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Par for the Course 

Give away city golf courses? Yet another scheme to take public property and put it into private hands without much oversight.

Wednesday, Feb 7 2007
I know what some of you are thinking: "Cool, San Francisco has a white Marion Barry."

But I urge you to reconsider. To begin with, Gavin Newsom has merely been shown to have slept with a senior staffer's wife, caroused with a teenage tartlett, and appeared in public drunk. He hasn't been caught on tape saying, "The bitch set me up."

There's also a more serious reason for banishing fantasies in which Newsom is the perpetual star of a Girls Gone Wild video. A city run by an absentee mayor is likely to go astray.

That's because, in the same manner that Newsom apparently views his office staff as an inviting collection of asses, there are hordes of connivers out there who see city government as a huge assortment of assets — land, buildings, cash, and other wealth. If left unguarded, it will disappear.

For example: Just as our mayor's personal distractions are possibly reaching a climax, a retired Palo Alto lawyer has been cooking up a scheme to transfer four city golf courses into a private corporation he set up for this purpose.

There are always plotters trying to do this sort of thing. Last week I wrote about a group of airport officials who set up a private corporation that they illegally used as their own $1.5 million slush fund. I should note the mayor did nothing to stop it.

But the new plan is worse because it involves a far greater amount of assets, and because it's lead by Frank "Sandy" Tatum, a man who's already created a financial disaster by luring San Francisco city fathers into an ill-conceived public-private partnership. (Tatum didn't return my call to his office requesting comment.)

Tatum's new scheme, spelled out in a report under consideration by the city's Recreation and Parks Commission, would privatize four of San Francisco's golf courses by deeding or leasing them into a nonprofit corporation Tatum has already set up for this purpose, in exchange for $1 per golf course.

The disingenuous way this report was conceived, commissioned, paid for, created, and promoted may give some hint that the whole scheme may not be in the public interest.

In October 2006 Frank Tatum registered a California corporation called the "San Francisco Nonprofit Golf Foundation," listing as its address the offices of the law firm Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP.

The corporation Tatum created then paid $100,000 to the National Golf Foundation (which is not connected to the San Francisco Nonprofit Golf Foundation), to conduct a study about how best to manage our city's golf courses. Tatum's apparently not saying who came up with the $100,000.

"He mentioned charitable donations," said Richard Singer, director of consulting services for the National Golf Foundation.

"A group of private funders paid for the study," said Parks Department spokeswoman Rose Dennis.

In discussing the proposed study ahead of time with Foundation analysts, Tatum discussed looking at a situation in Baltimore where a private nonprofit corporation operates golf courses that had been run by the city, Singer said.

The National Golf Foundation then took three months to reach the following conclusion: Our city's golf courses should be given away, or leased 30 years for $1, to the private corporation Tatum set up. In other words, the fix appears to have been in from the beginning.

"That may have been what they were thinking when they were putting it together," Singer acknowledges. "But it didn't go into our thinking."

This plan is so fraught with possibilities for mischief that I'd hope an attentive mayor would do something to stop it.

If the secrecy around who paid for this new report is any guide, the San Francisco Nonprofit Golf Foundation is not going to be a font of public information if it gains control of city land.

That's important because gifting the city's golf courses — large swaths of prime real estate — to a private corporation invites the sort of squandering of resources I detailed last week in describing the debacle of SFO Enterprises, where city officials set up a private corporation allowing them to use city money in a private slush fund.

Just as bad, the city might lose direct control of what the golf course land is used for. For example, our city charter restricts San Francisco from letting recreational land be used for nonrecreational purposes. But that might not stop the private corporation from, say, building course-side time-share condominiums, then using the profits as it saw fit. The privatization scheme guarantees no new money for the city — it only speculates that some might be forthcoming — while eliminating San Franciscans' right to decide what to do with the golf course land. Some of these courses are underused weedy messes that might be better off as ordinary parks, or dedicated to some other city use. If we give them away, however, we'll lose the right to determine what happens to our own city property.

The bureaucrats under the mayor's control seem to be encouraging the golf-course privatization plan, rather than what they should do: stamp it out.

Sadly, Sean Elsbernd, who acts as the mayor's eyes and ears on the Board of Supervisors, thinks the privatization plan is great.

"The thing I am excited about in this report — and again, I haven't fully read it — my understanding is it lays out how golf is set up with the city," said Elsbernd. "It presents an option that could absolutely work."

"Work," I suppose, in the sense of working the system.

The current Tatum plan to inappropriately divert millions of dollars of city assets into the private sector has its roots in an older Tatum plan to — guess what — inappropriately divert city assets into the private sector.

In a truly shameful episode, local swells and their attendant city fathers looted money from low-income children's playgrounds so that they could watch professional golf in their hometown.

In 1998 Tatum, a white-haired, former white-shoe lawyer who used to preside over the National Golf Association, embarked on a plan to renovate Harding Park to a pro level. In the end, he convinced S.F. city fathers to take more than $16 million from a state program to build playgrounds for poor children. The idea was that the city would spend the money, intended to pay for inner-city playgrounds, to turn our run-down Harding Park Golf Course into Professional Golfers Tour material. PGA tournaments would make a big profit for the golf organization and for the city. High-rolling golfers would flock to our city courses. We'd be able to pay back the money taken from the poor kids' playground budget. And the city would reap profits. Or at least that's how Tatum sold the idea to Willie Brown, former Supervisor Tony Hall, and a gaggle of golf-gaga functionaries.

Tatum "joined with me, and we succeeded, and I succeeded, in talking my colleagues on the board to give up their share of state moneys going to Recreation and Parks so they would get a payback over the years out of the proceeds of Harding Park Golf Course," said former Supervisor Tony Hall, who helped run political interference on Tatum's plan.

However, the San Francisco golf-destination proposal was an over-budget flop, with costs running around $24 million.

Rather than producing revenue to fund other city departments, the renovated courses now lose the city around $1.5 million per year. Paying back the state kids-playground fund now means taking money from every year's general city budget. Thanks to the high green fees necessary to help pay for the renovation, San Francisco has some of the most expensive, worst-condition municipal courses in America. The debacle has also meant the Parks Department now can't afford maintenance on swimming pools and other facilities around the city.

"The refurbishment of the Harding and Fleming Golf Courses was achieved at a significant opportunity cost to the rest of the City's recreation and park system," said a budget analyst report analyzing the debacle last year.

In the eyes of some officials, the best solution to public-private disasters created by Tatum apparently seems to involve more public-private schemes created by Tatum.

Enter the National Golf Foundation. It's important to note that this is not an independent economic consulting firm, nor a foundation for that matter, as one might ordinarily understand these terms. Rather, it's a trade association set up to further enrich businesses that make money off golf. Its directors manufacture things such as golf clubs and golf clothing, and manage golf courses.

Beyond its misleading name, the organization makes no bones about the fact that it is a trade association. Yet somehow, over the years, it has managed through its NGF Consulting arm to convince city fathers around the country of the need to give more public treasure over to the cause of golf.

It achieves this marketing goal by offering economic impact analyses, operational reviews, and the like, many of which seem to reach the same conclusion — more public assets should be transferred into the golf industry. In 2003 a Virginia Pilot article quoted experts blaming a regional golf-course glut on NGF reports issued during the 1980s and 1990s, which recommended communities build more golf courses to meet endless future demand. In 2002 NGF Consulting urged a Florida Gulf Coast county to bail out a failing private golf country club, speculating that the county could charge lower green fees, and make money. The NGF recommended that San Jose build another golf course to meet future demand in 1998. That is the same time, according to Tatum's San Francisco NGF report, when Bay Area golf course usage began a severe decline.

Richard Singer assures me that his organization doesn't always give the same advice. In Palm Springs, Calif., and Greeley, Colo., he said, the NGF recently recommended those communities not spend more public money on golf courses.

In San Francisco, however, the NGF devoted most of a 172-page report to recommending that the city privatize four city courses, after they were hired by a private corporation set up for that purpose.

Singer explained to me this was merely the result of painstaking analysis.

"We think that that looked like the best option for them to be able to retain the expertise they need," said Singer.

By giving four city-owned golf courses — Fleming, Harding, Sharp, and Lincoln — over to a nonprofit corporation, San Francisco could "reduce bureaucratic red tape as it implemented sound business principles," the report said.

The report recommends that the nonprofit corporation pay $1 for the golf courses, either for a 30-year lease, or to own the courses outright. Deeding city property to a private entity would require a vote of the people, Parks commissioner and attorney Jim Lazarus informs me.

The private corporation would in turn lease the courses to a concessionaire, causing them to be much better managed than they are under city government, and thus better to "concentrate on, and quickly address, the needs of the golfing public."

Here's my analysis: What we really need are public officials who concentrate on and address the needs of the public at large, not of the golf industry. We need to end the political career of a mayor who's out catting around while schemers ravish our city.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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