SAN FRANCISCO
12/12/2012 04:40 pm ET

San Francisco Parks: Supervisor Wants To Put More Transparency In Privatization

In recent years, there's been a growing outcry among some San Francisco residents about the expanding number of private events being held in the city's public parks.

Enter Supervisor John Avalos, who is now taking steps to potentially put a curb on this practice.

At Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, Avalos introduced a bill that would require the city's Recreation and Parks Department to hold a public informational hearing for any event that occupies more than 25 percent of a given park and runs for longer than 48 hours.

"It is my hope that this ordinance would help the Rec and Park Department's outreach effort around these large-scale events, increase transparency and promote public trust in the department's work," Avalos told the San Francisco Examiner.

Under the proposed system, the ultimate decision over whether to approve the permit would still be entirely left up to the Parks Department. However, holding these hearings would give members of the public a chance to voice their opinions.

With most of these decisions held behind the closed doors of the Parks Department, individual citizens currently don't have the opportunity to evaluate private event proposals and therefore do what San Franciscans do best--complain.

The Examiner notes that these types of private events have been significant revenue generators for the Parks Department, providing $1.9 million last year alone (a figure that doesn't include the $1.25 million that came from Golden Gate Park's Outside Lands Festival). Since Outside Lands takes up less than a quarter of the space in the city's largest public park, it wouldn't trigger a public hearing.

Under the leadership of Parks Department chief Phil Ginsburg, San Francisco has increasingly looked to private money to fund the city's world-class network of public parks in the face of ever-looming budget cuts. The funding model adopted by the department is similar to New York's Central Park, where private funds have yielded over half a billion dollars in the past 30 years.

"I would much rather find creative ways to raise revenue than to have to lay off park gardeners and rec directors," Ginsburg told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009. "We need to become much more entrepreneurial, much more self-sufficient."

This track has drawn a great deal of criticism in recent years, some coming from Avalos himself. In October, the extreme sports-focused, soft-drink sponsored Dew Tour took over virtually all of Civic Center Plaza for the better part of a week. While that largely promotional event was free and completely open to the public, it came on the heels of a number of other private events--not quite so open to the public--that caused the progressive supervisor to grow annoyed at how often the City Hall-adjacent public space had been given over to private use.

"We closed down this park [for the Dew Tour and other events] probably altogether for maybe four weeks in one and a half months...So our park is generally closed off to public access," Avalos told NBC Bay Area, noting that the Dew Tour also had the potential to undo some of the city's public health efforts. "We actually had an event that was a soda-free summer...now we're actually supporting a soda company by doing an agreement with them to put on this event."

Last year, Avalos unsuccessfully pushed to get a measure on the ballot blocking the Recreation & Parks Department from any further private leasing of its public facilities like clubhouses. However, amid concerns that the bill would end up banning small-scale events like birthday parties and weddings, it failed to receive enough support to put the issue before voters.

While events like the Dew Tour and Outside Lands are relatively brief, sometimes private functions can take over a park for significantly longer periods of time. In 2010, the tent housing a technology-heavy production of Peter Pan stood across from the Ferry Building for months during the show's run.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian, which has previously never met a parks bond it didn't like, had enough reservations with the department's fundraising efforts that it made a big show of holding its nose while giving the measure its blessing. The newspaper didn't mince words:

Parks are supposed to be public resources, open to all; instead, the department has begun charging fees for what used to be free, has been turning public facilities over to private interests (at times kicking the public out), and has generally looked at the commons as a source of revenue. It's a horrible precedent. It makes us sick.

Avalos's legislation is expected to be assigned to a Board of Supervisors committee sometime early next year and then receive a vote before the full board after that.

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