Our “city family” is close indeed. But how close is too close? The Recreation and Park Department is putting the bounds of propriety to the test, according to some, after a mayoral candidate and the candidate’s former staffer — now a Rec and Park manager — issued echoing statements slamming a ballot measure proposed by a competing mayoral candidate.
The measure in question is “Parks for the Public,” sponsored by Supervisor John Avalos — the progressive establishment’s candidate for mayor — and cosponsored by fellow progressives David Campos, Eric Mar and Ross Mirkarimi. Rec and Park has in the past leased otherwise-shuttered clubhouses and other Rec and Park properties to private operators; the measure seeks to stop this “creeping privatization” of the city’s parks, according to Avalos, by mandating that “all recreation facilities… not leased on the effective date of this measure, shall not be leased to private entities but shall remain open and accessible to the public.”
On Monday, former supervisor and fellow mayoral candidate Michela Alioto-Pier sounded the alarm, issuing an e-mail blast under the heading “Bann [sic] Birthday Parties?” stating, “it turn out [SIC] that the measure would ban birthday parties!”
“Yes, if this measure is to pass in November, it will effectively ban Parks and Rec from issuing permits for birthday parties,” she wrote. Note that the ballot measure’s official description, in which every voter initiative’s effects are described, has yet to be written by the Department of Elections.
Nevertheless, Alioto-Pier’s call to arms was echoed in comments by a city employee, Rec and Park staffer Sarah Ballard, Alioto-Pier’s former legislative aide (and spouse of ex-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s former spokesman), printed in Tuesday’s Examiner.
“Our concern is it will impact birthday parties, picnic permits, weddings and beloved civic events like gay pride and Chinese New Year,” Sarah Ballard told the Examiner.
That may sound alarmist, as a permit is not required to use Speedway Meadow for a 20-person picnic and no event of less than 100 people needs to reserve space at Dolores Park. Rec and Park spokesman Elton Pon pointed to the city’s own definition of “lease,” which is “a lease, sublease, or other means of granting a right to occupy or use Real Property, and shall also include a license, permit to enter, use permit or other similar instrument.”
“So, permitted picnics, weddings and birthday parties in our parks and recreation facilities, not to mention use permits for large civic events like Pride and Chinese New Year, would potentially be impacted by this measure,” Pon wrote in an email.
This is not the first time in recent memory Rec and Park has butted heads with Avalos. Last year, Avalos led the opposition to the Rec and Park Department’s plan to charge a $7 admission fee for non-city residents at the Botanical Gardens, which the city has leased to the private nonprofit — though many say “well-heeled” — San Francisco Botanical Garden Society for $1 per year.
The Botanical Garden Society, whose members include many of the area’s business elite, hired lobbyist Sam Lauter of Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst and Lauter (remember them?) in order to defeat the measure; the fees will be continued for two more years after an April vote.
“There’s a pattern of the Recreation and Park Department playing hardball politics,” said Avalos, who noted that current Rec and Park general manager Phil Ginsburg is extremely political himself — he’s the former chief of staff to Mayor Gavin Newsom and was briefly rumored to be a supervisorial candidate.
“It’s strange for Michela to be using precious campaign resources to ask people to report to City Hall on this issue [at a Rules Committee hearing scheduled for Thursday morning],” he added. “I wonder if there’s a connection between her former legislative aide, now working at the Recreation and Park Department, and her chiming in on this issue.”
Earlier Wednesday, Alioto-Pier herself blasted a former nonprofit worker crafting a city ballot initiative, calling it in her Huffington Post column a “conflict of interest.” In a statement, Ginsburg stood by Ballard’s standing by her old boss, saying “her words are 100 percent appropriate and true.” Was the department being political? Neither Pon nor Ballard responded to that question.
City departments may be nonpartisan in a perfect world, “but all these departments have an agenda,” said Harry Pariser, a San Francisco travel writer and activist who opposed the Botanical Garden fee.
“There’s a prevalent idea that we can not raise taxes and have lower taxes for the wealthy by making everything fee-based,” he said, noting that Rec and Park recently hired an additional press officer while claiming to be broke. “Rec and Park has an agenda of privatization.” And, it would seem, friends in and out of elected as well as appointed office.