Public/Private partnerships. At last week’s meeting of the L.A. City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, the term kept bobbing like a life preserver grasped for by city agencies at risk of drowning in a violent tide of red ink. Councilman Bill Rosendahl, speaking of the Recreation and Parks department, said that in the absence of such partnerships “we’re not going to be able to sustain our parks, it’s as simple as that.” The other committee members who spoke–Paul Koretz, Greig Smith, and Chairman Bernard Parks–all nodded assent to Rosendahl’s declaration, apparently feeling no need to examine either its truth or its implications for the city’s future.
That’s too bad, because Rosendahl’s statement amounts to embrace of the idea that a large, modern, wealthy city will have to go hat in hand to corporate boardrooms in order to provide one of the most public and democratic–and many would say, essential–services to its citizens. In the picture painted by the silver tongue of Barry Sanders, the retired corporate lawyer and president of the Recreation and Parks Commission, this means some signs in the parks thanking Wells Fargo and Ralph’s and Taco Bell and whomever else rides to the rescue. “In my view, thanking a sponsor is not blight,” Sanders said. “A closed swimming pool on Monday is blight.”
Even Councilman Paul Koretz, who helped derail a scheme last fall to plaster signs with images from the Warner Bros. “Yogi Bear” movie throughout playgrounds in three city parks, agreed with Sanders on that point. Nobody asked the obvious question: Where is the line between thanking a sponsor and marketing movies and other products, and under what circumstances is it permissible to cross that line? Other questions could be suggested as well. Such as, what does it say about a city that grants multi-million dollar subsidies to luxury hotels to attract foreign tourists but can’t sustain the parks that are often the only recreational choice for its working-class citizens.
Instead, Sanders and the sympathetic committee members engaged in what has become a favorite sport around city hall—bashing City Attorney Carmen Trutanich. When the Yogi Bear plan first surfaced, Trutanich’s office issued an opinion that the signs—with images identical to ones used in marketing the movie and timed to its release—were advertising, and thus prohibited by the city’s sign code. At the Budget and Finance Committee meeting, councilman Greig Smith called this opinion “egregious,” Parks questioned whether it had any legal basis, and Koretz was moved to characterize it as an “extreme” position even though it helped save him from the wrath of constituents alarmed by the prospect of the vinyl Yogi Bears attached to playground fences, light standards, picnic tables, trash cans, and shelter roofs, put there with the obvious intent to create demand for the movie.
Sanders’s spin, treated as fact by unskeptical committee members, was that those images weren’t advertising anything because they didn’t include movie times or locations. He went on to promise that signs thanking sponsors will never be anything but tasteful, just as he did earlier this year even as the non-profit L.A. Parks Foundation was circulating marketing materials showing large swaths of signage with imagery for such products as Levi’s, Nike and 7-Up. Those materials, which can no longer be accessed from the foundation’s website, even included a “Rate Card” and demographic information emphasizing the number of children who would be using playgrounds. Potential “sponsors” were told they would get “Maximum exposure and name recognition at some of the busiest and most recognizable parks in the Los Angeles area” as well as “Opportunities to display, distribute and introduce your product or services.”
This is language plainly crafted to attract advertisers, no matter how vehemently Sanders, who is also chairman of the parks foundation, argues that what is proposed is just a way to thank corporations and others for stepping forth to help the city in its time of need. Trutanich’s office, which has had great success the past two years pursuing sign law violators, obviously grasps the difference, and the fact that Trutanich has rubbed some council members and downtown power players the wrong way shouldn’t have given Parks license to insult working attorneys in the office by questioning whether they had any legal grounds for their advice, or Smith and Koretz to label that advice with pejorative adjectives.
Would it be too much to expect that at least one of those committee members ask questions based on a common sense view of reality, which is that selling advertising space is being proposed as a way to help fund maintenance and operations at city parks and recreation facilities? To reject euphemism as a principle of public policy and honestly confront the implications of “public/private partnerships” as applied to the parks, meaning privatization and commercialization of the public realm?
But even if the city decides to proceed in this direction, someone ought to point out that such arrangements are hardly “partnerships” in the commonly accepted meaning of that term, where two entities join together in shared purpose and goals. A corporation’s purpose is to protect and increase the wealth of its shareholders, and its engagement in charitable and public service activities, no matter how laudable, fit within that purpose. A city’s purpose, on the other hand, is to protect and enhance the welfare of its citizens, which not only isn’t the same as a corporation’s purpose, but could conflict with it in very fundamental ways. Which is even more reason to have an honest, transparent discussion with extensive public input before following people like Sanders down what is anything but a straight and narrow path.