Supervisor Asked For Less Aggressive Ranger Patrols Prior to Huntington Park Dog Attack

It's not uncommon for rookie politicians to unwittingly involve themselves in long-stewing special-interest battles. In that tradition, freshman Board of Supervisors President David Chiu has taken a series of actions that have drawn him into a particularly vicious, only-in-San-Francisco conflict -- the fight, at least a decade old, over the rights of dogs in city parks.

In the doghouse?
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Two weeks ago, we reported that Marion Cope, the 73-year-old Nob Hill resident and widow of late Huntington Hotel owner Newton Cope, suffered a brutal calf injury after she and her Irish terrier were swarmed by a group of off-leash dogs in Huntington Park last month. Now some dog advocates in the neighborhood say that Chiu, at their behest, requested that city park rangers scale back their enforcement of leash laws at the park prior to the incident.

Chiu confirmed his request, saying he had made a phone call to Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the Recreation and Park Department. He characterized it as a routine part of his job, and said he meant only to pass along feedback from constituents about allegations of overzealous park patrolling -- not to strong-arm Rec and Park into changing its practices. "What I told those individuals is that I would pass their feedback along to Rec and Park and ask them to bring it to an appropriate level of enforcement, and that's what I did," Chiu told SF Weekly.

Chiu said he had been troubled by press accounts of overzealous park patrols, as well as complaints from his constituents over the summer. Nob Hill residents who exercise their dogs at Huntington Park -- often off-leash, despite city laws requiring that dogs be leashed at the park -- said they noticed the difference right away.

"After our meeting with Chiu, the park rangers still came to the park, but they were much less aggressive," said Wendy Crittenden, who walks her dog at Huntington Park. "They were still coming," said Kit Battermann, another park user. "But it wasn't every day."

After listening to off-leash dog advocates describe their past interactions with Chiu at a Recreation and Park Commission meeting on Dec. 3, commission president and former deputy city attorney Jim Lazarus told SF Weekly he was troubled by the implication that a legislator had intervened in the department's workings. He noted that San Francisco's charter prohibits supervisors from interfering in the administration of city departments.

"I don't want to focus on David Chiu, because it happens across the city," Lazarus said. The charter rules barring supervisors from getting their hands dirty with day-to-day departmental operations, Lazarus said, are "for their protection, politically and legally. If a lawsuit comes out of a dog attack and a supervisor is involved, that supervisor becomes a witness."

Chiu said there was nothing out-of-line about his discussions with Ginsburg at Rec and Park about the ranger patrols. "I consider it my job to provide feedback to department heads," Chiu said. "I would be derelict in my job if I didn't do that."

Oddly enough, Chiu said he had also relayed an earlier, contrary message to Ginsburg: that Rec and Park consider stepping up its ranger patrols. That move also came after a complaint from a Nob Hill resident. "Someone had raised a concern about the lack of enforcement. I passed that along to Phil Ginsburg, I believe," Chiu said. "We then received a slew of complaints about over-aggressive enforcement."

Some tug-of-war. Meanwhile, Cope is recovering from surgery on a 10-inch gash to her leg. (San Francisco police investigators initially said the wound might have been caused by her tumble into a bush, but told us last week that they believe it was the result of a dog bite. Cope was walking her dog on a leash when the incident occurred.)  Reached by telephone, Cope declined to comment on the record about the scaling back of ranger patrols prior to her injury.
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