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Saturday, October 23, 2021

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News + PoliticsThe lessons of the Ferris Wheel

The lessons of the Ferris Wheel

Does SF need to overhaul its City Charter to create better departmental oversight -- and limit the potential for corruption?


The Board of Supes, after a pretty weird discussion, failed today to block a five-year contract for the Golden Gate Park Ferris Wheel – or maybe they didn’t.

Everyone on the board seemed to agree that this is not the most important topic at a time when the city is still under COVID lockdown, people are dying, homelessness is growing, and kids aren’t back in school.

And some, like Sup. Hillary Ronen, said that in these bleak times, something that offers fun for kids is important. (I agree – my kids are off at college, but if they were still young, that ride would be a godsend, a diversion. You can only take so many hikes and bike trips to the park before they get bored.)

Does this debate show the need for City Charter reform?

But there are a couple of larger issues at hand – and one complicated bit of city law.

Sup. Connie Chan said she hadn’t even seen a final contract for the deal, between the Recreation and Parks Department and a private company based in St. Louis.

Sup. Aaron Peskin said the company running the wheel was owned by family of the Koch Brothers, who clearly don’t need any money from San Francisco. And the first at least $200,000 of the revenue the city will get goes to a private nonprofit linked to the ongoing corruption investigations.

(UPDATE: Nick Gass, who works for Koch Industries, sent me the following: “To be clear, there is no familial relationship between the family that owns Koch Development (and thus SkyStar) and the family that owns Koch Industries (my employer).”)

“The contract does not exist,” Chan said. “It’s just a series of permits.” She noted that “corrupt government hurts all of us.”

Peskin: “This whole thing is funky from top to bottom.”

Yes, it is, and the Rec-Park director loves to find ways to monetize (that is, privatize) the parks. This is a $25 ride (with some free tickets to low-income kids); Sup. Shamann Walton said that a public attraction in a public park “should be free.”

There’s no question that the City Charter says the supervisors need to approve, by a two-thirds vote, any new “structure” in Golden Gate Park. But the City Attorney’s Office is arguing that the wheel is only temporary – albeit for five years – and so doesn’t count as a new “structure.”

(Weird role for the city attorney – the office represents Rec-Park, which says the wheel isn’t a structure, and some of the supes, who say it is. And the City Attorney’s Office isn’t the state Supreme Court, and its advice is only that – advice.)

Peskin argued that the wheel has a big concrete base that will not be taken away when the ride leaves, and that’s clearly a “structure.”

The only time I can find that anyone actually defined “structure” was in 2005, when the Planning Commission weighed on landmarks in the GGP concourse.

“Permanent signs,” the commission (no doubt with city attorney advice) determined, were those that would be in place for more than three months. “Temporary” installations were those that included “movable furniture, tents, temporary art installations, and portable performance stages.”

More: Chan noted that by the time this five-year deal is done, the money to the private company will exceed $1 million – and by law, no department can enter into a contract worth more than $1 million without board approval.

Sup. Dean Preston noted that he’s seen examples of city departments trying to find ways to manipulate contracts to avoid board approval. And, he said, Rec-Park could have made a better effort to reach out to Chan – it’s in her district – and agreed to more oversight.

The supes who wanted to support the wheel – and keep if there for four more years – had this possible bind. If they voted against the Chan resolution, which would approve the deal for another year, then Peskin argued they were voting against any authorization of the contract. “If you vote no, and two-thirds of the members don’t approve, then the authority (to allow the wheel) has not been granted,” he said.

The measure went down, 5-6, with Sups. Walton, Chan, Gordon Mar, Peskin, and Preston in favor.

So what happens now? The wheel probably stays where it is, since the city attorney and the mayor are on the side of the installation. (Unless somebody sues, which is highly unlikely and would involve a whole lot of money and effort on all sides).

But the Ferris Wheel has created an important debate that needs to continue, and probably will require a new look at the City Charter (long overdue anyway). Right now, the Mayor’s Office has far more authority than the district-elected supervisors, and departments under the mayor can approve contracts without adequate public oversight.

Maybe the next step is a Charter Reform working group and a hard look at accountability, corruption, and who runs the city.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. Here we go again… Gorn attacking those on the BoS that he/she doesn’t approve of, including repeating a claim that I exposed as false. And bizarre and misleading claims about various organizations that provide services. I admit, I am disappointed that Ronen and Haney voted for the four year extension. But his/her suggestion that they oppose charter reform is without merit. Basically, this is a “funky” deal because, if nothing else, Phil Ginsberg is involved. Generally, if he is involved, it is not a good deal. Undeterred him, it should be known a “Wreck the Parks.”

  2. gorn, I do not like Ronen any more than you do but:

    You do not “converge” on someone’s home, peacefully or not, white or non-white. I do not care if that home belongs to a politician on the left or the right. One’s home should be a sanctuary.

    And I am pretty sure you will find that 94110 is not “the most desirable neighborhood in the country”.

  3. mimiklausner: Ronen was able to buy a TIC at the top of the market in the most desirable neighborhood in the country on two civil servant’s salaries. Then, Ronen lectured young people of color fighting police abuse and sicced her political op on them. Then Ronen said that her children felt uncomfortable after those young people of color peacefully converged on her home to petition an elected official to hold to her stated positions which she subsequently abandoned. Now, Ronen votes with the swells to keep our scarce open space privatized by an upscale attraction.

    Her only accomplishment, if it can be called that, is the ever elusive Mental Health SF that Breed has been slow walking for years now even as Prop C psych $ are piling up. Apparently this service is accessed via 911, so that disturbed person going off on the sidewalk at all hours of the night might crowd out someone’s myocardial infarction or burning home. Apparently this service only operates during weekday business hours. The problem here is not a lack of resources.

    We’ve got to name these people for what they are, operatives for a nonprofit sector and labor unions with business interests with the City that use progressive/left branding to get elected. Note the conspicuous exclusion of San Franciscans from the constituencies that count politically.

  4. “Sup. Aaron Peskin said the company running the wheel was owned by family of the Koch Brothers, who clearly don’t need any money from San Francisco.”

    This is untrue (see, for instance, the bottom of this article: https://sfist.com/2021/03/16/board-of-supervisors-approves-ferris-wheel-extension/, and I think the root cause is confusion between Newport’s SkyWheel and SkyStar, neither of which seems to be owned by anyone related to the well-known Koch Brothers). Perhaps Supervisor Peskin should have a clue what he’s talking about before pronouncing something “funky.”

    While we’re noting facts, tickets appear to cost $18 for adults, $12 for kids under 13 and seniors, and while that’s pretty stupidly expensive, it’s not the $25 claimed in this article.

  5. At $25 a pop I doubt that many San Franciscans are going on rides with their families. Seems like something for tourists. Ronen lets us down on this one.

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