Portrait of the artist as an old cop

Why is the city's police union lobbying for the Academy of Art?
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gwschulz@sfbg.com

Imagine Gary Delagnes, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, pondering the impact of abstract expressionism on the American zeitgeist with a far-off gaze. Or picture him dressed in fashionably tight jeans, walking his fixed-gear bike to the San Francisco Academy of Art University with a leather portfolio tucked under his skinny arm.

Does that seem incongruous to you? It does to us as well. After all, Delagnes is the very antithesis of an art school student. So why are the POA and Delagnes, a brutish former narcotics officer, lobbying the San Francisco Planning Commission on behalf of the Academy of Art?

The academy, which has been rapidly snapping up properties around town to accommodate its ambitious expansion plans, has become an entity of increasing concern in San Francisco's dicey world of land-use politics.

The for-profit school, which costs students around $16,500 per year to attend, today owns or controls more than 30 properties across the city, half of which are used to house its students, and expects to take over nearly a dozen more to accommodate approximately 14,500 students by 2017.

In the meantime, the school is facing several enforcement actions initiated by the Planning Department for brazenly making building conversions without bothering to obtain proper permits.

Delagnes was nonetheless first in line at a September 2007 commission meeting held to address the academy's pending enforcement cases and praised the school as a tremendous asset to the academic community.

"I think that their reputation in San Francisco is unquestioned as some of the finest, true San Franciscans that I know," Delagnes said of the wealthy Stephens family, which owns the Academy of Art. "They are heavily involved and invested in the city of San Francisco and care deeply about its future."

Delagnes's lobbying on behalf of the academy surprised and appalled at least one commissioner, Hisashi Sugaya, who told the POA president that he was "really offended" someone representing law enforcement was carrying water for a private art school that had flouted the law by racking up alleged planning and building code violations.

Responding in the union's newsletter, POA vice president Kevin Martin reached a dizzyingly patriotic pitch in denouncing Sugaya as a liberal and demanding he apologize not just to Delagnes but also to the entire union for "demeaning our president" and "censuring his freedom of speech."

Delagnes admitted to the Guardian that his testimony was essentially a "quid pro quo." The academy has supported the POA, even offering special summer apprenticeships to the children of its members. "I'm sure that they were thinking, 'You know what? The POA is a pretty powerful organization. It wouldn't hurt to get close to them,'<0x2009>" Delagnes said. "Here came this problem with the Planning Commission. They called me and said, 'Hey, would you mind going up there and basically saying that we're a good organization? We're good people.'<0x2009>"

During the meeting, school president Elisa Stephens, who did not return calls, portrayed the academy as a simple mom-and-pop business ignorant of planning politics and intending to fully cooperate with the city.

"My grandfather was an artist.... We're an integral part of this community," Stephens told the commissioners. "I live in this community. We've been here since the late 1800s. We're dedicated to this city.... I apologize for not being involved in city politics. I'm involved in education."

But city staffers implied there's more to the academy's troubles than a few honest mistakes.

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