By Lucas O’Connor / Two Cathedrals / July 6, 2011
A new front opened last night in the saga of Balboa Park, with the Old Globe’s Executive Producer emailing the theater’s email list with a pitch for the Plaza de Panama Committee’s recommendations for park redesign and lobbying for theater patrons to contact their city councilmember. It reignites debate over Balboa Park’s future and sparks new ethical and pragmatic questions about the relationship between money and political lobbying efforts.
For starters, let’s be clear about what the Plaza de Panama Committee is. It’s chaired by Irwin Jacobs, a major Old Globe backer who pulled back his $33 million proposal to privately redesign the park after a city council vote rebuked the plan. The PdP Committee Board of Directors also includes Donald Cohn, the chairman of the board at The Old Globe and a major financial backer who spearheaded the Old Globe’s new Karen and Donald Cohn Education Center. In other words, the Executive Producer of the Old Globe is pitching for a plan put forth by some of his most vital financial backers, including the Chairman of the Old Globe Board of Directors.
Meanwhile, the Old Globe is currently the largest single recipient of grant money for arts programs from the City of San Diego. That means that while it’s collecting those tax dollars, it’s lobbying for private control over the redesign of public space because the city can’t afford to do otherwise. At the least, it’s an awkward intersection of funding priorities.
Let’s also note that the Old Globe’s pitch makes little sense on its face. It suggests that many park patrons are only able to reach the park by driving across Cabrillo Bridge and would otherwise be “completely cut off” from Balboa Park. It also lobbies for a plan that would route traffic away from the theater through the Alcazar parking lot, but argues that the same Alcazar lot is too far to provide drop-off access for patrons. It just doesn’t hang together.
Is The Old Globe wrong for weighing in on this? Not necessarily. Whether it steps over the ethical line is a judgment call, and receiving tax dollars isn’t an automatic disqualifier from political participation. But this does highlight the fundamental conflict in relying on private philanthropy to keep the city running. Without an effective, independent government to mediate on these issues, public/private funding models for basic civic goods are doomed from the start. Where does it end?
What happens when philanthropists offer to pay for more teachers at new charter schools, but insist that the teachers not be allowed to unionize and the student body be whites-only? What happens when private benefactors offer to pay for that major new road that’s needed to spur new economic development, but say that no women are allowed to drive on their road?
Are these hyperbolic possibilities? Maybe in the immediate term, but is it really a stretch to imagine the arguments that we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and better education for whites or better job opportunities for men would be better than nothing at all? Right now in Illinois, where same-sex civil unions were recently legalized, Catholic orphanages are refusing to place children with same-sex couples. If these religious organizations refuse to provide a public service if they’re forced to adhere to civil rights laws they disagree with, are local governments prepared to fund replacement institutions? Will taxpayers want to foot an optional bill over civil rights issues? Where does the slippery slope stop?
How about more commercially-driven challenges? What if, instead of a long-standing San Diego philanthropist, it was Wal-Mart offering to fund the full renovation of Balboa Park in exchange for zoning leniency or advertising inside the park? What if Anheuser-Busch offered to pay for all police, lifeguards and other safety personnel for San Diego beaches in exchange for the city amending the booze ban to allow beach-goers to consume exclusively Anheuser-Busch products? San Diegans have already mandated that city services be compared against private sector alternatives, what is the cognitive leap to this level of corporate sponsorship?
This isn’t a failure of philanthropists or philanthropic companies. It’s reasonable to expect input and hope for favor in exchange for their gifts. It’s a failure of the city government for not yet even trying to come up with a workable model to bring in private support without abandoning public input. It’s the absence of any political figure in San Diego discussing the consequences of budget cuts ad infinitum without commitment to developing new revenue sources.
This has been called the dissolving or “unbundling” city, but without political leadership that steps outside the Two Santa Claus problem, is rapidly transforming into civic nihilism. Until anyone is willing to argue the benefits of buying public goods at wholesale prices, the difference between most beneficial and most profitable, the necessity of private investment serving the public interest, we’ll be stuck on this same dead-end track.