Rec and Parks Infighting Kills Holiday Bash for Developmentally Disabled

Last year San Franciscans were outraged when Laguna Honda Hospital administrators took money from a gift fund meant to provide simple pleasures to patients and instead spent it on staff.

But the public has missed a similar outrage at Golden Gate Park's McLaren Lodge, where bureaucrats have also been accused of mishandling money intended to bring happiness to disadvantaged people.

Department of Recreation and Park supervisors have canceled without explanation a series of privately funded holiday parties that since 1962 have been major social events for the developmentally disabled.

“We had kids from grammar school with disabilities all the way up to people in their 90s,” says recently retired parks employee Carolyn Anaya, who with her longtime domestic partner, recently dismissed parks employee David Dinslage, put on the parties under the auspices of the department's recently eliminated Assisted Services Division. “We had our rock 'n' roll dance in May. We had our Halloween masquerade ball. We had a Thanksgiving sit-down luncheon with about 200 people. And we had the Christmas event.”

The Christmas bash drew 700 developmentally disabled people from throughout the Bay Area. Safeway donated turkeys that the staff from the Westin St. Francis Hotel cooked and members of San Francisco Fire Fighters Local 798 served. In 2009, Dinslage's supervisor told him that the 47th annual Christmas party would be the last.

Revelers “looked forward to the Santa Claus, the luncheon, and all the hoopla,” says Lesley Steele, programs supervisor at the Janet Pomeroy Center, a nonprofit recreational facility near Lake Merced for people with developmental disabilities. Each year she took 130 or so clients to the parties, “which were very special to the people,” she recalls. Now, “people come to me and say, 'When are we going to the Hall of Flowers?' You have to explain to them: 'It's not happening anymore because of changes in the Department of Recreation and Parks.'”

Rec and Park officials rebuffed five requests to interview general manager Phil Ginsburg and operations manager Dennis Kern about those changes. Director of policy and public affairs Sarah Ballard did say that an apparently dormant Parks Trust account contained $26,678.57 donated to fund the parties. That's about what Dinslage says was left when (as he puts it) he was forced into retirement last year, suggesting the account has effectively been frozen. (In addition to the parties, he would occasionally tap the funds to take developmentally disabled people on trips to Alcatraz, Children's Fairyland in Oakland, and the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield.) On July 29, Dinslage filed a lawsuit alleging he was fired unfairly and that the department had misallocated that money.

Parks spokeswoman Connie Chan refused to explain why the parties were canceled, saying she couldn't comment on specific issues related to the lawsuit.

Critics of Ginsburg and Kern have an explanation that — while bizarre — seems to square with available facts. Dinslage and Anaya's holiday parties, as well as a half-century Parks Department tradition of providing recreation for the developmentally disabled, became collateral damage of a bureaucratic power struggle over — of all things — a classic car show.

These guys came in. All they did was put their thumb on it and squash it out,” says Jimmy O'Keefe, a recently retired Rec and Park gardener who is the namesake of Jimmy's Old Car Picnic, a vintage car show held at Golden Gate Park's Speedway Meadow since 1988. The show has raised tens of thousands of dollars over the years for Dinslage's programs and parties.

Five years ago, park management moved to get the Old Car Picnic canceled. The rationale: It occurred only a week after Warren Hellman's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival. Also, Kern has told parks commissioners, the event damaged Speedway Meadows' grass — a claim O'Keefe disputes. He saw the clash as arrogant brass (Kern is a retired Navy commander), seeking to impose authority over an impudent grunt (he is a Vietnam vet).

Saving the car event became a San Francisco cause célèbre. O'Keefe and Dinslage got backing from local business owners, car buffs, locals who cherished the show's old-San Francisco flavor, and advocates for the developmentally disabled. Eventually, they say, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom and his chief of staff, Ginsburg, issued a verdict that killing the event wasn't worth the hassle.

That was merely a battle in what became low-intensity bureaucratic warfare. A key tactic seemed to be removing the Car Picnic's political shield. And that apparently meant eliminating the beneficiaries of its donations.

In 2009, Dinslage's supervisor told him the Christmas party wasn't “inclusive” enough because attendees were mostly developmentally disabled.

Chan's explanation for the parties' cancelation: “I can only point to the programming and events that we're currently offering, and that they are open to everyone.”

Also in 2009, Dinslage's Assisted Services division was eliminated, and he was briefly made inclusivity director, which entailed helping route developmentally disabled people into already existing parks programs. Last July, at age 60, he was let go after 35 years with the department.

In 2010, Kern, with Ginsburg now general manager, again moved to cancel the picnic. Again, he argued that the classic cars could hurt the grass. Again, the show became a citywide cause, and again Kern and Ginsburg backed down — but this time with conditions. The organizers would pay a yearly fee of $9,000 — the same amount the picnic had annually given to Dinslage's programs. Donations that had gone toward brightening the lives of developmentally disabled people were, in effect, swept into the general parks budget.

Jimmy O'Keefe's wife, Julie, watched with dismay. “It was really sad, seeing them take that away from disabled children and adults,” she says. “They don't have that much, and they would look forward to that every year.”

As for Kern and Ginsburg's apparent “inclusivity” cover story: Yes, it's good to include developmentally disabled people in activities in the broader world. But one of the first things people who work with this population learn is that it works well for some, in some situations.

The people Dinslage and Anaya used to serve spanned the age and ability spectrum. For many of them, a trip to Alcatraz or Jelly Belly — as an option to a day spent alone or in a group home — was all about inclusion.

“The way the department's running, a lot of our participants aren't being able to access the thing the Department of Parks and Recreation are calling 'integration,'” says Steele.

Just like the rest of us, developmentally disabled people like to sometimes let their hair down with people they feel they can relate to. That's why Safeway, the Westin St. Francis, Local 798, and hundreds of classic car buffs pitched in to make Dinslage's parties special.

“People — any people — like to go to parties,” Steele says. “The guys still say, 'What about the Christmas party?' 'What about the rock 'n' roll day?' It's been a real loss for us.”

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