The Pork Park

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is quietly trying to keep the Presidio on the public teat. That's a good thing.

When a public official employs treachery, pork-barrel politics, and doublespeak in the name of good policy, what is a priggish columnist to do?

In the case of Nancy "Porkmistress" Pelosi's apparent gambit to make it easier for the federal government to spend millions of additional dollars subsidizing the Presidio of San Francisco, I'll hold my nose and root for her.

Most of you probably have heard of House Resolution 6305, which has been widely touted as changing the name of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area to Golden Gate National Park. Public misconceptions about Pelosi's parks bill are no accident. Her office has performed a fencer's feint, issuing multiple press releases about her "Golden Gate National Parks and Technical Corrections Bill," without noting its most important effects.

"While the designation and name of the park will change," Pelosi was quoted as saying in a July 15 release, "the administrative policies will not be affected, nor will access for recreational users of the space be limited."

Nowhere in her press releases and statements has she revealed that she plans to all but nullify the 1996 congressional requirement that the park become self-sufficient. Pelosi's bill eliminates a poison pill by which the Presidio could be sold to developers if it didn't wean itself from federal subsidies by the end of 2012.

Nor does Pelosi note in any of her official statements that the bill will kick more than $3 million per year in new subsidies for Park Police, an amount that will grow over time.

In response to my question about why she wanted to remove the park's sufficiency-or-doomsday rule, Pelosi's office responded that she was fending off developers.

Removing the clause "will assure that public investments in the park will benefit the public, not an outside interest that could purchase the Presidio from the [General Services Administration] should the Trust not achieve self-sufficiency," the Pelosi response said.

Pelosi's bill seems a far cry from the outside-interest-friendly thrust of the public-private management scheme she helped construct in 1996, and which she touts in her new book, Know Your Power, scheduled to be released on July 29. "We are on schedule to meet our goal in 2013, when the Presidio will no longer be dependent on Federal funds and will meet its full operating cost," Pelosi writes in her upcoming memoir.

These words will reach bookstores just as Pelosi attempts to put the lie to them on Capitol Hill.

This makes Madam Speaker disingenuous, perhaps. But it's treachery in the name of the common good.

The 1996 Presidio Trust Act, the law creating a government-chartered nonprofit to run the park, was intended to "provide for the administration of certain Presidio properties at minimal cost to the Federal taxpayer" — according to the bill's official title.

This thrust was necessary because Republicans, who then controlled Congress, had prepared their own Presidio bill selling the old Army base to the highest bidder.

Swaying Republicans came at a high price. Pelosi and other advocates had to set the "minimal cost" concept in stone, and convince Newt Gingrich's minions that Democratic lawmakers wouldn't someday begin slipping more federal money to the park. Pelosi and her fellow legislators agreed to a powerful poison pill: If the park didn't collect enough rent to pay all operating costs, in 2013 the Presidio would be erased from the national park system and prepared for sale to developers.

"'Self-sufficiency' had earned the needed political support, but it meant the Presidio could be sold" eventually, writes longtime S.F. parks activist Amy Meyer in her new book, New Guardians for the Golden Gate: How America Got a Great National Park. "Park advocates celebrated the legislation, but we also knew that the Presidio's salvation came with an unusual and heavy obligation."

The idea was that Congress would provide startup funds to finance repairs and redevelopment projects — but the money would be repaid with rent from the rehabbed buildings and grounds. The Trust's 2007-2008 fiscal year budget included nearly $20 million in such government appropriations. The Presidio Trust says it has broken even on operating costs since 2004, and that the park owes the federal government $50 million in subsidies thus far.

So far so good. But the poison pill remained.

Pelosi's parks legislation, swiftly moving through committee, takes care of that problem.

Under section 104 (3) (o) of the 1996 Presidio Trust Act, failure to quit the federal teat by the end of 2012 triggers the equivalent of a foreclosure sale. Presidio assets are turned over to the General Services Administration to be "disposed of." And "any real property so transferred shall be deleted from the boundary of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area."

HR 6305 amends the 1996 act simply by striking subsection (o).

Meyer, a former Presidio Trust director who worked with late Congressman Phil Burton and then Pelosi to establish the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, tells me she's surprised none of the news stories about the bill had reported the significance of these crucial lines.

"One of the reasons Pelosi can get rid of the clause is, there's no reason for it," says Meyer. "They've done well enough. They'll continue to get a subsidy through 2013."

Opening the door for more district pork, the bill shifts more than $3 million in yearly law enforcement costs from the Presidio to federal government.

"Such an outcome would be a breach of the legislative goal of self-sufficiency for the Presidio," said Dan Wenk, deputy director of the National Park Service, during congressional testimony July 15.

In response to my request for an explanation, Pelosi's office seemed to acknowledge this.

"Law enforcement costs are increasing beyond what the Presidio Trust can afford," the Pelosi statement said. "Removing this expense will allow the Presidio Trust to focus on their mission of restoring historic buildings and providing services to park visitors."

And well they should.

The term "self-sufficiency" has a nice ring to it, especially when it comes to saving taxpayers millions of dollars. But in the Presidio it has been a recipe for mismanagement because it diminishes the park's value as a place for recreation, historical stewardship, and natural preservation.

When private security guards at the Presidio shoo cyclists off the Lucasfilm corporate campus, or a Disney museum makes a joke of the old Army base's historic promenade, or a textile tycoon's modern art museum threatens to become the center stage of a supposed historical landmark, the park becomes worth less as a public asset.

I have no doubt that the aggressive entrepreneurs on the Presidio Trust board of directors will continue to commercialize their park, even with the poison pill gone. It's what they were chosen for. But if it becomes law, Pelosi's bill would allow them to slow this destructive trajectory without endangering the park's survival.

Pelosi's bill comes at a crucial time, just as the park is considering proposals to turn the Main Post area into the real heart of a national park, rather than the office park and parking lot it now is. Projects include an archeology museum, a park lodge, and Fisher's infamous modern art museum proposal. The idea is to draw people to the park for reasons other than office work. Luring and caring for these visitors, while fulfilling the park's natural and historical preservation missions, will be expensive. Given that these are the core objectives of any legitimate national park, they will be worth every penny.

Once Democrats take complete control of Capitol Hill this November, I hope the House speaker takes the next logical step concerning HR 6305, and passes another bill providing $100 million or so to allow the park's administrators to stop shilling, and devote themselves to running an actual park.

This will require disingenuousness, cunning, and massive pork from our local congressional representative. And I'll root for her just the same.

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