41st Anniversary Special: Wrecked park

Chronic underfunding has made the Recreation and Park Department a prime privatization target
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The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department has a long history of maintaining parks, community centers, and other recreational offerings. In fact, it controls more land in the city than any other entity, public or private. But after seeing its budget repeatedly slashed during lean fiscal years, the underfunded department has become a prime target for some controversial privatization schemes.

There are ongoing efforts to privatize city golf courses, supported by Mayor Gavin Newsom and Rec and Park general manager Yomi Agunbiade (see "Bilking the Links," page 22). And there are ongoing fears that the city intends to privatize its popular Camp Mather vacation spot, something the RPD studied a few years ago and Sup. Jake McGoldrick has fought and highlighted.

Rec and Park has identified $37 million in needs at Camp Mather — the product of a private study the agency has been unable to fully explain to the public (see "From Cabin to Castle," 4/4/07) — but left Camp Mather off a big bond measure planned for February 2008.

"They say $37 million you need up here, and how much you got in there for the ballot measure? Zip, zero," McGoldrick told the Guardian. "It's a familiar pattern: you underfund the hell out of something, and then you turn around and say, 'We, the public sector, cannot handle taking care of this.'<0x2009>"

Rec and Park spokesperson Rose Dennis denies there are plans to privatize Camp Mather or that its omission from the bond measure is telling. "Many people disagreed — including you — with the funding needs and whether we could back it up," she explained as the reason for its omission from the bond measure.

In his Oct. 1 endorsement interview with the Guardian, Newsom said, "We actually made some commitments just this last week with Sup. McGoldrick to help support his efforts, because he's very protective of Camp Mather, and I appreciate his leadership on this, to help resource some of the needs up there without privatizing, without moving in accordance with your fears."

And while Newsom said he hoped to avoiding privatizing Camp Mather, he refused to say he wouldn't: "I'm not suggesting it's off the table, because I'm not necessarily sure that the conditions that exist today will be conditions that exist tomorrow, and I will always be open to argument."

But at least the Camp Mather and golf arguments have been happening mostly in public. That's what voters intended in 1983 when they passed Proposition J, which requires public hearings, a staff study, and a vote by the Board of Supervisors before city services can be privatized. Yet over the past couple of years, there's been an effort to quietly shift operations at a half-dozen rec centers away from city programs and toward private nonprofits.

It's called Rec Connect. Its supporters bill it as an innovative effort to bring much-needed recreation programs to underserved, low-income neighborhoods. "This is a pilot program to see if a collaboration between a community-based organization and a rec center yields a richer program and a more engaged community," said Margaret Brodkin, director of the Department of Children, Youth and Their Families, which created the program and oversees that and other uses of the city's Children's Fund.

But to members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 — which includes most city employees and has filed grievances challenging Rec Connect — the program is a sneaky attempt to have underpaid, privately funded workers take over services that should be provided by city employees, who are better paid, unionized, and accountable to the public.

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