Interview: John Jacobs

SPUR's second Executive Director

Urbanist Article

SPUR's deep involvement with city planning issues, while guiding SPUR's expansion into new policy areas of city management, finance, and the democratic decision-making process. He has an intimate knowledge of the dynamics of change in San Francisco during the 1970s, from the founding of the GGNRA, to the effects of Proposition 13, to the continuing transformation of San Francisco's economic base. In February of this year, Gabriel Metcalf interviewed John Jacobs about some of his major accomplishments at SPUR.

First Impressions

METCALF: John how did you get to SPUR?

JACOBS: Well, John Hirten brought me to SPUR. In fact, John Hirten brought me to California. We had been college roommates and John eventually won the job as the first executive director of the Stockton, California, Redevelopment Agency. Jack was there two years and left, and so then I became the executive director from 1960 to 1966. And he did the same damned thing to me here at SPUR.

When I came, SPUR was, I think, quite influential for a number of reasons. One, it was the only act in town, basically speaking. SPUR was the only organization concerned with the entire community. It was supported by the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee, and we had people on the Board of Directors like Jerd Sullivan, who was president of Crocker Bank, Jack Merrill, who was independently wealthy and had a chemical company over in the East Bay, Gwyn Follis, who was chairman of Chevron. And these were men of considerable prominence within the community-both socially and in the business community.

I remember Jerd Sullivan, he was a tower of a man, but he had had an unfortunate accident and he had to wear braces on his legs. He had fallen on a trip back East and had fractured both of his hips and didn't know it and continued to walk on them in great pain, which apparently caused irreparable nerve damage. So from a six-foot-four giant, he was then crippled, but still he was a power in the community. I remember him picking up the telephone, calling one of the city's biggest property owners and saying, "_____, you son of a bitch, I want that check for SPUR and I'm going to send somebody over for it. Don't give me any backtalk.

METCALF: And now that's what you do for us.

JACOBS: We would make appearances before the B-Z committee once or twice a year and tell them what we'd been doing. And they were particularly interested that we bring the neighborhoods together with the business community because they felt that the goals should be co-terminus.

In those days Gwyn Follis was chairman of the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee and we'd give him a budget and he'd say, "Well, you have to raise so much money outside of the B-Z Committee," and we said, "Okay," and he would send out letters saying, "Your share to support SPUR is ____" and the checks would just automatically come in from the business community.

METCALF: So you really didn't have to worry about fund-raising the way we do now?

JACOBS: It was easier than today, but we still had to make the match from other sources.

Occasionally one of the corporations would object, and there was one that will go unnamed, that was always angry at SPUR but they didn't want to leave the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee. And ultimately that company was the cause of the demise of the Blyth Zellerbach Committee. I remember one occasion, this particular company insisted on an assessment of SPUR and they assigned a young attorney to investigate SPUR. He spent a lot of time here and he wrote a report urging continued support of the organization, and before he submitted the report he said, "I don't know what this is going to do to my job prospects, because the chairman does not like the organization." But he submitted the report and they didn't fire him.

METCALF: Were there ever conflicts between what SPUR thought were the best interests of the city and what the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee thought?

JACOBS: The Blyth-Zellerbach Committee never interfered with SPUR, never ever. Gwyn Follis had so much respect and if anyone wanted to complain about SPUR, they'd have to go through him and Follis simply wouldn't hear it.

He'd say, "Well, you know, you can't have them on a leash," that's the way he would talk. "Otherwise they won't be effective."

METCALF: After 1980, the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee stopped funding SPUR. How did you manage to sustain SPUR through that transition?

JACOBS: When Tom Clausen left the Bank of America to run the World Bank, the B-Z Committee died. So I sought ways to interest the business community in what we were doing, and how we were helping to make San Francisco a better place to do business and to live. At the time I started to do the State of the City Breakfasts, and got one or the other of the corporations to sponsor them. And that helped.

But I also did a lot of calling on the CEOs individually, particularly if we had an issue that might interest them, laying out what we were doing, what the likely effects would be. Occasionally I'd have to call on somebody and say, "We may be goring your ox, and this is why," and they were mostly receptive.

METCALF: You had to sustain business support for SPUR by going to them directly instead of being able to rely on the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee to get the money.

JACOBS: That's right. Took more time, took more time and more effort, just as you know now.

METCALF: The Golden Gate National Recreation Area

JACOBS: One of the big accomplishments of your time at SPUR was the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. How did you come to be involved with that endeavor?

It all goes back to the General Services Administration, which wanted to build an Archives Center, a great big warehouse, at Fort Miley near the Veterans Administration Hospital. Amy Meyer lived nearby and she was active in SPUR and she said, "There's going to be a warehouse on this marvelous scenic land that we ought to preserve," and I said, "You're right."

So we got a hold of Lew Butler, who was an Assistant Secretary for Health, Education and Welfare. And we asked him to look into it, and we made a cause celebre out of that, and finally got the City to object, got the Planning Department involved, and we got the GSA to back off.

At the same time the National Park Service was instituting a planning exercise: What if we were able to create a Golden Gate National Recreation Area? (A New York Recreation Area had been formed at the time.) And Amy said, "We should do more than just a planning exercise," and the National Park Service said, "Well, we can't do anything, we're nonpolitical. If you want to do something about it, you'll have to beat the drums yourself." And so we started.

METCALF: You got out your drums.

JACOBS: Got out our drums to support Amy Meyer and the People for A Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and I can remember that there was an advertising firm that that was seeking a prize for doing a page in Time Magazine as a public service, and they came to SPUR and said, "What can we do?"

And I said, "Look, we're trying to create the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and preserve all of these lands over in Marin County," one part of which had been vigorously contested because somebody wanted to build a new town in the Marin Headlands, and I said, "Why don't you do a page saying, 'Support the creation of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.'"

They took some marvelous photographs of some of the coves and some of the hillsides, and the headline was-postage was eight cents at the time - "For eight cents, you can save this land," or something like that, and send it to People for Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It was a full page in Time Magazine. And that really kicked off the idea of PFGGNRA. They got a lot of responses.

And that's how it began.

Dr. Edgar Wayburn, past president of the Sierra Club, lent his name as chairman of PFGGNRA, and then spent his own money and time to make many trips to Washington, D.C. to persuade members of congress of the merits of a Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

And then the Committee to Re-elect the President-CREEP, it was called, because it was Nixon, and you learn to let the devil do the angel's handwork in this kind of business-came calling on me and said, "We need to get exposure for the President," and I don't know whether they thought I was a Republican or not-I was a Democrat, but that apparently didn't bother them. So I said, you know, "There's a marvelous photographic opportunity to get Nixon to come in and endorse the creation of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area." I pointed out the Coast Guard dock, where he could come in by boat.

Well, it all took place. We all lined up-Dr. Wayburn and Amy Meyer, elected officials-and shook the President's hand. And he endorsed it. Then Senator George Murphy, who was running for re-election, he came to the Bay Area and I took him through Fort Funston and through the Presidio and got him to endorse it. And so you just work the field. And slowly and surely it took place.

And Phil Burton had introduced a bill in Congress to create it, and Amy Meyer and Bill Thomas-Bill Thomas was Burton's chief of staff in Washington and is now executive director of the National Historic Maritime Museum in San Francisco-began outlining the boundaries on road maps by telephone.

Initially, we had difficulty getting Bill Maillard, who was a Republican congressman from Marin County, interested, but then slowly but surely he became involved and became an ally of Phil Burton's.

METCALF: We now take it for granted that it exists, that all that land is protected.

JACOBS: It's a marvelous place. I think those of us who were trying to create it knew that this region was going to grow apace and the population was going to rapidly increase and this was the last of the easily accessible open spaces because it was held by the government. And what a pastoral relief it is from the city now, just minutes away, it's marvelous.

METCALF: Did anybody oppose it?

JACOBS: Not really. I think by the time the opposition realized how far we had gotten that they saw it was a done deal, and people would say to me, "John, you realize the value of that land over there?" sort of hoping that maybe I'd have second thoughts.

But once the momentum started, it was huge, and Amy kept beating the drum and she had People For A Golden Gate National Recreation Area. (The acronym is PFGGNRA, which we kidded Amy and George, her late husband, about sounding like a sexually transmitted disease.) Amy had everybody you can think of on that list. We did have a little opposition, but it was ineffectual.

METCALF: Well, on behalf of my generation to yours, I have to say thank you.

JACOBS: (Laughs.) It was a labor of love, you don't have to thank me. It was... well, it was just great fun.

City Financial Reporting

METCALF: I know you spent a lot of time working with the City to get a different kind of financial reporting. What was that issue about?

JACOBS: Well, Frank Petro, then a CPA for one of the big 8 accounting firms and now with Wells Fargo, came in one day and he said, "By the way, John, is the City in good financial shape?" I said, "I think so, but why don't you go down to the City and check the financial records yourself," and I gave him the name of the controller.

A couple of days later he came back and he said, "You know, John, I looked at those financial statements and they don't make any sense." He said, "One division will transfer 30 million dollars to another division and that division will say in its books it only received 29 million dollars. What happened to the other million dollars?" So he said, "We really ought to do something."

We had excellent relations with The San Francisco Foundation, and so I went to see Foundation Executive Director John May and said, "John, I'm about to go down to the City and suggest that they do something about producing a comprehensive and consolidated financial statement that is timely," because all the audits of the City were 18 months to two years late. So I said, "If we need some money, can I count on you to give us a grant to help the City?" He said, "Sure."

And so then I went down to see Rudy Nothenberg, who was then, I think, Deputy Mayor under Moscone. Rudy, pulled from Sacramento, was still wearing jeans and a pony tail. I, wearing a suit and tie, introduced myself and told him what we perceived the problem to be and that we were willing to help with some money or some volunteer expertise.

He looked at me suspiciously and said, "You know I'm a CPA?" and I said, "That's what I understand." He said, "Well, I think I know what I'm doing around here."

I said, "All right. Don't take offense, we're just trying to help. If you change your mind, give me a call." I left my card, went away and thought well, that's a dead issue.

And about a month later the telephone rang. He said, "This is Rudy Nothenberg." He said, "You know, I've just looked at our financial statements and I agree with you. Something needs to be done."

And so we sat down and began to talk and the upshot of it was we did get the Foundation grant. We got Arthur Young & Company, which then joined with others, to do a lot of pro bono work on doing a prototype of what the City's financial statement should look like. That company's senior partners gave more effort pro bono than one can imagine.

And then we began to try to get the City to do timely reporting, and what a job that was. I learned full well how the bureaucracy can speak to you softly with promising words and do nothing. Just do nothing.

Mayor's Fiscal Advisory Committee

METCALF: How did the idea for MFAC come about?

JACOBS: Well, it had to do with anticipation of the passage of Proposition 13. Most of the major businesses in San Francisco were against Prop 13, because they realized that it was going to create some imbalances right off the bat. It would freeze the tax assessments for some businesses while letting others float as properties changed hands. And maybe they felt-and I think this is probably true-that if the cities couldn't raise enough money to support themselves through the commercial and residential tax base, that there would be a call for reinstatement of the two-tiered system (that was in effect before Proposition 13) when assessors really assessed commercial properties at almost twice the rate of residential properties, and they probably didn't want to see that escalate.

But anyway, anticipating that Prop 13 would pass, George Moscone raised I think the gross receipts tax without conferring with the business community, and they were really unhappy.

METCALF: In order to make up the shortfall that was predicted.

That's right. And so rumors abound, and being in SPUR you hear all of these things. And so I saw George Moscone in City Hall one day, and I had known him when he was in the Senate, and I said, "George, the business community is really mad at you for raising the taxes without consulting them."

He said, "Well, John, I didn't have time."

And I said, "I understand that." And I said, "Do you want me to try to do a little reconciliation meeting?"

And he said, "Oh yes, I'd really like that. Go talk to Rudy, set it up."

So I went over and talked to Rudy and he agreed that something needed to be done, and then I also talked to Rudy about putting some pro bono teams, accounting teams primarily, into some of City departments that were having difficulty getting their act together, and I said, "I'll go talk to Tom Clausen, who was then head of the Blyth-Zellerbach Committee, and ask him if he would convene this meeting and invite the right people."

And then I said, "If you would get George to ask for this help, I'll get Tom to say, 'Yes, we'll support this effort and some of our companies will provide these pro bono people.'"

Basically I was working both sides of the street against the middle. So I went to Tom and I said, "Would you convene this meeting? It would be very useful for the business community to get together with a very liberal mayor and show that you can work together."

He readily agreed, and so the meeting was held at the World Trade Club, and he had a group of CEOs there. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, was there, George was there, and so on. And it went just as scripted. George asked for some help, apologized for raising taxes, but said, "You know, I had to act swiftly." The business community sort of thanked him.

And Tom turned to Walter Hoadley, Bank of America's chief economist, and said, "Walter, would you meet with John and arrange to create something that we can use to funnel these pro bono teams through?" And so the next morning, Walter and I met in this very room at SPUR and we agreed that we would initially call it the Committee for the City, and that Walter would head it up.

Meanwhile, Dick Blum had created something called the Mayor's Fiscal Advisory Committee, and so after we really began and all these teams were in place, Dick and Walter consolidated the two committees and they became co-chairs, which didn't hurt the visibility of the committee at all. And of course later on the name was changed to the Municipal Fiscal Impact Committee to the Mayor, its current name.

METCALF: And what were the different projects in the beginning?

JACOBS: One was developing a consolidated financial statement. There were about three teams working on that.

One was management training. And Transamerica got involved in that.

Another was looking at the pension system, and ultimately their findings led to the revamping of the pension system.

Proposition 13

METCALF: You were at SPUR right through the passage of Prop 13. Did you know how bad it was going to be for the City?

JACOBS: SPUR was opposed to Proposition 13, though I don't think any of us foresaw how far-reaching the consequences would be.

How did the City cope with it? Well, Mayor Dianne Feinstein wound up with a surplus because Leo McCarthy got money for the City from the State, and George Moscone had raised the gross receipts tax and so all the money came pouring in. Dianne was able to go to the US Conference of Mayors and make them all jealous by saying, "What are you people all complaining about? I've got $130 million surplus in San Francisco."

But the surplus soon, soon evaporated.

How is the City coping with it now? By sleight of hand. They take money out of, for example, Hetch Hetchy and they defer maintenance until they have an emergency and then they say to the public, "Oh, we've got to pass a capital bond issue," which is a concealed raise in property taxes.

Tom Clausen, head of the Bank of America, led the opposition to Prop 13. But if you were living over in the Central Valley, you didn't know who Tom Clausen was, and if you were a working stiff who saw your property taxes going up a little bit each year, which they would every year, you'd say, "What's going on, what are they doing with my money?" and so it was basically human greed. "Vote for the Proposition and you can keep more of your money in your pocket."

Not whether it's going to damage what your city or your county or your state can do for you, whether it can repair roads or keep the sewers from overflowing, but "We'll save you money, we'll guarantee that your taxes will not go up more than one percent a year." Pretty appealing. A chicken-in-every-pot kind of campaign.

But, you know, the business community was not monolithic. They were split. Tom Clausen tried to persuade the California Round Table to oppose it, and as I recall, they refused to deal with it.

Then and Now

METCALF: How would you say SPUR has changed in the time you've known it. You've been active here since 1966 and you're still active.

JACOBS: I don't think it's changed all that much. I think it's gotten a lot better.

METCALF: (Laughs) You're too kind.

JACOBS: No, I think it's gotten more professional in its approach. Certainly the people that you have writing for you, and I think SPUR is more diverse and involving more people. But, you know, you see the same energy of good minds analyzing issues. SPUR is unique and it may only be viable in a city like San Francisco, where you have a collection of very able, very bright people, very bright professionals, who have the energy and the inclination to make the time to leverage what they know for the betterment of the community in an organization like SPUR. That's really what SPUR is. It's a place where bright thoughtful people can leverage their skills and their intelligence to do something for the overall community.

METCALF: Well, thank you, John.

Gabriel Metcalf