As he continues to snub the voters on Question Time, Mayor Gavin Newsom held a Town Hall forum last night in the Mission District – where the chosen topic was the City’s Health Access Plan. While the event was a staged filibuster – with the only “dialogue” being between Newsom and Public Health Director Mitch Katz – activists from PODER heckled the Mayor on affordable housing, immigration raids and the City’s proposal to move the Day Laborer program.

But Newsom seemed to hold the high ground for much of the meeting, as the constant heckling grew repetitious and tiring. However, the tables were turned when Mission resident Valerie Tulier scolded the crowd for being disrespectful – and then criticized the Mayor for holding a “Town Hall lecture.” At that point, there was no reason to listen to the rest of the Forum. Its credibility was ruined, and the chanting escalated.

This was the third Town Hall meeting that Newsom has held since the voters passed Question Time, a resolution that makes it official City policy for the Mayor to attend a monthly meeting at the Board of Supervisors. Like at the other Town Halls, attendees were told to write their questions down on an index card. Rather than have a neutral moderator sift through the questions, Newsom got to pick them himself. Rather than answering the questions on his own, Newsom had a Department head answer for him.

Each meeting so far has reflected its host neighborhood’s quirks. The first meeting, held in the Richmond, was a sedate affair – as middle-class white residents quietly listened to bureaucrats talk about homelessness. The second one, in the Bayview, was the opposite – with black public housing residents angry at the City and the Housing Authority for broken promises. Rather than let the Mayor take questions from index cards, the Bayview residents stood up, raised their hands and demanded answers.

The Mission is the City’s Latino neighborhood – but it is also a hotbed of radical activism, where residents have often used direct-action tactics to get results. And while Newsom hoped to keep this a scripted forum like his other events, it wasn’t going to happen. The Mayor began by explaining how 82,000 San Franciscans are currently uninsured, and the City’s Health Access Plan – due to begin on July 1st – will provide basic minimal health care to all residents.

But then Renee Saucedo of La Raza Centro Legal shouted “Let the People Speak!” – and a crowd from PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Employment Rights) heckled the Mayor about his secret plan to move the Day Laborers out of the Mission District and onto Bayshore Boulevard.

At first, Newsom handled it well. “We can do one of two things tonight,” he said. “We can get things off our chest that make us feel good but won’t get anything done, or we can work together in constructive dialogue.”

Then the Mayor proceeded to read questions that were handed to him on index cards, as he asked Public Health Director Mitch Katz to answer most of them. But with Katz there to explain the various details of the City’s Health Access Plan, it wasn’t clear what the point was of even having the Mayor there – besides playing “Donahue.”

If residents wanted to learn more about the Health Access Plan, they could have easily had a meeting called “Ask Dr. Katz.” Newsom even read out the names of many of the people who had written questions on the cards – making me wonder why he couldn’t just let these people ask their questions out loud.

It wasn’t long before the protesters started shouting again – as PODER members chanted about immigration raids by the federal authorities. Newsom tried to take it in stride – “whenever you guys are ready” – as he waited for the hecklers to die down. He then went back to his dialogue with Mitch Katz, and asked him questions about homeless youth programs and tuberculosis.

Then the protesters tried a different tactic – one that had worked last month at the Bayview forum. They shouted “let’s have some dialogue here,” and raised their hands in the hopes of getting called on. A Newsom aide approached Saucedo with an index card, but she declined and said that she had already turned in her question – the Mayor was just choosing not to read it.

Newsom got increasingly angry. “The more you disrupt this,” he said, “the more it makes me determined to get health care for every San Franciscan.” Half the room erupted in loud applause, as it was clear that the crowd was split into two factions.

Now the other half of the room got upset, and decided to take the matter into their own hands. Rita Alviar, an elderly Mission District resident, took the microphone and said, “I am interested in hearing about health insurance. We live in this community, and we must have respect.” The crowd that had protested began to shout her down.

At that point, Valerie Tulier felt compelled to grab the mike. “Don’t disrespect your elders,” she shouted angrily. “Perhaps we don’t all agree.”

But then Tulier directed her comments at Mayor Newsom. “The problem is that we don’t have a Town Hall meeting here,” she said. “This is a Town Hall lecture. Our problem, Mr. Mayor, is with the Format. And that’s what people here are angry about.” Her comments were met with loud cheers.

With 20 minutes left in the forum, it was clearly turning into chaos. Some may have come to learn more about the City’s Health Access Plan, but the Mayor was not engaging in genuine dialogue with the community. It was a lecture that the neighborhood was simply invited to watch.

The Mayor designed this whole series of meetings to avoid answering questions from the Board of Supervisors – which is why it is a filibuster. Newsom believes that he can talk on and on about City policy, in the hopes that he will wear down his opponents who will grow tired of protesting every Town Hall from now until the election.

But now the filibuster has turned into a train wreck.

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