The drama! A wealthy San Francisco nonprofit that helps support the city's Rec and Parks Department is having none of Richmond District Supervisor Connie Chan's insinuations. And in a letter this week following that whole ridiculous Ferris wheel ordeal, they're telling Chan she'd better take back some recent comments or else the money they were going to provide to pay for a playground in her district may just disappear.
If you've never heard of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, or you hadn't until a week or two ago, you're surely not alone. But in the world of SF society and politics, it's a long established "Friends of..." organization, one of dozens that raise money and bankroll projects and improvements that are outside the scope of city departments' budgets. The Alliance was formed in 2011 out of two previous organizations, the Neighborhood Parks Council and San Francisco Parks Trust — the latter of which was founded in 1971 with a seed grant by local billionaire developer and philanthropist Walter Shorenstein, and it was originally called Friends of Recreation and Parks.
Every year, except for 2020 of course, the Party for the Parks fundraiser in Civic Center is one of those society events that kick off "the season," along with galas for the ballet, opera, and symphony.
In 2020, the Parks Alliance was named in a federal complaint regarding the alleged financial misdeeds of former Public Works director Mohammed Nuru — in addition to Rec and Parks, the Parks Alliance also supports other city departments, including DPW. The nonprofit has not been charged with any crime, but according to federal prosecutors, Nuru used the Parks Alliance to funnel alleged bribes to his department, in the form of donations from city contractors — and the details get kind of dopey insofar as what the money was allegedly used for, basically holiday-themed t-shirts for staff and DPW merch, among other things. A City Controller's report from last fall details some of this, and the dozens of other organizations with similar relationships to city departments, making recommendations for how protocols could be strengthened to avoid "pay-to-play risk."
Fast-forward to 2021, and Rec and Parks and the Historic Preservation Commission act to extend the contract for the Ferris wheel in Golden Gate Park — installed with the help of the Parks Alliance last spring for the 150th anniversary celebrations for the park. A new four-year agreement is approved by the Rec and Park Commission and Historic Preservation, and they believe this is within their purview as it's a temporary amusement ride.
Enter Supervisor Aaron Peskin and newly elected D1 Supervisor Connie Chan, who take some pushback from some neighbors and environmentalists and spin this thing into a major kerfuffle about "good governance."
Peskin goes to the City Charter and tries to argue that a five-year installation like this wheel should require full Board of Supervisors approval — though the language in the charter suggests that is only needed for more permanent structures. And he draws in questions about an agreement between the wheel operator and the Parks Alliance, in which the Alliance will receive one dollar of every ticket sold up to $200,000 in order to recoup costs associated with the aborted anniversary celebrations. At Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, Chan said that she could find no evidence of an actual contract, and Peskin made comments like, "This whole thing is funky from top to bottom," besmirching the Alliance by way of the allegations in the federal corruption investigation.
And Chan has said she wants to hold a hearing about the Parks Alliance and its agreement with SkyStar, the Ferris wheel operator. As she said when the controversy for arose, "This goes beyond the Ferris wheel now, it is about good and clean government."
So now that we're caught up, as the Chronicle reports, Chan received a terse letter this week from Parks Alliance CEO Drew Becher, threatening to pull $2 million in funding that the Alliance was providing for the Richmond Playground — a renovation project at 18th Avenue and Lake Street estimated to cost around $3 million.
"Given our history of good works on behalf of this city, we would have hoped that a San Francisco Supervisor would reach out to us first before blindsiding us with false accusations and calumnies," Becher writes. "We have done nothing wrong, and are therefore confident that we will come out with a clean bill of health following any city investigation."
Becher also says that the Alliance "wholeheartedly supports your call for increased transparency and accountability into city funding." He contends "We have always followed city procedures around public-private partnerships," and he adds, "contrary to your statements, San Francisco Parks Alliance has not been accused of any wrongdoing."
Per the Chronicle, Chan responded with a statement saying, "I will shortly call for a public hearing on Parks Alliance’s involvement for Golden Gate Park 150th anniversary as well as your other fundraising activities and spending accounts in partnership with [the] SF Recreation and Park Department."
Becher tells the Chronicle that Chan "can't have it both ways," and if she doesn't retract her allegations about the Alliance, funding for the Richmond Playground project will be withheld.
SF politics, everybody! We're back to business (almost) as usual!