CA: HSR Authority Spends Millions on PR

They have yet to lay a single track, but the California High-Speed Rail Authority has spent some $12.5 million on public relations in the past two years - with a number of politically connected consultants getting in on the ride.

In one six-month window:

-- Mike Villines, the former Republican assemblyman, billed a Central Valley rail contractor for $108,631.

-- Denise LaPointe, a former chief of staff to ex-San Francisco state senator and former High-Speed Rail Authority board member Quentin Kopp, billed for $53,444. That was just part of the $350,288 paid to her firm since October 2009.

-- Nicole Franklin, a former Oakland city planning commissioner, got $45,138 - including a portion of LaPointe's work.

-- Mike Lynch, the former chief of staff to onetime Assemblyman Gary Condit, billed for $31,748.

-- Plus former Kern County Supervisor Gene Tackett $70,652, and S ara Katz, a staffer to former Gov. Pete Wilson and onetime San Diego Mayor Susan Golding, whose monthly billings for the first half of the year totaled $43,505.

"Frankly I can't see one benefit of that $12.5 million in spending," said state Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

"To me this is indicative of the operations of the High-Speed Rail Authority to this point, which from what we've seen is pretty much a failure."

Statewide, some 20 PR outfits have worked on the project since 2007 as part of nine regional engineering contracts.

In 2009, however, rail authority directors - worried that they needed to sell the project statewide - awarded a five-year contract worth $9 million to Ogilvy Public Relations, a major national firm.

After paying Ogilvy about $3 million, the authority was not happy with its performance and the two sides agreed to a parting of the ways.

In the meantime, as shrinking federal dollars put the future of the train line in doubt, the authority has still budgeted $2.5 million for PR this fiscal year.

Rail authority officials say the spending on public outreach has been reasonable given the size and complexity of the project.

Party split: "What strikes me is that, unless someone else jumps in, this is coming down to a two-man race -Mitt Romney vs. Newt Gingrich."

So says Field Institute pollster Mark DiCamillo, whose recent survey of California Republicans showed that while none of the party's hopefuls was breaking 30 percent support, Romney and Gingrich were leading the pack.

DiCamillo also found an interesting split within the state GOP, with Romney a 10-point favorite among more moderate Republicans who live along the coast and Gingrich up by eight points among the more conservative inlanders.

That could be good news for Newt.

"National polls indicate that California's inland Republicans are more like Republicans nationwide than those who live on the coast," DiCamillo said.

Fore: A last-minute battle between the golfers and frog lovers is under way over the future of Sharp Park.

San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos has scheduled a committee hearing for Monday on an agreement to have the golf course in Pacifica, now run by the city, be jointly managed by the city and the National Park Service.

That may or may not include keeping the golf course, which has cost San Francisco $1.2 million over the past five years.

If the joint-management plan passes in committee, it would go to the full board the next day.

Avalos' idea is to get the needed six board votes for passage before Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi exits next month to become sheriff.

The fight over Sharp Park is between golfers and environmentalists who don't like the water pumping, mowing and golf cart use at the Pacifica course. They contend the course is ruining the habitat of the threatened California red-legged frog and the endangered San Francisco garter snake.

Both sides are lobbying the board heavily. Just ask Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who turned on his cell phone the other morning and found that 511 pro-frog e-mails had come in overnight.

EXTRA! Catch our blog at www.sfgate.com/matierandross .

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