Par for the Course

Give away city golf courses? Yet another scheme to take public property and put it into private hands without much oversight.

I know what some of you are thinking: "Cool, San Francisco has a white Marion Barry."

But I urge you to reconsider. To begin with, Gavin Newsom has merely been shown to have slept with a senior staffer's wife, caroused with a teenage tartlett, and appeared in public drunk. He hasn't been caught on tape saying, "The bitch set me up."

There's also a more serious reason for banishing fantasies in which Newsom is the perpetual star of a Girls Gone Wild video. A city run by an absentee mayor is likely to go astray.

That's because, in the same manner that Newsom apparently views his office staff as an inviting collection of asses, there are hordes of connivers out there who see city government as a huge assortment of assets — land, buildings, cash, and other wealth. If left unguarded, it will disappear.

For example: Just as our mayor's personal distractions are possibly reaching a climax, a retired Palo Alto lawyer has been cooking up a scheme to transfer four city golf courses into a private corporation he set up for this purpose.

There are always plotters trying to do this sort of thing. Last week I wrote about a group of airport officials who set up a private corporation that they illegally used as their own $1.5 million slush fund. I should note the mayor did nothing to stop it.

But the new plan is worse because it involves a far greater amount of assets, and because it's lead by Frank "Sandy" Tatum, a man who's already created a financial disaster by luring San Francisco city fathers into an ill-conceived public-private partnership. (Tatum didn't return my call to his office requesting comment.)

Tatum's new scheme, spelled out in a report under consideration by the city's Recreation and Parks Commission, would privatize four of San Francisco's golf courses by deeding or leasing them into a nonprofit corporation Tatum has already set up for this purpose, in exchange for $1 per golf course.

The disingenuous way this report was conceived, commissioned, paid for, created, and promoted may give some hint that the whole scheme may not be in the public interest.

In October 2006 Frank Tatum registered a California corporation called the "San Francisco Nonprofit Golf Foundation," listing as its address the offices of the law firm Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass LLP.

The corporation Tatum created then paid $100,000 to the National Golf Foundation (which is not connected to the San Francisco Nonprofit Golf Foundation), to conduct a study about how best to manage our city's golf courses. Tatum's apparently not saying who came up with the $100,000.

"He mentioned charitable donations," said Richard Singer, director of consulting services for the National Golf Foundation.

"A group of private funders paid for the study," said Parks Department spokeswoman Rose Dennis.

In discussing the proposed study ahead of time with Foundation analysts, Tatum discussed looking at a situation in Baltimore where a private nonprofit corporation operates golf courses that had been run by the city, Singer said.

The National Golf Foundation then took three months to reach the following conclusion: Our city's golf courses should be given away, or leased 30 years for $1, to the private corporation Tatum set up. In other words, the fix appears to have been in from the beginning.

"That may have been what they were thinking when they were putting it together," Singer acknowledges. "But it didn't go into our thinking."


This plan is so fraught with possibilities for mischief that I'd hope an attentive mayor would do something to stop it.

If the secrecy around who paid for this new report is any guide, the San Francisco Nonprofit Golf Foundation is not going to be a font of public information if it gains control of city land.

That's important because gifting the city's golf courses — large swaths of prime real estate — to a private corporation invites the sort of squandering of resources I detailed last week in describing the debacle of SFO Enterprises, where city officials set up a private corporation allowing them to use city money in a private slush fund.

Just as bad, the city might lose direct control of what the golf course land is used for. For example, our city charter restricts San Francisco from letting recreational land be used for nonrecreational purposes. But that might not stop the private corporation from, say, building course-side time-share condominiums, then using the profits as it saw fit. The privatization scheme guarantees no new money for the city — it only speculates that some might be forthcoming — while eliminating San Franciscans' right to decide what to do with the golf course land. Some of these courses are underused weedy messes that might be better off as ordinary parks, or dedicated to some other city use. If we give them away, however, we'll lose the right to determine what happens to our own city property.

The bureaucrats under the mayor's control seem to be encouraging the golf-course privatization plan, rather than what they should do: stamp it out.

Sadly, Sean Elsbernd, who acts as the mayor's eyes and ears on the Board of Supervisors, thinks the privatization plan is great.

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