Did Supervisors Violate the Brown Act in Rush to Approve Parkmerced?

by Dean Preston on June 7, 2011

Today, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors is expected to take a final vote on whether to approve the demolition of over 1500 rental homes at Parkmerced, San Francisco’s largest rental housing complex. The project was approved on first reading two weeks ago.

Approval of this flawed project would not only be unwise, but may also be illegal. In his rush to push through controversial amendments without allowing a meaningful opportunity for public comment, Board President David Chiu weakened the legal footing for this project. If the Board approves the project, a legal challenge under California’s Brown Act is all but certain.

Board President David Chiu appeared at the May 24, 2011, hearing with 14 pages of amendments that had been negotiated in a back-room deal with the developer. He refused to agree to continue the matter so that the public and his colleagues could analyze and discuss the proposed amendments. As a result, Parkmerced residents, the public and other Supervisors were denied the opportunity to fully analyze and hear testimony on the proposed amendments.

This continues a pattern that many, particularly Rent Board Commissioner Polly Marshall and Planning Commissioner Kathrin Moore, have complained of throughout the consideration of the Parkmerced plans. Despite the fact that this is a massive project that would result in more displacement than any project since the redevelopment of the Fillmore District, the Development Agreement has repeatedly been changed at the last minute without a proper opportunity for public input.

One wonders why Chiu would take this approach at the Board. It is one thing to support the project, and quite another to attempt to deprive residents and the public the opportunity to have input on it.

California’s Brown Act requires notice and a public hearing where the Board of Supervisors meets to discuss, deliberate or vote on an action item of this type. Substantive amendments trigger new notice and hearing requirements. Otherwise, the public would have no meaningful opportunity to know about the matters to be voted upon by their government.

The point was not lost on Supervisor David Campos. Campos asked the Deputy City Attorney at the May 24 hearing whether the amendments were substantive, thus requiring that the matter be put over and re-noticed for a new hearing. Deputy City Attorney Cheryl Adams argued that the amendments were “substantial” but not “substantive,” a distinction that was befuddling.

Campos was not persuaded: “For the record, I do believe that we are running afoul of the laws that govern how these kinds of matters should be handled. I do not think it is appropriate for us to take action on the kinds of substantive changes that have been made, irrespective of what we think about the substance of those changes.”

Chiu’s amendments purport to grant lifetime leases to tenants, change the phasing plan for resident relocation and impose new consequence for a breach of the agreement. He touts these as important changes that “increase support and protection for tenants,” yet he is avoiding public scrutiny by hiding behind a City Attorney’s characterization of his 14 pages of amendments as not being substantive.

Regardless of what one thinks of the project, a major re-working of such an important project deserves a public hearing at which everyone has the opportunity to review and analyze the relevant documents.

Dean Preston is the Executive Director of Tenants Together, California’s statewide organization for renters’ rights. For more information about Tenants Together, visit www.TenantsTogether.org.

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