Will Newsom Veto Healthy Saturdays?

by Casey Mills on May 15, 2006

Last month, Vanity Fair featured Mayor Gavin Newsom in their ‘Green Issue,’ lauding him as a public official at the vanguard of improving the environment. It’s an image the Mayor often presents, and one he’s cultivated since taking office. Yet recently, Newsom remains strangely silent on a policy decision that would seemingly be a slam dunk for any Mayor considered ‘green’ – whether to stop car use in parts of the city’s largest park on Saturdays. It’s a policy decision New York Mayor and Republican Michael Bloomberg, who didn’t make the cut for Vanity Fair’s feature, apparently had no problem making when he signed a similar ordinance related to Central Park last week. And it’s a decision that could be a make-or-break event for Newsom maintaining his environmental-friendly credentials.

Closing Golden Gate Park has long been the a goal of the city’s environmentalists and transportation advocates, sparking unity among this community seldom seen on other issues. Their arguments touch on almost every issue important to those concerned with green issues, including cleaner air, more public transportation use, more safety for bicyclists and pedestrians, and more green space city residents can enjoy.

Even traditionally conservative forces have signed on to the proposal, with financier Warren Hellman leading the pack. Hellman, the sponsor of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival and an opponent to previous efforts to close the park on Saturdays, recently co-authored an op-ed for the Chronicle supporting its passage.

Hellman’s editorial, however, represented a rare pro-Healthy Saturday’s stance in the Chronicle. The paper has engaged in an all-out blitz against the legislation, ranging from harsh editorials to a thinly-veiled May 1 ‘news’ article that spent most of its ink giving air time to opponents.

In addition, certain neighborhood groups and wealthy allies of donors to the de Young Museum have begun a phone-calling campaign that has reportedly swamped the Mayor’s office. The de Young stands in bitter opposition to park closure, claiming it would reduce the number of visitors to the museum, despite the recent opening of a massive underground parking garage built specifically for patrons. Neighborhood groups say those that live near the park will face additional traffic and fewer parking spaces should the closure occur.

The Board of Supervisors passed Healthy Saturdays last week, but without reaching the veto-proof vote count of 8. This leaves Newsom with the opportunity to veto the measure, and his decision will reveal a great deal about where his allegiances lie.

The Mayor has repeatedly painted himself as a pedestrian, bicyclist and public transportation advocate, claiming he’s committed to improving public health in the city and improving air quality. Approving Healthy Saturdays represents a simple way for the mayor to prove himself.

A veto, however, would play directly into the hands of those who maintain that whatever his rhetoric, the Mayor remains beholden to the Chronicle and other financially powerful interests.

If he vetoes Healthy Saturdays the Mayor could claim, as Supervisor Sean Elsbernd has, that he’s concerned about Richmond residents and businesses being forced to endure more traffic and fewer parking spaces.

But the number of city residents hurt by the proposal remains far smaller than the number of San Franciscans that will benefit from it. Should the Mayor make his decision based on how to best represent the interests of the entire city rather than isolated pockets of residents and businesses, the choice is an easy one.

Newsom could also claim that the interests of disabled people have not been sufficiently addressed. Yet recent amendments to the legislation appears to have quelled the concerns of most of the city’s disabled advocates.

The fact of the matter is that if Newsom kills Healthy Saturdays, it will be to keep from ruffling the feathers of some of his wealthiest supporters. To do so at the expense of San Franciscans and the city’s environmental well-being would be a big mistake. And it would put the Mayor on record as having a set of priorities far removed from the ‘green’ image the national media and his press team present.

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