Sunday, January 31, 2010

For once, I'm on the other side of the media ... and it's more exciting than it should be

A couple buildings in the South San Francisco Housing Authority.

Note: The following contains my own personal opinions and recollections and is in no way meant to represent the opinions of the South San Francisco Housing Authority, its Board of Commissioners or the City of South San Francisco.

I will be on TV during the Thursday night newscast on San Francisco's channel 7, and am not particularly thrilled about it.

In April of last year, I was appointed by the South San Francisco City Council to a term as commissioner on the city's Housing Authority (SSFHA). Now it might come as a surprise to some that South City even has public housing, but we do -- about 80 units in 37 buildings on a C Street cul de sac near South San Francisco High (map below).

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Like my involvement with SamTrans, where I am the chair of the Citizen's Advisory Committee, I take my duty as a housing commissioner seriously. It is a great way to give something back to the community and is just a step above volunteer work -- we are compensated with a mere $50 (taxable) per month for a job that usually involves about three or four hours work (including meetings, site visits, discussions with staff and residents, reading large agenda packets and the like), plus cookies at meetings. Cookies at meetings are important. The commissioners are tasked with, among other duties, approving regulations in the authority and (relevant in this case) approving contracts with outside companies for maintenance and the like. One contract approval last year has turned into an interesting spectacle, with one rejected contractor taking its disappointment to the media.

Last spring, the Housing Authority sent out a request for proposals to paint the exterior of the authority's 37 buildings, which had not been repainted for seven years. The job would be paid for using ARRA stimulus funds doled out by the US Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which has oversight over public housing. We had about 22 bids -- 14 of which were deemed "noncompliant" due to one procedural misstep or another (that process in itself was difficult, as the minutes of our June meeting attest).

Ultimately, the Housing Authority's staff submitted eight bids to the Board for its review. The report the commissioners received from the staff did not include a recommendation about which contractor to select, but did include a notation that the Housing Authority wanted an "inexpensive but quality job" (paraphrased) and staff thusly recommended that the two highest and two lowest bids be rejected (kind of like when the highest and lowest judge's scores are thrown out in the Olympics, I guess).

"Now, wait a minute," you might be asking, "Aren't public agencies obliged to choose the lowest bid?" No. We are actually tasked with accepting the lowest responsible bid. This means that, besides price, public agencies are supposed to also consider all criteria associated with a bid, including experience, insurance, perceived ability to do the job, etc.

One bidder, Axios Painting of San Francisco (I feel comfortable naming them because the company has taken its case to the media), had the lowest of the eight bids submitted to the board, saying it could paint the buildings for a little over $72,000. Another contractor, Ljungquist Painting of Palo Alto, said it could do the job for about $97,700. The third-lowest bidder, Metro Structural Painting of South San Francisco, submitted a bid for $116,000.

I didn't quite buy the "throw out highest and lowest" logic in picking a responsible bidder, so I closely examined the two lowest bids. Axios, at the time, was a very new company. It DID NOT LIST A SINGLE REFERENCE in its bid and its insurance certificate was listed as "pending" in the bid packet. As a result, I did not consider it a complete bid. I wouldn't hire someone with no references or insurance to paint my home, so I certainly wouldn't hire it to paint the homes of 80 other families either.

(It should be noted that the director of the Housing Authority determined, using estimates of total man hours needed to complete the project, that Axios would not be able to pay what are called "Davis-Bacon Wages." Davis-Bacon wages are pay rates determined by the US Department of Labor to meet the prevailing wage rates in the area to be paid on federally paid-for construction projects. If the contractor the SSFHA picked did not pay Davis-Bacon wages, we ran the risk of not being reimbursed by HUD.)

Ljungquist had all the required references and paperwork in my opinion, and was $18,200 cheaper than the next-lowest bid. So I moved that Ljungquist be awarded the contract. As the minutes indicate, my motion died for a lack of a second. The other board members, so I gathered from the discussion, agreed with staff's recommendation that the lowest bids be rejected in search of a high-quality job. In addition, the SSFHA's procurement policy at the time had a provision that a "preference" be shown to South San Francisco contractors (that provision has since been removed at HUD's recommendation), so the it was moved that Metro Structural get the contract.

The Board voted unanimously to award Metro Structural its $116,000 bid. While I would have preferred Ljungquist get the contract, I did vote yes for Metro Structural after seeing that it had the rest of the Board's support. Sometimes, politically, it's better to present a united front. Besides, other that the price, Metro Structural did have a good bid with many references, including local schools.

Normally, the story would end there. The buildings would get painted and most folks would be happy. But the owner of Axios didn't take losing the bid lightly. He first complained in a letter to the SSFHA and attended the July board meeting, I guess to see what we do. He then took his protest to HUD, which bounced it back because we followed our then-current procurement policy -- but not before holding up our stimulus payment for several months, forcing the SSFHA to take money from its reserves to pay the painting bill.

Not satisfied, Axios took its case to KGO TV news in San Francisco, alleging we were wasting stimulus funds. Lo and behold, investigative reporter Dan Noyes and the "I-Team" were at our January board meeting. I recognized Dan immediately, becoming a fan after he did a story recently about alleged spending abuses by San Jose/Evergreen College District Chancellor Rosa Perez, whom I myself profiled a couple times, most recently in 2004 for The Spectrum Magazine when she was president of CaƱada College.

I also knew why he was there, having dealt with the aftermath of this painting contract for months. Dan asked to speak with me on camera, and I agreed -- knowing from almost a decade's worth of reporting experience that silence speaks volumes. I wasn't quite prepared for the way Noyes asked the questions, but I did the best I could -- taking extra care to not once say "I don't know," probably the most incriminating thing a public official could say.

You'd think, having been on the other side of hundreds of interviews, that I'd have been comfortable giving one. But I could feel the slight nervous tick developing, could sense an inordinate amount of "uhs" coming from my mouth and uttered my words probably a whole octave higher than my usual speaking voice.

Was I nervous? Sure. But mostly I felt a bit of anger. Not at Dan Noyes, who was just doing his job. But at the circumstances. I felt we were being pilloried for rejecting an unqualified bid. If Axios had references and an insurance certificate, I would have been happy to move that the company get the contract. But now, it seems like sour grapes on Axios' part.

My only regret in this whole scenario (other than the stuttering interview that will probably be reduced to a few frames of me looking like I don't care about the public's money), is that I didn't push harder for Ljungquist to get the contract. I was new on the board at that time and a little hesitant to make enemies. I also may or may not instead have voted "No" in awarding Metro Structural the contract, but it was a fait accompli.

According to ads on channel 7, The I-Team story will run during the 6 p.m. newscast on Thursday, Feb. 4. Ironically, I'll be in my "Managing Budgets in the Public Sector" class at San Francisco State's downtown campus at the time. The ads seem to state that we misspent stimulus funds by "overpaying" 60 percent. Lovely. Again, I'd like to ask you folks if YOU'D pay an uninsured contractor with no references to paint YOUR house.

I'll post a quick reaction after the story airs.

(Update, Feb. 9, 2010: My response is up. A criticism of the above blog post from Axios is available at

Friday, January 22, 2010

"The Case of the Shhh!" (Complete Audio Book)

The author with his manuscript and its video game inspiration.

Ian wrote a book in class earlier this week. I thought we'd publish it below. (Copyright 2010 by Ian Baker and John Baker. Some characters copyright DC Comics.) Grammar is as by the author.

"The Case of the Shhh!"

By Ian Baker (& Ms. Angeles & Ms. Burke)

Characters: Batgirl. Robin, Batman, Nightwing, Ian Baker

Batgirl, Robin and Batman and Nightwing are flying outside of the room.

They were about to fall, they don't have any wings on their capes. Ian Baker had to go outside and catch them before they get hurt. Ian is catching them with his bare hands, and Ian has to fight the Riddler and Two-Face.

Ian will run into Two-Face and use his cane for the Riddler. And, Ian will say, "Shhhhhh ... Stop that! Stay down Riddler and Two-Face!"

The Riddler's legs fell off by itself because they are ruined.

The End

As a father, I am proud that Ian realized that Batgirl and co. can't fly. As a critic, I've got to say that the plot makes at least as much sense as a lot of Golden Age-era Batman stories. I see he's also put in a touch of post-modernism. The Riddler's legs being "ruined" sounds like something out of a Grant Morrison tale of the Caped Crusader.

Bonus: Click this link for a free audio book version of the story, narrated by the author himself.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Earthquake memories

Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti served as a reminder that today (Sunday) was the 16th anniversary of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake -- the largest I've ever been in (also, it was the 15th anniversary of the more-devastating Kobe Earthquake).

The Northridge quake offered me a fascinating insight of how both public safety and journalism react during a crisis. My experience:

I was living in with a roomate and two cats in a small house in Glendale, Calif., in January 1994. My roomate was in Santa Barbara with his then-girlfriend and I had stayed out until about midnight the evening before. I was sleeping at 4:31 a.m.when I heard a low rattling. The window above my bed was shaking and -- because we had had a very small temblor just a week or so before -- I immediately knew we were having an earthquake.

As soon as I was conscious enough to think "earthquake," I felt an acceleration upward then a quick drop down as the shaking began in earnest. I covered my head with my pillow, but not before seeing several blue flashes, no doubt caused by arcing powerlines touching. I think I said something to the effect of "Oh, crap, it's the Big One!" just before the earthquake stopped. I ran to the doorway of my room (much too late, of course) then into the living room, where I turned off the heater, worried about a gas leak. I then went to the bathroom and used the toilet, having drank about two liters of soda the evening prior.

I then flipped on my police scanner, which was kept next to my bed. I heard the Glendale Police conducting a unit roll call (all checked in OK) and heard the Verdugo Fire dispatch instruct its units to check their districts for damage. I heard about a collapsed parking garage behind the Glendale PD's station and began picking up LA County Fire radio traffic, including a discussion about the collapse of the intersection of the Interstate 5/Highway 14 intersection.

I decided a walk about the neighborhood would help calm my nerves, and of course the cats ran out the instant I opened the door. Going outside, I was surprised at how dark the sky was with power out across the Los Angeles Basin -- I could see the Milky Way for the first (and only) time in LA proper. I also noted a lot of my neighbors coming outside, crying and getting in their cars. I lived in a heavily Armenian neighborhood and many of my neighbors had either suffered through or lost family in the 1988 Armenian Earthquake and were justifiably traumatized.

After about a half-hour outside, I went back in and listened to the radio on the living room couch -- I even fell back asleep. I woke up when my mom called about 7 a.m. to say she was OK (I felt a little guilty later, because I think I told her something along the lines of "We should save the phone lines for emergencies."). The power came on shortly thereafter and I watched TV coverage of the disaster for a while before heading into the offices of the Glendale News-Press, where I worked at the time.

The newsroom was already in full swing, as you might imagine. The city editor, Steve Rosenberg, asked me to go with a photographer to a Luckys store in north Glendale, where I interviewed residents who were stocking up on canned food and bottled water ("A little late," I thought, and besides, the water system was fine). I also went over to the then-new Red Lion Hotel where I caught a couple out-of-town visitors and interviewed them about their first earthquake and a local restaurant, which was doing good business serving to rattled customers. I ended up having a couple bylines in the next day's paper, one under the headline of "Residents react with panic, panache."

I also did a few follow-up stories the next few days, dealing with the public transit situation (specifically the impacts on Metrolink) and the first day of classes two days later at Glendale College. I ended up getting a lot of extra work thanks to the disaster (much like after Sept. 11, 2001, where I earned a lot of extra money as a security guard at Candlestick Park).

As an aside, the one-year anniversary on Jan. 17, 1995, was also memorable for me. I was staying at a hotel in the Union Square area of San Francisco while I was house-hunting with my then-girlfriend in preparation for my upcoming move to the Bay Area. I had stayed up late the night before watching the pilot of "Star Trek: Voyager" on the hotel TV and woke up sleepily late that morning to see earthquake coverage. I initially thought it was a one-year retrospective until they made clear there had been a disaster in Japan that morning.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Recession and school

There was an article in yesterday's New York Times how the recession has pushed older adults back into graduate school and law school, and I was struck at some of the similarities with my own situation.

I loved the story of the awesomely named Prebble Ramswell -- a 37-year-old with two bachelors degrees and 10 years of work experience, who'd just gone back to grad school, all just like me. She was just one of many who is returning to education after being unable to find work.

While I'd been thinking of going to grad school for a while, it wasn't so much the recession that encouraged me to go back -- it was a realization that my life had stalled. I was no longer in public safety, an attempted return to journalism was a non-starter and I needed to get going. Starting an entry-level job somewhere at my age would not be beneficial and I needed a leg up. So grad school it was.

(As an aside, my first semester in the SFSU MPA program is over.The results were good! An "A" in both the Intro (PA700) and Urban Administration (PA780) classes, and an A- in the Policy Making and Implementation (PA715) class. I know I shouldn't feel bad about the A- grade, but having come oh-so-close to the mythical 4.0 GPA, I feel a bit disappointed to have missed it so narrowly. The next semester begins on Jan. 26, with classes in Urban Transportation and Public Sector Budgeting.)

Of course, getting into grad school or law school is no panacea. My wife Claire graduated from law school, passed the bar and got a job only to see it evaporate when the non-profit she worked for recently closed down. She's now trying to find another position and debating what other areas she might be interested in should the law field continue to yield no crops. I (only half-jokingly) told her I'd support her going back to school when she pays off her current law school debts.

Who knows if there will be any positions available when I graduate (especially considering some of the current backlash against "overpaid" public employees)? Maybe that's one reason I'm putting so much into "extracurriculars" right now, like my involvement with SamTrans and the SSF Housing Authority -- a degree is no longer enough. Am I optimistic? Not particularly. But I do know that things are cyclical and there's no reason to be pessimistic in the long term.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy 2010!

I yet live! I've had a rough couple months. My mother died in October, somewhat suddenly (I've not decided whether I want to blog about it yet) and my first semester in grad school kicked my ass (I think I did well, but I'm still waiting on grades). I intend to resume blogging semi-regularly in the near future, but in the meantime I just wanted everyone to know I'm still here and thank you for your readership.