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Upset over critical coverage, supervisors try to squash the First Amendment

Just 15 minutes before the Board of Supervisors meeting on Dec. 1, 2020, District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston told his colleagues that he planned to single out the Marina Times from a list of newspapers approved to carry public notices. A voter-approved ballot measure in 1994, Proposition J was meant to create better outreach through neighborhood newspapers. It also awards bonus points for having local and minority or women owners (we are local and at the time were 50 percent woman owned). We have participated in the program since 2012 and have been rubber stamped each year. Nowhere does Prop J say supervisors can withhold a contract based on their personal dislike of what a publication writes about them. But that’s exactly what Preston and two other supervisors — Hillary Ronen and Shamann Walton — wanted to do. 

The meeting was a veritable crushing of the First Amendment, where Preston and Ronen ranted about the wrongdoings of this publication without offering a shred of evidence. Preston said the Marina Times was “an entity that has proven time and again that they are a mouthpiece for disinformation, doxing public officials, and personal attacks. I consider them on par with the likes of Breitbart News … serving to the public fact-free and often hate-filled propaganda.” Ronen joined in: “My basic standard for journalism is a respect for truth and facts. Sadly, there have been several instances where the Marina Times has been presented with facts that prove their politically based assertions as incorrect and they refused to retract their statements … doing a disservice to those neighborhoods by becoming a purely propaganda outfit that presents lies as facts.” While Walton wasn’t as verbose, he did say the city shouldn’t be funding a publication that prints “rumors.”

So why would these three supervisors single out the Marina Times? I can think of a few reasons.

RONEN’S TIC HYPOCRISY

As District 9 supervisor, Hillary Ronen has positioned herself as a tenant advocate. She introduced legislation in 2019 to make it harder for landlords to offer cash to tenants in exchange for moving out voluntarily. Ronen said it was “tenant abuse, intimidation, and de facto eviction.” But Ronen, her husband, Francisco Ugarte, and another couple in 2017 bought into a two-unit building where there had been tenant buyouts. When I disclosed her hypocrisy on Twitter, Ronen emailed and said “she called the rent board to be certain there were no evictions” — but based on her own legislation she knows these transactions take place privately. I also spoke to one of Ronen’s fellow owners, who confirmed the buyouts occurred and were listed in the disclosures. Because both Ronen and her husband are attorneys, they surely read those. Incidentally, Ronen never asked for a retraction.

DEAN PRESTON’S HORROR IN THE HAIGHT

Last October, I wrote a column about the horrendous condition of the Haight, a neighborhood I called home for over two decades. I included statistics on increased burglaries and cited daily reports of street brawls and open-air drug use. I also noted that Preston, along with his supporters, handed out nearly 1,000 tents to the homeless, which they pitched in front of private residences and businesses. 

I spent several months researching the story and interviewing distraught neighbors and business owners. One of those business owners, Jim Siegel, who has run the shop Distractions for over four decades, referred to Preston as “the progressive Trump” — which seems even more appropriate given he wants to silence a reporter who criticizes him. 

Similarly, Preston never asked for a retraction — though members of his private Facebook group did try to organize a boycott of our advertisers. Preston also claimed that I “threatened his family” on Twitter — I did not; rather, I posed a hypothetical question in response to his tweet advocating defunding the police and abolishing prisons. I referred to the Polly Klaas case, which haunts me until this day, and asked if this happened to his child and there were no police and no prisons, what would happen. 

“The First Amendment applies to tweets, as it does to print publications,” says First Amendment attorney Karl Olson. “If some supervisor gets offended by criticism, whether it be in a newspaper or a tweet, they can’t try to punish a critic for their viewpoint. To paraphrase the famous saying, if you can’t stand the tweet, get out of the kitchen.”

SHAMANN WALTON’S FRIENDS WITH COMMUNITY BENEFITS

Shamann Walton represents District 10. I wrote about his close ties to Harlan Kelly Jr., general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, and his assistant general manager of external affairs, Juliet Ellis, in my July, 2020 column “Friends with Community Benefits.” 

I noted that Walton made six figures as director of Young Community Developers, the most prolific beneficiary of “community benefits” — a pay-to-play scheme where contractors are “invited” to “choose” nonprofits and make donations in order to receive work from the SFPUC. During Walton’s tenure, AECOM-Parsons, one of the many joint venture boards participating in the program, wrote $169,500 worth of checks to Young Community Developers (and I have the canceled checks to prove it). “I have a feeling at some point the FBI will knock on the doors of Harlan Kelly, Juliet Ellis, Dwayne Jones, Chris Gruwell, and others regarding the SFPUC Community Benefits Program,” I wrote. 

I also broke the story about Kelly’s relationship with disgraced contractor and permit expediter Walter Wong, who spent three years working on the home of Kelly and his wife, Naomi, San Francisco’s city administrator. Several months later, Harlan Kelly was arrested by the FBI, Naomi Kelly took a leave of absence, Ellis (who has also been subpoenaed) resigned — and the investigations continue.  

BACKING DOWN

At the subsequent Board of Supervisors meeting on Dec. 8, after several critical news articles and a lot of bad publicity, the supervisors voted unanimously to renew our contract — though Preston and Ronen took more bitter shots at us and vowed to rewrite Prop. J to include their interpretation of “journalistic standards.” Of course, they never mentioned the corruption stories I broke or the fact I’m the only columnist who regularly criticizes both sides of the aisle. Apparently, they believe the First Amendment should only be enforced when it benefits them.  

E-mail: [email protected]. Follow the Marina Times on Twitter @TheMarinaTimes and like us on Facebook @MarinaTimes.

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