State Parks superintendent deserves praise, not blame, for Lady Gaga shoot

Joe Tarica is the senior editor for The Tribune. Reach him at or on Twitter @joetarica.
Joe Tarica is the senior editor for The Tribune. Reach him at or on Twitter @joetarica.

If the brouhaha over Hearst Castle refilling the Neptune Pool for Lady Gaga showed us anything, it’s that government often truly does work best on a local level, when creative people are allowed to do their jobs.

You may disagree with me if you’re a Cambria resident who’s been forced to save shower water to feed your plants, but the fact is that nothing untoward occurred in this instance even as an upstanding State Parks district superintendent was scapegoated in some silly public relations move.

That’s the only explanation I see for the administrative leave and poor treatment bestowed upon Nick Franco, who for his work engineering the deal with Gaga should have received handshakes and pats on the back, not a slap on the wrist.

In a matter of 10 days, he was able to orchestrate a wonderful bit of exposure for the Castle, which, up until nearly the very last minute, remained in doubt thanks to meddling by jittery higher-ups in State Parks who were worried about the flak they’d receive over the image of its famous pool being refilled for a pop star at the same time the state was in a major drought and planning a visit by President Obama.

All of this occurred because they couldn’t trust a respected regional manager do his job and do it well – which was what was occurring until they butted in.

As documented in emails requested by The Tribune and The Cambrian, the original plan had Lady Gaga buying and trucking in 160,000 gallons to top off the leaky pool, whose water level had been allowed to drop in deference to the drought conditions.

I see nothing wrong with that. Water is a commodity, and if someone wants to buy it for a particular use and the water can be acquired in a reasonable fashion and the particular use will facilitate many worthwhile benefits for the state, go for it!

Even in a drought, this decision should not have been difficult to justify.

It was obvious from the contract that Lady Gaga would be compensating the people of California and the North Coast more than fairly for her use of the Castle, including providing $250,000 for art preservation, $22,000 for a special-event fee, $20,000 for staffing costs and $25,000 for a local water-use study. She had also agreed to record a public service announcement on water conservation.

Yet that wasn’t enough to satisfy image-sensitive State Parks administrators, who were threatening to kill the shoot.

Fortunately, at the last minute, Steve Hearst – great-grandson of media mogul William Randolph Hearst and vice president and general manager of Hearst Corp.’s western properties – stepped in with another idea, offering to fill the pool with water from the Hearst Ranch that would normally be used for landscaping. When the shoot was done, that same water could then still be used to irrigate plants.

Apparently that idea was sufficient, and the bigwigs signed off at midnight Saturday, securing approval from the governor’s office on Sunday, the very day Gaga’s crew began arriving.

Nevertheless, as all of this was going on, the PR boss for State Parks was sending out touchy, unwarranted emails.

One said that the decision to top off the pool with ranch water had not been authorized by State Parks leadership or the governor. Another cut Franco out of the media loop, routing all management of the message through Sacramento. He was effectively removed from any involvement in the shoot.

Ultimately, the production went off on schedule and with great success, and had the story ended there, we could chalk all this up to the difficulties of carrying out long-distance negotiations with various parties in a tight window of time.

But it didn’t stop there.

Shortly after the shoot, State Parks made the supremely galling decision to put Franco on leave with pay, and although no one is saying why, only the most naïve person would believe it was due to anything other than the Gaga episode.

That punitive move simply went too far.

As the emails show, at no point was Nick Franco operating outside the boundaries of his job. At no point, was he anything but polite and sincere in assisting the process. At no point did he do anything unreasonable to warrant a suspension.

Yet the man who deserved the most credit from his bosses instead got thrown under the bus, while the governor himself was sending off an ironic thank-you note to Gaga, applauding her for helping increase water conservation awareness.

Still, in an example of ultimate class, after returning to work, Franco assured his staff that all was fine:“No harm, no foul, just a little bump in the road.”

He was being too kind, and I suppose he had to. But the fact is, State Parks administrators should be ashamed of themselves.

I don’t know if Franco got an apology as he was being sent home to get paid not to work, but he certainly deserved one.

And did it occur to anyone that this move itself was more of a waste of precious resources than anything involved with the filming itself?

Apparently not, and it’s too bad that the “little bump in the road” left Franco with tire tracks on his forehead.

Even today, he is not allowed to comment on the Gaga project, despite the fact that his collegial approach and fine effort warrant better treatment than that.