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City Report: SF Officials Got Free Tickets to Pricey Outside Lands Fest Through Ethically Questionable Loophole

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A large crowd at a nighttime outdoor concert.
A packed crowd at the Outside Lands Festival in Golden Gate Park in 2019, the last time the event was held before the COVID pandemic. (Josh Withers/Outside Lands)

After a two-year hiatus, Outside Lands is returning to Golden Gate Park this weekend.

And with the massive outdoor festival come some certainties: Neighbors will complain about the noise and Uber cars will clog the surrounding streets, while many avid concertgoers have shelled out more than $900 to attend the three-day music bash that includes headliners like Lizzo and The Strokes.

But for some San Francisco city officials, those tickets will be something of a fringe benefit, gratis. In other words: free.

According to a San Francisco Ethics Commission report released in late September, city officials have been gifted at least $430,950 in free tickets to the festival through a loophole that, although technically legal, is ethically dubious, according to the report's authors.

That's because the city's Recreation and Parks Department — which is the agency accepting the tickets from Another Planet Entertainment, which puts on the festival — is also in charge of the contract for the event space. That makes them a "restricted source" for officials involved in the contract, which means that accepting any gifts from entities they are doing business with poses a potential conflict of interest.

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But in this case, the Recreation and Parks Department is acting like a go-between, accepting the tickets in bulk from Another Planet and distributing them among its staff — so staff members needn't accept them directly from the vendor. That, the report says, is effectively a loophole in the law.

"Department officials would clearly be prohibited from accepting free tickets provided to them directly by Another Planet. Yet, Rec and Parks nonetheless regularly distributes tickets provided for free by Another Planet to its employees and officers, effectively resulting in the same outcome," the report found.

 

A graphic shows the Outside Lands vendor on the left, with an arrow to the Parks Department, and another arrow to officials. Another arrow directly from the Outside Lands vendor to city officials is crossed out.
Graphic from San Francisco Ethics Commission report

In a statement in response, the Recreation and Parks Department said they follow "all local and state rules and reporting requirements" and that their contract, which includes a provision for free tickets in writing, was approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Recreation and Parks Department General Manager Phil Ginsburg declined an interview request.

The Ethics Commission report acknowledges the truth in that response (with the exception of some missing reporting going back to 2009, which it also dinged Rec and Parks for). But the report essentially makes the case that while the practice follows the letter of the law, it most certainly flouts the spirit of the law, particularly given the sheer number of free tickets doled out.

Between 2015 and 2019 — the last year the festival took place — the department distributed some 1,855 free tickets to public officials across the city, including department staffers and employees in other city departments, according to the report.

Of those known Outside Lands tickets handed to Rec and Parks between 2015 and 2019, more than 1,200 went to staffers and other officials in the departments. The report does not include ticket data from this year.

That includes Public Works, whose former director, Mohammed Nuru, was ousted last year after being indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice for allegedly taking bribes to award city contracts. He was one of four city department heads to step down or otherwise be ousted during the ensuing ethics scandal, which alleges many instances of bribery and corruption in San Francisco city government.

Ethics disclosure documents obtained by KQED in a records request also detail other city officials who obtained those tickets originally given to Rec and Parks in 2019 (at least two tickets each, and often more): Human Rights Commission Executive Director Sheryl Davis, former Homelessness Department Director Jeff Kositsky, Manny Yekutiel (who was appointed to an SFMTA commission in 2021), and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Board of Directors Chair Gwyneth Borden, among others. Former Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who died in February 2019, also netted free Outside Lands tickets in 2018.

(Disclosure: KQED was given six free Outside Lands tickets in 2019, according to city filings. These were not related to news coverage. Another Planet Entertainment is also a sponsor of KQED.)

In 2016, Ken Garcia, a former San Francisco Examiner columnist and then-de Young Museum staffer, netted free tickets from Rec and Parks. So did City Attorney Dennis Herrera (who netted six tickets), and former Assessor-Recorder (now City Administrator) Carmen Chu (who netted nine VIP tickets). Board of Supervisors staff netted 24 Outside Lands tickets among themselves in 2016.

The restriction on accepting gifts is "designed to limit the potential for pay-to-play and avoid the appearance of preferential treatment," the report notes. "Acting as an intermediary for a high volume of such gifts gravely undermines the restricted source rule," according to the report.

A chart describes dollar amounts in tickets distributed by the Rec and Park department.
From San Francisco Ethics Commission report

Another Planet Entertainment declined to be interviewed and instead directed comments to the Recreation and Parks Department.

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The issue is hardly limited to Outside Lands. The same report also details the widespread legal, but ethically questionable, distribution of free tickets to city officials for events in various public venues, from the War Memorial Opera House to the San Francisco Symphony — cumulatively valued at more than $500,000 between 2009 and 2021.

"This flow of personal benefits to City officers and employees is significant," the report found.

Rec and Parks Commission President Mark Buell did not return requests for comment. But a former commissioner and vice president, Allan Low, who stepped down in June, acknowledged that he had received free Outside Lands tickets in previous years, saying it was useful to attend the festival and see, firsthand, how his department's work was being carried out.

"You could see the event and appreciate the event, plus observe the crowd control, the parking. There was always something coming up either immediately before or after Outside Lands where there were complaints about traffic, noise," Low said. "Shutting down the park, or restoration of the park."

Rec and Parks made similar arguments in its communications with Ethics Commission staff in a series of exchanges that KQED obtained using open records laws.

"We rely on requests [for tickets] because different circumstances create an interest for different people," Rec and Parks spokesperson Sarah Madland wrote to Ethics Commission staff in an email sent on Sept. 14, 2021. "For example, this year, Outside Lands will be one of the first large events locally during COVID. This could create a subset of people with a desire to understand how the protocols are working."

But the Ethics Commission report also pokes holes in that argument, noting that city officials don't need tickets for entry if they have a work-related reason to be on-site.

"That's fair criticism," former Commissioner Low conceded.

Rec and Parks gave its own commissioners free tickets to Outside Lands in both 2017 and 2019, at least, the agency disclosed to Ethics Commission staff. In 2017, six commissioners received a total of 12 tickets worth a combined value of $9,540, and in 2019, two commissioners received a total of four tickets worth a combined value of $3,140.

Closing loopholes in ticket gifting would likely require new legislation from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. But Supervisor Connie Chan, who represents the Richmond District — which borders the Outside Lands festival — told KQED that corruption is so widespread in the city that lawmakers may need to first concentrate on broader ethics reform.

"As we take a step back, we have to look at our city government as a whole, and have to look at the changes we need to make to root out corruption," she said.

Chan has scheduled a hearing for Nov. 18 to probe the broader relationship between outside philanthropic entities and the Recreation and Parks Department, and examine the various ethics concerns that relationship has raised.

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In the meantime, if you're still looking for Outside Lands tickets for this weekend, you're out of luck: It's sold out across the board.

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