a lack of paper is unusual. “There’s no question that a protracted and complex negotiation normally leaves a paper trail, if for no other reason than to document the agency’s own position in case there is some doubt about what understandings existed at a certain point.”
“The less that is preserved, the more that is left open for confusion and manipulation,” Francke said.
Critics insisted that the mayor was trying to derail any community-based effort that might give public power a beachhead in town and thus damage PG&E’s monopoly. Records of negotiations might have shed some light on what PG&E asked for, what Brown agreed to accept, and what the city lost in the deal. That was exactly what happened in 1987, when then-mayor Feinstein personally intervened to give PG&E a sweetheart deal on long-term power-sale contracts. Detailed records of the negotiations, obtained later by the Bay Guardian, revealed just how much Feinstein had given away.
§ Last year, when the Bay Guardian asked for copies of any correspondence between Brown and Adshel Inc., the street-furniture manufacturer that won the bid to build pedestal-mounted news racks, Brown’s office responded that no such records existed. That seemed incredible: At issue was a valuable contract that went to a vendor with no experience in the field. But Brown’s staff insisted there were no records of any discussions with Adshel at all.
In early 1997, when Brown called publishers into his office to promise them that they would have a 30-day advance look at any draft of a news rack ordinance, he did not commit that pledge to writing. He later broke his promise; an ordinance was introduced without the publishers’ prior knowledge. But since he kept no records, there was no way to hold him to the deal.
Why would Sangiacomo take the time to host an unannounced fundraiser with no written invitations, even before Brown has officially thrown his fedora into the ring for a second term? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that according to a survey taken last year by the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, Sangiacomo companies Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling have received nearly $2.5 million in no-bid contracts from city agencies.
Brown’s paperless habit does go back to his days in Sacramento, according to former aides and political observers.
“That’s part of Willie’s legend,” one longtime political reporter in Sacramento told the Bay Guardian. “He doesn’t like paper, and he never has.”
Francke told us that Brown is treading on dangerous ground. “I think it’s the hallmark of any politician who doesn’t trust his environment to be leak-proof,” Francke said. “What that means for the public is that you just have to take them at their word. If there’s no record left to check them by, there’s no outside index to confirm their trustworthiness.”