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Friendly Skies: City contractor's cozy relationship with S.F. Rec and Park chief 

Wednesday, Mar 31 2010
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The relationship between the city's Recreation and Park Department and the San Francisco Parks Trust — a private, nonprofit fundraising engine that has procured tens of millions of dollars for the cash-strapped department over the past decade — seems to be particularly close these days.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported earlier this month that the Parks Trust bailed out Rec and Park general manager Phil Ginsburg by writing a check when his employees were caught wasting $10,000 in labor and materials building a parade float. But the nonprofit's generosity doesn't stop there. Documents obtained by SF Weekly through a public-records request show that the Parks Trust has also paid for the department head to travel out of state on official business.

Ginsburg, Parks Trust executive director Karen Kidwell and Neighborhood Parks Council executive director Meredith Thomas took a one-day trip to Seattle in December to take a look at how that city's parks department does business. Ginsburg's $302 airfare on United Airlines was paid for by the Parks Trust, according to credit-card receipts from the trip.

In our age of jet-setting lobbyists and beachside political junkets, the notion of a private organization paying for a public official's plane ticket is bound to raise eyebrows. But was this really so bad? Ginsburg and Kidwell pointed out in interviews with SF Weekly that the Parks Trust's main purpose is to raise money for the city, and that the Seattle trip would otherwise have eaten up scarce public funds.

"I see nothing wrong with the trip," Ginsburg said. "This is exactly what you want us to be doing. I presume you don't want it to be paid for out of taxpayers' money."

Yet the Parks Trust isn't just any fundraising foundation. It also has important business relationships with the city as both tenant and contractor. The organization helps manage the city's Conservatory of Flowers under a contract that entitles it to a fee equal to 5 percent of the conservatory's expenses. It also occupies office space, rent-free, at the Recreation and Park Department's headquarters at McLaren Lodge.

The gift violated no state or local ethics laws, according to Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies. Still, Stern said that to avoid any appearance that a free trip to Seattle might compromise impartial decision-making on government business, it would have been wise for Ginsburg to have declined the plane ticket.

Had he been Ginsburg, Stern said, "I would have said, 'If this trip is important, we'll pay for it, and if it's not important, we won't pay for it.' Because the perception is, they're doing me a favor. I shouldn't be receiving any favors" from a city contractor. "It was not a good decision for him to accept the gift, but it wasn't illegal."

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Peter Jamison

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