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Leno Talks About Money, Power, Dogs, Monsters, and Sex-Change Operations
By Kathy Dalle-Molle
On a rainy Friday afternoon in early February, the City Hall office of District 8 Supervisor Mark Leno is swamped -- with e-mails, phone calls, faxes. A steady stream of volunteers, aides, and visitors flows in and out of the reception area. KPIX reporter Lance Williams drops by to chat with one of Leno's aides about the energy-related legislation the supervisor will introduce on Monday.
I'm taking it all in, and all of a sudden I find myself wanting to shout, "Is everybody having fun?" That's because, perhaps surprisingly, it seems as if they are.
In between taking phone calls from a Democratic Club member who wants a response to his e-mail and another constituent who insists that Leno said he would meet with him, volunteer Mike Brockman, a self-admitted film addict, offers up movie reviews quicker than you can say Roger Ebert. The House of Mirth, Panic, and You Can Count on Me are all must-sees, he says.
Just as Brockman is telling me that he is "still haunted" by Count on Me, Leno's aide Nathan Purkiss enters the room in jeans and a T-shirt. He gives Brockman a stack of invitations that Leno has accepted and asks him to enter the dates and times in the computer.
"It looks like you guys are having fun," I say to Purkiss.
"You should be here at 11 o'clock at night," he responds, as if that's when the place really starts jumping.
But what else would you expect from the office of the supervisor who has uttered San Francisco's best quote of the year thus far? "Since when is the Jewish homosexual who advocates for transgender rights and medical cannabis the conservative in the race?" Leno joked at the supervisors' first meeting in January.
Though Leno's staff might yuck it up a bit, they still command a pretty tight ship. Half-hour appointments are scheduled back to back, with Leno running about 10 minutes behind for his interview with the Voice.
The newly elected supervisor for Noe Valley, the Castro, Glen Park, Diamond Heights, and two or three other neighborhoods invites me into his expansive (at least by city government standards) office, which with its neat hipness looks more like the workspace of a SOMA architect or designer than a member of city government. We chat for our allotted half hour on issues ranging from dogs to trans-gender health benefits to his allergy to the air freshener in the mayor's Town Car.
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Voice: When I was driving to our appointment, this silly song kept running through my head-- Carol Burnett's sign-off song, modified slightly, from her old variety show: "It seems we just get started, and before you know it ... it's time to run for re-election again."
In the lottery taken among the supervisors for the four-year and two-year seats, you got a two-year seat. Are you already working to gather momentum for your run in 2002?
Leno: Well, I'm such a compulsive worker that I've never really stopped running for anything, and I really think the best campaign is the way one does one's job. I was elected citywide in 1998, knowing I was going to have to run again in the spring of 2000--just a year and a half later. I've never felt like the running has stopped.
Voice: What's a typical day like in your office? Your staff told me that since district elections, your office has been even busier than before.
Leno: It's true. It's nonstop work. I feel fortunate that I'm a single guy right now. This job actually comes at a good time in my life. My partner died back in 1990, and I've been single since, so I don't keep anyone waiting at home. I have the utmost respect for public officials who do this kind of work and keep up a relationship and a family. I don't know how I would do it. I love the fact that I get to put 70, 80 hours a week into this job.
Also, because Prop. B failed, we had to relinquish one of our three aides. It really is bordering on manic around here, very intense. We're talking about dealing with hundreds of phone calls, e-mails, and faxes every day. And people expect quick responses. No one in my office complains. It's just a fact.
Voice: Do you still own your small business, Budget Signs?
Leno: Yes, and I'm blessed because I have a good manager there, and good staff, and they're carrying on quite valiantly. Maybe they even do better with me out of their hair. But, out of both desire and necessity, I do need to keep my business going, because the job of supervisor pays only part-time wages [$37,585 per year].
Voice: Do you get to spend much time in Noe Valley?
Leno: I make a point of being in touch on a regular basis with different neighborhood groups and merchants groups, but I don't hang out much, no.
Voice: So we're not going to be seeing you sitting on the bench in front of Martha's Coffee on a Saturday morning?
Leno: No, it's just not me. I spend my weekends partly at Budget Signs and partly at City Hall. But where you will see me almost every Sunday is PastaGina [on Diamond near 24th]. They're so friendly there, and the food is so wonderful. I get a couple of dishes to go in a paper bag, take them to my office, and have myself a nice gourmet meal while I work. But that wouldn't qualify as hanging out.
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Voice: I can only imagine that your 70-hour work weeks are going to grow even longer now that you're chairing the Finance Committee. The Feb. 8 San Francisco Chronicle reported that the city is going to have $44.6 million less in its pocket when the mayor sends his next budget to the board in June. It seems like a tough time to be chairing the Finance Committee.
Leno: It is. The Finance Committee, unlike all the other committees, meets every week as opposed to every other week. We probably have the thickest agenda and twice the committee work of any other committee. I feel like I've graduated and gone on to a higher class.
Chairing the Finance Committee requires a deeper involvement with the workings of the city. But I'm pleased to be able to do it. It's a great learning experience, and someone on the board has to take this on. I feel it's my turn.
Voice: How are you going to deal with the problems City Controller Ed Harring-ton noted in his report on the first half of fiscal year 200001? For example, 40 unions, representing 14,000 city workers, are negotiating new contracts. Harrington estimated that the city will end the current fiscal year with an $82.9 million general fund balance, compared to $127.5 million last June 30.
Leno: Well, I'm a perennial optimist. We're not talking about layoffs. We're not talking about cutting social services, though indeed it's never too early to make government more efficient. We should be very cautious at this time because clearly the economy is slowing. No one is arguing that, but we're not in dire straits. Hardly. Steady as she goes, I say.
I want to make sure that we are pulling in all possible revenue. One thing that I've initiated through some legislation is to ensure that the city is collecting every bit of its parking-lot tax.
We collected about $48 million in parking tax last year. We have good reason to believe that there could be an extra $25 million that we're not collecting, and we think we can collect that extra money by requiring parking-lot operators to install and maintain revenue control equipment. That's a term for a machine--you've probably seen one if you've ever been in the city garage at Fifth and Mission or Stockton-Sutter. That way, we will be able to accurately audit to make sure we are collecting everything we should be.
Forty percent of this tax goes to the General Fund, 40 percent goes to Muni, and 20 percent goes to Senior Services. So there's $25 million out there that we're not collecting. That could be an extra $5 million for Senior Services. This is important because seniors represent probably the largest, fastest-growing constituency group in the city, and we need more money for their services.
Voice: What about raises for those 14,000 city workers? What is your position on that?
Leno: I think one issue that is perennially challenging is that of overtime. I was very encouraged that Muni just reported the other day that it has now reduced its overtime and is not jeopardizing service. If one part of city government can do it, maybe there's a lesson to be learned for some other departments.
We want to work with these departments to help them get a handle on their overtime and, hopefully, come up with some savings to the city. Also, through those savings, we may be better able to meet the demands of their negotiators.
Voice: A columnist for the Independent wrote in a Jan. 30 article that as Finance chairman you might be "vulnerable" politically, since you face a two-year term after a tough re-election runoff battle while the two other committee members have a four-year term, which gives them more security and more freedom to make cuts. Are you concerned about your political vulnerability?
Leno: Not one bit. I came to City Hall to do the best job I can for the city. I'll be doing that at Finance. That's not to say that I'm completely insensitive to political realities, but I'm not going to let it dictate the kind of job I'm going to do.
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Voice: Dogs have been in the news more than ever of late, and since dogs are such a big issue always in Noe Valley....
Leno: You know, District 8 has the highest concentration of dog ownership of any district in the city, the highest per capita dog population in the entire city.
Voice: Are you a dog owner?
Leno: I am not, but I'm a dog lover. I have a cat and three parrots.
Voice: Let's talk about the board resolution you authored following the National Park Service's announcement of a proposed plan to ban off-leash dogs on federal parkland in the Bay Area. If the Park Service proceeded with rescinding their policy, the Board of Supervisors would initiate steps to try to reclaim the property.
Leno: The policy that has allowed dogs to run free on Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA) land goes back to 1979. We believe that if the National Park Service were to rescind its 22-year-old pet policy unilaterally, they would not be in compliance with the lease understanding they have with the city going back to 1975, when the city turned over land at Fort Funston. The lease clearly states that these lands should be used without interruption for park and recreation use, and they knew when they took those lands that this recreational use certainly included off-leash dog use.
Voice: My husband surfs at Ocean Beach virtually every morning that weather permits. He's seen dogs attack and kill seabirds in an area where dogs are required to be on-leash because the area is a protected habitat for the snowy plover bird. How do you balance your responsibility as a steward of the environment with the needs of pet owners?
Leno: I'm a great environmentalist and very concerned about protecting our natural habitat, but we're talking about 78,000 acres of land regarding the GGNRA issue. I know for a fact that if we sat down together--the GGNRA and the Board of Supervisors--we would be able to design a plan so that areas that needed to be protected would be, children and families would have a safe environment in which to recreate with or without their dogs, and there would be environmental protections.
Now it's tougher to do all of that in neighborhood parks because there's just not enough land to divide up for all those kinds of recreational uses. And if there was an absolute prohibition for off-leash dog use in these national park areas, the resultant increase of need for use in neighborhood parks would go up dramatically. That means many more people driving to the neighborhood parks, more traffic, more congestion, more parking problems, more exhaust and more pollution, and more wear-and-tear on our neighborhood parks. That's not what we want, so we need to strike a balance with the Park Service. That's what the resolution is really about.
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Voice: Six months ago, you proposed legislation to limit the size of future home remodeling projects--your so-called "monster home" legislation. The matter was tabled until the new board was in office. What's the status of the legislation?
Leno: Monster homes are a very big issue in District 8. They're affecting all parts of town, but more so in Eureka Valley, Noe Valley, and Glen Park than in any other. I think that's because these neighborhoods are close to BART and I-280, and folks who are working on the Peninsula are finding housing even more affordable here than in their neck of the woods, believe it or not. We see a lot of older, smaller structures being quite vulnerable to development.
Where we are right now is meeting on a weekly basis with representatives from all the different neighborhoods--from Collingwood Hill to Sanchez Hill to Randall Street and 30th Street, etc.--to craft something that will protect neighborhoods from out-of-scale and noncontextual development. It's hard. Some of the questions we're looking at right now are: Should we be creating special use districts in these neighborhoods, or can we come up with a magic formula that would actually work citywide? These are tough questions. Zoning questions are always difficult. We're working steadily on this issue, but at the same time we don't want to rush it, because we don't want what we propose to be flawed.
Voice: Have you been involved in discussions regarding the proposed development at the Reilly mortuary site at Dolores and 29th?
Leno: Yep, yep, yep. It's tough because what they're proposing out at Reilly is within the code, but we want to preserve a particular kind of character.
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Voice: By the way, a few weeks ago, I was driving down Clipper Street in the early morning, and there was a driver in a Lincoln Town Car parked in front of your home--it was the mayor's car. Were you and the mayor having an early morning pow-wow at your home?
Leno: No, actually, the mayor was out of town that day. I was acting mayor.
Voice: Oh, so you get his Town Car and driver for the day?
Leno: Whether one wants the car or not, there is a matter of security, so it is required. I joke with friends, telling them, "I'm going to be acting mayor for the day, and the good news is I've got the car and driver. The bad news is that riding in the car literally makes me sick to my stomach." They use a particular kind of aerosol air freshener in the car, and I'm allergic to it. I get nauseated and dizzy. All of the windows have to be down when I'm in that car.
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Voice: During the current power crisis, you have been a strong advocate for the city making itself more energy self-sufficient. Tell us about the solar energy proposal you plan to introduce. [Leno presented the plan at the Board of Supervisors' Feb. 12 meeting.]
Leno: I'm very excited about this. Technology presently exists for the city to be able to generate a significant amount of its daily power needs from solar voltaic technology, using rooftops of municipal buildings. There are large stretches of land that the Public Utilities Commission possesses--flat surfaces where we could lay the latest technology to capture solar energy. It's cost-effective, it's doable, and I think because of the crisis, there will be the political will to move it forward.
We're looking at what the expenses would be, what amount of our energy needs we could produce and how quickly we could get all of this installed. Then we're going to do the necessary studies to see if it makes sense to put a revenue bond on the ballot, which would raise money that we would need for the initial costs.
Now, a revenue bond is different from a general obligation bond. It would not increase property taxes one bit, because the bonds are paid back by the revenue the bonds generate. We would be generating not only power but some money as well.
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Voice: Let's talk a little bit about Muni's new diesel buses. People in Noe Valley are complaining that they are noisy beyond belief. Others are upset about the pollution; they want Muni to purchase compressed natural gas buses instead. What do you plan to do about this?
Leno: It's tough. These decisions are now made by the new Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but the dollars they will need to purchase any new fleet comes through the San Francisco Transportation Authority, which is made up of the Board of Supervisors. So we control those purse strings, and I've heard arguments made on both sides of the issue.
I really believe we should be pursuing the need for compressed natural gas. I don't believe some of the suggestions made by Muni--that it would set us back years in replacing our old diesel fleet. Washington, D.C., was able to get up and running within one year. Why be invested in 150 new buses in what is without a doubt last-century technology? The future is not in diesel. Los Angeles moved away from diesel long ago. Many cities are following compressed natural gas paths.
Now, another concern at this time is the cost of natural gas and where that cost is going. So these are not easy questions. Certainly, if you look at the situation merely from an environmental health perspective, there's no debate. No to diesel buses. But if we also have the charge to keep Muni running reliably, can we do that with a new compressed natural gas fleet? I believe that we can.
Actually, we should be looking very immediately at battery-operated buses. The same individual who has the patent for the solar voltaic technology that I've been talking about for municipal rooftops has already provided a fleet of battery-powered buses to the city of Rome.
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Voice: Provide us with some details regarding your recent resolution asking the San Francisco Health Services Board to extend full health benefits to the city's transgender employees. In their column in the Jan. 15 Chronicle, Matier and Ross give the impression that the city is going to be required to pay the costs for any employee who wants a sex-change operation. They even joke, "Sounds like a slam dunk for the 'Only in San Francisco' Award." Let's hear your side of the story.
Leno: What this resolution does for transgender employees of the City of San Francisco is give them access to health benefits in a way they have not had in the past. We're not just talking about gender reassignment surgery. In fact, that's not what we're talking about.
We're talking about equal benefits for equal work. Keep in mind that a lot of people don't necessarily know that to benefit from what we just passed at the Health Services Board, an individual has to have a physician's diagnosis [based upon the standards set by the Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association, located in Minneapolis. The association has 350 members around the world in the fields of psychiatry, endo-crinology, surgery, law, psychology, sociology, and counseling. It often takes up to six months for doctors to assess a patient's need for surgery].
Gender dysphoria is a medical condition, and there are medical procedures to tend to this medical condition. This is not elective surgery.
I've gotten e-mails from people who have said, "So, what's next? Nose jobs?" That's not what this is about. It's about a medical condition that must be diagnosed by a physician. If you were non-transgender and you needed breast-reduction surgery or if you needed hormone therapy or if you needed treatment for breast cancer or a heart ailment or kidney or liver disease and you were a city employee, the city would cover you. If you were a transgender woman and you had breast cancer, the city up until now would not cover that, because they are saying it's related to the transgender woman's transgender condition and that they have an exemption for transgenders. So that is going to be changed.
It's completely an issue of equity, and it's interesting that San Francisco, which has led the world in fighting for equal benefits for equal work, has not been providing that. We've been slightly inconsistent, if not hypocritical, but we're correcting that now.
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Voice: Last question. How should residents of Noe Valley go about contacting city government when they have a problem they need help with? When should they come to you?
Leno: It's always important to use government as efficiently as possible. We get a lot of calls that we end up passing on to the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services, which serves as a liaison between city government and the neighborhoods to make sure neighborhood problems and concerns are handled effectively. For example, if a neighbor needed a city tree to be trimmed, my office would not be the best place to call. We would most likely forward the request to Neighborhood Services.
However, people should always feel free to call my office regarding any matter. We might not be able to get back to you immediately, and in many cases we will refer you to Neighborhood Services. But if you have an issue that needs more specific attention than Neighborhood Services can give, always feel free to knock on my door.
Supervisor Mark Leno's office number is 415-554-7734. To reach Neighborhood Services, call 415-554-7111. The liaison for District 8 is Lawrence Ozoa.