From cabin to castle

Fuzzy math raises concerns about Camp Mather and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department

San Franciscans love Camp Mather just the way it is, if its popularity is any indicator. They love the stuffy dining hall, the rustic wooden cabins, murky Birch Lake, and the basic layout of a camp established in the 1920s for the workers who built the nearby Hetch Hetchy dam.

Families are eagerly awaiting the reservation notices being mailed out this week by the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department telling them if and when they'll be spending seven days there this summer. But the Friends of Camp Mather have been less than pleased with other news about their favorite vacation spot.

Persistent fears that Rec and Park intends to privatize the camp — which started in 2003 when the department asked for a study on the subject — led to a Board of Supervisors resolution in January declaring that the city "opposes working with private sector property developers on any plans for Camp Mather in the future."

Rec and Park head Yomi Agunbiade told the supervisors the department "has no plans to sell or contract the camp at this point" and "there is no proposal to fully privatize Camp Mather now." Such qualifiers were hardly comforting to the Friends of Camp Mather, who have been having a hard time getting straight answers from the department about its current financial situation and its plans for the future.

We now understand their frustration. Last month the Guardian made a Sunshine Ordinance request of the department to get documents that break down the $20 million figure Rec and Park has been using publicly to quantify the current capital needs at Camp Mather.

In our back-and-forth with department spokesperson Rose Dennis, we learned the department is now estimating that Camp Mather needs closer to $36 million. And she told us that "if we don't get this money, we will have to shut it down, and then the kids won't have a place to go."

Yet the department is unable to provide a basic account for its claimed capital needs, except for a database filled with numbers for which there appears to be little support. Many of these numbers seem wildly inflated and are contradicted by other Rec and Park documents.

It's unclear exactly what's going on here. Maybe the big numbers are scare tactics or inflations designed to push the $150 million general-obligation bond that the department hopes to send to voters next year. (In the bond, Rec and Park claims to need a staggering $1.7 billion.) Or maybe, as Dennis said, they are "preliminary numbers" that are likely to be pared back and shouldn't have been made public in the first place.

But whatever the case, it's understandable that some Camp Mather regulars are freaking out and fearing their favorite vacation spot is in jeopardy. And this whole episode raises questions about what's going on at Rec and Park.

It should have been a simple request to have a public agency break down the millions of dollars it says it needs. But that didn't prove to be the case either for us or for the Friends of Camp Mather, despite city laws that require full disclosure of all public documents, whether the agency wants to oblige or not.

"At this time we have not wanted to provide detailed information on each property, but we have provided the 'overview' information (tab 1) to the Friends of Mather as per their request (which may have led to the questions). The Comet data is being reviewed right now and is not finalized," Rec and Park planner Karen Mauney-Brodek wrote in a March 8 e-mail to Dennis, which we obtained with our Sunshine request.