Much Ado at Melgar’s Town Hall
Applause, outrage and low-level grumbling
• • • • • September 21, 2023 • • • • •
On September 14th, City Attorney David Chiu and Supervisor Myrna Melgar hosted a “District 7 Town Hall” to address ongoing concerns about Westside disorder, homelessness and street crime. More than 100 residents poured into the Pomeroy Recreation Center for reassurance that City officials were applying solutions. The panel included Captain Amy Hurwitz from the Ingleside Police Station and Acting Captain Raymond Cruz from Taraval Station. Each speaker highlighted their personal, familial or adoptive connections to the Westside. That maneuver aimed to soothe public fears of being cast adrift in an unsettling cityscape.
City Attorney David Chiu began with a civics lesson on the role of the City Attorney's Office. Unlike the District Attorney's Office, which deals with criminal cases, the 340 legal professionals under Chiu address civil matters. They represent City departments from the Airport to the Zoo and some elected officials – not individual residents. They investigate some 4,000 claims against the City each year. They provide legal advice to City officials and draft contracts and legislation. They file lawsuits involving Civil Rights, Worker's Rights, Housing, Climate Change and Consumer Protection to defend the City.
In what sounded like a stump speech, Chiu underscored his lawsuits to prevent forced discharges from Laguna Honda Hospital, secure benefits for Uber and Lyft workers, obtain $350 million from the opioid industry, and challenge fossil fuel industries as well as PG&E. Surprisingly, Chiu claimed that his office helped the FBI root out City Hall corruption – omitting that the FBI initiated the crack-down after City Attorneys paid no heed.
That's what the crowd wanted to hear about ... drug dealing, prostitution and other quality-of-life violations.”
Finally, Something Relevant
City Attorney Chiu introduced Chris Whitman, who heads the Code Enforcement Team dealing with public nuisances that violate City codes. That's what the crowd wanted to hear about. It intervenes in illegal constructions, neglected properties and hoarding, illegal nightclubs and businesses, unauthorized Air B&B sites, drug dealing, prostitution and other quality-of-life violations.
Captain Amy Hurwitz explained that Ingleside Station is committed to addressing quality-of-life issues. But it's stymied because it is "critically short staffed." Also, cops are limited in what they can do about low-level disorder. To address the staffing shortage, she is recruiting more female officers.
Acting Captain Cruz vowed to treat the Westside as “my community" even though much of his 22-year career centered in the Bayview. He lauded Taraval Station’s “excellent plainclothes unit” for its success in tackling burglaries. Cruz voiced a commitment to “fight crime and patrol neighborhoods."
The SFPD distributed a January “Department Notice” signed by Police Chief William Scott. Pursuant to a December 2022 injunction from the US District Court, it constrains officers from enforcing laws that bar homeless persons from sitting, lying, or sleeping on public property.
Supervisor Melgar reported on deploying Community Ambassadors to corridors like Ocean Avenue and West Portal that have been stung by robberies and thefts. Public Works recruited laid-off workers for the Graffiti Abatement Program, and the clean-up is ongoing. As for the RVs parked around Lake Merced, Melgar has been working with the MTA to restrict parking. She strives to find alternatives to evictions and pushes for more affordable housing to prevent homelessness.
Questions & Answers
What about cars that speed along West Portal with no police intervention? Acting Captain Cruz replied that he heard complaints about Uber drivers blocking traffic in his meetings with the West Portal Merchants Association - but nothing about speeding autos. Someone in the audience suggested that the SFPD’s reported 97% drop in traffic citations might be responsible. City Attorney Chiu explained that the SFPD is 500 positions short, so cops are focused on violent crimes. He anticipated that a State Senate Bill on “automated speed enforcement” will empower the City to deter speedy drivers.
What about the RV encampments? Captain Hurwitz said the RV problem is “interesting” because each RV is “somebody’s home." The City needs a “holistic approach” because the SFPD is limited in what it can do besides responding to 311 calls and addressing code violations. When told to move, RV occupants soon come back. In short, "We cannot police our way out of this."
City Attorney Chiu explained that after losing a July lawsuit, the City cannot tow RVs or arrest occupants. However, the SFMTA can intervene if RVs create traffic, fire or waste hazards or if their registrations expire.
Supervisor Melgar noted that neighborhoods around Lake Merced wanted free and unlimited parking. However, free parking has attracted long-term RVs and various commercial vehicles. She is working with SFMTA to resolve the squatting problem by restricting parking. Many RV dwellers are "families with kids," often Spanish-speaking. Accordingly, Melgar has brought in non-profits to help them secure housing.
What is the status of the injunction against sweeps of homeless encampments?
City Attorney Chiu explained that the Coalition on Homelessness, along with the ACLU and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, won a lawsuit against encampment sweeps. The judge issued a “preliminary injunction” prohibiting the City from enforcing voter-approved rules against public camping and sleeping – until shelter beds match the number of homeless folks. Chiu said this placed the City in “an impossible situation” because “over half of the time that City workers offer shelters, they are refused." And the mere presence of police officers in these sweeps is deemed coercive and unlawful. Moreover, the City has spent billions helping people without homes, yet there are only 4,000 shelter slots versus 7,000 homeless people. Getting everyone housed will cost the City another $1.5 billion, Chiu stated. The trial won’t happen until 2025, so Chiu’s office is “in it for the long haul."
Amidst spirited protests, Chiu appealed the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He won a concession; “The injunction stays but if you refuse housing or if you have shelter but hang out on the street, the SFPD can move you," Chiu explained. The City is still allowed to clean streets, ensure adequate passage on sidewalks, and enforce health and safety measures.
What is the City doing about autonomous vehicles?
City Attorney Chiu reviewed how the California PUC granted Waymo and Cruise “unfettered” access to City streets. But dozens of safety impediments have impacted first responders, public transit and traffic flow. Chiu said that we need more data. And "expansion must be tied to safety and performance metrics." Therefore, the City has asked the State PUC to reconsider its approval.
What about the housing crisis?
Supervisor Melgar reported how “we permitted Accessory Housing Units." The City is working on its Housing Element. Notably, a complex across from City College will include 50% affordable units. Stonestown Mall is developing its parking lot for housing. A project at Laguna Honda is being planned for families, while housing for seniors is underway across the street from the hospital. Housing atop the Balboa Reservoir will start in 2024. The Westside is generating more housing, Melgar proclaimed.
What about mental health issues?
City Attorney Chiu mentioned that his office will implement the State's "Care Court" program. The City will be able to petition the court to develop care plans for persons who endanger themselves or others. However, the law does not compel treatment. Chiu encouraged community input.
The Town Hall managed to convey that City officials are aware of - and responsive to - constituent concerns about disorder on the Westside. The crowd was generally supportive of the speakers’ efforts. Yet, repeated waves of applause were punctuated by exclamations of outrage and low-level grumbling from some frustrated attendees. More Town Halls will be needed to calm Westsiders’ unease.
Dr. Derek Kerr is a San Francisco investigative reporter for the Westside Observer and a member of SPJ-NorCal. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
September 21, 2023