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News + PoliticsCity HallLies, damn lies, and the new 'report' on San Francisco government

Lies, damn lies, and the new ‘report’ on San Francisco government

Ignore the realities of SF politics. Ignore a wide-ranging corruption scandal. Just go after district elections. That's what the Rose Institute, funded by Michael Moritz, is doing.

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The publication of a report on the “government design” of San Francisco and whether or not it is “well structured to meet the current crisis,” paid for by tech billionaire Michael Moritz and written by the Rose Institute, has concluded that we need to give the mayor even more power, go back to at-large supervisor elections and reduce the number and limit the ability of the remaining commissions to, among other things, effectively oversee the departments they supposedly administer.

The Chronicle and Standard (a news site funded by Moritz) gave it positive coverage (“provides a road map to fix” the city, says the Chronicle; “intended to lay the groundwork for ballot measures that would alter power dynamics at City Hall,” frankly states the Standard). Let’s be clear: these ballot measures remove much of resident control over our government and return it to the people who have a better grasp of “citywide policy”—people like Michael Moritz and his fellow venture capitalists.

London Breed is one of the strongest mayors in the country. Here administration is mired in corruption. So we should give her more power?

Neither the Chronicle nor the Standard pointed out that the Rose Institute has on its Board of Governors Sean Elsbernd, Mayor Breed’s Chief of Staff.  In his otherwise splendid story on the report, reporter Joe Eskenazi says Elsbernd “made a point of not participating in this report.” At least, that’s what Elsbernd said.

It’s just that the report so adamantly supports a “strong mayor” with enhanced staff and increased pay—which Elsbernd would direct—which casts some doubt on Elsbernd’s dismissal of any potential conflict.  Sometimes, even in San Francisco moderate politics, one and one does equal two.

The report is absurdly narrow in its discussion of “the current crisis” that the current system has “failed” to address: uncontrolled crime “doom loop” downtown, endless homelessness.  There is no mention of the biggest ongoing corruption scandal in the modern history of San Francisco centered on the Mayor’s Office (a scandal the Standard has called “the corrupt foundations underpinning…the highest levels of San Francisco government”); there is:

—No mention of persistent and pervasive income inequality—higher than in any other city but New York—and made worse by the tech economy funded by Moritz and his fellow venture capitalists;

—No mention of a stressed public school system unable to even pay its teachers (created, in part, by a recall campaign funded by Moritz and others that installed a set of handpicked board members so inept they themselves were removed by the voters last year);

—No mention of a failing Muni, without which a significant portion of our service workers (“essential workers” under Covid, remember) would simply be unable to get to work and our children would be unable to get to school;

—No mention of the ever expanding pre-emption by do-nothing state agencies of local ability to control community development, evictions and displacement and traffic on our streets by handing these essential areas of local government over to market forces and finally, unsurprisingly,

—No mention of the damage done to the city’s polity by the increasing destabilizing role played by Moritz and his fellow venture capitalist bringing an irrelevant (and dangerous) techno-libertarian ideology to every aspect of public life and force feeding it through massive injections of money into our local politics, funding attack ads, divisive ballot measures and recall campaigns.

The study claims it is based upon interviews of 30 unnamed “former supervisors, other current and former elected and appointed officials, and business and civic leaders.” I have been active in local politics for more than 40 years and know scores of such folks. None of those I have talked to were part of the select 30.

What is clear is that the study IS NOT BASED upon a close reading of either the City Charter nor the Administrative Code which together create the “government design” of San Francisco named in the report’s title.

There is no reference made to Section 15.105 of the Charter, which gives San Francisco’s mayor powers unrivaled in any other executive office, perhaps in the land: the ability to remove any elected official (and non-Chartered Commissioners) for “official misconduct”—which the mayor alone defines—until charges are heard by the Ethics Commission and, if sustained, by the Board of Supervisors. 

The late Mayor Ed Lee removed from office the elected Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi until the board failed to confirm that removal. Mirkarimi was defeated in his attempt for re-election. This power alone makes San Francisco’s mayor the most powerful mayor in the nation.

Nor does the report even mention Section 3.100 of the Charter which lists the powers of the mayor, which include “make an appointment to fill any vacancy in an elective office until a successor has been selected.” This includes vacancies in the School Board and the Office of District Attorney created by Moritz-funded recall drives.

Finally, the report failed to mention that section 2.114 of the Charter prohibits any member of the Board of Supervisors or “its committees” from interfering in the “functions” of any city department under a commission or the city administrator which is all of the major departments of the city. To do so would be “official misconduct” which would allow the Mayor to immediately suspend the elected Supervisor.

Perhaps the biggest oversight of the report is its failure to understand the power of San Francisco’s bureaucracy.  By simply ignoring the Administrative Code, the report misses the fact that the decisive power in San Francisco’s government rests in the various departments, in the bureaucracy. There are some 30,000 or so employees of the City and County of San Francisco in some 80 departments.  Only 18 of them—11 on the Board of Supervisors—are elected by the people.  But for a relative handful of staffers in these 18 offices, all the rest are hired and supervised by the departments, most of which report, directly or indirectly, to the mayor.

Where this imbalance is most decisively shown is in the preparation and content of the annual city budget. Neither The mayor nor the Board of Supervisors creates the initial budget of the city and county. They give a “budget advisory” which lays out broad fiscal goals, but how those goals are met are up to the departments. 

The budget process, as outlined in the Administrative Code, starts with the departments submitting their budgets to the mayor by February of each year, not the other way around, as it is at the state and federal level.  Indeed, it is the controller, a Mayor appointee, who actually authorizes the payment of city funds based upon the budget, not the board or the mayor. The budget submitted by the mayor and passed by the board is, in fact, a budget created by the bureaucracy. This fact has come as a shock to more than one newly elected supervisor and especially to a newly elected mayor.

It is this hidden power of San Francisco’s departments that make much of the interaction between the mayor and the board over, for example, crime, a kabuki play in which one side tries to look good while neither actually have the ability to effect daily police outcomes.

Crime on the streets is addressed by the Police Department, and ultimately the courts, not the mayor or the supervisors (who are, as shown above, actually prohibited in “interfering” with the police).  The mayor can fire the chief, but the political cost of doing so is great most mayors simply look the other way. 

However, it’s the mayor who should be held politically responsible for policing, not the Board of Supervisors. The mayor picks a majority of the Police Commission and hires the police chief, not the board.

Failing to understand the inbuilt power of San Francisco’s departments, the report totally misses the boat in its recommendations on “reforming” the commissions. The problem with San Francisco’s commission system is not that the board has weakened the power of the mayor to direct them (the mayor, after all, appoints a majority of every major commission  as the report mistakenly asserts, but that commissioners, honest and corrupt ones alike, become advocates for the department, not the mayor. 

If they are honest commissioners, they come to trust the judgment and opinion of staff, upon which they are totally dependent for information and policy initiatives. Many of San Francisco’s senior bureaucrats are smart, knowledgeable and committed people and most are artful in their treatment of “their” commissioners, who must by law, approve the department’s budget before it is sent to the mayor.  Commissioners come to trust the staff members and do as they recommend. 

If they are corrupt commissioners seeking special treatment for themselves or business partners, they ingratiate themselves to department staff who award contracts and issue permits.

In either case, the problem with the commission system is that the commissioners become captive to the very bureaucracy they supervise.

Most mayors really don’t care, as most commission appointments are political rewards for campaign support for the mayor, so again, the bureaucracy wins influence and favor. Missing this essential element of San Francisco’s “government design” renders the report useless in any honest attempt to improve the ability of the city to meet current challenges.

But that’s not really the point of the report. The point of the report is aimed at convincing us to change the way in which supervisors are elected. Again, the very design of the report tips the “analysis” in that direction.

One way the reports seeks to do this is by making “comparisons” with other cities showing how silly the city is by not being like other cities such as Anaheim, Bakersfield, Long Beach, and Fresno! In creating these false equivalencies, the report again simply ignores the reality of San Francisco’s government design.  San Francisco, as the report does state, is the only city and county in California (which is why our “city council” is called the “Board of Supervisors,” which is what the legislative body of all California’s counties are called).

But the report fails to point out that it also contains, within its solitary structure, an international airport, a power and water system, and a port.  LA, San Diego, San Jose and Sacramento each has one or two of these additional governmental structures, but they are separate bodies, with their own separate governing structures.  In San Francisco they are all departments of the City and County of San Francisco.

Failing to recognize this reality leads to perhaps the most dishonest aspect of the report: the criticism that San Francisco’s ballot must be “reformed” because the Board of Supervisors places too many ballot measures on the ballot, which is somehow a bad thing. 

To prove this, the study makes comparisons between San Francisco and the list of jurisdictions mentioned above, and shows we have far more ballot measure than they do. The fact that we have a government that encompasses more functions and requires more direction of these departments as well as bonds to fund them, all of which require voter approval, is simply, again, ignored.

Since the primary objective of the report is to set up the repeal of district elections, it would have been more honest of the report and more informative if, instead at looking at Anaheim and Long Beach, we looked at the number of ballot measures when we had at-large elections compared to the number of ballot measures under district elections. In many years, there are two or more elections held. Here is what such a comparison shows.

As shown, the at-large-elected board put a higher percentage of ballot measures on the ballot than has the district elected board, by a rather significant 14 percent. On average, the at-large board put 20 percent more measures on the ballot than did the district-elected board.  All other methods of ballot placement increased: the mayor, more than doubled, from two percent to five percent; other governmental bodies doubled, from five precent to ten percent, and initiatives increased by 50 percent, from 14 percent to 21 percent.

The exception was the category of ballot measures placed on the ballot by four or five supervisors. The City Charter allows at least four supervisors to place an initiative ordinance on the ballot as long as it is not a charter amendment or a general obligation bond measure.

The report took exception to this ability and calls for its removal from the charter.  One wonders why. It amounts to only 1.5 percent per per election and is overwhelming popular with the voters as 34 of the 44 measures  (77 percent) were passed by the voters.

A sample list shows why it may be unpopular with Moritz as he contributed to campaign opposing many of these measures:

2002: Prop S      Legalizing medical marijuana sales                 Y 62%

2004: Prop I       Replace Muni diesel buses w/hybrid               Y 67%

2006: Prop G      Ban chain stores in neighborhoods                  Y 58%

2007: Prop K      Restriction on advertising on City Buildings Y Y62%

2008: Prop T      Free and low cost substance abuse treatment  Y 61%

2014: Prop G      Transfer tax on res. prop sold within 5 years  Y54%

2015: Prop G      Creation of Legacy Business Fund                 Y57%

2019: Prop E      Affordable teacher housing                            Y76%

2022: Prop J       Ban cars on JFK                                              6Y3%

It seems odd to argue, as the report does, that a district-elected Board of Supervisors must be replaced with at at-large elected one because it is more concerned with “district issues” than with “citywide policy” (asserted in the report with no data listed in support) and then call for the removal of a practice that democratically determines a “citywide issue” by popular vote.

Failure to even consider the oversized role of San Francisco’s bureaucracy in actually providing, or more to the point, failing to provide, critical services identified by the study renders the study intellectually dishonest and meaningless. 

How might the “current crisis” identified by the study be different if the Police and the Department of Public Works, for example, were more directly accountable to voters, and not insulated behind the mayor?  The report is silent because it never even asked the question.

The 500-pound gorilla ignored by the report is executive branch corruption. While simply missing the critical role in San Francisco’s government design played by the bureaucracy in both controlling the commissions that oversee them and actually providing government services, the report ignores perhaps the most glaring reality of San Francisco’s governance since the adoption of the “strong mayor charter” in 1996: executive branch corruption.

In 2004, and then again in 2007, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration was rocked by scandal. 

First, in 2004, nine city-paid workers charged they were directed to do get-out-the vote work on city time for Newsom’s election.  Some of these workers claimed that a then Public Works Deputy Director, Mohammed Nuru (yes, that guy) directed them to work on the campaign. Nuru, who also worked on the winning Kamala Harris for District Attorney Campaign in the same election, claimed he did so on his own time. DA Harris declined to investigate the accusations and Public Works Director Ed Lee (yes, that guy), who had hired Nuru, left him in place. 

The Department of Public Works, with the third largest budget in city government, had no commission and was directly under the mayor.

In 2007, the Newsom Administration was again rocked by his admission that he and a city-paid staffer in the Mayor’s Office had had an affair and that she was paid “thousands of dollars” after she left her job as his appointment secretary.  While a city attorney investigation questioned the propriety of the payments, it found that payroll records of the departments involved—the controller (appointed by the mayor) and the Mayor’s Office itself—contained no “definitive data” on the question no charges were filed.

In 2015, Newsom’s handpicked successor, Ed Lee, was ensnared in charges of corruption. As part of a longstanding sting operation aimed at the Mayor’s Office, federal agents claimed that an undercover agent contributed $20,000 to Lee’s 2011 campaign for mayor in order to have a meeting with the Mayor to discuss “business opportunities.”

A Human Rights Commission member and HRC staffer were later charged with money laundering and bribery in accepting the $20,000 contribution for Lee’s campaign. The meeting the agent paid for was in fact arraigned by the two and did occur, according to the agent’s statement. 

Lee, who before being appointed to head the Department of Public Works in 2000 (where he hired Nuru), was the executive director of the HRC and knew both of the women charged, denied remembering the meeting.  

His campaign committee did return the donations to the General Fund.  The two women reached a plea agreement and didn’t serve any jail time.

But these two mayoral scandals paled to near insignificance with the advent of the Breed Administration’s seemingly ever widening set of scandals which continue to play out. No administration in post-19th Century San Francisco comes even close the scope and scale of executive branch corruption as has been revealed, almost totally by federal authorities, within London Breed’s administration.  There are at least two distinct aspects to what might be called the Breed Corruption Complex.

No prior administration has had as many senior mayoral appointees either removed, charged and/or convicted of wrongdoing as has the Breed administration.  Breed officials removed (or resigned) for alleged corrupt dealing to date have been:

         1. Mohammed Nuru, director of Public Works;

         2. Tom Hui, director, Department of Building Inspection;

         3. Harlan Kelly, general manager of the SFPUC;

         4. Naomi Kelly, city administrator;

         5. Debbi Raphael, director, Department of the Environment;

         6. Sandra Zuniga, director, Mayors Fix-It Team (no pun intended);

         7. Bernard Curran, senior building inspector.

The first and most well known is the web of corrupt dealing centered on Mohammed Nuru, the director of public works. Now serving a seven-year sentence in federal prison, Nuru not only enriched himself but also swindled every San Franciscan with his corrupt dealing with Recology, the city’s sole, privately owned, solid waste disposal company for almost a century. The sweetheart deal he made with Recology, lubricated with over $1 million in secret payments made to be used at his discretion, cost every San Franciscan, tenant or homeowner, hundreds of dollars a year in inflated garbage fees.

In a settlement agreement reached in 2021 over a lawsuit brought by the City Attorney’s Office, Recology agreed to refund some $100 million to its customers.  But the largess given by Nuru to Recology was so great that in 2022 an additional settlement payment of some $25 million for exceeding its allowable profits was paid by the company.  Two senior corporate officers pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. Nuru also shook down various developers and hopeful city contactors as well.

The Department of Public Works had no commission at that time and its director reported directly to the mayor. Breed, who later admitted to receiving loans from and having a personal relationship with Nuru and was fined some $23,000 for “significant ethics violations,” clearly had even closer connections to Nuru than the other mayors he served. Breed used the department as her own “strike force” against un-housed San Franciscans, sending repeated texts to Nuru (and the police chief) to clear areas of homeless San Franciscans she saw as she was driven around the city in her official car.

But the Nuru schemes were only part of the Breed corruption complex. The Department of Building Inspection was the second center of corruption in the executive branch.  A cottage industry of permit expeditors had developed in San Francisco over the years, used mainly to get permits and inspections “expedited” through DBI. They flourished during Mayor Breed’s administration.

The most prominent expediter was Walter Wong. He developed a close personal relationship with Tom Hui, director of DBI. Hui was charged with seeking employment of his son from Wong and providing him preferential treatment by having three or four dinners (at which both Wong and Nuru were present) with a market-rate residential developer client of Wong’s and discussing permits which were before DBI for the client’s project at 555 Fulton, in violation of various city codes of official conduct.

Wong has also admitted that he arranged for no-bid contracts with Harlan Kelly (who the Feds charged in a separate action as having a “corrupt partnership” with Wong) in violation of city procedures and agreed to re-pay $1.4 million to the city.

Totally unrelated to Nuru was the case of Bernard Curran, a senior building inspector at DBI.  Curran admitted to approving several permits for a developer that loaned him over $200,000, sometimes by taking over from already assigned inspectors. At one time he issued permits for a project that had some 20 units when permitted to have only ten.

Former DBI Commission President and civil engineer turned DBI permit expeditor Rodrigo Santos also arranged 13 payments from developer clients to Curran, for which he took at least one “official action” for each payment.  Like Wong, Santos was found guilty of federal corruption charges and sentenced to 30 months in federal prison in part for his dealing with Curran.  Curran himself was found guilty and sentenced to a year and a day in prison. 

The city is now investigating more than 5,500 permits issued to Santos clients or approved by Curran, which gives some idea as to the scope of the DBI scandals.

And then there is what may be called the “tone deafness” of the Breed administration in making questionable appointments and official actions while in the midst of the tsunami of corruption engulfing the administration.  The most recent was this year’s mayoral budget, which sought to deeply cut the Ethics Commission staff, raising serious questions as to why this should be done at this time. 

The commission had just fined Progress San Francisco, a committee that supported Mayor Breed and her favored (losing) supervisor candidates in 2018, including SF Yimby founder Sonya Trauss, some $29,000 for failing to properly report a whopping $1.1million in donations, $400,000 of which were made to Breed and $700,000 to her three favored candidates for Supervisor.  Even though it took the Ethics staff four years to make the determination of violation, Breed thought they had too many staffers and proposed the massive cut. The Supervisors restored the budget.

The director of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, Kate Sofis, left MOEWD after being sued in both State and Federal court for a conflict of interest.  The suits centered on her role as the head of the lead agency negotiating with Amazon to locate in San Francisco. Sofis failed to report, as required by local ethics requirements, that she owned property across the street from the proposed site of Amazon.

The mayor then quickly appointed her director of the War Memorial and Performing Arts Center (the home of the Ballet, Opera and Symphony).  The problem is that the $200,000 a year position requires at least five years of experience “managing the operations of a performing arts venue” which Sofis didn’t have. But the position is civil service exempt, subject only to a vote of the Board of Trustees, all 11 members of which are appointed by the mayor. Sofis was hired.

And then there was the mayor’s nomination of Vikrum Aiyer to the voter-created Homeless Oversight Commission.  The commission, opposed by the mayor when placed before the voters by the Supervisors, was generally viewed as a slap at Breed’s current failed policy regarding homeless San Franciscans.  One would think the mayor would be careful to select top quality picks for the Commission. Not Breed. 

Turns out Aiyer, while working in Washington DC at the Patent Office (great training for homeless policy evaluation), from 2012 to 2016, improperly billed the Federal government 130 times for taxis rides to work and made $15,000 worth of “impermissible personal charges ” on his government issued credit card. When it became clear that not even the mayor’s allies on the Board would vote to confirm Aiyer, he withdrew his name. 

The mayor then turned around and nominated a realtor who had opposed a city-proposed location of a park for homeless RV dwellers in western San Francisco.  The Board voted to appoint her, as the song says, “out of kindness I suppose.”

By not addressing or indeed even acknowledging the largest rolling executive branch corruption scandal since the 19th Century, the report ignores the impact of that systemic executive branch corruption on the city. 

Is it possible that corruption in the lead city agency in issuing building permits might impact the speed upon which permits are issued and to whom they are issued?  Can a system dominated by “permit expediters” and building officials corruptly influenced by them find a way to slow down permits not “expedited” so as to make the services of the expediters all the more valuable?

Is the fact that it takes 600 days to get building permits in San Francisco, a process which has no public hearing, no room for public appeal until after the permit is issued and no role for the Board of Supervisors at all really somehow the fault of neighborhood Nimbys, the district elections of supervisors, or public commissions, as the report seems to argue?

Since the unfolding of the endless scandal, it has only been the Board of Supervisors and the Ethics Commission that has addressed the through measures placed on the ballot and overwhelmingly approved by the voters, actions the Rose Institute proposes be eliminated or scaled back! 

What is going on here?

The object of the report is to lay the groundwork for a repeal of district elections of supervisors and so executive branch corruption and the popularity of critically important ballot measures placed before the voters by that board is simply ignored. 

We get a longwinded analysis of something called Proportional Ranked Choice Voting (PRCV) which, were are told in the report (p. 47) is used to great democratic effect in Albany, California, Alden, Delaware and Palm Desert, California.

Palm Desert has fewer people than a single San Francisco Supervisorial district (50,000), Albany has 20,000 folks and Arden has 430 people total. 

This is a spurious attempt to dress up at-large voting, a system designed to disenfranchise working families and people of color and actually banned for all federal elections. At-large elections favor well-funded campaigns like the ones Moritz can single handedly pay for. It gives him and his fellow venture capitalists decisive power in the selection and then election of candidates.

The system favored by Moritz’s report would be a reasonably sounding “mixed” system with a set of fewer and larger “districts” combined with a set of at-large districts.  This is, in essence, an “at-large” system as even the report basically admits on page 57, resulting in a dilution of Black and Latino “voting strength”—that is, political power.

This report was paid for by Michael Moritz and is part of a now years -long effort to fundamentally alter San Francisco’s politics, not because it doesn’t work for the people of the city, but because it doesn’t work for Michael Moritz and his deep-pocketed tech venture capitalists.

The defeat of the Yimbys displacement steamroller initiative in last year’s election (Prop. D) and the massive victory in 2018 of taxing commercial rents to fund services for houseless San Franciscans and the production of new affordable housing (Prop.C) were clearly not to his liking.  Moritz seems to find such outbreaks of democratic power simply unacceptable. 

One wonders why. The man has more money than god, reportedly over $5 billion, and the Supreme Court has determined that money is “political speech,” not to be limited in elections and he is thus able to spend all he wants to make his point. 

The problem is that he is tired of losing in San Francisco and now wants to use his money to reduce the ability of San Franciscans to compete with him for control of the city. He seems to want to rig the system in his favor.   

Michael Moritz was born and educated in Britain.  Britain has no history of initiative, referendum and recall, the prized accomplishments of the Progressive Era here in California, which made voters the supreme law of the land and took it back from the railroads and robber barons of the 1890’s.

Britain does have a history of a rigid class system based on wealth, in which anyone who is rich enough can climb to its highest levels.  He is actually Sir Michael Moritz, as he was appointed Knight Commander of the British Empire (not “Commonwealth”) in 2013 by the Queen “for services promoting British economic interests…” as his Wiki page states (which I assume he edited).  

An at-large board favors wealthy players, just like the British class system.  Perhaps Moritz simply believes that he and other super wealthy venture capitalists will finally assume their rightful place as the “masters” (they are all white guys) of San Francisco, just like all the rich white guys did back in the day in old England.

You can’t make this shit up!

As I was finishing this, news broke that Moritz and his fellow tech types including the founder of California Yimby (not reported in the New York Times) had anonymously paid some $800 million for 140 properties totaling some 52,000 acres in Solano County since 2018. Paying up to $15,000 an acre (some ten times the price before the stealth acquisition started) for the farmland the group has set off alarm bells from the Pentagon to Rio Vista. 

The Pentagon is concerned because the land now under the control of the group surround Travis Air Force base, the center of US airborne logistics operations, on three sides. Local officials are concerned because the area is zoned for agricultural use and has little access to fresh water and no sewer system.

A poll of local residents for the group, Flannery Associates, claims the project would be a “new city with tens of thousands of new homes… that would feel like a college town…with over million new trees, and over 10,000 acres of new parks and open space …with an emphasis on walkability.” 

So much for the Yimby plan for us, with high density and “transit oriented” development since there is no mention of transit at all and few highrises are found in college towns. And who could turn down a swap for 52,000 existing acres of agricultural open space when you are offered “10,000 acres of open space and new parks” in return? 

This borders on the scary, folks.  Let’s hope the good folks in Solano County have their heads screwed on right. So far, the local congressional representatives, John Garamendi and Mike Thompson, appear to be well aware of the hard choices this arrogant move will place on local government. 

But maybe Flannery Associates knows an institute at a private, conservative college that can write a report on this thing to answer all these questions.  Or perhaps Moritz has finally got his dukedom and doesn’t need no stinkin’ report.

After all Sir Michael Moritz, the Duke of Rio Vista, has a certain ring to it.

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