Transit-first plan puts children last 

It had been awhile since I yelled at my television, what with the new Board of Supervisors meeting peacefully and infrequently thus far this year. So when a friend told me, “You have to watch the Feb. 1 meeting of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors; check out agenda item 11,” I was feeling calm and ready for amusement.

What I saw was so absurd and infuriating that I can scarcely describe it. But I will try, because it offers a glimpse into the brain trust that oversees The City’s monumentally mismanaged transportation system.

By way of background: Certain areas of The City are eligible to participate in a Residential Parking Permit Program. In those areas, if a certain number of residents sign a petition, the people who live in the area can get up to four permits to park for extended periods of time.

A few years ago the law was changed to allow permits for people who “provide health care or other related services essential to the well-being of the resident applicant, upon the certification by a licensed physician that such services are required.”

So far, there are no major reports of abuse. Only 180 of 80,000 residential parking permits are issued for health care workers.

But medical assistance certainly isn’t the only kind of residential help that San Franciscans rely on. Child care workers also provide “services essential to the well-being of the resident applicant” and yet are not allowed a permit under the current program. Constantly running out to deal with meters or moving a car around can be a real problem for these folks. One working mother with two small children has asked that the law be amended to allow residents to give one of their four allotted permits to a caregiver for children 12 and under.

And here’s where the story picks up.

The SFMTA board took up this simple proposal Feb. 1 with board member Jerry Lee immediately burping out this idea: force any person who wants a parking permit for their child care worker to submit a “petition of 50 percent of households on the block approving the issuance of the permit.”

That’s right. Lee would like working parents to knock on their neighbors’ doors, announce that they have children who are left alone all day with a caregiver and beg the neighbors’ permission to allow a caregiver to use one of the four permits the parent is entitled to anyway.

It gets worse. Chairman Tom Nolan practically spit as he declared that there’s no reason this should apply to kids as old as 12, then directed the law be changed to only apply to children 6 and younger. (Seven-year-olds are on their own!) He also requested that penalties for violating the child care permit law be much greater than other permit offenses.

So this is how the SFMTA board took a very simple proposal and made it onerous and humiliating. The amended version boils down to an extraordinary invasion of privacy, a dismissive treatment of child care workers and punitive aim at the struggling parents who rely on them.

Of course, the board members kept trying to use the idea of “transit first, to camouflage their indifference to the challenges of raising a child in this city. I don’t have a car or a kid, but I know that “transit first” doesn’t mean “transit only,” and if anyone should be on the top of the list of permissible car users, it is people who are caring for children. As the only rational member of the board, Malcolm Heinicke, put it, “Transit first should not mean families last.”

The SFMTA board will hear this issue again on April 5.

Prop. M debate drags on ... and on

In the November 2008 election, Proposition M was put before city voters. The ordinance would “prohibit specific acts of tenant harassment by landlords.” The main part of the law set forth 15 specific prohibited acts, which included failing to cash a rent check within 30 days and threatening a tenant. Under Prop. M, any victim of these acts of harassment could go to the Rent Board and ask or a rent reduction. Alternatively, if a tenant skipped the Rent Board and sued for harassment in regular state court and won, Prop. M would award the tenant attorney’s fees.

In the voter pamphlet, property owners opposing Prop. M said it would not hold up in court and called it “Just ANOTHER waste of City money both at election time and again in a legal fight.”

Unmoved by this argument, 58 percent of voters were in favor of Prop. M, and it passed. The new city law was promptly challenged in Superior Court by property owners. The Superior Court eliminated the attorney’s fees award for tenants who sue in state court because it would mean changing state law — which cities cannot do. Both sides appealed the case, and last week the Appeals Court ruled that the Rent Board can only reduce rent for three of the 15 prohibited acts of harassment. Turns out the Rent Board can make awards in discernible amounts ($50 to fix plumbing, for example) but cannot decide amounts for emotional distress or other mushy problems. That’s the job of “real” judges.

The battle has gone on since December 2008, with the city attorney legally required to defend Prop. M. City attorney spokesman Jack Song tells me that the office has not made a decision on whether to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

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Melissa Griffin

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