Thursday, December 27, 2012

How not to conduct a public meeting

Walter, photo by Stephen Lam for the Chronicle

I watched the Dec. 11 appeal hearing before the Board of Supervisors on the Fell/Oak bike project on SFGTV (my earlier post is here). Since that hearing raised some issues I didn't write about, it's worth a second look (You can either order a DVD of these hearings from the city through SFGTV or find the video on the BOS archives).

First there's the Walter problem, the guy who haunts city meetings/hearings and sings a song during public comment. Board President Chiu recognized Walter and his annoying performance before anyone else could speak on the issues to be discussed. Before public comment, while Ted Lowenberg made some opening remarks, Walter was twitching and writhing in the background, along with a woman jiggling a poster labeled "Crime Bulletin," with a picture presumably of a crime victim.

It got even worse when Howard Chabner tried to present a more detailed account of what the appeal was about. Since Chabner is in a wheelchair, the camera angle changed, taking in even more of the background. Walter----struggling to control his body and features, as his meds rippled through his nervous system---and the woman with the sign were still there, but they were joined by a couple of women a few rows back in animated, distracting conversation.

Is it too much to ask that serious public business be conducted as if it was, well, serious public business? The supervisors should either adjust the SFGTV camera angles or clear the seats behind the speakers during these hearings. I suppose tolerating Walter and this routine boorishness is now considered part of the city's charm by the dim bulbs in City Hall, like the Bay to Breakers, the naked guys in the Castro, and Critical Mass, but it's a completely unacceptable way to conduct a hearing, trivializing important issues and demeaning to those who came to the hearing with something to say.

The cuteness continued when Morgan Fitzgibbons came to the podium to of course support the project (previous posts on this District 5 bike zealot here and here) wearing an outlandish wig because he's the founder of the Wig Party, which is about the Wiggle---get it?---and other PC issues.

Morgan Fitzgibbons of the Wig Party

Instead of Leah Shahum's ignorance on CEQA, we got Elizabeth Stampe's ignorance on CEQA at the hearing. Stampe, of Walk San Francisco, insisted that the Fell/Oak project was only a minor change to what's there now, qualifying it for an exemption from environmental review. That was so clearly untrue it qualifies as a lie.

Like Shahum Stampe seems to think she doesn't have to do any homework, that all she has to do is show up and push her agenda, regardless of the facts. Her agenda happens to be the same anti-car agenda as that of the Bicycle Coalition.  

Like Wiener she worried it would be a bad precedent if the board rejected the city's general rule exemption for this anti-car "improvement." And like Wiener Stampe also doesn't seem to understand that CEQA is a state law the plain language of which makes it clear that a developer or a jurisdiction must do an environmental review if a project even might have a negative impact on the environment. (Stampe pushed her agenda in the face of the facts last year.)


This is obviously a new project that eliminates more than 90 parking spaces, creates separated bike lanes on both Oak and Fell Streets using large planter boxes, and eliminates a traffic lane on Oak Street. As Chabner pointed out, this project should be thoroughly studied in connection with the even larger, nearby Masonic Avenue bike project that will remove 167 parking spaces between Fell Street and Geary Blvd. 

The city tried to do the same thing---even invoking a general rule exemption[Later: actually, the city is claiming a "categorical" exemption here, not a general rule exemption]---with the 500-page Bicycle Plan back in 2005, but we sued successfully to enforce CEQA, and the court ordered the city to do an environmental review of that ambitious plan. The MTA and Planning know that what they're doing is legally dubious, but their attitude is "Fuck you. We're going to do it anyhow. If you don't like it, sue us."

The city knows that litigation is expensive and time-consuming, and few people or groups can or are willing to do that, so they usually get away with flouting the law.

Chabner, Lowenberg, and Brennan discuss all these issues thoroughly in their excellent memo on the project. If they decide to litigate, they have a good case.

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