Saturday, April 07, 2007

Alert: Naming proposal goes before City Council Wednesday

A while back I alerted readers to Portland Parks and Recreation’s plans to sell or grant naming rights to our public facilities to corporate sponsors or donors.

The “Nike Exercise Room” or the “Victoria’s Secret Swimming Pool” at the Southwest Community Center are two conceivable results.

Of course the same sell-off-the-Commons thinking has left us with “PGE Park.”

So here’s an action alert: This Wednesday, April 11, at 10:30 a.m., the parks bureau’s sponsorship and naming proposals go before the City Council in City Hall.

I’ll be there to testify. I hope you will too.

Here is what I intend to say—more or, as is likely, less…

Mr. Mayor and commissioners:

These proposals should be rejected because they are bad policy and bad precedent. If for some unimaginable reason you don’t find them so, you should reject them because they are couched in fuzzy language and establish inconsistent naming processes devoid of direct public representation.

Bad Policy

The policy underlying these proposals violates the public trust vested in government to safeguard the Commons. The Commons, lest we need to be reminded, consists of those places owned in common—hence the name. The Commons is such places such as public schools, rivers, streets, libraries, and—in the case before the Council—public parks, recreational facilities and community centers.

This nation was birthed in battle waged in and on the Commons—most notably the Lexington Green in 1775.

The Commons, as even these proposals demonstrate in their twisted way, has great value—monetary, historic and symbolic. In fact, the word “commonwealth” reflects that value.

We bestow on the commons names that we likewise value. Once, for instance, we had “a Civic Stadium” and a “Civic Auditorium.” They called us to a valued civic life, to civility, to civilization.

And what, may we ask, does a “PGE Park” connote? It shows that we are so devoid of financial creativity and fiscal resolve that we are willing to sell off the good names of The Commons.

And that is exactly what these proposals before you aim to do as well.

When we citizens vote for bond measures to improve the parks and construct community centers, we have no intention of providing, in the jargon of the “naming rights industry,” “opportunities” for corporations to impose their names on our common, civic treasure. Instead, we expect our elected leaders to anticipate and institute legitimate, uncompromising and engaging ways of maintaining public facilities. That is the job we elect you to do.

Bad Precedent

I fear that unless you act against these proposals today, the PGE Park naming and parks corporate namings and renamings will be established as precedents for more of the same.

If you don’t stop this practice once and for wall, what next?

Would the City Council allow Pioneer Courthouse Square to be named after a certain Seattle-based coffee giant? Would you permit a park glade to be named after a grass seed or fertilizer purveyor? Could the name of these very council chambers go on the block to a sneaker company or an undergarment manufacturer—all so that the floors are swept and the walls painted?

Bad process

Those presenting these proposals maintain that they have built in protections to prevent “inappropriate” naming and renaming.

But the guidelines before you are fuzzy and subjective, and the processes are inconsistent and exclude the most important stakeholders of all—Commons users and owners.

A few examples:

There is no consistency between the way sponsorship names are vetted and the way donors’ names are reviewed.

Large “sponsorship opportunities” (note the uncritical acceptance of the language of the trade) are approved by an unspecified “Senior Management Team.” After that, based on recommendations by the “Sponsorship Coordinator,” the “Marketing and Business Development Manager” decides what companies get to sponsor which “opportunities.” There is no provision what-so-ever for representation, or even say, in the process from the public.

Names for donors—corporate or otherwise—go through a committee. But that five-member committee has no member from outside the city bureaus and commissions, save a member of the Oregon Historical Society. Oh, “relevant” neighborhood associations (whatever “relevant” means in this context) can comment. An obvious question is: Why aren’t representatives of parks users on the committee? Indeed why shouldn’t they represent a majority of its membership?

The proposals are full of “in-the-eye-of-the-beholder” statements and general fuzziness:

The donation proposal says that “on occasion” the significance of a donation may “warrant acknowledging a gift by naming.” On WHAT occasion? The proposal doesn’t say.

The same proposal says, “Historical or commonly used place names will be preserved WHENEVER POSSIBLE.” What does that mean? Why doesn’t it simply say the names will be preserved PERIOD? When might it not be possible to preserve these honored names? Presumably when enough money is put on the table.

The same proposal says that the naming of a new park or facility will “engender a strong positive image.” Positive image to whom? Who is to decide? What if it engenders no image at all? What about the difference between “image” and reality? They often are not the same.

The proposal says that the new name “shall not result in UNDUE commercialization….” Many argue, as I am, that all commercialization is “undue” when it comes to the Public Commons.

On and on it goes.

For all these reasons, these proposals should clearly be rejected out of hand.

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