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Pay-to-play comment costs supervisor vote on Potrero Hill development

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Supervisor Malia Cohen attends a Board of Supervisors meeting at City Hall on July 26, 2016. (Rachael Garner/Special to S.F. Examiner).
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Supervisor Malia Cohen learned the hard way Tuesday night that referring to bribes and a recently convicted criminal just isn’t funny, even if meant in jest.

Cohen’s comments were made during the Board of Supervisors hearing on an environmental appeal for a large Potrero Hill development in the district she represents, and left at least one supervisor feeling “remarkably uncomfortable.”

During the meeting, Cohen asked the developer Potrero Partners, LLC, and Walden Development to contribute more to Jackson Playground Park, a public park in the Potrero Hill neighborhood.

The developer then offered $800,000.

Cohen went on to facetiously ask for a Mercedes, as well as “a little” something for Keith Jackson, an apparent reference to the former school board member who in February was sentenced to nine years on charges related to bribes and money laundering as part of an FBI probe that brought down former state Sen. Leland Yee.

“I’d love for you to consider additional ways you can support the park,” Cohen said to Josh Smith, the project’s developer. “If there is anyway that you can contribute a little bit more we would really appreciate it.”

She added, “I am going to be really upfront. We need a little bit more.”

Smith responded that “we would be willing to increase our gift above and beyond the $1 million that we’ve already pledged. We would be willing to go and increase it by another $800,000.”

Cohen responded, “Whoa! I’m on a roll. Can I get a Mercedes? I think Keith Jackson could use a little … I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Bad joke.”

That’s when Deputy City Attorney Jon Givner interrupted the proceedings to remind the board that an appeal of an environmental impact review must be decided on the adequacy of the analysis, and not influenced by gifts.

“You guys see how quickly [Givner] jumped up there. I was actually joking,” Cohen said.

But Givner advised Cohen to excuse herself from the vote, a request the board approved, to ensure no one is led to believe the offer of the gift influenced the board’s vote.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin raised the most concerns over the exchange. “Part of the exchange was light-hearted and a joke and part of the exchange to my mind was actually very serious. I don’t know what may or may not have gone on behind the scenes.”

Peskin added, “I kind of feel like I would like to make a motion to recuse myself because I feel remarkably uncomfortable.”

Supervisor Scott Wiener, however, had a different opinion. “I don’t think anyone needs to be recused here. With Supervisor Cohen it wasn’t a legal conflict. There was an issue about appearance,” Wiener said. “We have an obligation to adjudicate this appeal. I’ve had no involvement with this park or with this project or with negotiating anything.”

The mixed-use development at 901 16th St. and 1200 17th St. includes 395 units. The environmental impact report was appealed by community groups Grow Potrero Responsibly and Save the Hill. The board voted 9-1 to reject the appeal, with Peskin supporting the appeal.

Cohen did offer her apologies for making anyone feel “uncomfortable” before being excused. “My comment was truly in jest. I was making, though not funny, a joke nonetheless.”

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