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The Money Went Fore What? 

As parks funds were moved -- behind the scenes -- to a golf tournament, Gavin Newsom was out front seeking the spotlight. It's what he does best.

Wednesday, Oct 26 2005
In San Francisco, bureaucrats under the mayor's control took $13 million from a state fund earmarked to preserve "safe neighborhood parks, clean water, clean air, and coastal protection," $5 million of which was to be used for "high priority, urgent, unmet needs, in the most heavily populated and most economically disadvantaged areas," and instead used the money to pay for a PGA golf tournament, in the name of earning profits for the city.

Facilities the state fund was intended to pay for -- such as playgrounds, recreation centers, and local parks -- languish in filth and disrepair. Neither the PGA nor the city could point to an economic impact study showing a net benefit to San Francisco as a result of the golf tournament.

Three weeks after the event, neither the city nor the PGA could say whether the tournament itself made any profit -- an important point, given S.F. city government was supposed to receive half of all net tournament revenues.

Environmental groups that backed a 2000 state ballot initiative creating the parks fund complained that the money had been misused. So did local parks advocates.

Last week, I spoke with Rose Dennis, assistant to the managing director of the city's Recreation & Park Department, about the aforementioned complaints regarding misused tax dollars and the Oct. 4-9 World Golf Championship at Harding Park.

"My background is working with kids and open space, more so than the advocates. I've picked kids up from a wheelchair and wiped the shit off their ass. Having been there and been down that path, I don't think [the complaints are] true. I'll be working this week at the Yerba Buena Gardens Family Festival. I don't suppose your paper is covering that, is it? What did you say your name was? Brad?" Dennis said. "From a civic standpoint, the thing was a huge success."

At any other place or time, this situation, combined with Dennis' peculiar line of defense, would seem sufficient for a negative media storm. Not in San Francisco.

The San Francisco Chronicle, along with local television stations, earlier this month heaped praise on the city's handling of the PGA tournament, with the Chron devoting the top of its front page to declaring the event a civic triumph.

This juxtaposed government mismanagement and adulatory press coverage associated with the PGA event appears to be merely a recent example of how the warm and forgiving media glow surrounding our mayor seems to envelop everything under Gavin Newsom's command.

City departments, programs, and political deals under the mayor's purview spawn debacles, fall into chaos, blow up into controversy, slide into decay, or fail in other ways, yet local, state, and national media cover San Francisco as if it were a well-oiled version of Camelot.

It's no accident. There's method acting behind this madness.

The city two years ago elected a government leader with absolutely no interest in politics or policy. Yet Mayor Gavin Newsom is a savant at maintaining a celebrity image and earning the fond media coverage that goes along with it.

While the mayor has allowed problems, such as the PGA-parks fund diversion scheme, to play out without paying significant attention, Newsom has applied frenetic energy and thought to his status as a famous man. The result seems to be a looking-glass world, where the worse things get in city government, the higher the mayor's public stature seems to become. This is a great accomplishment, one that has required a certain type of hard work.

To wit: Our mayor seemed to drop everything Oct. 19 to rush to Pier 7, where police believe a woman drowned her three children. He told reporters, "I'm sick to my stomach," then left. The mayor's crime-scene stunt paid off: Newsom's quote traveled worldwide as part of a made-for-tabloid-TV mom-drowns-kids yarn.

Beyond such periodic Gavin Newsom media stunts there exists a continuous stream of People magazine-style items in local and national media involving the mayor's personal life. They're so frequent and inconsequential as to seem prosaic. But the fact is, they're weird when you consider they're not about an image-managed Hollywood actress, but a midsize city mayor. One column in last week's San Francisco Examiner, for example, claimed the mayor's erstwhile wife slept at his house recently. Chronicle columnists reported last week on an argument Newsom's former wife allegedly had at a party, as if it were news. We see items like this in the local press every week.

They're pitched to reporters for a reason: For a celebrity, such as Paris Hilton, say, or Gavin Newsom, success and failure are gauged in units of pure attention.

Gavin Newsom has been preparing for the role of celebrity political lightweight all his life.

Growing up, Newsom insinuated himself into the status of an informally adopted scion of the famous Getty family, a clan keenly attuned to the demands of the public eye. His work life prior to politics consisted of putting a marketing burnish on Getty-funded business projects, which included some restaurants and a wine store. When Willie Brown appointed Newsom supervisor in 1996, he became known as the politician who never read legislation crossing his desk, who was unable to and uninterested in cutting deals with his colleagues, and who wrote and passed very little significant legislation. However, Newsom was better than any of his peers at chumming around, off the record, with news reporters. And he looked exquisite on TV in a suit and hair gel.

When the local Democratic Party establishment selected Newsom as its 2003 mayoral candidate, he carried with him this psychological mix of media acuity and political and policy obliviousness. Newsom became known for quickly and adroitly evaluating the effectiveness of, say, campaign TV spots, yet being weirdly clumsy at negotiating the myriad deals with potential backers and opponents required to launch an important political candidacy.

As mayor, Newsom has carried this dichotomy to an extreme.

In our Police Department, rank-and-file officers are in near revolt over what they see as a Mayor's Office that considers Newsom's political needs as management concern No. 1. However, public-safety news stories involving the mayor seem to mostly describe how the city's chief executive personally rushed to one crime scene or another to talk to television reporters.

Our transit system -- run by an interim chief with minimal relevant experience -- is in a financial death spiral, as service cuts lead to reduced ridership, and the resulting reduced income from fares leads to budget shortfalls, which lead to more service cuts and still fewer riders.

Yet our mayor retains a media reputation, crafted during his election campaign, as a transit-policy wonk.

Gavin Newsom has failed in every way to alleviate the city's housing shortage, declining for two years to appoint a planning director, and blocking efforts to plan for denser apartment buildings along transit corridors. He got elected two years ago on polling-and-focus-group-fashioned rhetoric describing plans to alleviate homelessness. The ensuing programs have produced the meagerest of mixed results.

Last week Gavin Newsom earned flattering headlines, however, by naming his strategy "Housing First."

Then there are the city's parks, the subject of an excellent Chronicle series three years ago -- that's to say, before Newsom entered office -- that described how our exquisite network of parklands and recreation facilities has fallen into weedy, filthy, dog-turd-covered decay. Three years of budget slashing have, by all accounts, made the situation worse.

Diverting millions of dollars aimed at parks improvements, in order to prepare for a PGA tournament, can only make matters filthier, weedier, and more broken-down still, critics say.

The Park Department has sought to counter objections to this PGA-first policy by establishing a scheme to pay back the $13 million from the "safe neighborhood parks, clean water, clean air, and coastal protection bond," including the money earmarked for "high priority, urgent, unmet needs, in the most heavily populated and most economically disadvantaged areas," into a so-called Park Department "open space fund" over 25 years, with the help of tournament and greens fees. The repayment scheme becomes a farce, however, when one notes it's based on a variable interest rate starting this year at an astonishingly low 2 percent, according to the department's director of finance and administration. That's 4.75 percent less than the current prime rate.

The city's golf courses currently lose money, meaning the fanciful open-space-fund payback scheme draws from money shifted from exactly the sort of potential park improvements that were raided to pay for the golf tournament.

So neighborhood park facilities will be neglected for decades to pay for a PGA loan subsidy worth many millions of dollars.

Not to worry.

Gavin Newsom, along with the celebrity media he works hard to serve, is hot on the case.

"Mayor Gavin Newsom and his ex-wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle Newsom, were spotted following [Tiger] Woods for much of his round, the mayor in dress pants and a blue, buttoned-down shirt, the Court TV correspondent in low-slung jeans, a short-sleeve jersey and high heels," wrote Chronicle staffers Ron Kroichick and Gwen Knapp in an Oct. 10 dispatch on the tournament. "They walked in a group, rather than strictly as a couple, and didn't appear to be any more intimate than [golfer John] Daly and Woods."

Stay tuned for more news at 11.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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