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The usual suspects: Hypocrisy and questionable ethics mar Small Business Commission in pet store debate

Before the June 10 meeting of the San Francisco Small Business Commission (SBC), I overheard Commissioner William Ortiz-Cartagena say he was recusing himself from an agenda item due to a past relationship with the landlord’s parking lot. I knew immediately he was talking about Pet Food Express (PFE) seeking a conditional use permit to move into the long-empty Blockbuster building at 2460 Lombard Street, but when I grabbed a copy of the agenda, PFE wasn’t listed. Then I got to number 8: “Presentation and possible action to support Pet Store merchants regarding their efforts to maintain their businesses.” The verbiage stated that two pet stores on Chestnut Street were “working to prevent their businesses from possible closure,” and included five-minute presentations by Pam Hable of Catnip and Bones and Susan Landry of Animal Connection II.

Despite the fact PFE was not listed on the agenda, both presentations were nonstop barrages of anti-PFE rhetoric. Afterward, Commissioner Mark Dwight announced he’d already made up his mind and the commission should vote against PFE — even though PFE hadn’t presented their side of the story. Michael Levy, PFE’s founder and co-owner, told Dwight that he just heard about the meeting three days earlier, and that Secretary Chris Schulman had promised him five minutes during the “public comment time.” As Levy spoke, the three-minute buzzer went off (the limit for public comment), and he reminded Office of Small Business Executive Director Regina Dick-Endrizzi that he was promised five minutes, at which point she cut him off, saying while he was asking for his additional two minutes he hit the 30-second mark so his time was up.

When Rebecca Katz, executive director of San Francisco Animal Care and Control (ACC), stood up to speak on PFE’s behalf, Commissioner Kathleen Dooley called her an unethical lobbyist for PFE. “They use their rescue work as a ploy,” Dooley said sarcastically. Katz told Dooley she was not a lobbyist, but was there to state the facts: Without PFE paying for all the food at ACC, the severely underfunded city shelter couldn’t save the thousands of animals they take in each year. Having a location on Lombard would provide a cat adoption center for Pets Unlimited and allow ACC and other groups to hold adoption events in the Marina, which, Katz pointed out, is underserved when it comes to rescue. Dooley appeared unmoved.

After Lombard Business Merchants Association president Awadalla Awadalla spoke about how much the struggling merchants on and near Lombard needed a strong anchor tenant with a respected brand like PFE to bring foot traffic, Dooley asked, “When was this group formed?” Awadalla told her November 2012, and Dooley smirked, “This group was formed just to get PFE in.” How hypocritical of Dooley, considering she was instrumental in forming the San Francisco Pet Store Coalition just to keep PFE out.

At an SBC hearing held Jan. 9, 2012, then-commissioner Janet Clyde praised Dooley for assisting the Coalition: “…your organizing them became a force … And who knew … this little group of pet shop owners could have such a dramatic impact here … And it was your advocacy and leadership with them that brought an entire new constituency to City Hall.”

At that same meeting, John Toja, owner of B&B Pet Supplies, also gushed about Dooley’s role in helping them keep PFE off Lombard in 2009 and Petco off Geary Boulevard in 2011: “Her guidance during all our meetings … walking through a mine field of regulations, possibilities, City Hall procedures….”

Not only may Dooley be a hypocrite, but she appears to have violated the City’s Conduct of Governmental Officers Code, for which she should be brought up on ethics charges. Further, if Ortiz-Cartagena recused himself for a past relationship with the landlord’s parking lot, Dooley absolutely should recuse herself from any further discussions about PFE.

It gets worse. On at least four occasions between 2009 and 2013, various members of the Coalition were invited to speak before the full SBC or subcommittees Dooley sat on while PFE was not. At a June 28, 2010 Legislation and Policy Committee meeting — attended by Dick-Endrizzi, Dooley, and Commissioner Irene Yee Riley — the owner of George pet stores in San Francisco and Berkeley, Bobby Wise, spoke for the Coalition. Wise asked that PFE not be allowed to open a store on California Street, after which Dooley and Riley directed staff to send a letter to the Planning Commission opposing PFE on their behalf. They blamed the meeting schedule of the SBC for not allowing their position to be ratified by the full Commission.

On May 17, 2013 Dooley was also present at a Permitting Committee hearing where members of the Coalition were again invited to attend and PFE was not. In an e-mail, Schulman told me it was “determined that it would be most appropriate for the pet stores to first attend a committee meeting … followed by a full Commission meeting.” (Evidently it wasn’t “most appropriate” to tell PFE about the meeting or let them tell their side.) The “Committee,” consisting of Dooley and Ortiz-Cartagena, then formally recommended that the full Commission ask the Planning Commission to deny PFE’s conditional use application for 2460 Lombard Street for the second time in four years.

At the June 10 SBC meeting where that recommendation was discussed, President Steve Adams said PFE was a small business success story and he felt the Commission was punishing them for it; Commissioner Luke O’Brien seemed to agree: “It’s a local story, not a big national chain. This ordinance was meant to stop McDonald’s and Walgreen’s. It’s not a given that big hurts small — they need a big business to bring traffic.” O’Brien also mentioned that the pet stores insisting PFE would put them out of business were actually expanding (one of the most vocal opponents, Animal Connection II, opened a store right next to an established PFE in Burlingame earlier this year).

As for the Coalition’s claims of declining business, they can’t back it up with facts because the facts don’t support them: According to tax records, the six pet stores closest to 2460 Lombard Street have seen their total sales increase by 142% to the tune of $8.11 million since 2006, with a growth rate of more than 20 percent per year. Clearly, the reason Hable and Landry don’t want PFE on Lombard is they don’t want competition; they want to keep their duopoly so they can continue charging inflated prices to little old ladies who can’t get out of the neighborhood to shop anywhere else.

Several commissioners said they had driven down Lombard recently and “were shocked” to see nearly two dozen empty storefronts, graffiti, and homeless encampments. “I feel terrible about what’s happened to Lombard,” Dooley chimed in. Apparently not terrible enough to fill an empty building with a quality tenant. Shocking, considering that in 2010 Dooley told the Examiner it was “a proliferation of rundown vacant storefronts that have become a nest for drug deals and squatters” that shut down her flower business in North Beach.

She turned to Board of Supervisors President David Chiu about drafting legislation to punish landlords of vacant buildings with fines and fees. “We have many empty storefronts around the City that lead to blight and a lessened quality of life in commercial corridors,” Chiu said. “Merchants will tell you it’s much more difficult to attract pedestrians and shoppers.”

Dooley either has a very short memory, or protecting two pet stores from competition is more important to her than helping Lombard thrive.

In the end, the SBC didn’t vote on the item and tentatively rescheduled it for July 22. Commissioner Dwight did some serious backpedaling, blaming “being new” for his earlier statement about having his mind made up. “I do need to hear more,” he said sheepishly. “It’s not fair Mr. Levy didn’t get to tell his side.”

I’m sure Commissioner Dooley and her Coalition couldn’t disagree more.

The public is encouraged to attend the SBC’s July 22 meeting. For more information, call 415-554-6482 or visit www.sfgov.org/sbc.

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