Developers and activists are once again at odds over San Francisco’s waterfront, arguably the most valuable bit of land in one of America’s most expensive cities. Ahead of a June ballot initiative  that would require voter approval for proposed waterfront buildings that exceed current height limits, development groups are already reaching out to politicians to tip the scales in their favor.
E-mail and text exchanges obtained by initiative proponent Jon Golinger via a public records request show that Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of SPUR; and Jack Bair, senior vice president and general counsel for the San Francisco Giants, urged Sup. Scott Wiener to use his authority to direct city agencies to report on the Waterfront initiative. Wiener introduced a resolution calling for this report , which will be considered at tomorrow’s [Tues/25] Board of Supervisors meeting.
City law normally prohibits the use of public resources for political activity that could sway the results of an election.
“There’s a law that once a petition qualifies for the ballot, there’s a very bright line that separates government resources from being used [to defend or oppose it],” explained Golinger, who is managing the campaign for the Waterfront initiative. “These emails demonstrate that there are more political maneuvers than genuine intent to inform the public.”
A representative from the City Attorney’s Office declined to comment, but a memo issued last September by that office clarified that municipal resources can be used to objectively investigate and evaluate the impact of a ballot measure, but not to take a position on it.
Wiener denied that there was anything improper about requesting a report in response to concerns raised by Bair and Metcalf. “[The proponents] have been very reckless in their accusations,” he said. “First they said it was illegal, but we pointed out that there’s a provision that allows this. They backed off, and now they’re making another frivolous accusation that although it is legal for me to introduce the resolution, it’s inappropriate for me to talk with anyone who has an opinion on it.”
But e-mail records show that the study was initially requested by Metcalf, and that the first draft of the resolution was written by SPUR. Wiener later presented that resolution to the Board of Supervisors, asking seven city agencies -- including the Port of San Francisco, the Planning Department, and the Mayor’s Office of Housing -- to produce reports on the impact the ballot initiative would have if passed.
The purpose of the reports, according to a press release issued by Wiener’s office, is to provide an “impartial analysis” so that the public can make an informed decision at the ballot box.
Activists doubt that impartiality, but Wiener says that their claims are “completely baseless.”
“First of all, the only thing this resolution does is direct city departments to provide an objective analysis on the possible impact of the ballot measure,” Wiener told the Guardian. “I find it bizarre that these folks are fighting so tooth and nail to fight more information for voters.”
Metcalf of SPUR, a research and advocacy group with a pro-development stance, also maintains that there is nothing dishonest about the exchanges. The job of lobbyists is to reach out to politicians, he says.
“Every group in the city that’s trying to influence public policy has to talk to supervisors just like this,” Metcalf said. “I’ve worked with this resolution to make the public debate more sophisticated, so people can think before making a decision.”
Metcalf told the Guardian that while the organization’s ballot analysis committee has already recommended a “no” vote on the measure, SPUR does not have an official position until the board of directors votes at its March meeting.
Bair of the Giants did not respond to a phone call from the Bay Guardian. The Giants have a vested interest in seeing the measure go down at the polls, given the massive development project that the team is proposing at Pier 48.
There are two problems with the resolution, said Golinger. First, he believes the advocacy by opponents means city resources would be used for a political campaign. The seven city departments in question would be taking time away from their normal duties to write a report catering to the campaign opposition, he said.
The second problem is that since the resolution was essentially written by SPUR -- which is already leaning toward opposing the measure -- it would frame the way that the reports would be written.
The resolution “was crafted by opponents to get a preordained result,” Golinger said. “It asks skewed instead of open-ended questions, and they are designed to push and shape the analyses in a frank way.”
Nevertheless, Wiener maintains that he has done nothing wrong.
“It’s perfectly okay for me as an elected official to work with whoever I choose to work with,” he said. “I work with all sorts of different people on all kinds of different topics. That’s what democracy is about. I don’t sit in a cloistered room, I’m out there getting ideas from people. It’s a sad state of affairs that in 2014 you can be attacked for having the gall to actually talk to people.”