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California and the West

Wilson Names New Chief for State Festival

History: Governor appoints Secretary of State Bill Jones to take over 150th birthday celebration after charges that previous management was in disarray.

March 25, 1998|ERIC LICHTBLAU | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gov. Pete Wilson moved Tuesday to reinvigorate the state's floundering 150th birthday celebration, putting a new management structure in place in response to charges that planning for the once-ballyhooed commemoration has become costly and inept.

Billed as a "mid-course adjustment," the restructuring mollified critics in Sacramento at least temporarily, as members of a state Assembly committee dropped a threatened attempt to cut off nearly $1 million in public funds for the planning of the three-year celebration, which recently began.

Wilson named Secretary of State Bill Jones to oversee the anniversary, and Jones said he is determined to overcome the problems that have slowed the effort and "to make this an event that will celebrate the uniqueness of California."

Earlier this year, California began the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush and the rise to statehood with a festival in Coloma, site of the gold discovery at Sutter's Mill. More than 500 events are planned in all, including traveling history exhibits, a gold panning competition, and a San Francisco-to-San Diego tall ships race.

But the Wilson-appointed commission charged with coordinating that effort has come under fire in recent months for alleged mismanagement. Planners for local events in the Gold Country have complained about a lack of support, high-paid consultants failed to raise much in the way of private contributions, and even the 1999 tall ships race--a signature event in the celebration--appeared near collapse because of a lack of funding.

After a legislative task force produced a report in February that was highly critical of the sesquicentennial effort, the Wilson administration attacked the report as partisan politics. But Wilson's spokesman Sean Walsh acknowledged Tuesday that the previous planning structure "had been lacking a leadership and direction."

With Jones named to lead the effort, he said, "we want to have the A-team in there."

The sesquicentennial commission--which had significant independence under the old setup--will now act in an advisory capacity, reporting to Jones. Its former director retired earlier this year, and the No. 2 man is being reassigned shortly, officials said.

Officials said the restructuring has already produced results: a $2-million contribution toward the tall ships event from Mervyn's, announced Tuesday. The department store chain had been hesitant to commit to the project until it was satisfied that a more solid management system was being put in place, officials said.

Before that contribution, the sesquicentennial's fund-raising arm had only raised a few hundred thousand dollars from the private sector--far short of the multimillion-dollar goals it had set for itself.

The Mervyn's contribution "is a great vote of confidence for us," said state Librarian Kevin Starr, who will continue in his role as chairman of the sesquicentennial commission. "Now that other corporations know that one company has stepped to the plate for $2 million, I think that gives us a real advantage. Many of the corporations we'd talked to before had said, 'Well, who else has stepped in?' I'm just thrilled by this."

Assemblyman Mike Machado (D-Linden), who heads a committee that has explored charges of ineptitude in the sesquicentennial planning, said he was encouraged by the reorganization.

Under the old system, he said, "there were no clear lines of direction [at the commission], there was no accountability to anyone but themselves, and there was very weak leadership. . . . I think this goes a long way toward solving that."

Indeed, Richard Steffen, senior consultant to the state task force that blasted the sesquicentennial efforts, said having a high-ranking elected official in charge will be a welcome change.

"The best thing about the plan is there's somebody to blame now who's high profile," he said. "The political pressure will ensure that something happens."

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