How developers, corporations, and city contractors buy influence in San Francisco City Hall -- a 47th anniversary Guardian special investigation
SF Animal Care and Control Director Rebecca Katz personally lobbied the commission to support Pet Food Express, at least partially because the company has donated pet supplies valued at $50,000 to $70,000 per year to the department. That's a lot of money for a cash-strapped city department, but a pittance compared to the profits of an expanding national chain.
It's moments of clarity like those, when the public can easily trace the line from donations to political influence, that show why disclosure is so crucial. But those moments are few and far between when trying to trace the funders of private foundations and Friends organizations, where deals often happen in the dark.
WHEN DEVELOPERS ARE FRIENDS
At the Merchant Exchange Building in May, a crowd of high-profile real-estate developers mixed and mingled with city planners, commissioners, and even Mayor Ed Lee, wine glasses in hand. Sources told the Guardian that most of the planning staff was present, and not all were happy about having ribbons and name tags affixed to their shirts, as if they were being auctioned off.
With around 500 in attendance, the event was an annual fundraiser hosted by the Friends of San Francisco City Planning, a nonprofit organization that accepts contributions of up to $2,500 per individual to lend a helping hand to the Planning Department. This year's event was titled "Incubator Startups, New Jobs for the Future," hinting that the development community shares the mayor's affinity for new tech startups and the droves of high-salaried IT professionals they've attracted to the city.
Some Friends of City Planning board members are major real-estate developers who routinely seek approval for major construction projects. Others are former planning commissioners, or have a background in community advocacy.
Amid widespread concern about displacement, gentrification, and the overall character of San Francisco's built environment, no city department has greater influence than Planning. An individual's interpretation of the Planning Code can carry tremendous weight; it's a series of small decisions that shape a project's profits and the look and feel of San Francisco's future. And with cranes dotting the city's skyline and market-rate construction catering to the wealthy while middle income residents get priced out, the amount of capital flowing through the development sector these days is astonishing.
In this dizzy climate, there might seem to be something askew about affluent developers and land-use attorneys rubbing elbows with city regulators, all eager to pass the hat for the Planning Department. Whiff of impropriety or no, the fundraiser appears to be totally legal.
"We aren't violating the law — that I know," Friends of City Planning Chair Dennis Antenore told the Guardian. "We've had legal advice on that for years."
There is close collaboration between Friends of San Francisco City Planning and the Planning Department — a partnership so entrenched that it's almost as if the nonprofit is an unofficial, private-sector branch of the agency.
"We are certainly thankful and appreciative," Planning spokesperson Joanna Linsangan told the Guardian. "They've helped us for many, many years." The additional funding is needed, she said, because "there isn't a lot of wiggle room" in the departmental budget.
Each year, Planning Director John Rahaim submits a wish list to the Friends, outlining projects he wants funding for. This year, he requested $122,000 for a variety of initiatives, including training support to help planners assess proposals for formula retail (read: chain stores). That's a hot-button issue lately, and one that shows how seemingly small decisions by planners can have big impacts.
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