lee.debate.jpgOriginal ideas aren’t easy to come by. Whatever you’ve said or thought, chances are someone has said or thought it before (unless it is you we have to blame for creating the English language). This holds true in city government — some of the more-popular ideas in recent San Francisco history have their origins elsewhere, from Sunday Streets (Bogota, Colombia) to caving into business’s tax-break demands (Reagan, Ronald).

It appears Mayor Ed Lee is guilty of some idea-theft of his own, but whether it’s outright plagiarism or harmless thought-sharing is unclear. This week, as the Chronicle reported in its technology blog, the Mayor challenged a gang of geeks attending the Web 2.0 Summit to create a smart phone app that would inform its users if their cars are parked in an about-to-be-towed sign (because street signs just don’t cut it anymore).

That struck Board of Supervisors President David Chiu as more than a little odd, as it was Chiu who had floated the exact same idea a month prior, going as far as to ask city officials to draft legislation requiring the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency and Department of Public Works to collaborate on just such an app.

In this “great minds think alike” scenario, there’s the public vs private debate — in a race between technophiles and bureaucrats, who would get their app created first, and whose app would be better? — but there’s also the spirit of collaboration between mayoral rivals, according to Addisu Demissie, Chiu’s press secretary.

“If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then David is very, very flattered,” Demissie told the Appeal, before adding that Chiu and his staffers hope to collaborate with the mayor on the tow truck app project sometime after the dust settles following the Nov. 8 election — because come an Ed Lee victory or a Phil Ting upset, both Chiu and Lee will stay in their respective roles until January, if not beyond.

Mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey told the Chron that the mayor wants to work with Chiu and Assessor-Recorder Phil Ting (why home-pricing Ting, we’re not immediately sure) on the app, and Chiu’s City Hall staffers say that they and the mayor’s people have had some “preliminary talks” regarding the app, but nothing solid will be nailed down until after the campaign hubbub dies down.

Other City Hall insiders, however, say this is part of an annoying pattern the mayor’s been on for some time.

“This is typical of the way the mayor’s run his campaign,” one said. “The mayor’s strategy is to claim credit for everything good that’s happened in the city, past, present, and future.”

And there’s truth behind that: the mayor touts the Twitter tax break as a key accomplishment in everything from his television ads to the 17-point jobs plan, when at the time, it was widely known that former Mayor Gavin Newsom initially approached the tech giant with a handout offer.

Pols like Chiu and supervisor-elect Jane Kim sat down with Twitter as early as November 2010, when then-City Administrator Ed Lee had yet to whip out his golf clubs for the fateful trip to Hong Kong, from where he returned as the choice for interim mayor.

So is this great minds thinking alike, or idea-jackers seldom differing? Tony Winnicker, a spokesman for Lee’s campaign, has yet to respond to a request for comment, but we’ll update this post as soon as we hear back. Until then, we thought of it first.
UPDATE: “Whether it’s the budget process, the search for a new police chief or pension reform, Mayor Lee knows good ideas come from many people and places,” mayoral campaign spokesman Tony Winnicker wrote in an email. “Board President Chiu and Assessor Ting had some good ideas about parking apps, and Mayor Lee thinks the fastest way to get them done and make them available to the residents of the City is to challenge the developer community to do it for us.”

As far as being first goes, Mayor Lee “doesn’t really care who gets credit,” Winnicker added, “because it’s really the people of San Francisco who win.”

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