Mom and pop lose their voice

The recession-rocked small business community feels neglected by City Hall and used by downtown corporations

Bank of America and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. are quite the opposite of mom-and-pop operations, yet two of the seven members appointed to San Francisco's Small Business Commission hail from these corporations, much to the chagrin of true small business leaders.

In a heated e-mail fired off to an assortment of City Hall staffers Jan. 13, Small Business Commissioner Michael O'Connor criticized the Mayor's Office for diluting the commission — which was set up to go to bat for the little guy — with big business appointees.

Meanwhile, funding for the Small Business Assistance Center was almost eliminated last month by the Board of Supervisors. And a report that was supposed to streamline the unwieldy permitting process for small businesses, which the administration was required to complete under the 2007 measure Proposition I, never materialized.

At a time when small businesses are struggling in the face of a dour economic landscape, strong advocacy on their behalf is needed now more than ever. But even as former Small Business Commissioner David Chiu ascends to the presidency of the Board of Supervisors, small business leaders are decrying their lack of support in City Hall.

The Small Business Commission is a seven-member body composed of three members appointed by the Board of Supervisors and four appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom. Set up to serve as an advocate for the small business community, the commission was also chartered to oversee the Office of Small Business, a branch of the city's Office of Economic and Workforce Development.

Last May, the office opened its Small Business Assistance Center, created to lend startups a helping hand with navigating the bureaucratic maze of permits, fees, licenses, and other hoops to be jumped through to legitimately set up shop in the city.

Regina Dick-Endrezzi, acting director of the Office of Small Business and one of four people staffing the center, says there's a real need for the service. She said that about 99 percent of all San Francisco businesses fall into the category of "small," which she defines as having fewer than 100 employees, making it one of the most important sectors of the city's economy.

Since the center opened, more than 1,300 small business clients have received assistance there, according to Dick-Endrezzi. Many lack the resources and capital that larger enterprises might have at their disposal, so SBAC case managers act as counselors for people who are trying to get a new business off the ground.

Entrepreneurs have sought help with things like obtaining a permit to open a vegan taco truck, acquiring a license to start a cleaning business, or filing for tax credits for an organic baby food business, to name a few examples. "This is something we really need," Dick-Endrezzi told the Guardian, "and this is something politics shouldn't get in the way of."

Nonetheless, the center and the commission haven't been spared from controversy. In December, the Board of Supervisors considered slashing SBAC funding. The $800,000 annual budget was ultimately granted, but it weathered midyear budget cuts of around 10 percent.

Now a new issue of contention has emerged: O'Connor has sounded the alarm that the SBC is becoming weakened by mayoral appointees who represent the large corporate interests that are often quite different from those of small businesses.

The conflict went public at the Jan. 12 SBC meeting when it came time to elect a new vice president. Richard Ventura, who heads a consulting firm and serves as executive director of the downtown-based Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, had just won commissioners' approval to serve as president.