Tenacious in his activism, Kalman never walked away from an issue
Emeric Kalman, a neighborhood activist well known for his decades-long work of bringing important issues concerning the city's public services and infrastructure to officials at City Hall, died March 22, on his 77th birthday, after battling cancer for several months.
Trained as a mechanical engineer, Kalman fled communist Romania in 1968 with his wife, Valeria, settled in West Portal, and worked at Bechtel from 1970 to the late 1980s. After retiring, he used his considerable expertise and proficiency with highly technical documents to bring to light waste and inefficiency in numerous city departments.
"Emeric contributed his research, his knowledge from his engineering background, his sense of fiscal prudence and accountability, and his demand for transparency and sunshine to making the city a better place for its citizens," said Joan Girardot, head of the Marina Civic Improvement and Property Owners Association and a former president of the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods.
In 1997, Kalman and fellow watchdog Girardot brought an important story to the Guardian one that was critical to understanding why the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) had failed to make regular repairs to the city's vast water system, which flows from Yosemite to San Francisco. Kalman and Girardot discovered that by using an accounting trick to create an artificial yearly "surplus," the PUC had been transferring millions of dollars annually since 1979 to the city's general fund an amount adding up to half a billion dollars. Instead of going toward the care of the system, the money went to sparing officials the political difficulty of having to raise taxes after the 1978 passage of Proposition 13 drastically reduced municipal coffers. (see "The Water Bond-doggle," 8/27/97).
By that time, Kalman had established himself as a trusted source, having discovered numerous problems with the privatization of Presidio National Park and the San Francisco Zoo earlier in the 1990s. In fact, it was Kalman and Girardot who convinced city officials to force the zoo to at least list all of the facility's assets before they handed it over to the private zoological society.
Tenacious in his activism, Kalman never walked away from an issue. For example, he joined Girardot and other activists in taking the Recreation and Park Department to task in 1997 when it voted to end all public review of how the zoo spent its annual multimillion-dollar grant from the city. (see "The Secret Zoo," 11/26/97). Since the late 1980s, he dedicated himself, along with Girardot, to the ongoing fight against the city's neglect of regular repairs to the Marina Yacht Harbor and its overly expensive proposal to overhaul the facility, making it more suitable to the owners of high-end yachts and possible privatization and likely destroying the use of an important public open space in the process. (see "Bay Watch," 2/28/01)
On March 17, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution commending Kalman for his "outstanding contributions to the community." Sponsored by District 7 Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, with whom Kalman had worked most recently in an unsuccessful fight against the PUC's proposal to raise water rates, the resolution recognized both Kalman's stubbornness as well as his gracious demeanor (it was not unusual for him to kiss the hands of female city clerks). "Emeric's old world gentility and grace, combined with new world zeal for justice and fairness in government, made him a force to be reckoned with and a real asset to San Francisco," Elsbernd said. "He was, in a word, undaunted."
Kalman is survived by his son, Ronald; his ex-wife, Valeria; his sister, Judith Ertsey; his nephew, Robert; and his two grandnieces, Elianna and Roxanna all residents of San Francisco. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Kalman's name to the National Alliance for Mental Illness. A memorial service will be held April 2, 12:45 p.m., at the Hills of Eternity Cemetery Chapel, 1301 El Camino Real, Colma.
Savannah Blackwell is a former Guardian reporter.