Priority One: Public/Private Parks

Public private partnerships are driving the commercialization of San Francisco's public park space. The loud voices ringing in General Manager Ginsburg's ears belong to the Department's private partners who are constantly seeking preferential access to park land and facilities while at the same time advocating for increased fees and reduced levels of service to the public. In the past year, the Department, responding to requests by the Botanical Garden Society and the San Francisco Parks Trust, reduced hours of operations at the Botanical Gardens, the Helen Crocker Russell Library and the Conservatory of Flowers without Commission approval and without any prior notice to or input from the public. In so doing, not only did the Department violate the public hearing and notice requirements of Section 4.104 of the City Charter, the Department showed how willing it is to sacrifice the public good for private interests.

Desperate for funding and all too eager to please its philanthropic donors, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department continues to increase fees for the general public while offering its private partners highly discounted rates and sweetheart deals. Since 2002, the Botanical Garden Society has paid $1/year to rent 4200 square feet of public park space in the Botanical Gardens and the County Fair Building. Yet, in advocating for the non-resident admission fee, the Society and the Department insisted $7 was a reasonable fee for a person to pay for a single visit to the Arboretum. The Society's lease expired on February 28, 2011 and it now occupies the property under an indefinite holdover provision at the sole and exclusive discretion of General Manager Ginsburg for $1.50/year.

As for the Botanical Garden Society's Grant Agreement for the administration of the non-resident admission fee program, that agreement expired on June 30, 2011 and has not been renewed or extended. Despite the complete lack of any current written agreement governing the admission fee program, the Recreation and Parks Department continues to allow the Botanical Garden Society to collect the non-resident admission fees and deposit the revenues into the Society's bank account at Wells Fargo. The Board of Supervisors should demand an immediate audit of the Society's operation of the non-resident admission fee program.

No one at the Department, the Controller's Office or the City Attorney's Office has been willing to comment on or cite the legal authority for a Department General Manager to issue a $400,000 grant of public funds to a private organization. The original Grant Agreement was never approved or even discussed by the Recreation and Park Commission. This grant was a secret, backdoor deal orchestrated by Phil Ginsburg, Katie Petrucione and former Botanical Garden Society Executive Director Michael McKechnie just days after the Board had rejected General Manager Ginsburg's pleas for a supplemental $400,000 appropriation supposedly intended for equipment purchases for neighborhood recreation centers.

Not only did the Department not require the Society to provide any of the prior financial documents or disclosures required by the Agreement, the Controller has issued three grant payments to the Society totaling $146,823.52 without first providing written certification of the availability of the funds as clearly required by the Grant Agreement. Presumably, the Controller was not willing or able to issue the written certification because there appears to be no line item in the Department's 2010-2011 FY budget for this expenditure! Since instituting the non-resident admission fee, attendance has plummeted at the Botanical Gardens. According to figures released by the Society, attendance is down 72% for non-residents and 41% for residents. The Department's partnership with the Botanical Garden Society is a testament to the increasing alienation of large segments of the population from the use and enjoyment of San Francisco's public park space.

Similarly, ever since the City Fields partnership began converting public athletic fields to artificial turf, whole communities have watched as their neighborhood parks were transformed into destination fields, used primarily by outside organizations and individuals who can afford to pay the $25-$65/hourly fee for use of the fields. Once the current artificial turf conversion is complete at Mission playground, the Department will only guarantee free open play for three evenings per week and a portion of Sunday afternoon. Like the other City Fields gifts at Crocker Amazon, South Sunset, Silver Terrace, Garfield Square and Kimball Field, the public notices for the Mission Playground project never mentioned the use of artificial turf or synthetic products.

In his book "Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin," Bay Area historian Dr. Gray Brechin notes "Power veils itself." And once exposed, it quickly reaches out for ways to manipulate public opinion. December 1, 2009, the day after the Recreation and Parks Department received a public records request regarding Dana Ketcham's volunteer work on behalf of the Foundation, Susan Hirsch registered as a contract lobbyist for the Fisher Brothers. Her first reported contacts began on January 5, 2010, the same day I sent a letter to the District Attorney's Office questioning the legality of the portion of the 2006 Ordinance that delegated Board approval for all future City Fields gifts to the RPD General Manager.

That same day, City Hall insider Alex Clemens also began lobbying for the City Fields Foundation gifts at Mission Playground and Beach Chalet. Despite thirty reported contacts, Mr. Clemens apparently could not remember the name or address of his client. In official Ethics Commission records for 1st quarter 2010, Mr. Clemens lists a fictitious entity, The Fisher Foundation, as his client. The address given by Mr. Clemens, One Maritime Plaza, is a building with hundreds of suites but Mr. Clemens did not give a suite number. The phone number Mr. Clemens gives is for the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund, a philanthropic foundation devoted to educational reforms.

The Foundation and the Department have clearly gone to great lengths to conceal this partnership from public view. General Manager Ginsburg and Permits and Reservations Manager Dana Ketcham continue to refuse to provide the Budget Analyst and the public with the legally required quarterly fiscal lease reports detailing exactly who is using these fields and how much they are paying. The privatization of San Francisco's public park space is not a myth. It has just been a closely guarded secret.

Anmarie Mabbutt is a San Francisco attorney

September 2011


Privatizing Our Parks: Hidden from Viewsf Botanical Gardens

The drive to privatize our public park space began on November 7, 1995. Ironically, with the same election that brought Willie Brown to City Hall, voters approved a new City Charter which contained numerous restrictions regarding the leasing of public park space. Sec. 4.113 of the new Charter reads "No park land may be sold or leased for non-recreational purposes, nor shall any structure on park property be built, maintained or used for non-recreational purposes, unless approved by a vote of the electors." Sec. 16.112 requires that public hearings be held and Notice published "prior to the leasing, selling or transfer of management" of any facility used by the public. These laws should have protected SF's parks. Instead, under the not-so-watchful eye of City Attorney Herrera, the Recreation and Park Commission and the Board of Supervisors have routinely and repeatedly ignored these open government provisions of the Charter.

Since July 1, 1996, the effective date of the new City Charter, on at least twenty separate occasions, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department has issued leases to private organizations to operate preschools in public park clubhouses. Having failed to submit this non-recreational use to a vote of the electors, it appears the Recreation and Parks Commission approved these leases in violation of Charter Section 4.113. Over this same fifteen year period, the Recreation and Park Commission and the Board of Supervisors have approved dozens if not hundreds of leases and transfers of management of public facilities in violation of the formal public Notice and public hearing requirements of Charter Section 16.112(a).

According to Clerk's Office responses to official public records requests, the Board of Supervisors does not publish a Notice of Public Hearing prior to the leasing or transfer of management of facilities used by the public. The only published notice the Board provides is the publication, normally just three days prior, of the agenda for the meetings at which these leases and management agreements are approved. The Clerk's Office insists this procedure satisfies the voter mandated public Notice and hearing requirements of Charter Section 16.112(a). But if that were true, why does the Board hold formal public hearings and file separate Notices of Public Hearing for every other subsection of 16.112? Prior to the adoption of any amendments to the General Plan, any changes in land or zoning, any proposed changes to major trolley, bus or other transportation routes and before "any fee, schedule of rates, charges or fares which affects the public is instituted or changed," the Clerk's Office routinely publishes a formal and separate Notice of Public Hearing.

Assuming the Clerk's current procedures regarding the notice of the leasing and transfer of management of public facilities do not satisfy the requirements of Sec. 16.112, the Kemper and TPC agreements for the Harding and Fleming Park golf courses, the Exploratorium leases at the Palace of Fine Arts, the SF Botanical Garden Society lease, the SF Yacht Club lease and the thirty-five year lease to the Music Concourse Community Partnership for the operation of the GG Park Underground Parking Garage were all improperly approved. Every lease represents another step in the privatization of parks.

Take the time to review the recent history of SF's leasing laws. In late 2000, Supervisor Barbara Kaufman proposed, and the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved, an amendment that severely reduced the Controller's oversight of leases of public property. Under this legislation, the Controller's duty to regularly review all leases was reduced to only those leases that exceed $100,000 annual rent. Just two months later, in early 2001, Supervisor Gavin Newsom co-sponsored, and the Board unanimously approved, amendments to several sections of the Administrative Code, including eliminating the requirement that the Budget Analyst review and report to the Board of Supervisors, all leases issued for less than fair market value. Supervisors voting to approve this legislation included Aaron Peskin, Matt Gonzalez, Leland Yee, Gerardo Sandoval, Jake McGoldrick, Tom Ammiano, Chris Daly and Mark Leno.

Most recently amended in 2004, Sec. 23.34 requires all Boards, Commissions and Departments empowered to lease City-owned real property file quarterly fiscal reports with the Budget Analyst of all leases issued for less than fair market value or that were not approved by the Board. Section 23.34 also requires the Recreation and Parks Department to post a report of all such leases on the RPD website. But according to Clerk's Office responses to official public records requests, the Recreation and Park Department has repeatedly failed to submit the required quarterly fiscal lease reports. And the Recreation and Parks Department has never maintained a report of leases and use permits on its website as required by Administrative Code Sections 23.2 and 23.34. Not surprisingly, the majority of these improperly noticed and unreported leases were issued without competitive bidding procedures and/or for less than fifty percent of the fair market value of the property.

Finally, the Clerk's Office and the Board of Supervisors appear to be knowingly and regularly violating the agenda posting requirements of the Ralph M. Brown Act and the Sunshine Ordinance. Last June I first informed then Rules Committee Chair David Campos, Board President David Chiu and the rest of the Board of their obligations to post the agendas for all regular and special meetings in a location that is "freely accessible" to the public. I even provided them a copy of a 1995 State Attorney General Opinion that specifically defines "freely accessible" to mean constant, 24/7 access. More than twelve months later, nothing has changed. The Board agendas continue to be posted inside City Hall and the Main Library. Posting the agendas in buildings that are locked for evenings, weekends and holidays does not meet the requirements of the statute.

The public notification and reporting provisions of the City Charter, the Ralph M. Brown Act and the Administrative Code are not trivial or insignificant. These open government laws are some of the public's most powerful safeguards in the battle to protect and preserve parks. Contact Mayor Lee, Clerk of the Board Angela Calvillo, General Manager Phil Ginsburg, Recreation and Park Commission President Mark Buell and the Board of Supervisors. The parks and people of San Francisco deserve better.

Anmarie Mabutt: Attorney and longtime resident, is currently writing a book about the privatization of parks space. Feedback

July-August 2011

Always Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth

On Wednesday, May 11, 2011, the San Francisco Recreation & Park Department held a ground-breaking ceremony for the Mission Playground improvement project. The project includes a new playground, new landscaping, new fencing, resurfacing of the tennis and basketball courts and a completely renovated and seismically retrofitted clubhouse. The project also includes converting the open blacktop soccer area to a fenced artificial turf field. At first glance a free $500,000 gift of a new state of the art soccer field to a historically lower income minority neighborhood sounds great, but then why all the secrecy and backdoor lobbying?

The official RPD Notices for the public meetings for the Mission Playground renovations held in summer 2009 never mentioned the renovation of the soccer area or the installation of artificial turf. In fact, the notices did not provide any details about the project. The official Department Notices for the Playfields Initiative projects at Garfield Square, Silver Terrace, Crocker Amazon, South Sunset and Kimball Field also never mentioned the use of artificial turf or synthetic products. Instead, the Notices used the phrase "the renovation and improvement of the soccer field" or "the renovation and improvement of the turf field." Mission Playground Ribbon Cutting

The San Francisco Recreation & Park Commission Gift Policy (Resolution #9716-230) reads "Any gift-in-place or in-kind gift valued in excess of $10,000 must go to the Commission for their recommendation to the Board of Supervisors to accept and expend such gift before construction may begin or a gift is used." Yet, according to official Commission records, the Recreation & Park Commission has never considered or approved the City Fields Foundation gifts for the artificial turf conversion projects at Mission Playground, Beach Chalet, Crocker Amazon, South Sunset, Franklin Square or Kimball Playground.

The required Board of Supervisors approval for these gifts is also lacking. Administrative Code Section 10.100-305(b) clearly states "The acceptance of expenditure of any gift of cash or goods of a market value greater than $10,000 shall require approval of the Board of Supervisors, by resolution." But according to official Board of Supervisors records, the City Fields Foundation gifts for Mission Playground, Beach Chalet, Crocker Amazon, South Sunset, Franklin Square and Kimball Playground have never been considered or approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.

Why have General Manager Phil Ginsburg and former General Managers Yomi Agunbiade and Jared Blumenfeld reportedly accepted more than $10.7 million in philanthropic gifts without ever seeking approval for these gifts from the Commission or the Board of Supervisors? Back in February 2006, Commissioner Tom Harrison proposed as a last minute amendment to the City Fields Foundation partnership (Resolution #0602-010), a clause allowing the RPD General Manager to accept any future Foundation gifts without seeking Board of Supervisors approval.

Despite being described by Supervisor McGoldrick as an ill-advised and unprecedented delegation of authority over multi-million dollar philanthropic gifts to a single individual, in April 2006, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved this proposal as part of Ordinance #060255. This delegation of the Board's authority should have been presented separately as an amendment to the Administrative Code. Instead, it quietly created a singular exception for the RPD General Manager to accept multi-million dollar philanthropic gifts without Board approval.

On January 12th, 2010, Supervisor Eric Mar introduced Ordinance #100053 providing formal Board of Supervisors approval of the City Fields Foundation gifts for Mission Playground and Beach Chalet. Supervisor Mar introduced this legislation a week after a letter was sent to Deputy City Attorney Virginia Dario Elizondo requesting clarification of the legislative intent of the portion of Ordinance #060255 that had given the RPD General Manager authority over all future Foundation gifts. Ms. Elizondo never responded to the letter but it did appear to spark a flurry of activity by Fisher family lobbyists Susan Hirsch and Alex Clemens. According to official Ethics Commission lobbyist activity summaries, between January 5th (the day I sent the letter) and January 13th, 2010, Ms. Hirsch and Mr. Clemens made a total of 16 contacts including meetings with RPD General Manager Phil Ginsburg, Board President David Chiu and Supervisors Alioto-Pier, Elsbernd, Dufty and Supervisor Eric Mar. But Ordinance #100053 was never calendared for a committee meeting and simply expired.

At Mission Playground, the Foundation and the Department claim they are providing the neighborhood with a new state of the art soccer field. But if the history and usage patterns at the other Playfields Initiative sites are any indication, what had been a free walk on neighborhood field will now become a locked destination field used largely by outside organizations and leagues that can afford to the pay the $25-$65 hourly permit fee for use of the field. According to information released earlier this year on the City Fields Foundation website, walk on free play at the Mission Playground soccer field will be restricted to three evenings per week and a portion of Sunday afternoon. For the rest of the week, play at the field will now be controlled by the Recreation and Parks Department and its Permits and Reservations Division.

For more information about the City Fields partnership with the Recreation and Parks Department and the future of free neighborhood play at Mission Playground, contact Permits and Reservations Manager Dana Ketcham. Ms. Ketcham is an original member of the City Fields Foundation steering committee and a former President and VP of Scheduling for the Viking Soccer League. According to records released by the RPD, Viking Soccer League appears to be the private organization receiving the greatest number of hours of permitted play on the artificial turf fields. If you would like more information about the Department's and the City's gift approval and reporting procedures, contact General Manager Phil Ginsburg. Given the events of the past few weeks, Mr. Ginsburg might be interested in talking about something other than Stow Lake and Alex Tourk.

Anmarie Mabbutt: A California attorney and former longtime resident, Anmarie is currently writing a book about the privatization of San Francisco's public park space. She can be reached at

June 2011