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Friday, May 13, 2011

Will Stow Lake Affair Sink City Attorney?

Posted By on Fri, May 13, 2011 at 11:30 AM

click to enlarge Is the S.S. Dennis Herrera taking on water?
  • Is the S.S. Dennis Herrera taking on water?

Will the city attorney's office be kicked overboard as the latest casualty in the ongoing Stow Lake controversy? The answer may come as soon as next week.

The lake's concessions have been run by the McClellan family for generations. Bruce McClellan sued the city in March, however, after he lost his bid to continue running the family business to the Ortega family, which runs concessions in a number of parks nationwide. Backed by a trove of e-mails, McClellan claims city officials and the Ortegas sealed the deal well before the bidding process, then orchestrated a propaganda campaign to sell the public on the switcheroo. At the center of this alleged conspiracy was lobbyist Alex Tourk -- who was, until this week, City Attorney Dennis Herrera's consultant in his mayoral campaign.

At a Tuesday hearing regarding a potential injunction being placed on the transfer of the concession away from McClellan, his lawyers say the subject of whether Herrera's office is compromised in this case will all but certainly be broached. "It's disturbing to have so many close connections," says attorney Paul Rosenlund. "I think the city would be better advised if someone else handled" this case.

The City Attorney's office, naturally, sees things differently. This case doesn't present a conflict of interest, states Deputy City Attorney Francesca Gessner, because no one in the office is making a dime one way or the other depending on the outcome.

"Our role is to represent the Recreation and Park Department and the Board of Supervisors who awarded the lease," she says. "The legal issue is whether the city [abided by] all applicable bidding laws. Any allegations pertaining to Alex Tourk's lobbying are irrelevant to the legal issues."

click to enlarge Stow Lake is far from placid these days...
  • Stow Lake is far from placid these days...
The allegations regarding Tourk, she continued, are "a political sideshow." This term was used by several officials at the City Attorney's Office; it seems to be the city's preferred nomenclature for l'affaire d'Tourk. 

At the very least, doesn't it look bad that the city attorney's office is now defending the city in a matter where alleged wrongdoing was committed by a man on the city attorney's payroll? Do you need an expert to tell you the answer? Here's one.

"That sure doesn't look good!" says Carol Langford, an adjunct law professor at USF who specializes in legal ethics. Herrera's "going to say 'this is a big office and my deputies are on this -- and they don't give a shit about my campaign. I wasn't personally on the case.' I can see how he could say that. However, to me, it looks bad -- although there's no proof [the connection between Tourk and Herrera] somehow affected the case."

Fellow legal ethicists didn't see it the same way, however. Richard Zitrin said Herrera and his office are in the clear -- and would be even if Tourk hadn't quit Herrera's campaign earlier this week. "The job of the city attorney is to represent the city and the city has been sued. The fact Tourk is a figure who could be a witness doesn't mean the city can't be represented by its city attorney," he says. "It's not feasible to farm out cases because of a conflict of interest every time there's somebody known to the city attorney mentioned in a case."

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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