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Supervisor Leland Yee Wants to Be an Advocate for Children and Neighborhoods
By Denise Minor
When Supervisor Leland Yee put Proposition I on the June ballot, he had no idea it would become such a bloody fight. "What I thought would be neighborhood-empowering legislation that most people would support has become one of the most controversial issues of the June 2 election," says Yee, a longtime Noe Valley resident.
Proposition I, known as the "Project Notification Ordinance," would require the city to inform the public of the location of any proposed project costing more than $50,000 in city money. The city could either post a sign at the site -- identifying the project's sponsor and approval date, and telling people where to get more information -- or send letters to neighborhood groups and to those living or working within 300 feet. Notification must be made at least 15 days in advance of final city approval of the project.
"Some say that this could delay much-needed services, such as drug treatment programs or homes for those with AIDS," says Yee. Others fear that Prop. I would encourage NIMBYism and that local residents might fight to keep out social service centers or homes for groups of people they consider undesirable neighbors.
"But this proposition doesn't reveal specifically what type of project it is. It doesn't reveal the client population," says Yee. "And there is no appeal process. There's really nothing that the neighbors can do.
"You might ask what the point is, if you can't do anything about it," he continues. "Well, I think that it might get everyone to sit down and work out the issues if the neighbors have some concerns."
Unfortunately for Yee, neither Mayor Willie Brown nor any of the other city supervisors supports Proposition I.
"Almost no one supports it except the neighborhood groups," he admits. "But I think that is something that has marked my career. I'm sensitive to the voices of the neighborhoods, and not to those of the power groups. I think that the voices of the neighborhood are more genuine."
Since January, Yee has visited a number of Noe Valley neighborhood groups to campaign for Prop. I. And he's had pretty favorable results.
The residents' group Friends of Noe Valley threw its support behind the proposition. It even offered a suggestion that wound up in Yee's final draft.
"At a meeting, one member suggested that neighborhood organizations should also be included in the notification process, not just people living within 300 feet of a project," said Yee.
The Noe Valley Merchants and Professionals Association and the Upper Noe Neighbors also voted to support the meas-ure. The Noe Valley Democratic Club failed to endorse Prop. I, however, citing the NIMBYism concern.
Frowns on Antennas Near Schools
Yee, in starched white shirt and tie, is sitting in his offices at San Francisco's temporary City Hall on Van Ness Avenue. Behind him on the walls are enormous frames containing Chinese artwork and inscriptions.
One plaque -- with gold letters on a red background -- says in Chinese characters, "With good education, children will rise to the top." The other, loosely translated, says, "With hard work and care, people will improve."
At the beginning of the Voice interview, Yee is cordial but slightly tense -- it is clear he has a number of demands on his time. But as he talks, he warms up and relaxes into his chair.
Besides keeping his eye on citywide issues, Yee says he tries to follow closely the topics that affect his home turf of Noe Valley. Two have been of particular interest to him -- the fight over the installation of cellular telephone antennas and commercial development on both 24th and Church streets.
Although Yee was not the most outspoken supervisor in last fall's debate over the placement of antennas at the Noe Valley Ministry, he said he firmly opposed their installation in the church steeple, because of potential harm to the children who attend nursery school there.
"When it comes to children's care programs, we must err in favor of caution," says Yee. "I sat down with Pac Bell and informed them that they were in for a bruising battle if they continued to try to get the antennas erected." In December, Cellular One and Pacific Bell Mobile Services backed out of the deal.
"On the other hand, if Noe Valley is going to continue to enjoy the services of cellular telephones, where are we going to put the antennas? We can't just say no to them, and expect them to continue to provide their technology."
As for commercial development, Yee says he generally believes that market forces should determine what businesses succeed or fail. However, he does see a need for local governments to step in when market forces go astray, which he thinks has happened to some extent on 24th Street.
"What has happened is that 24th Street is no longer a residential strip -- it's almost a commercial strip," says Yee. "The question is, how do we preserve it as a business area that serves the neighborhood? How do we preserve the character?"
His conclusion is that the zoning controls already in place are sufficient -- as long as they are enforced. Laws governing the 24th Street Neighborhood Commercial District currently prevent businesses from moving into second-story units and preclude restaurants from opening in a space that was previously retail.
Yee has decided, however, not to take a position on the "coffee and juice bar" moratorium proposed by Supervisor Sue Bierman, which would prevent any more specialty food stores, including coffee vendors, from entering the neighborhood.
35 Years at 30th and Dolores
Yee says he sometimes feels nostalgia for the 24th Street he remembers from his youth. He moved from Chinatown to his current home on 30th Street near Dolores when he was 15, almost 35 years ago. (He's 49 now.)
"When I was a boy, one of my friend's family had a laundry on 24th Street. We hung around there all the time. It was a very busy street, with lots of mom and pop stores," he says.
Yee spent a few years away during his college education, but for the most part he has lived since adolescence in the home he now shares with his wife, Maxine, and their four children, ranging in age from 12 to 22. The eldest is a student at the University of California, Berkeley. His mother, who is in her 80s, lives in an adjacent unit.
"One of the reasons Mom likes Noe Valley is the sunshine. She has a garden, which she works in almost every day," says Yee.
When Yee first moved to Noe Valley, he wanted to continue attending Galileo High School, so each day he took the J-Church streetcar to Van Ness, then transferred to a bus. After a year he tired of commuting, so he transferred to Mission High School.
Yee then attended City College of San Francisco for two years and went on to receive a bachelor's degree from U.C. Berkeley. He then got a master's degree in developmental psychology from San Francisco State University and a doctorate in the same field at the University of Hawaii.
Yee says he liked Hawaii very much, and his wife liked it even more. "She threatened to stay behind with the kids," he says with a smile. "She said I could visit them as often as I liked."
One aspect of his Hawaii experience that changed him for life was seeing so many Asians in positions of political power.
"I grew up sheltered and never experienced harsh discrimination such as some minorities have," he said. "But in Hawaii it hit home that some forms of discrimination aren't apparent for what you see, but for what you don't see.
"When I was in Hawaii, the governor was Japanese American, the head of the state senate was Chinese American, and captains of industry and business were Asian," Yee continued. "I reflected back on California and wondered why there weren't more Asians in those positions in San Francisco."
While growing up in the city, "we were always told that Chinese didn't get involved in politics, that we didn't have good language skills, that it wasn't in our culture," he says. "But when you go to Hawaii and see this, you think, hey, maybe it's not cultural."
When Yee returned from Hawaii, he began a career as a therapist in the children's division of the city's Mental Health Department. After five years there, he went to work as a psychologist for the Oakland School District for 10 years. He then spent seven years working at a nonprofit agency called Asian Americans for Community Involvement, which served low-income people.
In 1988 Yee was elected to the San Francisco Board of Education, where he served until 1996, when he won election to the Board of Supervisors. His main goal as a city supervisor has been to create better services for children.
"One of the reasons I ran for supervisor was to try to capitalize on city resources to focus them more on children," says Yee.
His chief accomplishment has been the development of what he calls an Integrated Services Model, which tries to locate a number of community services under one roof.
For instance, many schools are closed at night, but some of the students are tutored by volunteers in nearby programs. Yee is trying to open up the schools in the evenings and provide tutoring, adult education, child care, and sports at the same time, so an entire family can come. Screening for mental and physical health problems could also be offered.
The Integrated Services Model already works at one city school. "At Commodore Stockton Elementary in Chinatown, they have an open gym and classrooms where groups are singing and playing Chinese instruments. In other rooms they offer tutoring for children and language and citizenship classes for adults," says Yee.
The supervisor is also investigating ways to make mental health care providers more accountable. "I don't want youngsters to go through the treatment and not see any benefits," he says.
Yee has also spent some time and ingenuity getting wired. On his web page on the Internet, he regularly moderates a "Cyber Town Hall Meeting." The site is www.lelandyee.com.
Prop. 227 a Meat Ax Approach
As for issues other than Prop. I on the June ballot, Yee says he supports Proposition A, which would provide funding to rebuild the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. However, he opposes Proposition J, which mandates construction of a parking garage under the Music Concourse in the park. "I don't believe there should be any type of garage built in the park," he says. "And I particularly don't like the idea of desecrating the Music Concourse to build one."
Yee says that because he is a landlord, he cannot take a public stand on Propo-sition E, which would exempt owner-occupied buildings of four or fewer units from current rent control laws. The supervisor owns the four-unit building where he lives.
Although Yee sees a conflict of interest in speaking out in favor of Proposition B, he has decided to do so nonetheless. The measure would increase city supervisors' annual salaries from $24,000 to $38,000.
"As it stands, the supervisors' salary cannot attract anyone without other income. It's not enough to live on, and therefore decreases the pool of candidates for the job."
Of all the state measures on the ballot, Yee feels most strongly about Proposition 227, which would reduce bilingual education in California to a maximum of one year per student.
"I absolutely support bilingual education," says Yee. He does allow that bilingual classes could be greatly improved in some areas of the state, but feels that eliminating all the good bilingual programs just because of a few bad ones would be a big mistake.
As for recent media speculation that Yee wants to be mayor of San Francisco, the supervisor says that he does not at this time have any designs on the office.
"I just got elected to the Board of Supervisors," says Yee. "I wanted this job, and I'm happy where I am."