That standard of guilt, known legally as the "rebuttable presumption" — wherein someone is considered guilty unless they request an administrative hearing and can prove otherwise — is one of the targets of the ANSWER lawsuit, which is scheduled for its first pretrial hearing next month.
"In San Francisco, the distribution of handbills and other such literature is a quintessentially protected First Amendment activity, as it is everywhere. But the moment someone posts a group's literature on city property, the DPW is entitled to presume, under the rebuttable presumption, that the group itself is responsible — absent any evidence of a connection between the group and the person who did the posting," wrote attorney Ben Rosenfeld, who is representing ANSWER and two other accused violators, in a brief to San Francisco Superior Court.
Furthermore, he argues that there are no evidence standards for contesting the fines, which themselves have a chilling effect on free speech, particularly for poorly funded social and political activists. And, as he told the Guardian, "most people believe that posting flyers, because it's such a time-honored way of communicating, is legal."
Yet the City Attorney's Office argues that city law is defensible and that rebuttable presumption — which is a similar legal precept to how parking tickets are handled — has been validated by the courts.
"We are going to argue that it's reasonable and fair and it mirrors a state law that has withstood challenges," said city attorney spokesperson Matt Dorsey. "As a matter of principle, we don't think the right of free speech allows defacing public property."
It is that argument — that illegally posting signs is akin to vandalism or littering — that seems to be driving city policy.
"It happens very frequently, and the concern for the city is it costs a lot of money to remove," the DPW's Mohammed Nuru told the Guardian. "It adds to urban blight and makes the neighborhood look ugly."
The view that handbills are blight has gotten a big boost from city hall in recent years — and so have those who advocate that point of view most fervently.
The nonprofit group San Francisco Clean City Coalition — whose board members include city director of protocol Charlotte Schultz and NorCal Waste executive John Legnitto — identifies its mission as keeping "San Francisco clean and green by building bridges between resources and the neighborhood groups, merchant associations, and residents that need them."
A review of its federal nonprofit financial disclosure forms shows the organization has steadily received more public funds from at least three different city departments in recent years, totaling almost $300,000 in 2004, the last year for which the forms are available, plus another $170,000 in "direct public support."
"Our organization has grown substantially," said Clean City executive director Gia Grant, who is paid almost $70,000 per year and has been with the group for five years. "It has increased every year for the last five years."
Most recently, the group won the $140,000 annual contract to manage the Tenderloin Community Benefit District, bringing to that low-income neighborhood the same kinds of blight abatement work they've been doing in the Mission, mostly through their contract with Kramer and his alter ego: SF Green Patrol.
"I believe all San Francisco residents have the right to live in a beautiful neighborhood, no matter where they live," Grant told us.
Kramer has been applying that mantra to the Mission for several years now: tearing down signs, removing graffiti, painting and repainting the lampposts, and tending to the landscaping at Mission High and other spots. Kramer told us he volunteered his days to the cause even before he was paid for his efforts.
"Basically, the Green Team deals with the restoration of public property," Kramer said.