Mom and pop lose their voice - Page 2

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

Before a second round of votes were cast, O'Connor — who served as president for two years but declined to try for the post again — voiced his fervent opinion that "an actual small business owner" should be chosen for the other leadership slot.

"I think we need the balance of a small business owner in either the presidency or the vice-presidency position," said O'Connor, who owns the Independent music venue in the Western Addition. "If we have a president and a vice president that both come from downtown, and if three out of the four mayoral appointees on this commission are from downtown, I will be incredibly embarrassed to be on this commission. And I'm sorry, this is nothing personal — I like everybody on this commission — but small business is in a fight for its life, in this building and in City Hall."

Despite his plea, Commissioner Irene Yee Riley — a retired Bank of America executive — was elected. Although not a small business owner, Yee Riley told commissioners that she was qualified to serve as vice president thanks to her "many years of experience working with small business owners as a banker."

"I'm retired, and I have time, so I want to use this opportunity to give back to the community," she added.

Yee Riley won after receiving one vote more than Commissioner Janet Clyde, a bartender and general managing partner of Vesuvio Cafe in North Beach. "I live in the Mission District in a solid working-class neighborhood that is rapidly changing," Clyde told the other commission members during her pitch. "I know the challenges of small businesses operating far from the power and economic center of San Francisco, and I intend to work to recommend their interests ... even in this difficult budgetary time."

The following morning, a dismayed O'Connor vented his frustration in an e-mail to mayoral staffers, typing "Small Business Commission ... or ... Big Business Commission" into the subject line. Installing commissioners with ties to large corporations rather than direct small business experience constitutes "a neutralization of the only real voice small businesses have in San Francisco," he charged.

The most recent mayoral appointee to the SBC was Darlene Chiu (no relation to David Chiu), a spokesperson for PG&E who formerly served as deputy director of communications for the Mayor's Office. When the Guardian queried the Mayor's Office last March on what qualifications a PG&E spokesperson brought to the Small Business Commission, Press Secretary Nathan Ballard responded with this statement: "Darlene has first hand knowledge of the challenges facing small businesses in San Francisco. She grew up working in her family's ... retail businesses in Chinatown, managing nine to l5 employees. She will also bring her knowledge of city government and communications to the commission, which will be important to the successful operations and promotion of the assistance center." (See "Newsom to small business: drop dead!" March 18, 2008 Bruce Blog.)

But since her appointment last March, public records show that Chiu has missed four of the monthly meetings. Excessive absenteeism at city commission meetings briefly emerged as an issue in September 2006, prompting Newsom to introduce a new standard with a working goal of 100 percent attendance for commissioners.

Meanwhile, not everyone agrees with O'Connor's assertion that "San Francisco's Office of Economic Development seems to believe small business is just an annoying little rock in its shoe."

"The Office of Economic Development is incredibly committed to keeping this commission strong," counters Jennifer Matz, managing deputy director of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, who played a role in starting the Small Business Assistance Center.