stowlake_lg.jpgIn the newest development in an ever-expanding controversy in the world of San Francisco politics, a judge has ruled in favor of Ortega Family Enterprises and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, finding that the department’s selection of the New Mexico-based firm to run the Stow Lake Boathouse to be above board. What started as a push by current operator Bruce McLellan to retain control of the historic Golden Gate Park landmark, has since enveloped two of the city’s highest profile election campaigns, a medical center, the Police Officers Association and imperiled the career of the one of San Francisco’s most powerful lobbyists.

The entire incident was touched off when the Recreation and Parks department reportedly grew frustrated at McLellan, whose family has operated Stow Lake Boathouse for over 65 years, for not putting enough capital improvements into the city-owned property. McLellan says he didn’t feel comfortable sinking more of his own money into the boathouse unless the city took him off of a month-to-month lease and guaranteed him something more long-term.

Reportedly fed up with McLellan, the department decided to put the contract to manage the boathouse out to bid and an independent panel awarded it to Ortega, which also manages a cafe and gift shop in Muir Woods. McLellan felt the selection process was corrupt and started a grassroots campaign to retain control.

Recreation and Parks Department officials strongly favored Ortega’s bid in large part because the firm offered to sink ten times the amount to money as McLellan into improving the boathouse and were worried that a pro-McLellan groundswell, based on San Francisco’s predisposition to support a long-time local business over a larger, out-of-state company, would derail their plans. Department officials then reportedly recommended Ortega hire well-connected lobbyist Alex Tourk and his political consultancy, Ground Floor Public Affairs, to help them shepherd their bid though the rest of the morass that is city government.

In her ruling on Tuesday, Judge Loretta Giorgi admonished department officials for suggesting that Ortega use a specific lobbying firm but found the process that initially selected Ortega to be free from the corruption alleged in McLellan’s lawsuit against the city. ‘

‘There’s no question in my mind that the process was done … legally, lawfully and fairly,” said Giorgi.

The judge had stopped McLellan’s removal from the property, which was originally slated for sometime last month, while she heard arguments from both sides but has now removed the restraining order and is allowing the removal to go though.

“The court ruling speaks for itself,” said Recreation and Parks Depertment General Manager Phil Ginsburg in a statement.

“We are excited about moving forward with Ortega Family Enterprises for much needed upgrades to the Stow Lake Boathouse in Golden Gate Park and which will provide enriched park experience for San Franciscans and visitors.”

Since McLellan will likely appeal the decision, Ortega isn’t going to be moving into the Golden Gate Park landmark any time soon.

The wider controversy came when emails released as part of the suit raised very public questions about the ethics of Tourk’s lobbying efforts.

A long-time fixture in local politics, Tourk has worked with Willie Brown, Dennis Herrera, Maria Shriver, Gavin Newsom, George Gascon, and was one of the driving forces behind Project Homeless Connect and the city’s controversial sit-lie law.

Tourk now runs Ground Floor Public Relations, a lobbying and consulting firm that, in addition to working for Ortega, was serving as a consultant to the Herrera and Gascon campaigns.

The scrutiny paid being paid to Tourk during the Stow Lake controversy revealed that he neglected to report lobbying conversations he had with Recreation and Parks Department officials on behalf of Ortega, as well as reporting lobbying visits with his consulting clients, Gascon and Herrera, on behalf of his lobbying clients, such as the Police Officers Association and the California Pacific Medical Center. All of these run afoul of the city’s election laws and are subject to fines up up to $10,000 per violation.

Tourk says he has since stepped down from both the Herrea and Gascon campaigns, although former Ground Floor staffer Maxwell Szabo is still on staff with the Herrera campaign.

A mud-slinging internet video political columnist Beth Spotswood theorized was produced by a rival campaign, implied that Szabo remained at Herrera’s campaign, “so that [Tourk] can still show his lobbying clients he has access to Herrera while staying out the press.”

As the City Attorney, Herrera would usually handle the investigation into any crimes that Tourk may have committed but, to avoid the appearance of impropriety,has referred the case to his Oakland counterpart.

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