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Theme Parks Absent From Forum

Regulation: Critics contend the no-show is a boycott. The meeting covers proposed rules for enacting a strict safety law.

March 29, 2000|E. SCOTT RECKARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — Walt Disney Co., Universal Studios Inc. and other amusement park operators failed to show up Tuesday at a public forum called by state officials to go over proposed rules for a new law regulating the industry.

Their absence prompted critics to contend that the parks were boycotting the meeting, possibly because news reporters were present to hear how wide the gulf is between the proposed rules and what the parks want.

Rules are needed to implement the strict state law that calls for safety regulations, annual inspections of rides and reporting of accidents on rides.

The parks' lack of participation limited a scheduled two days of proceedings to a few hours, and contrasted with a similar January forum at which park officials and lobbyists spent two days trying to weaken the impact of the regulations.

No journalists attended the earlier meeting. Those at Tuesday's meeting appeared to outnumber the few representatives of major California parks.

Disneyland spokesman Ray Gomez would not explain why his company skipped the meeting, but said, "Don't read too much into it."

"We remain actively involved in the negotiations, and there will be ample time to provide comment later," he said.

But activist Kathy Fackler, whose son's foot was severely injured on a Disneyland roller coaster, said outside the auditorium that their absence was no coincidence.

"It's just really, really frustrating," said Fackler, who has lobbied for greater disclosure of amusement park injuries. "When you're here, they aren't--or else they aren't saying anything."

The absence left the floor open for the law's ardent supporters such as Victoria Nelson, whose 18-year-old daughter died from a 1997 accident at a Concord water park. Nelson said regulators have gone too far by proposing that park operators use their own experts for annual inspections after the state makes an initial "baseline" inspection.

"Hiring someone to inspect yourself is a conflict of interest. People won't bite the hands that feed them," she said. "I have lost the life of my precious daughter. . . . I will spend the rest of my life fighting to keep the lives of other children safe."

Listening silently and taking notes was Boyd Jensen, a lawyer for Premier Parks Inc., the Oklahoma company that operates four Six Flags parks in California. His only unsolicited comment was in response to assertions that the parks had boycotted the forum.

"The parks have been here," he told Len Welsh, the deputy labor commissioner presiding at the meeting. "We packed the place last time."

When Welsh asked Jensen to comment on changes that had been made in the proposed regulations--many of them in response to the parks' comments at the earlier meeting--Jensen declined. "I'll do so at the appropriate time," he said.

Complained Welsh: "Now we're not getting any feedback at all."

In an interview before the meeting, Jensen had taken the industry's stance that its own experts should make the initial inspections of ride operations under the new law. The regulators insist that state employees or experts hired by the state should make that crucial first inspection to set a "baseline" for annual inspections.

But Boyd said the state, which currently employs just four ride inspectors who monitor portable carnivals, won't be able to provide adequate training to the 20 additional inspectors needed to police permanent amusement parks.

The operators of large parks also are seeking to limit the amount of information available directly to the public about accidents by having reports available only to regulators who visit the parks.

By contrast, the regulators want all state investigations and findings--except for photographs and trade secrets--made open to public scrutiny.

They want any incident involving "serious medical concern" to be reported. But the parks want to limit such disclosures to death, dismemberment, permanent disfigurement and hospitalization lasting 24 hours or more.

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