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Mayor Newsom answers questions on KQED Forum
San Francisco's mayor, Gavin Newsom answered questions and talked about his accomplishments and goals Monday on the KQED radio program Forum. Here is a summary of that hour from my own perspective.
January 10, 2007
Mayor Newsom answers questions on KQED Forum
I don't tune in quite as often to listen to the hugely popular Forum program on KQED anymore-- particularly when the regular host Michael Krasny is not present. Increasingly, the program seems to be a conduit for framing issues that represent a world view espoused by the San Francisco Chronicle in which criticism of free trade, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and oligarchic control of our elections and government are treated as taboo subjects or curious novelties. Substitutes for Krasny often are the best tip-off that someone's views are about to be marginalized or squelched.
Even so, when I read that San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom was invited to Forum to "talk about the state of the city and its current issues" just a day after Matt Gonzalez was reported to be close to announcing a mayoral run in 2007, I thought it worthwhile to listen.
The fill-in host of yesterday's program, Dave Iverson, began the hour by asking listeners "what are your priorities and concerns for the city of San Francisco.... Whatever your issue the person who can best provide the answers, Mayor Gavin Newsom, joins us... and we'll take your calls and e-mails." (Good so far.)
And then Iverson asked Newsom if he was planning to run for mayor again... to which Newsom responded with chuckles.
Iverson: "An official announcement?"
Newsom: "I am going to defer the official announcements... I am looking forward to an exciting year in most respects... and a lot of exciting things happening at the Board of Supervisors... and a lot of things that on our agenda... and obviously the sideline, the sideshow, will certainly be the prospects of a contentious mayoral election."
(The answer is probably yes, Iverson, surmised later.)
And there you have the tone of the rest of the hour's program: Iverson asking softball questions and Newsom adroitly replying as if from a script.
But wait. Iverson said that listeners could call in and e-mail right?
Theoretically someone could call in or e-mail to ask some tough questions of Newsom-- perhaps asking the mayor why he disdains the voters' request that he engage questions put him by the Board of Supervisors (it wouldn't happen, although later Newsom pointed out to Iverson that he had an on-going open door policy which Supervisors did not avail themselves of, and that he preferred to bypass Board meetings which were in his experience predictable time wasters).
In the first half hour, Newsom expounded upon his strengths and weaknesses as mayor-- ever mindful to make his weaknesses appear to be virtues in disguise. "Can I communicate better? You bet!," said he, remarking that exuberance to get things done was his chief weakness. Like one who has mastered the art of giving a successful job interview, Mayor Newsom rattled off his accomplishments and viewpoints taking care that nothing he could say could ruffle anyone or allow them time to think or respond. (If they could or would respond....)
Midway through the program Iverson reminded listeners that they could join in. The first to do so was "George" who e-mailed the missive: "Is San Francisco anti-business?"
Newsom responded with sympathy and more resume rattling.
Newsom then caught my ear when he excitedly described a new program he is instituting to help connect citizens to city services. Beginning in April, said he, people in San Francisco will be able to call 311 (24 hours a day seven days a week) to get answers to questions they have about all city services in "140 languages." More: the service will incorporate a record management system that will aggregate and analyze information about calls to help make city government more responsive and efficient.
Sounds great, thought I-- although the "140 languages" raised a red flag in my mind. (140 sounds like the number of languages AT&T regularly promises to businesses that do not hire their own local interpreters: interpretation on the cheap maybe?)
I called in to the program to ask a question immediately-- and (amazingly!) got hold of the call screener on the first call. "What's your question?" she asked.
My question: "Will the 311 service be contracted out or will San Franciscans run it?" I was put on hold with the expectation that I might be able to ask the mayor.
[I had called Forum in the past with a similar question about "getting connected." On Forum in 2004, I had informed the newly appointed Police Chief Earl Sanders how telephone numbers provided on forms to violent crime victims by police were useless if called at the wrong times. He promised to look into the problem immediately. (In conversation with a policeman recently, I asked to look at what the police were now providing. I was hardly surprised to see that the form had not changed one iota: it was dated from before my call. The policeman apologized explaining that it was likely some old forms had been xeroxed by mistake.)]
While I waited for my chance to question Mayor Newsom, I listened to the pre-delayed audio stream and the continuing conversation.
The first call answered by Forum came in from "Justin" who (before getting clipped in mid-sentence) thanked the mayor for doing an "incredible job" and then complained about overpaid bureaucrats in the city who are incapable of doing theirs.
Again Newsom responded with sympathy and described how he was responsible for implementing never before attempted performance reviews. He quickly added that he still valued seniority in the civil service, and thanked Labor (emphasizing that he himself is "pro-Labor") for "stepping up to the plate" to recognize that San Francisco must compete with other cities to keep "people" from leaving. (People or certain businesses? I mused while listening.)
Perhaps anticipating Iverson's announcement that he had a handful of e-mails regarding homelessness in San Francisco, Newsom described his volunteers project Homeless Connect as being instrumental in motivating civil servants to remember why they had first sought public service before losing their zeal.
Iverson did not read any of the e-mails he described, but asked Newsom about his views. Newsom proudly said that the city homeless caseloads under Care Not Cash have declined 87%, even after admitting that two or three new homeless persons come to San Francisco for each homeless person that gets off the streets.
Newsom then painted an almost romantic picture of the state of poverty in San Francisco: an optimistic picture describing soup lines as a visible sign of success [sic.] and the congregations of poor people as part of the "narrative of life." (The poor will always be with us?)
If any Forum listener in San Francisco was anxious that junkies, inebriates, panhandlers or homeless might overtake their neighborhoods, Newsom allayed their fears by explaining that San Francisco would refuse to warehouse those people out of sight as other major cities do-- but tolerate, for now, their 80% concentration in the mid-Market area. Newsom reminded Forum listeners that he heads the U.S. Mayors Task Force on Homelessness, is opposed to status quo solutions and wants to stop public inebriation and aggressive panhandling in a "compassionate and thoughtful way."
Dave Iverson reminded listeners to call and e-mail. "Let me attack a couple" of e-mails, he said, which were questions and follow-ups about the possibility that the San Francisco 49ers might leave the city for Santa Clara.
Newsom described his surprise when he had learned that many people thought that he had "dropped the ball" in negotiations with the team's owners. He described how he had recently conversed with Senator Dianne Feinstein about a new strategy to save the team when he encountered her in Washington. He guaranteed that his commitment to promises that he had made to residents in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood would override any agreement he might make with John York who owns the team with his wife.
Iverson then read an e-mail from "Sharon" (the second of three e-mails read with a name). Sharon wrote that MUNI was worse and asked when the mayor would fix it.
Newsom apologized for not having the benefit of budget surpluses, and then launched into a description of a new Transportation Efficiency Program (TEP) which would take stock of every aspect of San Francisco's public transportation system-- everything "from soup to nut." (Why don't my friends talk like that, I mused, as I kept waiting to ask my own question.) Newsom described how the California 1 bus service has sped up after making recent improvements which will be incorporated into the TEP.
It was about that time that I got mysteriously cut off. I tried to re-call KQED several times-- to no avail. All the telephone lines stayed busy. I finally gave up trying and listened to the rest of the program on the radio.
Introducing a note of controversy into the program, Dave Iverson asked the mayor if San Franciscans expect too much from city government and are unwilling to pay for it. "Absolutely right!" declared Newsom. He then described how taxpayers reject tax increases, but want more from the city. But so what? he could have suggested: San Francisco's business climate had improved; hotel and sales tax revenues are up.
Iverson read an e-mail from "Steven" asking what the mayor was going to do to improve the Tenderloin neighborhood. Newsom again rattled off an impressive list of things the city is already doing, mentioning: ribbon cuttings...TNDC... Glide... St. Anthony's... scrub down strategy... parks... policing massage parlors... clean corridors campaign...health... police... and more. He noted that the Tenderloin is home to a disproportionate number of children needing special services.
"I get it. We've got to do a better job." he summed up humbly.
Iverson thought it was a good time to ask about education in San Francisco. Should the mayor take a more active role like Villaraigosa in Los Angeles? Newsom said no, he could rely on his good relationship with the School Superintendent and the School Board. He added that San Francisco still loses about 1,000 students a year but that students in San Francisco perform better on standardized tests than students living in other California urban areas.
Of course, a one hour radio program allows little time for the host or anyone else to ask such questions as "why are students' families leaving San Francisco anyway?" Dave Iverson announced that there was only time left in the program for "one more call." (Actually the second in the entire program that managed to get through.)
"Abdul" began to ask the mayor what his thoughts were about economic opportunities for minorities in the city... but like the first caller was cut off, with apologies, in mid-sentence.
Newsom took the last few minutes of the program to talk about poverty "silos," his Communities of Opportunity Initiative (modeled on the Harlem Urban Zone)-- "a real business plan" to begin in the Southeast quadrant of the city.
With all that, the hour's program finally came to an end. Total of callers who participated: Two. (Both cut off. The callers' total time on air: One minute and 40 seconds out of a 52 minute program. Number of e-mails: 2 by name, 3? 5? total? Iverson had spoken guiltily at one point about how he would have been "remiss" if he hadn't responded to some of the e-mails flooding in.)
I should have liked to have gotten through to ask my question. I wasn't happy to have been disconnected without explanation. But hey, that's the nature of trying to access one's government via a one hour public radio program.
I think it is sad that call-in radio is one of the few venues left to the average citizen to speak with their government representatives. It is demeaning to the citizens; it must be demeaning to the representatives and hosts.
There are likely so many citizens in San Francisco who are so desirous of having an authentic dialog with their government representatives that a program like Forum is simply not up to the task of fielding all the calls and e-mails it gets. A radio show calling itself "Forum" seems a poor substitute for the real thing-- a real democratic forum involving more real questions and real debate.
I believe less and less people know how to "connect" with their government today, save possibly by giving lavish donations... perhaps that is why I was excited in a roundabout way by the idea of a 311 service-- a great idea in principle-- but one that could become just a new firewall between residents and their public servants if sloppily implemented. (Using the same dispatch units to field non-emergency and emergency calls as it is done now is absolutely ridiculous.)
One hour is hardly enough time to hear from the mayor-- especially during a time of war (not even mentioned). Without real or challenging dialog such a program becomes little more than a political advertisement.
It is too bad that members of KQED recently voted to give up their voting rights, even if its Chair of the Board Nick Donatiello cheered:
"We applaud the membership's decision to approve the name change for the corporate umbrella organization as well as the changes to the Articles of Incorporation and Bylaws that the Board recommended. This decision allows us to dedicate more of our resources to programming and other mission-centric efforts. It also puts the organization in a position to respond quickly to opportunities and challenges arising from today's rapidly-changing media environment. I am grateful to the nearly thirty thousand members who took the time to consider these matters and vote in this process.""Mission-centric efforts?"
Sounds like something Newsom could wedge into his next spiel.
Please direct corrections and comments below, or e-mail me with your thoughts.
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