letter to the editor

Letter to the Editor: SF’s Shady Pay-to-Play Politics


I’m not saying that Mark Buell, President of the Recreation and Park Commission, is getting paid by SkyStar, LLC of St. Louis, MO, but how do we know he’s not?  SkyStar doesn’t have to reveal how much money it pays out or to whom.  It’s a limited liability company and its contractual arrangements are private.  There is, in fact, no written contract between SkyStar and the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (RPD). When RPD gave the Wheel a choice location in the Music Concourse, rent free for a year, there was not even a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in place.

How and by whom, exactly, was the determination made to contract with SkyStar to put the Observation Wheel in Golden Gate Park?  Who determined the ticket price and who decided that the initial split for full price adult tickets would be $17 to SkyStar and $1 to the non-profit San Francisco Parks Alliance with zero dollars going to the City?  Was there any consideration of SkyStar paying rent to the City for operating three different concessions (food and drink, souvenirs, and the Wheel) in a premier public space?   

There is, to say the least, a lack of transparency in the contractual arrangements between SkyStar LLC, the Rec and Park Commission, RPD, and the non-profit SF Parks Alliance. On  March 3rd, 2021, the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) held a hearing on whether or not to extend the Wheel’s stay in Golden Gate Park to five years from the original one-year term.  Mark Buell had read into the record his strong support for the four-year extension for the SkyStar Wheel.

Phil Ginsburg, the General Manager of the RPD, was the person most responsible for bringing the SkyStar Wheel to the Music Concourse.  I’m not saying Ginsburg is getting kickbacks from SkyStar, but how do we know he is not? According to the Budget and Legislative Analyst report: “The vendor was selected on a sole source basis for a one-year term because competitive bidding was considered impractical and/or impossible by RPD due to the limited time between deciding to include an observation wheel (in July 2019) and a community event date in April 2020…”

This shows a lack of planning and a disregard for the public interest. We did not need a ferris wheel to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of Golden Gate Park. We have now been stuck with the SkyStar Wheel for five years for the benefit of an out-of-town vendor. 

At the San Francisco Government Oversight and Audit Committee hearing, held on November 18, 2021, the Budget and Legislative Analyst (BLA) was asked to report on the relationship between San Francisco Parks Alliance and the RPD. The conclusion: “Adequate controls against the possibility of corruption and financial transparency were found lacking in our review of key agreements between the two organizations from recent years.”

At the hearing, Supervisor Connie Chan asked the BLA if they had asked RPD why they capped their revised agreement with the Observation Wheel company at $900,000 (total share of ticket and concession stand sales). RPD told the BLA that it was because, if the contract was for over $1M, then RPD would have to get approval from the Board of Supervisors (BOS).  So, apparently, RPD gave up funding that would have benefited our parks in order to avoid having the BOS review a RPD (non-competitive bid) contract.

San Francisco has gone to the dark side.  Mohammed Nuru, former head of the San Francisco Public Works Department, lost his job for his part in a bribery and corruption scandal.  According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Nuru was arrested and charged by federal officials last year for an alleged attempt to bribe a San Francisco airport commissioner, in a probe that lifted the curtain on the city’s sprawling pay-to-play and corruption scheme. Eleven defendants have been charged to date, including multiple department heads, contractors and business executives. In a separate but related investigation, officials with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office found that Recology had overcharged city ratepayers $94.5 million over the past four years by failing to account for revenue it would already receive. A settlement announced last month will require the waste company to reimburse its customers and pay a $7 million penalty to the city.”  (S.F. corruption scandal: Another Recology exec faces charges of bribing Mohammed Nuru by Megan Cassidy, April 15, 2021)

Today we are reaping what was sown when Gavin Newsom became mayor. Newsom appointed Mark Buell to run the Rec and Park Commission and Phil Ginsburg to head the RPD. Their mandate was to privatize the commons and turn our public spaces into money-making enterprises. They call this a “public/private partnership” but it is, in fact, a giveaway of public space.  Mayor Ed Lee, appointed by Mayor Newsom when he resigned to run for governor, was able to facilitate all their schemes and more; from putting artificial turf in the Beach Chalet Soccer Fields to turning the Arboretum into a “plant museum” and banquet facility for the rich, to Outside Lands, to hosting the America’s Cup and the Super Bowl party, none of which benefits the citizens of San Francisco.  My wife and I were taking the 5 Fulton outbound, going home, when the driver told everyone we had to get off at 6th Ave.  She had been instructed to turn the bus around and pick up people going to the Super Bowl party downtown.  So we were put off the bus; the elderly, disabled, youth, and people just trying to get home.  We waited for over an hour before another bus came. Thanks Ed.

How much did the America’s Cup cost us?  “San Francisco’s red ink from the 34th America’s Cup doubled Monday, with updated figures showing the city lost $11.5 million hosting the event.”  (San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 11, 2014.)  Another party for the rich with San Francisco taxpayers picking up the tab.   

After Ed Lee, we got London Breed, the hand-picked candidate of Ron Conway, venture capitalist, self-appointed power broker and political fixer at City Hall.  It was Conway who sponsored Breed’s run for Supervisor.  “He donated nearly $600,000 to San Francisco races in 2012…” (Ron Conway says he’s too busy to get involved in SF’s mayor race; Trisha Thadani, Rachel Swan, San Francisco Chronicle, March 3, 2018.)   Breed, Ed Lee’s anointed successor, has continued the Newsom legacy in her support for the SkyStar Wheel.  

The Government Oversight and Audit Committee has unanimously voted to subpoena financial records of the transactions between RPD and the SF Parks Alliance.  In the words of Supervisor Chan, ” … I have identified that the sub-account practice is not appropriate and problematic …” so we have yet to see what sub-accounts for RPD may exist.  It was the sub-accounts for the Department of Public Works at SF Parks Alliance, uncovered by the FBI, that helped bring down Public Works Director Nuru.  However it turns out, I think we can all agree that, at the least, more transparency is needed when a City department contracts with an outside vendor and a private non-profit gets reimbursed for it’s costs as part of the deal.

David Romano

3 replies »

  1. Why is this a big deal, when we’ve got an excellent DA that will surely investigate and prosecute? Oh, wait . . .


  2. Thank you, Connie Chan for your persistence on this issue. Thank you, David Romano for the excellent article.


  3. Buell is also top dog in the Presidio Trust . This means that he along with Ginsburg and a small group of power brokers essentially controls all Open Space in the City .


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