What’s in a Mayor’s Office merger? Pots of money it seems

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You can’t blame folks for being confused about and/or suspicious of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s attempted merger of the Mayor’s Office of Community Investment and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, or whatever they are calling themselves these days.

(When you call folks in the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, some identify themselves on their voice mail like so: "This is so-and-so with the Mayor’s Office." I won't name names, but you know who you are. And besides, this seems like an accurate description of where people feel OEWD stands in Newsom's pantheon, no matter what the department is called.)

Following the Boards’ April 15 Budget committee hearing, it became clear for the first time since Newsom announced the merger in December, that the resulting shift in funding and staff is not a done deal, since it needs Board approval, per the city charter.

As a result of yesterday's legislative revelations, the Board budget committee has convened a task force to examine Newsom’s proposal, which apparently, is part of his 2009-10 budget submission, which is due in June. The Board then has 30 days to decide, on the basis of these recommendations and its own impressions, whether to approve or disapprove of the merger.

Judging from the reactions and comments of Budget Chair Sup. John Avalos and Sups. David Campos, Carmen Chu, Bevan Dufty, Eric Mar and Ross Mirkarimi, approval seems far from automatic, with many folks worried that the merger is really about raiding the community development cookie jar in a time of ballooning deficits.

At yesterday hearing, OEWD deputy director Jennifer Entine Matz clarified that OEWD has not been part of the Mayor’s Office for years.

(My subsequent search of the city’s website confirmed that Newsom relaunched and renamed that department in March 2004, shortly after being elected mayor, naming as director Jesse Blout, who was MOEWD's deputy director, until it was eliminated in 2003.

Blout remained with OEWD until November 2007, when the San Francisco Business Times, describing him as “deputy mayor,” reported he was joining Goldman Sachs. Shortly thereafter Michael Cohen, was named OEWD’s new director.

Further compounding the ongoing departmental confusion is Newsom’s July 2008 announcement, made as right-wing heat turned up on the sanctuary city issue last summer, that the Mayor's Office of Community Development, which used to oversee grants to programs offering violence prevention and legal assistance services to undocumented juveniles amongst many other things, would henceforth be known as the Mayor's Office of Community Investment.)

Fast forward to yesterday’s hearing to consider the nature and impacts of this latest attempted merger, in which at least a quarter million dollars would get diverted away from community-based organizations and towards “community investment,” whatever that means.

Matz and other city officials gave long and detailed descriptions of what the merger was intended to do, which you are welcome to watch here

During the hearing, we learned, amongst many other things, that the sixteen members of the Citizens Committee on Community Development, mayoral appointees all, make recommendations to Newsom about what programs and projects should get community blck development grants, and that the proposed merger, which would shift staff and funds, can’t happen without Board approval.

Housing policy expert Calvin Welch described Newsom’s proposal as a “solution in search of a problem."

Welch believes Newsom wants to show a savings in his upcoming budget and so has okayed OEWD Director Michael Cohen’s proposal to use community block development grant money, which doesn’t come from the General Fund, for economic workforce development, instead.

Welch points out that CBDGs are the only source of money for the rehab and general maintenance of community facilities such as the Women’s Building, and that the proposed merger would take that money and put it into façade and street improvement, investments that historically were funded by the Mayor’s Office.

“This is a shift away from the sensibilities of community development to community investment, “ Welch said. ‘Community development never produces gentrification but economic development often does.”

Either way, Newsom's proposal to merge departments and shift funding priorities appeared to be turning public comment into a predictable divide and conquerfree-for-all yesterday, as folks who will lose money under the new proposal found themselves piitted against folks who will gain money under the new proposal. At least, that is, until folks who have been on the community development scene for years pointed out that community development, by definition, includes business development, too.

“Historically, CBDGs have funded small business retention initiatives as part of a community development strategy,” Welch observed. Noting that many business development types showed up to say, “Fund me," Welch added, “Only the woman from LISC got the play and said, ‘Do both’.”

Welch was referring to Stephanie Forbes, executive director of the Bay Area’s LISC (local initiatives services corporation,) which combines corporate, government and philanthropic resources to help nonprofit community development

Forbes also mentioned the need for a more transparent, open and inclusive process—a request that numerous people repeated during public comment. Hmmm. Sounds like the city needs to create another website just to track the CBDG money.

So, maybe the merger will still happen, but along the way, the Mayor's Office will have to explain, why this merger is being proposed, who is suggesting it and where money and staff would be diverted. Stay tuned.