Monday, April 2, 2007

O Yee of Little Faith

When I was running for re-election to the San Francisco Community College Board many years ago, I met with the publisher and the editorial staff of the San Francisco Bay Guardian. With a reported circulation of 200,000, the paper’s political endorsement was and still is considered vital to the success of any political candidate.

“We’ve had very bad experience endorsing minority candidates,” Bruce Brugman, the 6’5” burly publisher of the Bay Guardian, candidly told me after I made my pitch for his paper's support. “The minority candidates we endorsed turned out to be major disappointments,” he said. “They were bought off.”

Brugman’s views were disgustingly racist and I told him so. He was tarring all minority candidates with the same broad brush, creating yet another negative stereotype. Brugman was declaring, in effect, that it was better to endorse white candidates because they have more integrity and can’t be corrupted as easily as minority candidates.

I was reminded of Brugman’s words this past week when I reviewed the actions of State Senator Leland Yee who denounced the City College of San Francisco for planning “in the dead of night” to construct a 17-story building for the
Chinatown-North Beach campus, across the 31-story San Francisco Hilton Chinatown.

The Chinatown Hilton is owned by Justice Investors, a group which has hired high-priced lobbyists to block the construction of the Chinatown campus because the views of its hotel rooms may be blocked, even partially, by the new building. According to Chinatown community leader Dr. Henry Der, a former California Deputy Superintendent of Schools, Justice Investors is waging “a mean-spirited campaign of deception to confuse and mislead the Chinatown community and general public” about the proposed Chinatown campus.

“This campaign of deception,” Dr. Der wrote in an AsianWeek op-ed piece, “has purposely made up unsubstantiated, wild-eyed allegations that City College is going to build a ‘massive high-rise’ that will negatively impact Chinatown parking, traffic and Portsmouth Square Park. To create the illusion of legitimacy to their campaign, these paid lobbyists have trotted out State Senator Leland Yee as a ‘community leader,’ rallying Chinatown against this "high-rise."

“What this campaign of deception does not disclose is that, according to public records, Hilton Hotel owners and their paid lobbyists and families have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to Yee’s political campaigns. Knowing that Justice Investors and their lobbyists are capable of contributing more, Yee has easily, and not surprisingly, kowtowed to Hilton Hotel’s interests, at the expense of immigrant educational needs. Pure and simple, Hilton does not want any building to block its hotel window views.”

Even though he immigrated to the US from China when he was three, Yee has chosen to turn his back on his own community and to support the interests of the Hilton’s millionaire owners. To Yee, Hilton’s interests in preserving its hotel views are more important than the needs of his own community to build a campus accessible to the people who live and work there, a campus of 42 classrooms with language and science labs, computer training rooms and a culinary program.

At his Chinatown press conference, Yee claimed that the proposed 17-story City College building would cast a giant shadow over Portsmouth Square. Yee was aware that this charge was baseless as he had been provided with the results of a study which showed that the proposed building’s shadow would only affect a narrow sliver of the northwest corner of the park, and for a very limited period of time during the summer, and no later than 7:45 AM.

The truth did not stop Hilton’s paid lobbyists from spreading the big lie among various ethnic community leaders including Filipino American community leader Alice Bulos who signed a statement, prepared by Hilton’s lobbyists, charging that “the current plan would cast a shadow and obscure the major milestones of Asian American history.”

The height of hypocrisy here is that it is the 31-story Hilton Hotel Chinatown, across from Portsmouth Square, which casts the overwhelming shadow over the park, all day long and all year long. The Hilton’s paid lobbyists also claimed that the campus would draw 6500 “new” students who would descend on the campus at the same time, causing massive traffic jams and parking congestion.

"I was misled," said Rudy Asercion, a Filipino American Veterans commissioner. "The person who approached us said that there will be 7,000 students coming all at once and there would be no parking spaces. That is really not true because the classes are going to be staggered throughout the day and night and throughout the week and weekend."

Campus advocates also point out that about 90% of the students who will attend the proposed campus already live in Chinatown and will simply be walking to the campus or taking public transportation to get there, belying the parking congestion argument.

City College has wanted to build its own Chinatown campus for more than 25 years to replace the current inadequate facility, a former elementary school rented from the School District. But finding a site in the densest part of the city and obtaining the funds to purchase it were major problems until 1997, when San Francisco voters approved bond funds to purchase the Colombo and Fong buildings in Chinatown for the Chinatown campus.

Before that Chinatown campus project could get off the ground, however, suit was filed by the “Friends of the Colombo Building” to preserve the historic building. It turned out the lawsuit was funded by the owner of the adjacent Montgomery Towers building who did not want his towers’ views to be blocked by the proposed 9-story building which was to be built on two sites.

When it was time to get the bond funds from the City to complete the purchase of the buildings, then SF Supervisor Leland Yee, as chair of the Board's Budget and Finance Committee, held up release of the bond monies unless and until City College reached a settlement with the “Friends of the Colombo Building”. Because the funds were needed immediately or the purchase the property would be lost, the Board agreed not to tear down the Colombo Building and to seismically retrofit it at an added cost of $10-M.

But even after the Board yielded to his political blackmail, Yee declared that he still would not release the funds unless the College agreed to reimburse the attorney’s fees that the Montgomery Towers owner had paid to finance the lawsuit. The Board was outraged as the money to pay the $150,000 would come from the general funds of the College. Board members believe that the Montgomery Towers owner contributed heavily to Yee’s political campaign.

The Board then lobbied the other two members of the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee to vote to release the funds. But Yee said that, as chair of the committee, he alone had the power to “agendize” the item and if he didn’t put it on the agenda, it didn’t matter if the College had the support of the majority.

As he did then, as he is doing now, Yee has shown that he cares more about the interests of his financial contributors the interests of the people of San Francisco, especially those of minority immigrants.

O Yee of little faith in the people (and a lot of faith in the moneymen), you ’re making Bruce Brugman look good.

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