stowlake_lg.jpgA batch of recently released emails has reignited the public war over the fate of the historic Stow Lake Boathouse. Built in 1949, the city-owned Golden Gate Park fixture has been operated by the McLellan family for well over half a century.

Last year, the Recreation and Parks Department ended their contract with current operator Bruce McLellan and awarded it to the New Mexico-based Ortega Family Enterprises.

The newly public emails appear to show how a coalition of Recreation and Parks Department employees worked together with a well-connected lobbyist to, reports the Chronicle, guide a preferred candidate though the often thorny process of moving something potentially unpopular through the murky channels of city government. An out-of-town firm taking over a beloved local business is one thing sure to raise more than a few eyebrows around town.

After an independent panel recommended Ortega win the bid to manage the boathouse, people from the Recreations and Parks Department advised the company to hire a San Francisco-based lobbying firm because, not only had McLellen already hired a lobbyist of his own, but was the beneficiary of a grassroots campaign to save his business.

“We won because of our back channeling with commissioners,” Tourk wrote to OrtegaThe Save the Stow Lake Boathouse Coalition had gathered over 3,000 signatures protesting the transfer and, if the department wanted Ortega (who was apparently their first choice to take over the boathouse), that meant they had to act fast. That’s appears to be the reason department employees told the company to hire Ground Floor Public Affairs, the lobbying firm of well-connected San Francisco politico Alex Tourk.

Tourk is a long-time fixture in Bay Area politics. He’s worked for Donald Trump frenemy Willie Brown, Dennis Herrera, Maria Shriver, Gavin Newsom and was driving force behind both Project Homeless Connect and Proposition L, also known as the Sit-Lie law.

Tourk left City Hall after news broke that his wife, who was then Mayor Newsom’s appointments secretary, had an affair with her boss (you may have heard about this). After decamping from Gavin’s den of iniquity, Tourk founded his own lobbying shop.

If you need something done in San Francisco, there are few people better to turn to than Tourk, who has managed to impress even his political opponents.

“Even though I found myself on opposite sides of the aisle [from Tourk],” said former supervisor and current bartender Chris Daly, “I have a great deal of respect for Alex Tourk, and there’s no denying he has made significant contributions here in San Francisco.” This is a guy who was Gavin Newsom’s right hand man and he’s earned high praise from the former mayor’s arch-nemesis. (That said, Daly isn’t so much a fan of Tourk’s post-City Hall lobbying work, which he calls, “less than savory.”)

Also, it certainly didn’t hurt that current Recreation and Parks chief Phil Ginsburg used to be Newsom’s chief of staff and worked closely with Tourk at City Hall.

“We won because of our back channeling with commissioners,” Tourk wrote to Ortega after they were awarded the boathouse contract. Tourk’s firm also managed media outreach, telling Ortega that, “if you can’t explain it in a paragraph, it can’t be explained. We will be concise and to the point as reporters need to be fed, are generally lazy and we can’t ramble on.” Touché.

Additionally, the Chron reports that an organizer was hired to set up an astro-turf campaign of “volunteers” supporting Ortega’s bid at public meetings. “[It’ll cost] $500 for the first 30 individuals and $500 for another 15,” wrote one of Tourk’s employees in an email.

Despite all of the shady backroom dealings, the department legitimately appeared to initially choose Ortega on the merits of their bid. It was only after the first intra-department committee recommended they be awarded the contract that Ortega started working with Tourk to game the system.

McLellan claims that Ginsburg wanted him to significantly renovate the boathouse, however McLellan says he refused to put money into the building unless the city gave him something more substantial than the month-to-month lease he was currently on.

That said, what likely did McLellan in was the amount of capital improvements he was willing to put into the boathouse. In his bid, he only offered to put $23,000 toward renovating the building, while Ortega’s offer was just over ten times that figure.

“[It’ll cost] $500 for the first 30 individuals and $500 for another 15 [“volunteers”]” wrote one of Tourk’s employees in an email.

Another major sticking point was concessions. Unlike many other food vendors in the park, McClellan refused to sell alcohol under the prudent, although not especially fun, dictum that booze and water sports aren’t exactly the smartest mix. He also kept food prices at the boathouse low–a hot dog there cost $5 less there than at the nearby deYoung Museum Cafe.

The Save Stow Lake Coalition filed to make the boathouse a historic landmark late last year. In the hopes of blocking the transfer, however they quickly discovered that landmark status would only preserve the aesthetics of the building and not stop McLellan from losing control.

Ortega’s lease to operate the boathouse is expected to bring the city $140,000 per year and will last for 15 years. The company also manages a shop and cafe in Muir Woods, The Muir Woods Trading Company.

The fight over the boathouse is just one piece of a larger debate over the growing privatization of the city’s parks under Ginsburg’s leadership.

In the face of ever-looming budget cuts, the department is looking for new ways to raise revenue. A measure to charge a $7 non-resident fee to visitors at the Botanical Garden was met with outrage and attempts to bring local food vendors into Dolores Park inspired similar vitriol.

Local gadfly “Chicken John” Rinaldi planned a “puke-in” at the hipster hotspot last weekend to protest the presence of a food trailer run by the Mission-based non-profit La Cocina. In the process, Rinaldi says he amassed what he estimates is the world’s largest collection of fake vomit, something he called, “an investment.”

On that topic, the San Francisco Bay Guardian’s inimitable Tim Redmond mused that, “Once you decide that parks have to pay for themselves, you’ve destroyed the whole notion of public space.”

In a completely unscientific poll conducted by SF Appeal last year, keeping the boathouse in local hands came out decisively on top.

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  • sayWhat?

    You missed the main point of the emails in the filing. Rec & Park staff had already hand picked the winner when they told Ortega to hire Alex Tourk. This was BEFORE the Rec & Park Commission voted to approve the winner. So it was all a sham with thousands of community people deceived. BTW, this is just a tip of the email/text message iceberg, that will be brought to light while the trial continues.

  • Chris Daly

    While I don’t take back what I said about Alex Tourk in 2007, I think it is important to contextualize my comments. I believe that I correctly praised his service to the City and County, even though I disagreed with his politics.

    However, I have been less impressed with Alex Tourk’s conduct since becoming a registered lobbyist. I have found his tactics to be less than savory and personally witnessed his juicing of the Planning Commission to facilitate a CPMC development that has decimated an entire City block, while shrugging off serious neighborhood concerns. So I, unfortunately, was not surprised by this story.

    The circumstances of Alex Tourk’s departure from City government remain unfortunate, but it certainly does not excuse his conduct as a lobbyist. Perhaps it is time to bring back Jello Biafra’s proposal to make the lobbyists wear clown noses!

  • Ex pat SF

    Rec and Park “staff” married to Nathan Ballard! Emailing from home to push the project??
    What is this, Club Newsom?

    As far as the pick being a sham, it was a City bid process.
    Except: “The City has produced no agendas, minutes or other documents showing when or whether this selection panel ever actually convened…”

    Tourk paying to get people turned out for the hearing almost pales compared to that scandal, which the City Attorney’s Office is defending as “complying with the law.”

    It’s called public corruption– The next Mayor needs to completely overhaul the Ethics Commission and support its mission. Hopefully this case leads to something big.

  • Aaron Sankin

    Having lobbyists wear clown noses may be the best idea I’ve heard all day. At the very least, it would make walking around Sacramento way more fun.

  • Greg Dewar

    Jello Biafra was, and is , no joke. Unlike Chicken John, who just wanted attention or something, Jello had some Real politics behind his statements, and the Dead Kennedys remain a very important band and the music they did wasn’t just good, it made a statement.

    The privatization of the parks needs to end, and using the Great Depression 2.0 as justification to give away public land to the wealthy needs to end. Too bad Ed Lee is just Gavin sans the gel and good looks – he kept all the Newsom folks and does whatever they and Rose and Willie tell him to do. He’s a servant all right – but not for the public.