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Fiona Ma pledges to open San Francisco politics to all

Not just the organized few

California Assembly District 12 Fiona Ma candidate tells South Beach gathering she learned importance of being of service to all early in her political career.
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

By Pat Murphy

July 28, 2006

The organized few now define San Francisco politics to the detriment of everyone else, California Assembly candidate Fiona Ma said yesterday.

Redefinition will come through her leadership, she added.

As Democratic Party nominee for the Assembly 12th District with overwhelmingly Democrat registration, Ma appears near certain victor in the November 7 general election.

Now the San Francisco supervisor from District 4, Ma appeared Wednesday as keynote speaker before a South Beach luncheon hosted by the SFSOS advocacy group.

She noted that the 'SOS' in SFSOS is a seafaring distress signal and drew an analogy.

"City government has failed its residents by allowing only the loudest, the most politically connected, the most persistent to define the politics to date," stated Ma.

"And everyone else remains lost at sea."

She proposed a redefinition of politics for San Francisco representation at the statewide level.

The basic commitment of availability to everyone came early in her political career, Ma stated.

"I got my public service with State Senator John Burton and the most important thing I learned is that we need to help everybody.

"As a district aide, like Rob Black, I worked to help constituents address a range of problems for state government.

Rob Black

"If someone had fallen on hard times and was waiting for their Workmen's Compensation, our office helped.

"A new business confused about state licensing could call us.

"And a company interested in doing business in San Francisco could call us and learn the rules and the opportunities."

That approach to service stayed with her, Ma continued.

"It is the same view that I have taken as a local elected official.

"While the Board (of Supervisors) states the finer points of international policy or weighs in on countless federal issues my office has been a resource for residents of the West Side concern for basic City services."

Doug Chan attends SFSOS luncheon as a candidate to replace Fiona Ma in San Francisco Supervisor District 4.

She pointed to benefit of collaboration.

"Supervisor Bevan Dufty and I served on the Board's City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee which is often is as much about solving individual problems as it is about making sweeping policy declarations.

Full speech by Fiona Ma follows:


I am pleased to be here today. First, let me thank SFSOS, your board members and staff, especially Wade Randlett, Ryan Chamberlain and Dan Wong, as well as every one of the 250 people here today, for your ongoing commitment to protecting our quality of life, improving public education and defending our shared values.

In a time when many people are tuning out of our public discourse, you are lifting your voices, raising your pens and harnessing the power of e-mail and the Internet to communicate your views to public officials. It is critically important that this work continues.

It will never be enough for a few individuals to lobby government alone, whether they are businesspeople, union officials or neighborhood leaders. Only when each and every one of us speaks up and exercises the full power of our citizenship, in a common and unified voice, will we be effective. That is the goal of SFSOS and why I am proud to join you today.

Last time I joined you, one of our City's weekly publications reported my comments out of context. Just so there's no confusion, I have prepared remarks today and the complete text of my comments is available here today.

As I was preparing my remarks today, I thought I would try to weave the meaning of SOS into my words, so I did a little research hoping to find a catchy acronym. After all, we've heard the phrases "Save Our Ship," "Send Out Sailors," or "Save Our Souls." In reality, SOS is a simple distress signal adopted in 1908 to unify the way those in distress seek help, a series of dots and dashes without a specific meaning. Before SOS was adopted, people seeking help used a number of different methods- signal flags, flares, bells and foghorns. Even as late as the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, different codes were used to call for help. That's a lot like City government in San Francisco.

Although many different people and groups need help-from homeless families to small business owners, park advocates to domestic violence survivors, from scared residents in violence-ravaged neighborhoods to young families trying to buy their first home-there's no common signal to seek help. City government has failed its residents by allowing only the loudest, the most politically connected and the most persistent to define the policy debate. Everyone else remains lost at sea.

I got my start in public service with State Senator John Burton, and the most important thing I learned is that it's people matter the most-each and every one of them. As a district aide, I worked to help constituents address a range of problems with state government. If someone had fallen on hard times and was waiting for their unemployment insurance check, our office helped. A new business owner confused about state licensing or workers compensation policies could call and get assistance. A company interested in doing business in our state could call us to learn the rules and opportunities.

It's the same view I've taken as a local elected official. While the Board debates the finer points of international policy or weighs in on countless federal issues, my office has been a resource for residents of the West Side concerned about basic city services. Supervisor Bevan Dufty and I serve on the Board's City Operations and Neighborhood Services Committee, which is often as much about solving individual problems as it is about passing new laws.

Sometimes, we find that policy solutions are needed for complicated neighborhood problems. For example, Supervisor Sean Elsbernd led our efforts to resurface roads all across San Francisco-a $15 million undertaking made possible by unexpected growth in the City's revenues. When violence escalated earlier this year, Mayor Newsom and I worked together to invest $6.3 million in programs that created 600 new summer jobs for young people in high-risk neighborhoods and accelerate police academy classes to make sure we had enough officers on our streets.

All too often, however, those of us who care most about the nuts and bolts of city services find ourselves performing a lot of constituent assistance and responding to policy ideas that make even that work more difficult. Measures to limit homeownership come before the Board nearly every month, even as we fail to create enough new housing units. Tax increases are proposed each year while residents are asked to wait longer for basic city services. Fees continue to rise while the quality of City services often heads in the opposite direction. Public safety departments are slashed in the budget process, while crime rises in our neighborhoods and we face brownouts at our firehouses. When we're lucky enough to beat back these proposals, we're no better than when we started.

That is why today I am answering the call of SOS, and proposing a policy agenda that builds on the lessons I've learned about what matters in San Francisco. With five months remaining in my term on the Board, and 18 months left in Mayor Newsom's term, we have a unique opportunity to ask the Board of Supervisors and all of City government to respond to SOS, embarking on a course headed toward the future.

I know that most San Franciscans agree with us. They expect common-sense solutions to their everyday problems. So, let's chart that course together. Here are just a few ideas to get our conversation started.


If you look at the housing market in San Francisco, the most common SOS is the old saying Sink or Swim. Market rate housing is incredibly expensive, even for dual income families with good jobs. The lack of new housing construction at all income levels has put an even greater strain on the current housing stock, the subject of many of our most contentious City Hall hearings.

So, how does San Francisco respond to those people calling out for help across all income levels? We make the process incredibly complicated, asking working people to travel to dozens of separate locations if they want to become a first-time homebuyer through our inclusionary housing program. Low-income families often miss out when government finally responds, because in the five years it takes to move up on the Housing Authority's waiting list, contact information is often out of date.

Here's an idea: let's use the best practices of countless other cities. If you're a San Francisco resident and need housing assistance, let's ask you to sign up once. Provide your income and the type of housing you need based on family size and let the City do the rest. Once a unit opens up, the next person on the list would be eligible. If they're a first-time homebuyer, we can offer services while they wait on the list: financial planning or mortgage prequalification, for instance.

If we manage housing resources wisely, we can target affordable rental housing to renters facing eviction so they can stay in San Francisco, without denying young families the chance to own their own home. And at the end of the day, one centralized list provides a clear picture of our housing situation and possibly a road map to fix it.


When I first joined the Board in 2002, there were just two women of the eleven members. Even now, is 3 of 11 really representative of San Francisco? I have been proud to be a champion on issues affecting women, helping to curb human trafficking by cracking down on massage parlors that are often fronts for exploitation and working to ensure that young women get access to the healthcare they need.

Yet there's one issue that needs the full attention and commitment of both women and men in local government, and that's ending domestic violence.

Many of you know the story of Claire Joyce Tempongko, a Richmond District resident who called out for help and saw government fail her, costing her life. Her boyfriend, Tari Ramirez, had been arrested often. She sought a restraining order. Yet the lack of coordination and sensitivity in our law enforcement system resulted in Tari stabbing her to death in front of her two young children.

Advocates pushed for a system called JUSTIS; an information technology solution designed to link 10 criminal justice agencies together and established in the City's Administrative Code by then-Supervisors Michael Yaki and Gavin Newsom back in 2000. After almost nine years and $29 million, we're still not there. Government can and must do better. Before I leave the Board, I want to renew the City's commitment to fully integrating our law enforcement IT so it works.


Wouldn't it be great if you could actually figure out how many city employees worked at your local park or recreation center? While it seems like a reasonable request, it's been difficult to get the information. Gardeners are overworked, and instead of simply tending to the parks, they often pick up trash and serve as social workers. A long-awaited audit of the Recreation and Park Department provides a clear path to improving our parks. Instead of holding hearings on whether the City should take over every private function, including WiFi, perhaps the Board should focus on those functions the City already takes on.


Working with the Small Business Commission, my office helped develop a report that demonstrates conclusively that government regulation is literally shutting the doors of small businesses. There is no one-stop shop to help someone learn all of the approvals they may need. Often, departments provide unreliable or conflicting advice. Other communities-notably San Diego-have centralized their permitting functions so working people can start a business and get back to work to grow our economy. It's time San Francisco does the same. By the end of this year, we must recommit to establishing a customer friendly office that makes City government work for small business.


Even though the City has little to do with managing our public schools, I believe every San Franciscan has a role to play in supporting public education. Especially now that the City is investing $460 million through Proposition H, we have to ask the tough question: Will enrollment ever rise if we keep on the same path? A parent choosing to send their children to a public school is the best financial plan to keep the school district solvent. After all, when families leave San Francisco or choose a private school, our state reimbursements head in an adverse direction.

We have an opportunity this August to ensure that families can choose to send their child to a quality school close to home. Make no mistake, the opening of Senator Dianne Feinstein Elementary should ring loud and clear that San Francisco Unified is committed to opening schools in neighborhoods where there is demand to reduce overcrowding.

We must be sensitive to calls for equity. But I would suggest that it is unfair to children from every neighborhood to demand that they travel for more than an hour simply to get to elementary school. When the School Board voted to close a successful Japanese bilingual program in my district, and ask families to send their kids all the way to the Western Addition, parents responded. Some took kids out of public schools altogether. Most got their children reassigned to Feinstein. Just a few followed the school all the way across town. Together, we will work to prevent this type of ill-advised decision in the future.

The course to a brighter future is not easy. The number of people who need help in our City is growing. The obstacles are great. Together, we can answer their call by lifting our voices together. And perhaps the greatest SOS we can give them is a Sense of Security.

Thank you for your work, thank you for your support. Together, we're going to stand up for our schools, save our streets and serve our City.




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