Sunday, October 10, 2010

Warren Hellman: Can we all get along?

For someone who's done so much over the years for this politically fractious city, Warren Hellman still doesn't have the stomach for public conflict. Hellman, by all accounts a nice guy, started out with two strikes against him as a Republican and a billionaire in progressive San Francisco. 

Last week he shocked the city's political community, not to mention the Proposition B campaign, by announcing (below in italics) that he was withdrawing his support for the ballot proposition that requires city workers to pay more into their pension plans. (SF Weekly seems to think whether Hellman gets his contribution of $50,000 back is an issue, but to a billionaire that's chump change. I bet Hellman never even thought about getting the money back.)

Hellman is billionaire as Sensitive Guy. Does anybody think the late Don Fisher or Larry Ellison would have done this kind of flip-flop?

Recall that six years ago, when opponents of the garage under the concourse in Golden Gate Park got an injunction stopping construction, Hellman was miffed and threatened to move his music festival to Oakland. "Even arrogant, wealthy guys have feelings,'' Matier Ross quoted him as saying at the time. Hellman had a right to be miffed, since he raised $55 million in private money to build the 800-space garage that was essential once the city decided to keep the de Young Museum and the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.

Katherine Roberts, a bike gal and garage opponent, got the injunction, which was lifted shortly thereafter, and Hellman changed his mind about moving the free festival that deadbeat local music fans love so much.

Progressives and the bike people continued to oppose the garage, even after city voters chose to build it in 1998. But Hellman made peace with the bike people. He and Leah Shahum wrote an op-ed in the Chronicle endorsing closing the park to autos on Saturdays, even though city voters rejected that idea in 2000. Hellman gave some money to the Bicycle Coalition and was officially dubbed city progs' favorite billionaire when he was pictured with the bike people on the cover of the Bay Guardian.

All the anti-garage fervor was then focused on Michael Ellzey, executive director of the Concourse Authority, who was in charge of getting the garage built and remodeling the concourse. Ellzey was spat on, got threatening phone calls, and was even threatened with a baseball bat by a so-called defender of the park. 

As it turned out, Ellzey did a great job, and the large garage is completely invisible from the Concourse itself. The parking fees are now servicing the construction bonds, and once the bonds are paid off all the fees will flow into city coffers, a huge, ongoing gift to the city.

San Francisco Citizen provides Hellman's statement:

I’m leaving the Yes on Proposition B campaign for the same reason I got involved in the campaign in the first place---we need a meaningful dialogue in San Francisco between business and labor to solve long-term problems threatening the city’s future without name-calling and fingerpointing. We must address the issue of spiraling public pension and health benefits costs. They’re like an iceberg floating beneath the surface that threatens to sink cities like ours. At the same time, I’m not willing to scapegoat police officers, firefighters and other public workers to do it. We got into this situation together and we must work together to solve it in the interest of a city we all love. 

I was reminded of this spirit at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival this past weekend. We pulled off a massive free concert in Golden Gate Park without one major injury, disruption or arrest, which is a testament to the professionalism of San Francisco’s public workers and our City’s spirit of cooperation. I believe that organized labor appreciates that it is in San Francisco’s interest---and the interest of its members---to head off a looming pension and benefits crisis before it cripples public services and leaves police officers, firefighters and other public workers without retirement security. And I also believe that San Francisco business must understand its responsibility to pay its fair share to fund quality public services. And that begins with workers who are properly trained, fairly paid and able to retire with dignity. We have a history of working together in this city and settling issues without expensive and divisive political fights at the ballot box. I’m going to focus my attention and resources on restarting those discussions.

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