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News + PoliticsCity HallSupes clash with parks director over role in private organization's 'threats'

Supes clash with parks director over role in private organization’s ‘threats’

Ginsburg waffles when asked if he knew of and approved a Parks Alliance letter that the supes agreed was 'outrageous' and 'unacceptable.'

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The Board of Supes is not at all happy with the director of the Department of Parks and Recreation.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board considered a normally routine item about spending from a bond act. Since some of that money would go to Rec-Park, the director, Phil Ginsburg, was on hand.

Sup. Connie Chan challenged the Rec-Park director about his role with a private nonprofit.

Sup. Connie Chan took the opportunity to ask him some questions– not just about the bond money but about his role in an effort by the private SF Parks Alliance to threaten Chan with the loss of support for a park in her district.

Chan and Sup. Aaron Peskin had raised questions about the Parks Alliance, its possible role in the municipal corruption scandal, and its support for a Ferris Wheel contract. Then the alliance sent a letter to Chan saying that it would stop fundraising for a park in the Richmond District, which she represents.

Board President Shamann Walton read part of the letter into the record:

Of more immediate import and concern, however, is that we are currently fundraising for the Richmond Playground. We have always enjoyed and, more importantly, relied upon the partnership of the District Supervisor as we invest in playgrounds and open spaces in our city. Without that leadership and support, our efforts would be far more challenging. Please confirm in writing whether or not you would like us to continue supporting the Richmond Playground; if we do not hear from you, we will assume that we no longer have your support and will suspend our work until your concerns have been fully addressed.

That, Walton said, was unacceptable. “That is 100 percent a threat,” he said. “It should not be tolerated.”

He added: “It is our job to ask questions about contracts.”

Chan noted that there were good reasons for her questions about the Parks Alliance and the Ferris Wheel deal, and that the board’s Budget and Legislative Analyst had raised some of the same issues.

So here’s the next question: Did the director of Rec-Park know about this letter in advance — and if he did, was his tacit agreement a sign that he approved the threat?

Chan asked Ginsburg if he knew about the letter before it was sent.

Ginsburg hemmed and hawed and said that the Parks Alliance is a private organization with its own board.

Chan: “Did you know in advance that they were sending the letter?”

Ginsburg paused, then said “I know they were upset. I did not know they sent it until they sent it.”

Chan: “I do not think that is the truth. (Mayor Breed’s Chief of Staff) Sean Elsbernd mentioned that you knew about the letter.”

Peskin interrupted to say: “He’s lying. Phil Ginsburg is lying.”

Chan went back to her questions, this time asking whether the renovation of Portsmouth Square in Chinatown had originally been on the list of parks getting bond money.

Again, he hemmed and hawed, saying that the park “has always been on the high-needs list.”

Chan asked again: Was it on the original list?

Peskin spoke up: “The answer is no.”

Chan: “It was because of Sups. Peskin and Fewer and the Chinatown community that the Portsmouth Square was included.” Ginsburg, she said, had been willing to leave it out in favor of spending in areas where more wealthy white people congregate.

She pointed out that the SF Park system is racist and that people of color and low-income areas have less access to parks and open space.

Peskin tried again: “Did you see the letter that (Parks Alliance Director) Drew Becher sent to Ms. Chan?”

Ginsburg: Long pause.

Then: “The answer is that I was certainly familiar that they were upset and their sentiment.”

Peskin: “I think that you just said yes.”

Ginsburg said that the Parks Alliance was worried that the allegations might hurt the group’s its ability to raise money.

Peskin said that Ginsburg was “deeply involved and inextricably linked to this nonprofit” and the behavior of the organization “is conduct unbecoming. … it is outrageous … the answer is to take responsibility.”

Walton wasn’t buying Ginsburg’s argument, either. He said: “I don’t believe that the Recreation and Parks Department had no role (in the letter). Director Ginsburg, it seems likely that you act on behalf of the Parks Alliance quite often and it’s inappropriate.”

None of this, I suspect, is going to change the ultimate behavior of Ginsburg, who for years has been pushing to privatize and monetize the parks – at the expense of local communities.

That, of course, is the underlying issue here. Ginsburg, the supes said, is all about working with his private partners, who are willing to threaten elected officials if they don’t get their way.

The supes, at a time when the city is coming to a serious reckoning about corruption in nonprofits that are linked to an ongoing and expanding corruption scandal, are calling out the longtime director.

I have, at this moment, seen no indication that any of this behavior bothers Ginsburg’s boss, Mayor London Breed.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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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