During the District 6 supervisorial candidate debate that San Francisco Young Democrats held last week, a two-question exchange between two of the leading candidates – progressive Debra Walker and downtown-backed Theresa Sparks – offered a revealing look at their starkly different worldviews and priorities, which is more important in this race than people's machine politics conspiracy theories.
During the second portion of the event, candidates were allowed to ask a question of another candidate, and Walker and Sparks focused on one another with pointed questions (this occurred at around the 30-minute mark, although the video doesn't seem to allow users to forward to that point, forcing you to endure the often insipid commentary).
Walker went first, asking Sparks why, during her more than four-year tenure on the Police Commission – a body in charge of disciplining police officers accused of serious misconduct after citizen complaints are investigated and found valid by the Office of Citizen Complaints, with each case assigned to a particular commissioner – Sparks didn't hold any hearings or act to punish any officers.
Sparks said the accusation wasn't true, and that she did hold one hearing during that time, and then said that the Police Commission is prohibited by the city charter from intervening in the internal workings of the Police Department, implying that the body isn't actually in charge of disciplining officers. Walker said Sparks was wrong and tried to ask a follow-up question and was cut off by moderator Melissa Griffin.
So this week, I called both candidates to try to get to the bottom of the dispute. “She indicated it's not the commission's job to focus on these things, and that's absolutely not the case,” Walker said. “She was incorrect saying it wasn't the job of commissioners to do this.”
And when I talked to Sparks, she didn't dispute that fact, but conveyed how complicated the process was when officers are accused of serious misconduct (minor misconduct just goes to the chief), with lawyers seeking stipulated settlements and whatnot, and repeatedly emphasizing “it's a bad system.” One reason it's so bad is her own lack of qualifications: “You can't have people like me, whose only legal background is watching Law and Order, trying to handle these cases.”
Sparks was appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is backing her supervisorial bid, which is also expected to have strong support from the San Francisco Police Officers Association. She wouldn't say how many cases she was assigned during her tenure, but OCC records show more than 300 cases assigned to the commission during her tenure and the long backlog left in her wake has been the subject of criticism by everyone from Police Chief George Gascon to new Police Commission Jim Hammer.
Rather than supporting this civilian oversight of problem officers, Sparks wants to turn those duties over to Gascon's office, telling us, “We need to give this chief more authority to fire officers rather than going through this ridiculous process.”
At the debate, after seeming stung by a question she jokingly called a “softball,” Sparks fired back by asking Walker whether she supported the proposed tax measures now being considered by the Board of Supervisors to help close the city's large budget deficit, framing the question by saying they would hurt small business.
Walker answered by voicing her support for small business, but noting how essential city services such as public health programs were being deeply cut and that the city needed new revenue to deal with its structural budget deficit, although she said that she had yet to decide which of the tax measures she supported considering none have been approved for the ballot yet.
This week, Moody's Investor Services lowered the citys' credit rating precisely because Newsom's budgets have not addressed that structural budget deficit, and even the Controller's Office has ordered more than a $100 million placed on reserve because of doubts about the mayor's revenue assumptions.
So for Sparks to characterize the need for new revenue as an unfair attack on small business indicates a short-sighted, right-wing approach to municipal finances, an approach Walker rejects, telling us, “I think we need to be responsible and do the right thing in dealing with the city's needs...It's going to cost us and the people who come after us more and more because of these cuts.”
When I spoke with Sparks, noting the Moody's report, she seemed to back away from how she was trying the characterize the revenue measures at the debate. “I do think the city needs new revenue, but I don't think that taxing small business is the way to go,” she said, referring to a proposal by Sup. David Chiu to tax commercial rents, which would be paid by the landlords.
So I asked Sparks whether she supported any of the proposals or if she was advocating any other revenues measures, and she said, “Quite honestly, I need to think about that because I do think we need more revenue.”
Which is pretty much the same answer Walker gave in a far more honest and direct way in that debate, without trying to pander to the fears of small businesspeople. The bottom line is that the downtown corporations who are backing Sparks have done nothing to help the city during this prolonged recession, while demanding even greater police responses to deal with poor people sitting on sidewalks and other perceived problems, and that hypocrisy should be front and center in this election.