Tin Cup Politics & Park Closures

by Franklin Graham, March 28, 2012

On Tuesday, March 20, I was given a lesson in just how broken the people’s business is in Sacramento. Along with 180 other participants to the 10th Annual “Park Advocacy Day,” I was there to meet and lobby against the park closures planned for July 1st. I do assume that some attendee/participants came away with an optimistic view of what was accomplished. In retrospect, however, I did not.

Everything that was said, by park advocates or legislators, leads me to one conclusion: some of us are about to be screwed, screwed royally. The immediate question to be determined is how many parks will be closed and how many will be turned over, in part or whole, to non-profit volunteer groups or for-profit concessionaires. For the longer term, there is the question of just how successful volunteer non-profit groups may turn out to be with efforts to shoulder the running of selected parks as operators or joint operators. For reasons that will be addressed below, no one was “allowed” to speak directly to these concerns. Nor were we supposed to raise the specter of private, for-profit operators. I know, because every time I tried, diplomatically, to raise such questions the response was the same: “Do not go there!”

 

The Tiger at our Gate

On November 9, 2011 when I raised the issue of privatizing state parks in the AVA (see ‘If A Park Falls’, 11/9/2011), the reaction of most people was that I must be mistaken. It was “unthinkable,” they said. “State officials would never allow it.”

Well, think again. The door to privatization is swinging wide open folks.

Let’s focus on just one for-profit company, founded in 1975, the California Parks Company. Currently, it operates two California State Parks (Angel Island and Big Basin State Park). At the present time, this company has a bundling bid under consideration by the Department of Public Works to operate a number of Mendocino County State Parks. Carolyn Caffey of Mendocino Area Parks Association believes that the company’s bid includes Russian Gulch, Hendy Woods, Standish Hickey, and Westport Landing). Since the state government refuses to release details of the company’s proposal, this has yet to be verified.

To quote, from its website, the company’s mission “is to be the world’s greatest manager and steward of recreation, retail, hospitality and event services.” The company’s main objective, according to John Koeberer (CEO), is clearly stated: “In light of funding realities, past reluctance by the Legislature and labor to involve the private sector must be overcome if California is to sustain its state park system.” (CalParksCo.com) One can almost see the company’s lobbyists trawling the halls of the legislature.

In “A recent message regarding alternatives to State Park Closures” John Koeberer makes his case:

“Increased public funding of the parks just isn’t an option.” And, “…voters declared their opposition to increasing taxes to maintain state parks…”

“As a park professional, it is difficult for me to even mouth the obvious, but some parks don’t belong in the state park system. Most of these are among the smallest of our parks and lack any semblance of statewide historical, natural, cultural, recreational or economic significance. They often were added in response to political influence, when funding was more available or when state government was on an acquisition spree.”

Consider the justifications twelve state park officials came up with when they made up their list of 70 state parks to close. There’s the rub, as we now know, because their supposed list of criteria was destroyed. We know that subsequent to issuing the closure list the justifications boiled down to selecting state parks for closure in the more rural areas of the state, ones with the reported lowest attendance rates, and vague claims of cost-inefficient operations. With little effort, one can imagine the closure committee agreeing with the CEO of California Parks Company. They have thus far stuck to their guns by insisting that they are only closing parks with relatively low attendance rates and that are costly to maintain. How anyone can possibly claim that any of the North Coast parks on the list lack “historical, natural, cultural, recreational or economic significance” is beyond comprehension. Nonetheless, there it is. We do know that the economic impact to local communities was NOT a consideration. The goal was simply to find $22 million to cut from the budget, even at the expense of ignoring a park’s “historical, natural, cultural, recreational or economic significance.” Are we to simply lay down and accept the judgment of a for-profit company looking for new ventures? Is the rationale advanced by this company to be taken as a guide for state park officials in deciding which parks to abandon? Of course, we do not have a proven direct link between what state park officials did and what a for-profit company wants. But there is ample reason to believe they are running on parallel tracks. Can you hear our elected officials gasp and storm?

“Don’t go there,” they say with one voice.

 

Objective 1: Support the Legislators

The morning briefing session by the California State Park Foundation’s Government Affairs Vice President was focused solely on support for two bills to be voted upon later this spring or early summer (SB580 and AB1589). To sharpen this focus, five talking points were emphasized. In a nutshell, we were charged with telling legislators that 1) closing parks is bad for Californians and bad for business, 2) support community fundraising campaigns as a temporary measure, 3) be “mission-centric” about generating revenues, 4) strengthen protections to safeguard parks from being used for other purposes, and 5) celebrate everyone’s efforts at a Legacy Awards Reception at which Assemblyman Jared Huffman is to receive this year’s award.

Let’s be clear about what the pending legislation is designed to accomplish, and what they do not. To begin with, SB580 (author Wolk, D-Davis) would require that park land cannot be used for non-park purposes unless replacement lands of equivalent value are provided (emphasis added). So, if park land is used for non-park purposes replacement lands must have equivalent environmental and fair market value and be in an area where those impacted will benefit from the new lands. The bill would also allow for a combination of replacement lands and monetary compensation if no other alternative is at hand. This “no net loss” approach, however, does not in itself prohibit park land from being turned over, say, to real estate developers in some sort of fancy land swap. Can you hear it? “We’ll give you some nice marsh land on which we cannot build if you just give us that juicy patch of park land for our housing development.” That may be an extreme example, but it is possible. In defense of Senator Wolk, her bill (SB580) does add protections that do not currently exist. Even so, the question must be asked: Why not pass a bill that says once and for all that the State shall not allow the loss of park land under its protection? No one can dispute the fact that as California’s population grows to 50 million and beyond that pressure will increase dramatically for more land space for housing, roads, shopping malls, and the like. Ah, but I am told, “Don’t go there!”

What about AB1589? On Tuesday, the Water, Parks and Recreation Committee held a hearing to consider the bill. Among the invited speakers for the bill were Assemblyman Wes Chesbro (1st District) and Elizabeth Goldstein (President, California State Parks Foundation). Chesbro said nice things about the bill for which he is listed as a co-author. The California State Parks Stewardship Act of 2012, as the bill is called, will, in Chesbro’s estimation “create lasting security.” He states on his website that “There is no more important resource to the North Coast than its state parks.” Elizabeth Goldstein mirrored the assemblyman’s words for the state parks as a whole. As for comments from the citizens at large, the hearing limited each speaker to 30 seconds, time enough to state their name and whether or not they were for the bill. There was no time in 30 seconds to say anything more. But will this bill rescind the planned closures? Will this bill head off privatization initiatives? Will this bill avoid even more closures in future years?

“Don’t go there!”

What does AB1589 do for parks? Existing law requires the State Parks and Recreation Department to achieve budget reductions by closing, partially closing, and reducing services at selected parks. Since 22 parks on the North Coast are on the closure list, one can be forgiven for feeling singled out for especially harsh treatment. This is especially the case when one considers that the list of closures was created behind closed doors and the criteria used to determine which parks to close was destroyed. “Don’t go there. We’re not here to go over old ground!”

What AB1589 seeks to accomplish is to authorize the DPR to implement efficiencies, increase revenue collection, and limit park closings to 25 “unless expressly authorized pursuant to a statute enacted by the legislature on or after January 1, 2013. You may ask: If the law does not take effect until January 2013, what relief is there for parks on the 2012 closure list? In the Tuesday morning briefing session I asked the Government Affairs Vice President of California State Parks Foundation this very question. Her response was: “That’s a very good question.” Translate that response as “Don’t go there.”

The upshot of all this is that while the Huffman/Chesbro and Evans legislative initiatives seek to put in place the means to stabilize and fund state parks in the long term, little or nothing in the legislation targets the existing decision to close 70 parks. At no time during the Park Advocacy Day did anyone openly question why the pending legislation does not simply state that the closures list will be or should be rescinded. As of today, March 28, there are 94 days left for something little short of a miracle to happen that will cancel the closure list.

 

With Tin Cup in Hand

This is where the tin cup comes in. The 180 participants were divided into teams. Each team had an assigned list of legislators to meet with. Dutifully, we went over our talking points. Remember, stick to the talking points. We were to speak as one voice. And so it went. My team had appointments with two legislators that we thought went quite well. Even so, we had to admit that one has as her top priority education cuts. The other, on the budget committee, made guarded comments about how all departments had to show flexibility with respect to making cuts. In both cases, the legislator’s chief of staff sat in and took notes. This showed that they took the closures issue seriously and that they intend to follow up. The third appointment did not go well. As we stood in the legislator’s outer office waiting to be announced, he elbowed by us without acknowledging our presence. He appeared smug, eel-like, downright smarmy. No matter, you might say. He is being termed out. We were ultimately corralled in his aide’s office. There we sat, with the aide propping himself up on the edge of a desk to look down at us with a bored, disinterested look. He was, by the nature of his job, non-committal and basically uncommunicative. We nonetheless went through our spiel. Our forth appointment was with an assemblyman currently serving in Afghanistan. His chief-of-staff, if that is the right term for his position, was very knowledgeable, engaged, and pleasant. In scoring our day, we felt that we had done our best to represent the case, however much a half-measure it is. I could not resist broaching the third-rail issue of the day — for-profit operators. Obviously, he knew the script we were to stick to in advance. His response was to cut me off, telling me “Don’t go there!”

 

Volunteer and Non-profit Initiatives

The most recent development is the announcement that the Olmstead family, which donated the land for Jughandle State Park, has donated $19,000, with matching funds from the State Parks Foundation, to keep that park open for the coming year. At this time there are fifty-two (52) park units that are in some stage of consideration for being taken off the closure list. The operations of three parks will be absorbed by the National Park Service. A number of volunteer groups are in the organizing stage for fund raising. Even cities and counties are stepping up in some cases to take on some form of operations. Hendy Woods is listed as “pursuing partner operating agreement, which combines fundraising and volunteerism.” Cyd Bernstein informs me that their effort is for a “donor agreement.” For Manchester State Park a local group is said to be developing a proposal. Russian Gulch and Standish Hickey are also in the proposal stage with the Mendocino Area Parks Association. I could continue to detail the many variants of how local groups seek to save individual parks. The organizational map that could emerge is something approaching a patchwork quilt with many bright patches and as many loose threads. So long as the State Parks are operated by one entity, the State Park System, it is possible to see coherence to the design and operation of the system. Granted, attention to increasing efficiencies and elimination of excess bureaucracy can achieve some savings. However, legislators are already looking to hire more bureaucrats for Sacramento to administer whatever comes out of this potpourri. It appears that although the State Park Department already has a capital staff of 1000, with only about 1300 full-time rangers and staff in the field, there would not be adequate staff already on hand to administer non-departmental operations of parks.

In sum, the odds are that ten state parks will drop off the closure list due to volunteer efforts. It could be more. But it will be like sausage making, not pretty and unlikely to pass the smell test. Can we simply ask the legislators to rescind the closures and restore the budget levels to 2011?

“Don’t go there!”

Is there even one elected representative who has the good sense and courage to tell the governor, privately if that is best, to rescind the list if he wants a yes vote on his $137 billion budget?

“Don’t go there!”

What should we be saying to Senator Noreen Evans, Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, and candidate for the 2nd Congressional District, Assemblyman Jared Huffman? Dare we tell them that unless a solution is found to rescind closures before the June primary, do not count on our votes? Do not count on our support for the November election?

You can almost hear the echo all the way from Sacramento. “Don’t go there!”

Maybe it is time to exercise our one remaining right, that of the vote. If the park closures come to pass, vote the incumbents out, or at the very least send them a message by way of a depressed vote. After all, by failing to act, they fail us. They should not expect our support for failing to come to the aid of our state parks. They will find $9.2 billion this coming year to lock people up in the prisons. Surely they can find $22 million (0.24% — or about 2.5 one-thousandths of $9.1 billion) to keep 278 state parks open and within the Department of Parks and Recreation control and operation. We need our voices raised to say: “Yes, we dare to go there!”

* * *

PS. On Monday, I received the following responses from Assemblyman Huffman and Tom Roth, Senator Evans’ Chief of Staff.

Dear Mr. Graham,

Thanks for your note and your ongoing coverage of our efforts on saving state parks.  I appreciate your question/concern about the bill not going “all the way” in terms of just coming out and legislating that all 70 of the parks must stay open effective immediately and restoring the $11-22M needed to do that.  But I disagree with your premise that we are whistling past the graveyard (“little or nothing in the legislation targets the existing decision to close 70 parks”).

First, regarding my bill, I can assure you that my goal is not just to save a few parks, but to save ALL of them – and to do much more than that.   I’m trying to look ahead and position the entire parks system for more funding/support/stability once we get past this park closure fiasco.    And the bill does not acquiesce to 25 park closures – it articulates a clear state policy that any park closure is an option of last resort that can only be proposed after a number of new and meaningful safeguards have been exhausted, and a more robust and transparent process followed.   In reality, this is going to make it extremely hard to close any park, much less 25 of them.  Plus, to your question regarding  the July 1st deadline, the fact that we passed out of committee with a 12-0 bipartisan vote is critical.  We can now add an urgency clause knowing that we should have the 2/3 vote necessary to pass the bill and have it take effect immediately.   That sends an important message to the administration, as well.

I continue to believe this bill outlines the strategic framework we need to save all of our parks and revitalize the whole system for the long haul.  There are many considerations – political, fiscal, timing, etc. -- that go into good legislative strategy.  One consideration you haven’t focused on is that the bill is not the only track on which I’m working.  I also sit on the Budget Committee and the specific Budget Subcommittee that deals with the parks budget.  The administration does NOT have legislative authorization for the final $11M in cuts that they proposed to achieve through parks closures, FYI.  They’ve proposed the closures anticipating legislative approval for the additional $11M in cuts.

It would be very easy to draft a bill that just mandated all parks remain open, or which appropriated a sum of money to the DPR budget for that purpose.  It would look good, and maybe feel good.  But it wouldn’t pass, certainly wouldn’t get signed, and therefore would only ensure that lots of parks close on July 1.  The combination of my bill, and my concurrent involvement in the budget committee process, plus a lot of continued good advocacy and hopefully good support from the media, seems like a better strategy to me.  I hope you’ll give it time to play out before declaring any particular part of this strategy to be inadequate.  People of good faith are working very hard to save our parks and I think we will be successful.

Sincerely, Jared Huffman

* * *

Re: Your questions on SB 974.

The bill as written will not prevent park closures July 1. We are working with others in the legislature on trying to keep our parks open, which will probably mean a budgetary solution.  SB 974 will ensure if closures take place and the Department of Parks and Recreation announces future closures, they will be done according to a transparent and legal process that will include looking at local environmental and economic impacts.

We believe that going through this process will force parks to admit that the closures make no sense and will cost the state more than it saves.   Even if we can find new revenue sources, with parks $1.3 billion deferred maintenance backlog, they still may need to cut their budget.  SB 974 will help make it plain that they need to look at other alternatives rather than closures.

— Tom Roth, Chief of Staff, Senator Noreen Evans, 2nd District, California

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