State Parks needs an even policy

It may be a well-intended policy aimed at building community partnerships, but giving State Parks officials the discretion to waive rental fees for private events at Hearst Castle and other popular venues is a bad idea.

No matter how thoughtfully and judiciously the policy is applied, by its nature it leaves officials open to accusations of showing favoritism to the powerful and well connected. State Parks administration should revisit its rules as soon as possible to ensure that everyone is treated equitably.

Some background: As reported in a California Watch story published in Sunday’s Tribune, $611,000 in special event fees at Hearst Castle were waived over the past decade. That’s almost double the approximately $322,000 in fees that were actually collected during that period.

State Parks officials say there’s more to the story.

Many of those special events were actually fundraisers that generated nearly $1.4 million in donations for the Castle.

Also, events raise the profile of the Castle, generating more visitors and, in turn, more customers for local businesses.

That’s true, and for the record, we agree that fees should be waived for the special events held for the express purpose of raising funds for Hearst Castle and other parks.

Nor would we object to giving a price break to nonprofit organizations holding events for other worthy causes, such as the Best Buddies program championed by former California first lady Maria Shriver.

We do question, though, the decision to waive or dramatically reduce fees for weddings, birthday parties and other private events, such as the two birthday parties hosted last year by Jack O’Connell, the former state superintendent of public instruction.

While he made a large donation to Friends of Hearst Castle, O’Connell paid no permit fees for two private birthday celebrations. Those fees would have amounted to $44,200, according to California Watch.

Not that O’Connell necessarily knew that he was getting a price break; he told California Watch that he wasn’t aware that he was not charged the full fee.

“I paid what was asked,” said O’Connell, who made two donations to Friends of Hearst Castle, one for $10,000 and a second for $5,000.

Accepting donations in lieu of fees may have the net effect of funneling more money to the worthy cause of maintaining Hearst Castle, but we’re concerned about the lack of transparency and the potential for abuse.

There should be an ironclad rule that hosts of birthday parties, weddings and other private functions be charged a uniform rate, with no special favors for the politically connected or for employees, for that matter. (The notable exception being the Hearst family, which is allowed, by deed, to hold events at the Castle at no charge.)

Otherwise, it will cast further suspicion on a state parks system already undermined by scandals — the most recent being the “discovery” of $54 million in State Parks revenue kept hidden even as parks were threatened with closure.

We strongly urge State Parks administration to clarify its fee policies for special events at all parks — not just Hearst Castle — and to enforce them in a uniform manner that will remove even the appearance of favoritism.