Brown-out on PG&E

Brown-out on PG&E

By Amanda Witherell

California State Attorney General Jerry Brown’s office is investigating Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s meddling with Community Choice Aggregation, according to several sources who spoke with the Guardian. “I was contacted by their office,” said John Rizzo, who works with the Bay chapter of the Sierra Club. Rizzo was told by a deputy attorney general that the PG&E investigation was ongoing. “We had some materials we sent to them and they had material they showed us.”

The attorney general’s office did not comment on the investigation. But based on the materials Rizzo said he shared with the deputy attorney general, PG&E’s lobbying efforts against proposed CCAs may the subject of the inquiry. Assembly Bill 117, the 2001 CCA law that lets municipalities purchase wholesale electricity directly for citizens and route it through privately-owned utility lines, states that “all electrical corporations shall cooperate fully with any community choice aggregators that investigate, pursue, or implement” CCA programs.

Rizzo said he gave the deputy attorney general an April 30, 2007 letter from PG&E to ratepayers denouncing San Francisco’s CCA plan. Rizzo also gave investigators filings from the Oakland Ethics Commission showing that a lobbyist for the corporation, Wil Hardee, met twice with City Council Member Ignacio de la Fuente to “discuss pitfalls and risks” of CCA.

Similar 2007 filings exist at San Francisco’s Ethics Commission. Between April and June of 2007, as city officials were finalizing their CCA proposal, PG&E lobbyists met with a variety of supervisors, employees, and public utilities commissioners, to argue against the initiative. And when officials of the San Joaquin Valley Power Authority — an aggregation of 12 cities and counties — were looking into passing their own CCA plan last year, PG&E lobbied so aggressively against the idea that the authority filed a formal complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission. (See Their Neighborhood; 8/15/07) No final decision about the complaint has been made by the CPUC.

Originally published April 2, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Peaker suit

Peaker suit

Through a public-private partnership, the city would own the peaker plants after 10 years

By Amanda Witherell

The permits for San Francisco’s Electric Reliability Project — a 145-megawatt, natural gas–fired “peaker” power plant — have not been properly vetted, according to a Sept. 24 lawsuit filed against the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District.

A recent US Supreme Court ruling that the EPA has jurisdiction to regulate greenhouse gas emissions provides grounds for the suit, brought pro bono by the Brightline Defense Project, representing the A. Philip Randolph Institute, Bayview resident Lynne Brown, and Potrero resident Regina Hollins. “In light of the Massachusetts case, the SFERP has not been properly reviewed by the EPA and its delegate, BAAQMD,” the lawsuit alleges.

The California Independent System Operator has said the SFERP is necessary to provide more in-city power generation for grid reliability, despite the recently approved 400 MW Trans Bay Cable and the city’s Community Choice Aggregation plan to increase energy efficiency and build more renewable power generation.

Through a public-private partnership, the city would own the peakers after 10 years. Some public power advocates have said they would be a positive step toward the city controlling its municipal power needs.

Pacific Gas and Electric Co. has donated about $50,000 to the A. Philip Randolph Institute, according to regional director James Bryant. But, he said, “they’re not giving me any funding on this issue of peaker plants.”

Originally published September 25, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

CCA moving

CCA moving

Legislation’s supporters confident it would pass

By Amanda Witherell

San Francisco’s plan for Community Choice Aggregation was primed to move one step closer to enactment June 12. Legislation before the Board of Supervisors would allow the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission to issue Requests for Information to make more of the city’s power renewable and available to residents and businesses. The vote came after the Guardian‘s press time, but the legislation’s sponsors, Sups. Tom Ammiano and Ross Mirkarimi, both expressed confidence that it would pass.

“We think we finessed it enough to get the necessary number of votes,” Ammiano told us.

“It’s taken a long time to get this far,” he says of the process that began shortly after the 2002 approval of Carole Migden’s Assembly Bill 117, which gives communities the ability to purchase power from providers to sell directly to residents and businesses. That gives municipalities greater choices for what kinds of power they use.

San Francisco’s CCA plan calls for 51 percent renewable sources, owned or operated by the city, gradually integrated into the grid by 2017. Most of the city’s power is currently managed by Pacific Gas and Electric Co., which draws 12 percent of its power from renewables.

The plan has been supported by a variety of environmental and public power groups throughout the city and criticized only by PG&E and some downtown allies.

Where Mayor Gavin Newsom stands on the issue remains to be seen. While consistently expressing support in the past and budgeting money to develop CCA, he has more recently expressed some concerns. But Mirkarimi says, “We look forward to his continued support.”

Click here to see the CCA survey “results.”

Originally published June 13, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Green like money

Green like money

Gay greenwash: Look who skipped out on PG&E’s LGBT Center solar panel party

BY Amanda Witherell

The LGBT Community Center on Market Street traded pink and lavender for Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s acidic green Jan. 27. During a so-called green fair at the center, the billion-dollar corporation unveiled a $170,000 gift of solar panels for the roof of the building, which will provide 20 to 40 percent of the organization’s power and cut its annual electricity bill by an estimated $5,000.

According to PG&E, this is the beginning of $7.5 million of solar installations planned for San Francisco as part of the company’s “Let’s green this city” campaign. Tom King, senior vice president of PG&E, had a variety of optimistic numbers to bolster the company’s claim that it’s turning over a green leaf, but he couldn’t tell us how much of the company’s power actually comes from solar sources.

“I don’t know what that number is exactly,” he told the Guardian.

The protesters outside the building did. “Zero!” Sakura Saunders shouted as she distributed printouts from PG&E’s Web site showing that less than 1 percent of the company’s electricity comes from solar power. Saunders is part of an independent collective fighting the company’s green campaign with its own at http://www.letsgreenWASHthiscity.org.

Some of San Francisco’s leaders were there lauding the donation, including Sup. Ed Jew and Assemblymember Mark Leno, who thanked King and PG&E “for choosing the LGBT Center as the benefit of your largesse.”

Others were conspicuously absent, including a legislator whom Leno has talked about challenging next year, state senator Carole Migden. Eric Potashner, Migden’s deputy chief of staff, told us, “She didn’t want to overstate the accomplishments of a company that still has a long way to go before it could be considered green.”

Leno told us he had fought PG&E on many issues. “My voting record is quite public, and I do not feel compromised by reaping the benefits they’re bestowing upon the community center in an attempt to paint a greener image for themselves.”

Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Bevan Dufty both opted out as well, with Dufty citing PG&E’s ongoing efforts to block public power: “I’m happy to see people support the center. I just wasn’t willing to have myself associated with it.”

Originally published January 31, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Peak experience

Peak experience

By Amanda Witherell

Standing on the steps of City Hall, New College professor Richard Heinberg told a crowd of San Franciscans, “The 21st century will be the decline of fossil fuels.” This renowned expert on “peak oil” then headed inside to testify at a hearing convened by Sup. Ross Mirkarimi on the issue.

Chief among the myriad troubling facts and statistics was Heinberg’s prediction that world oil production will peak around 2010 or 2011. US production peaked in the 1970s, but that barely affected the country’s skyrocketing oil consumption patterns. Even the recent dollar per gallon jump in gasoline prices has yet to significantly slow the rapid approach of the inevitable end of the age of oil.

Contrasting his research with that of global warming, Heinberg said, “Peak oil is not a theory. It’s something we’ve been observing for 30 years.”

Because of unabated rises in population and oil demand, plus escalating conflict over what little petroleum reserves remain, the United States can expect a continued increase in price and decrease in the comfort and security that 100 years of cheap petroleum have allowed.

Heinberg has researched and authored three books on the subject of peak oil and appeared in all the liberal publications that were crying out about global warming before it was the hip new worry. He was invited to the city’s July 28 Local Agency Formation Commission meeting, where he presented the scary news and urged city officials to prepare.

David Room of Energy Preparedness, an Oakland firm that consults with businesses and municipalities on how to prepare for rising oil prices and potential shortages, also addressed the committee, agreeing with Heinberg’s timeline and urging the city to think in terms of disaster preparedness.

He cited a rise in oil prices from $28 a barrel in October 2003 to $75 a barrel today, noting that this continued trajectory would bring us to $300 a barrel by peak oil time. Broken down, that’s $12 for a gallon of gasoline. He recommended the city look at how escalating oil prices or supply disruptions could affect every municipal service that depends on the General Fund and urged a deep move toward drastic localization on all fronts, from food supplies to employment and housing.

Mirkarimi said one of the first steps would be a lessening of our reliance on fossil fuels and “restructuring of our relationship with PG&E” by making Community Choice Aggregation of power — and ultimately, full public power — more of a reality and less of a theory.

Originally published August 1, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

What booze ban?

What booze ban?

After an alcohol crackdown in North Beach, the city commission is back to facilitating the fun

By Amanda Witherell

Outside of North Beach, the party is still on. That’s good news for San Francisco festivalgoers, but it leaves one outstanding question: What exactly is current city policy on promoting partying in public spaces?

Once again, the forum was the Recreation and Park Commission’s monthly meeting, this one July 19. It wasn’t exactly a reprise of the perplexing mess surrounding the North Beach festivals (see “The Death of Fun,” 5/23/06), but it did involve the same question of whether to allow drinking in city parks.

The commission approved a request from Seven Star to produce a two-day World Beat Music Concert in Sharon Meadow on May 19 and 20 next year. The application included codas for a modified sound policy and permission to sell beer and wine, which was granted without so much as a clarifying question, a scrutiny of beer garden site plans, testimony from event planners, or a peep of public comment.

This permit is practically identical to the permits submitted by the North Beach Festival and North Beach Jazz Festival for use of Washington Square Park, which incited no end of grief among event planners, neighborhood activists, local businesses, musicians, fans, and fun lovers throughout the city. The one apparent difference is that it’s not in Washington Square Park, whose use as a festival site has raised concerns among North Beach residents.

“That’s why it sailed right through,” said Dennis Kern, director of operations for the Recreation and Park Department. There are 56 greenways listed in Section 4.10 of the Park Code that prohibit consumption of alcohol. Introduced back in 1981, the code has been amended four times over the years to include additional parks. Washington Square joined the list in 2000, but in the case of the festivals, the code has historically been waived without fanfare.

This year, however, Kern broke with tradition by recommending that beer and wine not be sold in the park during the North Beach Festival and North Beach Jazz Fest. The festivals ultimately appealed, and a compromise was reached allowing alcohol sales outside the park.

When questioned by the Guardian as to whether future recommendations would follow suit, Kern said, “Yeah, probably. Each one is a separate case, but we’ll continue to follow the Park Code. The commission can always grant their exceptions.”

Originally published July 25, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Recycling city buildings

Recycling city buildings

By Amanda Witherell

High-rise homeless housing or high-priced condos? That was the choice when the fate of 150 Otis was debated at a June 16 hearing of the Board of Supervisors Land Use and Economic Development Committee.

“I am totally convinced that if the final decision about 150 Otis is left in the hands of the Mayor’s Office of Housing, there will never be housing for our homeless sisters and brothers at that location,” said Sister Bernie Galvin, a longtime advocate for homeless people and a member of the city panel responsible for finding ways to use surplus property to house the homeless.

Galvin was joined by nearly two dozen tenant advocates, homeless citizens, and seniors demanding that the 90-year-old former juvenile hall not be sold off to private developers, as the mayor’s office has proposed.

The city has already disposed of 39 properties that could have been used for homeless housing. San Francisco’s Surplus Property Ordinance, established in 2002, requires that city officials turn underused city property into homeless housing. But so far, that’s been mostly an empty promise. Some have been sold, others converted to open space. The remainder, the city says, are unfit for habitation or too costly to renovate.

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi called the hearing to ask the Mayor’s Office of Housing to explain the fate of 150 Otis. MOH representatives Doug Shoemaker and Joe Lipski said the mayor’s office wants to sell the property at the 2005-estimated value of $2.2 million. According to Lipski, MOH prefers to put the money back into the General Fund and build from scratch rather than spend an estimated $10 million on converting the nine-story building into 66 studio units.

Critics claim MOH is underestimating the number of potential units and has closed the door on creative solutions. “I would be interested in developing this building for the homeless in the city,” said Sam Patel, a hotel developer who already leases 600 single-room occupancy units to the city. He thinks there’s room for as many as 125 SROs in the 100,000 square foot building.

Mirkarimi said he’d like to explore turning the property over to the city’s Human Services Agency. “We would do something like MOH and look at the most cost-effective use of the building,” HSA rep Scott Walton said. “It’s not a question of will or won’t we do housing, but what’s the most effective use of dollars.”

The HSA hasn’t yet assessed the building, which is located right next to its office. Mirkarimi said the next step is a potential compromise between MOH, homeless advocate leaders, and the HSA to renovate the building, which is currently used as a temporary emergency homeless shelter and as a storage facility for homeless people’s possessions.

“What’s the best use of the property? We don’t want to lose sight of that question,” Mirkarimi told the Guardian after the meeting. He and Sup. Sophie Maxwell, the committee chair, expressed fears that the sale of the property will result in more high-priced SoMa condos.

Originally published June 20, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Another round

Another round

New events coalition raises a ruckus after a second North Beach festival is denied a permit to sell booze

By Amanda Witherell

Members of the newly formed San Francisco Outdoor Events Coalition gathered on the evening of May 3. It had been a long, discouraging day, and the mood was somber.

Robbie Kowal of the North Beach Jazz Festival apologized for not having an agenda ready. “Frankly, I was too busy fighting for the future of my festival at City Hall today,” he joked, but nobody really laughed.

Earlier that day, the Recreation and Park Commission Operations Committee voted to deny the jazz festival the right to sell beer and wine inside
Washington Square Park. The decision followed a precedent the committee
first set last month regarding the larger North Beach Festival (see “Last Call?” 5/3/06).

Alcohol sales provide the bulk of the funding for the free music, but commission president Gloria Bonilla suggested they explore other money sources and sponsorship.

“The idea that there can’t be successful events in the city without alcohol, I can’t buy into,” Bonilla said at the meeting.

Unfortunately, the jazz festival isn’t solvent enough for such a firm policy and can’t afford to lose the source of 75 percent of its funding less than three months before the event.

“She wants us to pass the hat,” Kowal said at the coalition meeting. “We did that last year and we got 78 bucks.”

North Beach Jazz Festival is a big generator of fun and revenue for the city, but its organizers say they don’t make any money off the deal.

“It’s a labor of love,” said Kowal, who is considering canceling the festival
despite the signed contracts and purchased plane tickets for performers.

Twenty-seven individuals came to the hearing to speak in support of the festival,
including Board of Supervisors president Aaron Peskin, who represents
North Beach and has been critical of how the North Beach Festival beer
gardens prevent underage people from entering the park.

The three-member committee encouraged the Jazz Festival promoters to pursue
other options, like beer gardens on barricaded streets, but took a hard line on booze in the park.

“What I’m interested in is a consistent and fair application of the policy. We’ve said no alcohol. While I appreciate having Supervisor Peskin come speak to us
today, I think we need to be consistent in this policy,” Commissioner Meagan Levitan said at the hearing.

Rec and Park general manager Yomi Agunbiade and director of operations Dennis Kern have said “a growing public concern” caused them to recommend against
the sale of alcohol for the two North Beach festivals.

“Rec and Park has a new general manager and a new director of operations who
are very experienced but come here from other cities,” Kowal said. “There’s some missing institutional knowledge. We are not Walnut Creek, we are not Chicago, we are not DC. We’re San Francisco, and we have our own unique culture.”

On May 8, a select group from the coalition met with senior staff from the mayor’s office to express its growing concern over increased fees and decreased city
services and to discuss the grave implications of Rec and Park’s recent decisions for other outdoor festivals in the city. After the meeting Kowal was optimistic and said the mayor and supervisors expressed support for the festivals, but he acknowledged, “We don’t live in a city where the mayor can say, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ It’s going to come down to the commission again. If people want to see this festival survive, they have to come to City Hall on May 30.”

That’s the date that the full Rec and Park Commission will decide whether to
overrule the Operations Committee and allow booze back into the park
during the two festivals.

Originally published May 9, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

Get on the water

Get on the water

Smooth sailing for seaworthy landlubbers, and the legendary Beer Cans on the Bay

By Amanda Witherell

It was my wise Uncle Arthur who told me: Cultivate friendships with people who have boats. He passed on this nugget of wisdom as we were reaching across Maine’s Frenchman Bay in my tiny Tartan 27, Jane. In the bright afternoon sunshine, it was plain to see that my little vessel wasn’t suffering from that other great sailing adage: Boats are holes in the water where you throw money. I had neither time nor money for pimping teak and painting decks, and when I left the East Coast for California, Jane stayed behind.

I’ve been lonely without her. No more excuses to hang around the docks or trawl the aisles of West Marine. Every time I cross the Golden Gate Bridge I see those sails cupped like friendly white hands waving to me. Maritime friendships can be hard to come by, but the most remarkable thing about sailing in the Bay Area is that once I was determined to do it, I was raising the halyard left and right. Opportunities abound.

I’ve never been more than deck fluff when it comes to racing, but who can turn down something called the Beer Can Series. John Super of the race committee of the Bay View Boat Club explains the Beer Can as “nonserious racing. It’s introductory and a great way for the beginners to come out and be taken care of by the experts. It’s racing without all the jumping up and down and yelling at each other. It’s just an excuse to drink beer.” He tells me I just missed Monday Night Madness. “But you wanna have some real fun?” he asks.

“Always,” I say.

“Then meet me at the Treasure Island Sailing Center, Thursday at 5:30.”

A southwest breeze is blowing a steady 15 to 20, and a fleet of Vanguard 15s buzzes like unmedicated kindergartners around John and me in the committee boat. Flush-deck and flat-bottomed, Vanguards are small enough to throw on the roof of your SUV and typically sail with a crew of two, dressed for dipping into the drink when a good puff pushes the sloop-rig onto its side. The race heats are fast and tight, and the best crews move like shadows of each other through the tacks, with the grace of paired figure skaters. Afterward, wet and shivering with adrenaline, they gather in the parking lot outside the clubhouse to rehydrate with Sierras and catch up on tactics. And they all want to know if I’m going to give it a try. Yeah, just as soon as I get a full-body wet suit and a TB shot.

From Vallejo to Sausalito, there are 27 yacht clubs that host a Beer Can, and if you have a particular thirst, it is possible to race in one every night of the week. And as long as you’re deck fluff willing to upgrade to bottle-opener operator, it wouldn’t be hard to find a berth. “Show up on the dock with a bag of chips and a six-pack, and let ’em know your ability,” John says. “Someone will take you out.”

On Friday I take that approach. Greg Nelson meets me at Doyle Sailmakers in Alameda and we take a Columbia 5.5 out for Encinal Yacht Club’s version of the Beer Can, which races a course in the estuary along the Embarcadero between Oakland and Alameda. It’s a diverse field of boats, from beamy cruisers to chipper Melges, and seems to typify the friendly competition you’d find at most Beer Cans. We place second in a class of three, and after the dock lines are tied fast, we hit the Encinal Yacht Club, where I discover I’m right at home. Hey, all you East Coast sailors: I’ve discovered where these westerners have been hiding the Gosling’s, clandestinely enjoying coveted “dark and stormies.” Belly up to the Encinal for a dram of this inimitable concoction of Gosling’s Black Seal rum and ginger beer (not ginger ale!). It’s a favored draft of sailors for the stomach-settling properties of ginger, the antiscorbutic lime, and the morale-boosting rum. This delicious cocktail has somehow managed to elude hipster exploitation, perhaps because of the great distance between Bermuda and California, but, damn, it’s not like we have to round the Horn or travel by wagon train anymore …

Saturday my boyfriend can’t stop checking the anemometer on iwindsurf<\d>.com, so we head down to the Cal Sailing Club, where he has a membership. I’m willing to sit on the dock and play the fawning girlfriend, but he assures me that someone will come along and ask if I want to go sailing. Within half an hour, he’s proven right, and I’m tucked into a life jacket with my hand on the tiller of a Precision, bucking over the chop toward Berkeley. My new friend Joel is trimming the boat like he grew up with jib sheets instead of finger paints, though he tells me he only learned last summer. I’m impressed, and when he drops me on the dock, I inquire about a membership. Cal Sailing Club, once affiliated with UC Berkeley, is now a nonprofit sailing cooperative. The organization’s treasurer, Peter Kuhn, who’s wearing a haphazardly buttoned Hawaiian shirt and straddling a spray-painted Kona, gives me a verbal tour of all the Lido, Precision, and JY sailboats they have, as well as beginner-to-advanced windsurfing boards and sails. Membership is $60 for three months, with unlimited access to the equipment and free lessons. That’s less than a dollar a day. A rich person’s sport becomes cheaper than coffee.

Watching those windsurfers and Vanguards, I’ve definitely developed a hankering for speed. I don’t think I’ll be up to snuff for San Francisco’s first annual speed sailing event, but from Crissy Field I’ll be able to watch as windsurfers, kiteboarders, small dinghies, and skiffs compete to set the first speed records for the Bay Area. The point is to go a third of a mile as fast as possible. Held during the max flood tide of the season, in an effort to achieve the flattest conditions possible, if the wind cooperates, we should see some pretty sick speed. San Francisco doesn’t have any speed records, so for a chance to set one, register at www<\d>.sanfranciscospeed<\d>.com.

And if you actually have a boat, register for the Summer Sailstice, a celebration of the longest sailing day of the year with yacht-friendly events all over the Bay Area. Hopefully I’ll find a ride, but if you need any deck fluff, you know where to find me.

Originally published May 10, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian

King of the Hill

King of the Hill

Telegraph Hill Dwellers try to take territory from neighboring political groups

By Amanda Witherell

On the evening of April 11, there’s a bottleneck at the door of the Tel-Hi Community Center as members of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers try to get in out of the rain. President Brad Willmore has a dozen rebel Russian Hill Neighbors cordoned off in the back of the vestibule with the wet umbrellas.

The Dwellers will be discussing “expanding boundaries” tonight, a plan that someone leaked to a faction from the neighboring hill. After an impromptu huddle of the board for a quick lesson in open democracy, the Neighbors are invited into a room that is filled with more than 50 members of the oldest, most powerful neighborhood organization in the city. The proposed boundaries expand the The Dwellers’ territory into three other neighborhood organizations, nearly doubling its domain, coasting across the “flatlands” of the North Beach Neighbors, annexing some Barbary Coast Association territory, and climbing almost to the top of Russian Hill.

Board members in creased slacks and polished shoes — representing the more youthful, working class contingent of the neighborhood – take over the front of the room beside a large map. Local lawyer Joe Alioto Jr, who’s about to become an uncle and rushed here from the delivery room where his sister, Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier, is in labor, explains that as the bylaws stand, this would allow the 50 members who currently live outside the boundaries a chance to vote and serve on the board.

Alioto says the new line was chosen to more accurately reflect the natural valley of the area, and he mentions this has been discussed at the board level for at least 10 years. “No, it hasn’t,” pipes up another local lawyer, reclined back in his folding chair like a comfortable defendant. It breaks the spell of dutiful attention, and 30-year member Janet Crane asks other veteran members in their khakis and sneakers, “Who is for this? Who actually thinks this is a really good idea?” No hands go up.

Alioto retreats to a chair and Willmore takes center stage and tries to regain some control: “We intended this to be a constructive and informational meeting.”

Crane ignores him.

“Now, who thinks this is a bad idea? Come on, put your hands up.” Around the room they rise like salutes. That would seem to settle it, but this is a democracy, so for the next two hours the soapbox shuffled around the room and past presidents, long-standing board members, and residents with 30-year-plus memberships voice a laundry list of concerns, including that it would be doubling the territory to increase the voting membership by 5 percent.

“What is this, the Bush White House?” asks Nan Roth with an arched eyebrow. Another member complains that the Dwellers already have to answer to charges of being arrogant and elitist. It isn’t just the two peaks at issue. North Beach Neighbors member and former District 3 supervisorial candidate Sal Busalacchi suggests they take over the ports, where there’s no one but salmon to oppose them, and ends his speech with, “If you include North Beach, you’ll get people like me who’ll want to join, and I don’t think you’ll like the way I vote.” A woman from Barbary Coast, the most infant of neighborhood organizations, thanks the group for the meeting, states she’s opposed, and to further reinforce the lack of compatibility adds, “We are coastal people, and you are hill dwellers.” David Chan, also of North Beach Neighbors, makes a crucial political suggestion: “You guys got it all wrong. Why not take over all of District Three and be done with it?” One person who lives outside the sphere of influence spoke in favor of the proposal, and all of the young board members took turns proffering apologies for their lack of foresight and research before presenting the idea as a fait accompli.

Alioto asks the group, “Now what? What’s next? Vote it down and start over?” “Start over?” someone exclaims with exasperation. People rise from their seats and prepare to leave. Outside, standing under an umbrella, with Coit Tower glowing like an ethereal Emerald City behind them, two former board presidents chuckle together.

“It was actually kind of cute, ” one says of the neophyte administration and its misdirection. Board members had hoped the new boundary would more accurately reflect reality, citing numerous projects The Dwellers are involved with beyond The Hill, such as the Piers 27-31 project (in which Mills Corporation was recently forced out of town by project opponents), the “Triangle” at 701 Lombard St., and the North Point Public Housing. So what should we make of this territorial dispute? Are the Telegraph Hill Dwellers stepping too far outside their territory when they take on issues that affect the whole city? What is the role of neighborhood groups? Is it about political influence and access? And if so, is bigger better, or are locally based groups more democratic? These were just some of the questions underlying this debate and others like them that regularly take place in San Francisco. And what are the answers? Well, perhaps the answers are less important to the cause of democracy than the simple fact that questions like these are being raised.

Originally published April 16, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian