State Parks official returning to Hearst Castle after suspension following Gaga visit

ktanner@thetribunenews.comFebruary 26, 2014 

The two-week banishment of the State Parks superintendent put on paid administrative leave following pop star Lady Gaga’s filming at Hearst Castle has ended with no more explanation than it began.

Nick Franco, superintendent of the San Luis Obispo Coast District, will return to work by Friday, Richard Stapler, spokesman for the state Natural Resources Agency, told The Tribune late Wednesday.

Franco said he hadn’t been officially notified yet, but says he’s looking forward to going back to work and is thankful for all the support he’s received.

The state has not given a reason for the time-off order and declined to release any specifics, citing the need for confidentiality in personnel matters.

Filming for a Lady Gaga’s “creative project,” described as more than just a music video, took place at Hearst Castle on Feb. 12 and 13. Franco was put on paid administrative time off the next day. His total salary is listed as $131,000 in a state salary database.

Star comes to Castle

Gaga visited the Castle on Feb. 3 and was enthusiastic about the art there, especially antique ceilings imported by Hearst.

She sought permission to film and asked if the iconic outdoor Neptune Pool, which was partly drained, could be refilled. Water from the leaky 345,000-gallon pool, losing an estimated 5,000 gallons a day, was being used on Castle landscaping, with the idea the pool would remain empty until it had been patched and California’s drought is over.

Time was short; Gaga wanted to start production the next week. Initially, it appeared Gaga’s request would be turned down, sources say. Gov. Jerry Brown had declared a statewide emergency due to the drought Jan. 17. President Barack Obama was due to visit drought-stricken areas in California Feb. 14 and speak on the severity of the drought.

As part of the agreement to film at the Castle, permission for which is rarely granted by the Hearst Corp. and the Hearst Castle Preservation Foundation, Gaga said she would produce a water conservation video for the state and a promotional video for the foundation.

She paid the special event fee of more than $22,000, plus expenses; donated $250,000 to the Castle foundation; and contributed $25,000 to the Cambria Community Services District to pay for a study on a possible water source for the drought-stricken town.

Stephen Hearst, a vice president of the Hearst Corp., told Gov. Brown on Feb. 8 that he’d donate the water to top off the pool. All of the pool water would end up irrigating Castle landscaping, he said.

Videos upcoming

“The Lady Gaga event at Hearst Castle was a last minute but really important opportunity,” Remar Sutton of the preservation foundation said in an email. “Both California and the Castle have already received world-wide — and positive — publicity and we are still weeks away from the launch of Lady Gaga’s video and her public service efforts to publicize California’s water crisis.”

“We’re absolutely thrilled about what she’s done at the castle,” Stapler, the state agency spokesman, said of Gaga, “especially the water conservation message. Getting the word out about water conservation is hugely important.”

He said he expects the public service video to be released within a couple of weeks.

“It’s a really big deal, especially for younger folks, to hear about water conservation from someone they really look up to.”

Exactly what’s in the videos is “the 41-million tweet question,” Stapler said, referring to the number of Gaga’s followers on Twitter. “There was a lot of conversation about it, but we left it up to the artist. I’m actually kind of excited about seeing what it is.”

Sutton said, “This project happened because of the work of Nick Franco and so many other people in both State Parks and in the Governor’s office. The speed of this project, and its magnitude, led to a lot of confusion on all our parts. The Foundation is thankful the confusion is cleared up, and very thankful that Nick is back working on the team.”

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