Ken Garcia: North Beach politics at play in decision to ban alcohol at fair

Those who get a taste of politics in San Francisco often find it a bitter ale. Just ask the people behind the popular North Beach Festival, who recently got their liquor permit spiked by city officials for reasons that have less to do with the annual gathering than simmering community factions.

The action by the Recreation and Park Commission last week was full of curious ingredients, topped off by the fact that the beer and wine permit that has been granted to festival organizers by that austere body for the past 14 years never made it onto the official agenda —even though that is what everybody was there to discuss.

The reason for this glaring omission ostensibly was that since there is already an ordinance banning alcohol in North Beach’s Washington Square Park — and the department staff recommended not granting an exemption this year — there was no reason to put it on the calendar. It’s kind of like calling for a public hearing and then deciding none of the attendees can speak — a “technicality’’ that separates good government from the one that operates in San Francisco. (The Ethics Commission apparently is investigating.)

But the real story behind the alcohol ban in the summer art and music festival didn’t really revolve around beer and wine sales, or the related troubles they sometimes create. It was about a North Beach park — but not Washington Square, where thousands of people gather one weekend each June.

No, the alcohol ban was served up at the behest of a group that has had an ongoing feud with the North Beach Chamber of Commerce and its executive director, Marsha Garland, who runs the event. It was payback for having the temerity to oppose the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, a well-heeled neighborhood group that does the bidding — and has the unquestioned support — of its former president, Aaron Peskin, now head of the Board of Supervisors.

Three years ago some developers, after going through The City’s arduous permit process, were ready to begin construction on a nine-unit building at 701 Lombard St. But some neighborhood activists, including the Dwellers, objected, saying that the triangular property was better suited for a park.

Enter Peskin, long the bane of local developers, who decided to take the unprecedented stance of obtaining the private property through eminent domain. The developers cried foul and called it an abuse of the public process — an assessment with which Garland’s group agreed.

“I felt that they had followed the democratic process and that what was happening to them was wrong,’’ Garland said. One of the developers, Brian O’Flynn, was so angry over the deal that he decided to use the issue to run against Peskin for supervisor. Garland backed the developer in that race.

“Every festival since then I’ve had more and more trouble getting the permits,’’ Garland said. “This year they went for the jugular.’’

The first push to call for an alcohol ban came from the Dwellers, although there were some other merchants in the area who didn’t like the sale of alcohol in the park because it hurt their businesses. But the arguments echoed by park commissioners about why the ban was justified — rowdy late-night behavior, lack of access for families at the park and the cost for police overtime — don’t ring true, except for the part about police officers not wanting more public drinking.

North Beach is full of rowdy behavior on weekends without the festival — just head to Broadway and Columbus late on a Saturday night. There are dozens of neighborhood parks available to families every weekend — the North Beach Festival essentially takes Washington Square out of circulation two days a year. And it requires the same number of police for crowd control whether alcohol is served in the park or not.

“It’s really for the neighborhood and the park staff to decide,’’ Capt. Jim Dudley of Central Police Station told me.

Of course, if you ban alcohol sales at one park event, it presumably means possible prohibitions at others. And given the number of neighborhood gadflies who fill commission meetings in San Francisco, you may see lots of teetotalers bellying up to the podium soon.

I don’t feel strongly about the alcohol issue, but I do support community festivals, and if on-site beer and wine sales help their continuance, it seems a small price to pay.

But the charade that played out at the Recreation and Park Commission shows that if you want to get a decent shot at one of The City’s government outposts, you might want to find out who is serving them up beforehand.

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