41st Anniversary Special: Connect the Connects

Newsom uses a shadowy private organization to shield his administration's actions from public scrutiny
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steve@sfbg.com

Mayor Gavin Newsom has created an entirely new branch of city government that is private, funded by undisclosed corporate donations, staffed by volunteers who are often city employees or his campaign donors, and unaccountable to any internal controls or outside scrutiny.

Yet rather than being a cause for concern, Newsom has touted San Francisco Connect and its four subprograms — Project Homeless Connect, Tech Connect, Green Connect, and Project Children and Families Connect — as his proudest achievement, a model he is actively exporting to other cities.

According to its Web site, "The mission of SF Connect is to mobilize residents and sectors for a stronger San Francisco. SF Connect is about engaged residents volunteering their talent and time for the City, as well as innovative partnerships between the private, public, and social [nonprofit] sectors."

Green Connect (and "partners" that include Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Oracle), does cleanup and tree planting. Tech Connect (and partners Netgear.com and Hewlett Packard) works on "digital inclusion." And Project Homeless Connect (Gap, Visa, AT&T, Blue Shield, IBM, the Hotel Council, and Charles Schwab among its partners) does homeless outreach events.

During his endorsement interview with the Guardian, we asked Newsom about the programs and how they allow the private sector to take a more active role in delivering public services on behalf of city government, sometimes with the help of public resources. Is that a model he likes?

"Oh, you'd better believe that!" Newsom said. "Am I for actual responsibility and civic service and duty? You'd better believe it. I think it should be mandated for everyone who graduates from our public education system. I think they should be forced to give back and contribute in community service. What the Connects are all about is community service and connecting the dots. The Rec Connects, which may be what you're referring to, is a way of leveraging resources and getting more of our [community-based organizations] involved."

All of those involved with SF Connect also seem to sing its praises. But there's another side to Newsom's feel-good approach to delivering public services: they often displace social services delivered by qualified providers, supplement underfunded city services with private providers rather than simply fixing and funding them, provide wedges for corporations to take over public spheres (as the Google-EarthLink wi-fi deal through Tech Connect very nearly did), and allow corporations to buy influence with unregulated contributions to a politician's pet program.

"If you look at the ways of privatizing, volunteering is one, and it sounds nice," said Margot Reed, an organizer with Service Employees International Union Local 1021.

Yet that volunteerism sometimes replaces services that previously were provided by government or nonprofit agencies whose contracts and performance could be scrutinized. But Newsom's approach through SF Connect doesn't allow that kind of transparency.

To illustrate the problem, the Guardian made a Sunshine Ordinance records request to the Mayor's Office, asking for a complete breakdown of the budgets of all the Connect programs. The office refused to provide the information, referring us instead to SF Connect, but that organization has a history of refusing to provide the Guardian and other media organizations with its budget and donor lists.

Last year the San Francisco Chronicle fought the Newsom administration for two months to get it to reveal the donor list, finally winning the release of the names of donors who had agreed to be disclosed (some asked for their money to be returned instead).