Mayor’s mixed message on parks

Last week was not good for Mayor Gavin Newsom in terms of keeping his various pledges and policies from contradicting themselves. The City’s Recreation and Park Department is considering elimination of up to 35 vacant gardening and 10 unfilled maintenance positions. It was ordered by the Mayor’s Office to slash $5.5 million from its 2008-09 budget to help balance the upcoming $229 million deficit.

Yet this comes almost simultaneously with Newsom promising his open-space task force on Thursday that he would somehow find money in the 2008-09 budget to improve city parks if advocates can “demonstrate need.” The looming gardener cutback also comes after the mayor’s current budget allotted $2.7 million for Rec and Park to hire 15 new gardeners and 35 new custodians.

Newsom’s second-term inaugural speech touted his commitment to a coordinated package of programs for making San Francisco the greenest city in America. When the 2007-08 budget was passed in June, Newsom boasted that “San Francisco aspires to be a ‘green’ city in many senses of the word” and said the money for new gardeners and custodians would help “keep park grounds and facilities clean, beautiful and well-maintained.”

Lastly, when the mayor announced the $229 million deficit this fall, he called for an all-department hiring freeze with cuts of up to 13 percent. But he told department heads he would not accept cutbacks of frontline jobs that are directly working in the streets, and any salary reduction plans should concentrate on middle management.

This space first criticized Newsom on Jan. 29 for using Muni funds to expand his office staff with six-figure-salary administrators, while demanding the hiring freeze. Now again he appears to be telling The City to do what he says, not what he does. That is not the level of leadership we expect from a mayor of San Francisco with obvious ambitions to move on to higher office.

Newsom spokesman Nathan Ballard said that cutting “35 old, vacant positions” would have “zero effect on our parks” and “no direct services will be impacted.” This spin was disputed by Isabel Wade, executive director for the Neighborhood Parks Council, who said not adding to the congenitally understaffed Rec and Park Department would disproportionately impact The City’s smaller parks.

“A lot of the mini parks, particularly in low-income neighborhoods, can’t afford to have a [full-time] gardener,” Wade said. With Rec and Park maintenance budgets being routinely shortchanged year after year, “gardeners can only get out to these parks about once a month, usually to pick up trash.”

This accusation seems believable in a city where overflowing municipal trash cans are hardly an uncommon sight and deferred maintenance of basic city services is virtually a political tradition. The Examiner recognizes that substantial and uncomfortable spending reductions must be made in response to the $229 million deficit. But the burden must be spread fairly, and San Francisco’s mayor is neither allowed to exempt himself nor to cripple basic services.

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