Former Sup. Aaron Peskin told that story Monday night at a Commonwealth Club program on privatization. I was on the panel, along with George Wooding and Dennis Antenore. The room was packed; I think we outdrew the secretary of the Navy, who was in the other meeting room.
The point that came out, over and over again, was that privatization – the slow, sometimes subtle takeover of public services and public places by private outfits – is very much alive in San Francisco. And sometimes, it’s kind of quiet and hidden.
Case Study Number One is the Department of Recreation and Parks. Parks are a classic example of a public good, of the “commons,” and Rec-Park is an agency that is supposed to take public money and spend it on services for the public. We all chip in a little in tax money, and we all get to use the parks. That goes back to at least the era of Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot.
But the SF Rec-Parks Department has started to operate as if it were the Port or the Airport – that is, as an “enterprise agency” that has as part of its mission raising enough money from user fees to pay its own way.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi set the standard back in the 1990s, when she and a group of developers and business leaders (including Republicans like Don Fisher, the head of the Gap), decided that the way to protect the Presidio, which should be national park land, was to turn it into a self-funding enterprise. So Congress created an entirely new entity – the Presidio Trust, a board made up of presidential appointees who had complete control over the park’s future, pushing aside the National Park Service, which actually knows how to run parks.
The Trust got a mandate: make the park self-sufficient by 2014. So guess what? We wound up with the real-estate developers on the trust deciding to let George Lucas build a commercial office building in a national park, and there’s talk of a big hotel, and a big museum, and Pelosi loves it all.
But it’s not what a park is supposed to be.
With that precedent, though, the SF Rec-Park Department (facing, of course, declining public funding) decided to create a large real-estate division and start looking for ways to turn the parks in to cash machines. That’s not a joke – Rec-Park officials have actually said, on repeated occasions, that their goal is to find ways to monetize the parks.
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As a result we have the fee to enter the Arboretum, we have rec directors (who made modest salaries) fired and public rec centers leased out to private day-care and school operators who charge $17,000 a year tuition. We have the Fisher kids deciding that they like plastic soccer fields, and the city taking money from the City Fields Foundation to turn the Western edge of the park into a well-lit soccer complex.
So: I’m not against soccer fields. Golden Gate Park is not a wilderness, and should be used. Kids need places to play, and I don’t even know if I hate the lights at night. There’s some controversy about artificial fields, but that’s not the point.
The point is, nobody ever asked the voters, or the supervisors, if we should decide, as a matter of policy, that grass fields should be replaced with artificial turf. That decision was driven by private donors and a city agency desperate for private money.
The donors want their money to go for programs they like, and abstract things like paying for rec directors aren’t attractive. So decisions that are best made in the public sector are instead driven by private needs and desires.
It’s all part of the agenda, driven by the Right, that government should be portrayed as useless and corrupt, and that the public sector can’t do anything right.
Take a look at the Recreation and Open Space element of the city’s General Plan, which is now up for review.
It’s a document that the city has to revise every ten years, and it’s a lot of platitudes, but it’s supposed to guide the use of San Francisco parks until about 2025.
And it has “public-private partnerships” written all over it. For example, here’s Policy 6.3:
“Expand partnerships with … private sector and nonprofit institutions to acquire, develop, and/or manage existing open spaces.”
Got that? Let the private sector manage the parks.
Now: as Antenore pointed out, there are serious problems with giving private companies contracts to run public institutions. In New York, where former Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to privatize as much as he could, contracts that were supposed to run $60 million ballooned to ten times that amount. Companies that saw big money in city deals ripped off the public like no tomorrow.
That tends to happen here, too.
It’s part of a larger issue, one we need to think about. As I pointed out in my talk, privatization is about taking wealth out of a city for private gain. It’s an extractive industry, and assumption that cities exist to be exploited. The opposite approach – that cities exist first and foremost as communities, into which you put time and effort for the public good, has a much better record of success.