Ceci n’est pas une ferris wheel — wherein San Francisco is distracted by a literal shiny object

So the ferris wheel. The Golden Gate Park Ferris Wheel. The goddamn ferris wheel, Golden Gate Park.

A city where so much time and energy is expended in the midst of a human and fiscal calamity and the backdrop for a ride in a park is chewed on seems to have exceeded the limits of self-parody.

That sounds normal to San Francisco.

But then Drew Becher wrote a letter to Supervisor Connie Chan on Thursday. And just like that, we crossed the boundaries of boundaries.

Punishing voters to seek political vengeance or to seek allegiance from a political leader is nothing new. But you shouldn’t do it in writing. Or confirm to the newspaper when prompted.

But that’s exactly what happened.

“We have always enjoyed the district manager’s partnership in investing in playgrounds and open spaces in our city and, above all, have relied on it. Without this guidance and support, our endeavors would be far more challenging, ”wrote Becher, executive director of the San Francisco Parks Alliance, a non-profit organization that raises funds for projects in the leisure and parks department, among other things.

Chan, who represents the Richmond borough, has called for a review and investigation of the nonprofit organization – and, controversial, given an extension of – after the (sighing) ferris wheel of l’affaire, a 150-foot diesel-powered concession in the middle of Golden Gate Park four years earlier this month as a result of Covid inactivity.

Regardless of what you think of the $ 18 per capita price of a private company on public property or its gas combustion generator, or the aesthetic desires of confused white men who have been dead for nearly a century, there are good reasons to put this ferris wheel in to see a moody, starved city as something more than a little moody.

And that’s because the Parks Alliance – and interestingly not the city – draws money from the “SkyStar” deal. Yes, the same Parks Alliance that served as the repository for nearly $ 1 million in Mohammed Nuru Recology Slush fund money.

So there are relevant questions about this setup, which should now run in the middle of the decade.

But not if you want a children’s playground in your district to be renovated.

“Please confirm in writing whether we should continue to support the Richmond Playground,” wrote Becher to Chan. “If we don’t hear from you, we will assume that we no longer have your support and will stop working until your concerns are completely resolved.”

You have a nice playground here. It’s a shame if something happened.

San Francisco is again an unsubtle and often parodic place. But Becher seems to be setting new standards here: In paragraph two of his letter to Chan, he complains of allegations of the “pay-to-play policy”; In paragraph 4, he informs the elected supervisor that the Richmond District children will not be allowed a playground without their written request.

This is a SkyStar-sized chutzpah level.

The Firth Wheel at the 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Let’s say that driving Ferris wheels is fun.

The popular formulation of arguments regarding the ferris wheel in the park has been a simple battle between “fun” and “not fun” – a reductive construction similar to claiming that Animal Farm is a treatise on animals and agriculture.

There are of course people who have visceral reactions to “funny” installations in the faux-pastoral surroundings of Golden Gate Park. While the master plan for Golden Gate Park is reportedly still in line with William Hammond Hall’s vision, the first strict adherence to his wishes by the park’s first superintendent would shut off the activities that draw about 19 out of 20 visitors to the park.

Hall would not have loved a Ferris wheel. But he wouldn’t have been enthusiastic about ball fields or music festivals either. Former Park Board President William Stow once argued that a museum “doesn’t belong in a park”. Millions of subsequent park visitors would tell him he was wrong, as would the man he argued with at the time – MH de Young.

The Golden Gate Park is a completely artificial creation. It is a replacement landscape on the east coast that has been carefully grafted onto a series of sand dunes on the west coast. And in the past there were many wild attractions here: a racetrack, a hall with taxidermied former park creatures and even a casino.

So it’s easy not to care what Hall or Stow or John McLaren or anyone else would have wanted for Golden Gate Park and still have concerns about this Ferris wheel.

And that’s because of the aforementioned deal that underpins this agreement.

Wealthy people have long donated money to parks as long as there are wealthy people and parks.

Doug Goldman’s family has run the Stern Grove Festival for generations and was the primary beneficiary of the recently completed tennis center with his family name in Golden Gate Park. However, this is a very traditional form of philanthropy. Goldman doesn’t make money for every concert goer standing under a tree or a tennis game.

But that’s the setup with the Parks Alliance and the Ferris wheel. And the bigger problem here is: money that could have flowed into the city is now flowing into this private entity.

It is unusual for a city council to enter into a contract where a for-profit corporation sets up a for-profit business on city land and the money goes to a third party rather than the city council that issues the permits. And this raises interesting questions about control and cash flow: As the controller’s office put it in an audit by the Parks Alliance in September after the Nuru scandal, funds in non-profit “friends of” organizations work like a city account without a city watchdog. ”

As such, by contracting a nonprofit organization in lieu of the city itself, a city government can bypass all sorts of oversight and restrictions that the city imposes on itself – such as paying current wages or not doing business with restricted entities.

A private outfit can also spend money in a way that a public outfit cannot. For example, if the Parks Alliance wanted to have a party for large private donors for Rec and Park, that wouldn’t be a problem. The alliance’s 2018 tax forms indicate that approximately $ 263,000 was spent on “food and drink.” Well this is a party that rivals Nuru’s best!

And if, for example, the Parks Alliance previously made non-refundable deposits or other costs were incurred due to the failed celebrations for the great 1-5-0 of Golden Gate Park: Well, now it has a year-long source of income.

After all, the notion that the Parks Alliance can do business and spend money like the city can’t is especially troublesome when you consider that, as Rec and Park Department business partners told us, they were unsubstitutedly encouraged by Rec to to donate to the Parks Alliance and park staff up to and including director Phil Ginsburg.

Our direct question to the department was answered indirectly: “We encourage the collection of donations for our projects such as the playground campaign.”

Without doubt. But that’s not the nature of what we’ve been told: the prospective business partners said they would rely on making large donations to the Parks Alliance – donations that are not included in any contract.

Asking companies in front of you to donate to your nonprofit sounds a bit like what Nuru has been accused of.

It also sounds a bit like an offer that cannot be refused.

“What should I do?” asked an injured potential partner. “My sphincter was tight.”

The offer was not refused.

The attempt by Supervisor Connie Chan and Aaron Peskin to break the wheel at the Board of Supervisors level involved a rather Talmudic analysis of what constitutes “temporary”, “structure” and “temporary structure”.

This attempt was unsuccessful. And, you know, not every solution to every problem should involve the board of directors voting on more things – nor thinking about the catacombs of the City Charter to uncover semantic relics.

But it is also hardly a solution to reductively break down every urban dispute into Manichean extremes (“fun!” “Not fun!”). After years of burgeoning corruption scandal, it is hardly a solution to shake off so many red flags and simply notice that Ferris wheels are fun.

Five San Francisco division chiefs were evicted during the year and have been changing since Nuru’s arrest. The revelations have exposed this city’s club culture of occasional corruption – and it has not been lost on anyone that it was the government that got the ball rolling.

Are the Franciscans exposed to corruption? Maybe. But maybe we were just distracted by another shiny object.

And perhaps those who chose to view the Ferris wheel only as an object of culture war did not experience the consequences of corruption in the city.

Certainly not the bad consequences.


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