ACORN tactics worry officialsBy Todd R. Brown
The neighborhood activist group ACORN doesn't usually tiptoe into town.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now makes a big noise when it pops into new cities, vowing to help low-income residents get better traffic safety, cleaner streets and more overall attention from local governments.
Sometimes the group is welcomed as a refreshing voice of the people, many of whom wouldn't otherwise join the public debate. Other times, ACORN stirs the pot so much that it becomes the center of attention instead of the problems it highlights.
In Daly City, the group is being checked into by police after some residents complained to the City Council about door-to-door soliciting for new members.
"We can't regulate it, it's a constitutional right to solicit," Daly City Attorney Rose Zimmerman said, but added, "We really need the public to be informed about anything that borders on some kind of harassment."
Mayor Maggie Gomez said she worried about the group signing up members to have a minimum $10 a month deducted automatically from their accounts.
"Seniors easily give their credit cards over and what have you," she said. "We're concerned about our citizens, you know, we just have to make sure our citizens aren't taken to the cleaners."
David Sharples, an organizer for the San Francisco-based nonprofit that is looking for office space in South City, likened the membership fees to union dues or church-group dona-tions.
"We're not committing elder abuse," Sharples said. "We're bringing people together in the community to get power in numbers in order to win real improvements in their neighborhoods. They have the option not to sign up."
He said ACORN recently decided to organize in South San Francisco based on input from residents who came to the group's free tax-filing center at 208 Miller Ave. The city already has responded to members' concerns about run-down properties south of Grand Avenue, according to Councilman Mark Addiego.
"Code enforcement has been pretty aggressive," he said. "I think sometimes some of the older neighborhoods need to be looked at with fresh eyes. That's what the ACORN group's having us do."
Addiego said he hasn't heard any complaints about how the group, which has 850 chapters across the country - and more than 700 members in San Mateo County - collects its dues.
"Within any organization, there's the automatic funds being withdrawn," he said. "It makes it easier for people to step up and participate."
Another ACORN tax center at 2201 University Ave. in East Palo Alto also led to a local recruitment drive, Sharples said.
"Those members' biggest concern is violence prevention," he said, adding that the tax help "is part of our overall program to help lift people out of poverty and be financially stable."
Bernardo Huerta, who sits on the board of the nonprofit group One East Palo Alto and another group, seemed sympathetic to the new kid on the block.
"We're more on advocacy for better grades for kids and that they stay out of crime," he said. "It used to be more like that ACORN group, getting people involved, making little changes and getting real changes. That's what I miss. We kind of had to follow the foundation money."
Back in Daly City, Gomez said some of the issues ACORN has raised are already on the radar of local homeowner associations, including cleaning up trash in the Crocker neighborhood, one of the nonprofit's priorities.
A push by the group for a new Bayshore supermarket is beside the point, because the city has been planning to build exactly that near the Cow Palace for years, she said.
"They're reinventing the wheel is what they're doing," Gomez said, adding that she plans to meet with Sharples soon to clarify the group's mission. "People have the right to speak out, that's not what I'm saying. Why would citizens have to pay dues to voice something they can come to the City Council and speak freely about?"
Sharples preferred to focus on the social justice the group campaigns for. On Saturday, ACORN plans a volunteer Crocker cleanup event, and on Tuesday, the group plans to bring a petition to San Bruno's City Hall asking for speed bumps to be installed on Third Avenue.
"Pedestrian safety is something our seniors are really concerned about," Sharples said. "I go around, I knock on doors, I help them get involved. I'm not leading this group, I'm just helping them accomplish their goals. We're not about taking advantage of little old ladies."
Copyright ©2007 San Mateo County Times. Published 03/21/2007.