California State Parks and “Unbuilding” the Golden State

Friday, August 3, 2012

In a popular appearance on CNN’s “GPS” program last fall, arch-Keynesian economist Paul Krugman wondered whether a possible route to greater government spending would be to concoct a story about an imminent Martian invasion: “If we discovered that space aliens were planning to attack and we needed a massive buildup to counter the space alien threat and really inflation and budget deficits took secondary place to that, this slump would be over in 18 months. And then if we discovered, oops, we made a mistake, there aren't any aliens, we'd be better”.

Amongst the myriad ethical, political, and economic problems with this proposal, is the very simple fact that thinkers like Krugman are never around when it’s time to dismantle his imagined “Department of Earth-Land Security”. As Ronald Reagan quipped, “a government bureau is the closest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.”

The recent machinations over the discovery of $54 million in “hidden assets” at the California Department of Parks and Recreation (which oversees the Golden State’s public parks turn the Princeton prof’s scenario on its head. The department, which was tasked by Governor Jerry Brown with closing 70 of its 278 parks last fall, worked with Marin County Assemblyman Jared Huffman to craft AB 42 – a measure signed in to law by the governor – which eased regulations in operations agreements between local civic organizations and individual parks.

As I wrote here, the new law seemed to point to a “new normal” approach to public service delivery as cash-strapped governments enter in to new relationships with both the civic and private sectors to maintain “public services” even when they can no longer be the sole provider.

AB 42 has enabled dozens of agreements between state parks and local non-profit organizations that believe they can keep these treasured resources open through a mixture of more creative marketing and keeping personnel costs lower. At last count, 68 of the 70 parks on the closure list are staying open due to this incredible civic engagement.

It has been a series of immense efforts by “everyday” Californians taking on new responsibilities. As Linda Goldstein from the California State Parks Foundation recently described these collaborations: “The community has been working really hard to find solutions to keep our parks open.”

Passionate volunteers across the state have uncovered inventive solutions by Californians, unconstrained by the “this is the way we’ve always done it”-mentality pervasive in most bureaucracies (public and private sector). As Elisa Stancil of the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association, which assumed operations at Jack London State Historic Park in April, said of state management: “The state had no business plan.”

These initiatives remind me of the recent story about the University of California-Berkeley’s baseball program, which, for budgetary reasons had been slated for termination following the 2011 season. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, faced with this fate, coach David Esquer put together a business plan for the program, which involved exhibition games and a broad fundraising strategy. The team was able to raise its nearly $10 million over a decade goal, and Cal Chancellor Robert Birgeneau gave the program its well-earned reprieve. As alum, current pro baseball player, and fundraising volunteer Brennan Boesch said at the time, “If you have enough people that are passionate enough, you can take power away from university and put it in the hands of people that care more about the program.”

Which brings us back to a question: what if you wanted to inspire Californians to participate more deeply in the services they care about?

And you couldn’t use Martians . . .

While the outrage directed at the state parks’ fiscal mismanagement is legitimate and should be investigated, shouldn’t we also take time to celebrate one of the largest civic engagement efforts (again, these closures were meant to save $50 million) in state history?

Most acknowledge that even with access to some of these “uncovered” funds, many if not most of the parks currently on the state “hit list” will remain there. This is one-time only cash, and the state has a chronic budget issues.

When reasons for this mismanagement are fully revealed, the state will still be billions in deficit. The “new normal” environment where public services are actually facilitated by the public continues. With the recent release of a report by the State Budget Crisis Task Force on the dire fiscal condition of state governments (California in particular), Democrat co-chair, Richard Ravitch noted, “The ability of the states to meet their obligations to public employees, to creditors and most critically to the education and well-being of their citizens is threatened.”

Importantly, the report noted that the math problems that are state budgets are forcing these governments to pull back from offering the full suite of services they have in the past: “This is a fundamental shift in the way governments have responded to recessions and appears to signal a willingness to ‘unbuild’ state government in a way that has not been done before.”

Remember the word “unbuild”, Californians. It’s something that we will be hearing and seeing a lot of in the coming years – particularly at the local level where cities like San Bernardino, Stockton and Compton are demonstrating what happens to municipalities that can’t “unbuild” quickly enough.

On the positive side, cities have greater flexibility and deeper local civic connections to create these new service delivery structures. Community foundations, business organizations, and entrepreneurial “Friends of . . .” groups are springing up around the state to maintain education quality, recreation programs – and, yes, parks. California cities have been leading the way in pension reform; they are doing the same in creative program relationships.

Governments unbuilding? The phrase must sound like fingernails on the chalkboard to Krugmanites. But as is being demonstrated throughout the state, just because our governments are unbuilding doesn’t mean necessarily that the services are ended. Californians (not Martians) are building a new way out of this “new normal”.

Pete Peterson is executive director of Pepperdine University’s Davenport Institute for Public Engagement and Civic Leadership