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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Privatization Bill Seems Designed to Destroy Parks

Posted By on Thu, Jul 14, 2011 at 4:50 PM

click to enlarge Sold to the highest bidder.
  • Sold to the highest bidder.

There's no doubt that lefty supervisors John Avalos, Eric Mar, Ross Mirkarimi, and David Campos meant well when they moved to put a measure on the ballot to prevent the privatization of parks.

Strivers and sharpies have for too long treated the San Francisco's Recreation and Parks Department like a piggy bank. Chiselers have tried to sneak city golf courses into private hands. The private foundations that run the de Young Museum and the Academy of Science view surrounding parkland as private revenue generators. Parks honcho Phil Ginsberg has sneakily negotiated deals to use public property for private gain -- without telling politicians or the public exactly what's happening with the money.

But just because these characters need adult supervision doesn't mean we need to put our parks system into a ballot-initiative straitjacket. In the end, they might hurt public access to parks and recreation more than they help it.

To start, the proposed ordinance says:

"All parks or portions thereof and park and recreation facilities shall remain accessible to the public and those that are currently without entry fee shall remain without entry fee."

What's not to like about that? Everyone wants things to be free, right? Well, when budgets are tight, policymakers are sometimes left with choices. On example might be choosing between a free-to-the-public arboretum and providing medical care for disadvantaged residents. A third option could involve charging a fee.

This is the kind of choice we elect leaders to make. And when we hamstring them with ballot measures, they're sometimes forced to make stupid choices, such as closing free public facilities altogether.

"All recreation facilities, including but not limited to clubhouses, 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."
San Francisco's golf courses, the Harding clubhouse, the attempted privatization of Lincoln Park, the sleazy, usurious private contract to manage Harding Park golf course, and other public-private revealed a strain of sneakiness, incompetence, gullibility, and ill will on the part of public officials.

That's not the type of problem you solve by taking away tools competent officials would use to manage the city's parks system. Whether a public-private partnership is a good deal for residents or a giveaway to investors is determined by the language of the contract such deals are based on. Simply eliminating private participation in public parks management, as a matter of ideologically driven fiat, will hamstring future managers who  recognize the possibility of useful partnerships.

This could mean putting together a workable deal to revive the long-moribund Golden Gate Parks Stables, or  doing something with the vast, unused public weed patch surrounding Sutro Tower. It could mean obtaining city revenue for the mismanaged parking lots near Fort Mason and finding private docents to replace the sordid public fiefdom known as the Park Patrol.

Halting mismanagement of San Francisco's parks doesn't have to mean making it impossible to manage them well.

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Matt Smith


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