It was an odd moment, notable even in room with a history of strange moments.
During a July 26 Board of Supervisors hearing on a proposed developement at 901 16th Street and 1200 17th Street, any suspense as to how District 10 Supervisor Malia Cohen would vote ended when an awkward exchange with developer Josh Smith prompted her to recuse herself.
Shortly before the Board vote on whether or not the environmental impact report conducted on the proposed project was acceptable, Cohen recounted fond memories of Jackson Park, which Smith had offered $1 million to upgrade as part of his plan. She then added, “Look. I’m going to be really upfront; we need a little more.”
The comment roused the attention of the chamber’s audience, which had already sat through a more than two-and-a-half hour discussion. Smith responded with an offer of an additional $800,000, eliciting a loud gasp from the spectators, followed by an individual clapping.
“Whoa! I’m on a roll. Can I get Mercedes? I think Keith Jackson could use a little…,” remarked Cohen, before turning to Deputy City Attorney Jon Givner and apologizing,” I’m kidding. Bad joke. I know, Mr. City Attorney.” The Jackson reference was to a former school board president who was convicted of racketeering in 2014. A couple of supervisors shifted uncomfortably in their seats.
“The discussion of this appeal should really focus on the environmental issues,” Givner immediately explained, adding that any commitment of money by the developer wasn’t within the scope of the meeting. Later, when pushed by District 9 Supervisor David Campos, Givner added that, since the offer wasn’t made to her personally, “Supervisor Cohen does not have a conflict.” However, he said that to avoid a cloud over the proceedings the best course of action would be for her to ask the Board if she should recuse herself.
The exchange between Cohen and Smith offered a glimpse into the way politicians, usually behind the scenes, squeeze developers for supposed public benefit. It also raised analogies to the pay-to-play politics the City is often accused of fostering, a dynamic that opponents of the development pointed to in public statements made before Cohen spoke up.
During the ensuing discussion of Cohen’s comments, District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim said that she felt uncomfortable with the recusal because negotiations between supervisors and developers is common, and shouldn’t be a precedent for not voting on an issue. District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin commented, “I don’t know what may or may not have gone on behind the scenes,” due to the financial offer, “but it makes me wonder…I feel remarkably uncomfortable given what’s gone on.”
The Board voted, eight to two, to accept Cohen’s recusal, with Supervisors Peskin and Norman Yee, District 7, in the minority. The Board then voted, nine to one, to deny the environmental impact appeal. While the recusal discussion took 15 minutes, there was no discussion among the Board about the project itself.
The moment didn’t sit well with the appellants. On an issue that divided Potrero Hill residents, sometimes bitterly, a few suggested that Cohen had avoided taking a stand on the issue. In a letter to the View, Ruth Miller suggested that the exchange between Cohen and Smith was “rehearsed,” and that she used the moment as an excuse to not vote.
“It may not be newsworthy that Supervisors are cozy with developers, but Cohen’s jokey demeanor and her subsequent use of this supposed faux pas as an opportunity to sit out the vote rather than take a stand on an important matter in her District takes things to a whole new audacious level,” she wrote.
In an email to the View, Cohen denied the accusation. “Let me be clear, my recusal from the vote at the meeting was in no way planned or intentional, and was certainly not an attempt to evade voting on this important issue,” wrote Cohen, noting that she had worked closely on the project for several years, including helping bring the environmental appeal before the Board. “As an elected member of the Board of Supervisors and a member of our local Democratic Party, I vote on many controversial issues and I have never sought to avoid that responsibility. I don’t run from a fight.”
Cohen did not indicate how she would have voted had she not recused herself.