Aaron Peskin, a snappy enough fellow, fun to know, quick with a quip, eager to encourage, and a rising politician of the new philosophical school, recently got himself into a jam. Seems he was part of an effort that used some Old School tricks … gosh, these tricks could get you sent to Reform School … to help some busybodies on Tellygraft Hill, as it was called, show the world that they and they alone are the only law west of Prescott Ct., ... your Constitution, Rule of Law, and Democratic Ideal be damned. So I went to the Bd of Supes yesterday to see if he’d work himself out of it.
I used to think that the old gang that hung out afternoons at the Dovre Club trying to figure out how to raid the Bonding Capacity of the City & County by constantly coming out with ever more weird but lovely sounding Propositions that seemingly would create some wonderful Public Good, but which primarily would benefit their own pockets via contracts and gigs, gamed the people of San Francisco like no others. But they at least would build something, put some people to work. And you knew you were being had.
But the busybody Beachheads, in the course of a seven hour Bd of Supes meeting yesterday in which more than 75 people spoke, -- including charming children, the elderly infirm, an array of unparseable bureaucrats, soccer coaches, poets, builders, number crunchers, airheads, architects, lawyers, the merely befuddled -- pushed back the frontier of sheer audacity. It’s now out beyond the far Farallons.
On the one side of the issue, you have the fact that the owners of a small property, having gone through the long process of gaining planning permission for a lot of land off Columbus Avenue, found themselves last month suddenly facing seizure of their land by The City via eminent domain. The landowners had less than four hours notice of the impending action against them, and then were told they would have only two minutes to speak. That, by the way, is how Aaron came in. He was the sponsor of the eminent domain decree, proposing it on behalf of the Tellygraft Hill Dwellers.
And this is also where the audacity came in. You see, the proponents of this eminent domain seizure – having snuck it through various City agencies without so much as a public hearing – say their gaming of due process is coolio because it is in aid of creating a park! A park! Brilliant. Never mind that the lot of land is so small that it would fit twice inside the Supervisors’ Legislative Chamber, and is isolated between three busy streets. The seizure is for a park! Who could be against a park? Well, now I think that if someone mentions that the reason she or he wants you to sign a petition or speak up at a meeting is because they want The City to build a park, you should reach for your mother wit and cover your wallet. A scam is at hand. A park! Brilliant!
What was Mark Twain’s marvelous line from that episode in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where con men are planning a grift? “How can we lose?” says one, “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”
If you want to seize something in San Francisco, just say it’s for a park – no matter how addled the proposition is. The majority will come running to support you. No matter how corrupt the process is. No matter how badly you will ride over the law. Just say it’s for a park. Brilliant!
So for six-plus hours yesterday, at the rescheduled and at last publicized eminent domain hearing, people urged the creation of a park on the triangular lot. Representatives of the Rec & Park Dept – talk about backpedaling – who had no plan, and who had told the owners that The City had no interest in their land, came up with all sorts of feints to suggest they had been interested all along. Not persuasive.
Shameful tactics were resorted to. The name of Joe DiMaggio was invoked by the proponents. Leaflets were passed around suggesting the acquisition was actually an expansion of the dilapidated park across the way named in Joe’s honor. But the record showed otherwise.
So what is it really all about? Power. The power of a neighborhood association – the equivalent of Political Commissars in the neighborhood. That’s really it.
They had no plan, they had just an appetite and they used friendly bureaucrats, and the honest love of San Franciscans for parkland as an excuse to toboggan ride through due process. In the course of their actions, they broke Sunshine laws, the Open Meeting Act, and wrapped themselves in a green flag. But they were about to show who’s boss.
Peskin’s an obliging fellow. He has many friends and indeed a family member, his wife, in the association behind the land/power grab. And he, like most politicians, likes power. And deals. That’s what makes him likeable and approachable. But he got carried away in this one: aiding secret meetings to seize property.
How would he get out of this jam? At first he seemed determined to brazen it out, insist all was on the level. He led the floor fight for the cause for many hours, answering questions, quizzing opponents, comforting his wounded cohorts in Rec & Park. He made a final speech, full of cause and flourishes, and then suddenly it seemed he went to pieces. He stopped his oration. Then he said to the crowd, still heavy after ten p.m. and six hours of speakers, “I haven’t the votes.” He repeated it: “I haven’t the votes.”
His supporters seemed stunned and confused that he would abandon the rhetoric and speak an unpleasant home truth. But I was proud of him. He was thinking, at last, like a real politician. He moved the motion for the up-or-down vote to be postponed. The motion carried by a 7-to-4 vote. And I don’t think any of the four wanted the up-or-down last night because they wanted to vote for the eminent domain seizure.
Now the seizure advocates will make some attempt in the four or five weeks until the next meeting to fix up the offensive record and put a good face on it. And there will be another effort by some other supervisors, sensing that this really stinks, to ease away by turning this into an occasion to reform the shocking system by which land – in this city where it usually takes ten years and ten hundred public hearings to put up a statue – statutorily can be taken from people with four hours notice and two minutes to speak. That’s laudable.
But just as Italian parsley still sprouts along Edgardo Place on Tellygraft Hill after a heavy storm, some bitter herbs will grow on the Hill’s political places now. … Gosh, that was a long meeting. Intense. A heavy storm. …