Play at work, or more at play? - Page 3

While Newsom's campaign collects from developers, fallout from the Planning Department's internal porn investigation raises questions

Senior planning staffer Larry Badiner left with a $82,500 payout

Although speculative theories abound and there is a paucity of official comments on the firings due to privacy laws, one point is abundantly clear. In a city where powerful developers will go to great lengths to secure approval for lucrative projects, there's a great deal of wariness surrounding city planning. San Francisco is host to leagues of developers, real estate investment groups, prestigious law firms specializing in land use, technical consultants, and politically powerful associations of residential builders, building owners, and building-trade unions — all with a huge financial stake in seeing projects make it past the approval finish line and onto groundbreaking.

When it comes to a major project that will transform a city block in San Francisco, the planning department (which relies on development fees to pay the bills) inevitably encounters pressure from two sides: well-connected development teams with economic interests on the one hand, and neighborhood groups or historic preservationists who aren't shy about hurling criticism on the other.

So it's no surprise than anything affecting the planning staff in a major way would not pass quietly.

One of the planners affected by the firings told the Guardian that the porn investigation went on for months. There were one-on-one interviews, and some 70 staff members were called in and questioned, some two or three times. Contents of computer hard drives and city e-mail accounts were analyzed. Later, huge posters went up, displaying questions like, "How Are You Going to Make a Better Planning Department?"

"It was bizarre," the former planner said.

According to Leigh Kienker — a former planner who recently retired and was not implicated in the computer misuse investigation — the result of all this was to create a sort of chilling effect on the planning staff, especially since she said two of the five individuals who lost their jobs had been more likely to question management and speak up when they didn't think a project was being handled properly. When it comes to ensuring that projects conform to the planning code, "We need to be able to speak up," she said. "This is our expertise."

Jim Miller, who had been with the department for more than 32 years and is regarded by his peers as very outspoken, discussed his own termination in an e-mail to a number of supporters. "I was given a loose-leaf binder indicating the reasons for the firing," he wrote. "The information contained therein was decidedly very thin. This, plus the fact that others who had a greater role in the 'wrongdoing' received job suspension rather than termination, leads me to believe that there is some other reason for the action taken. This reason is heretofore unbeknownst to me."

Cynthia Servetnick, shop steward for IFPTE Local 21 planner's chapter and a historic preservation advocate, voiced concerns about how the department dealt with the porn problem in an e-mail to Rahaim. "Frankly, the firing of so many senior Planning Department staff members not only seems like a 'witch hunt,' but smacks of age discrimination against a class of union-represented employees for the purpose of shoring-up budget deficits and intimidating less senior employees," she charged. In response, Rahaim dismissed her comments as baseless accusations.