Monday, August 21, 2006

Picnics and Politics: What are they thinking?

Blaines San Angelo Picnic was back in the news after the City Councils recent decision on BYOB at ticketed events. Since that happened, I have been asked repeatedly: What were they thinking?

This really has little to do with the final decision. Blaines picnic was becoming a unique event that attracted tourists and benefited groups such as 4H, United Blood Services, etc.. At the same time the true economic impact was mostly extra work for bottom of the wage scale jobs like hotel maid, waitress, and convenience store clerk. Nobody can deny that there were problems. This years picnic was not what most people would call family friendly. Changes were necessary. What I find interesting is not the decision, but how it was eventually arrived at, and the perceptions that people are left with. I think it is important to highlight a number of the "what were they thinking?" moments that led up to the recent decision.

The problems at this years picnic were nothing new. Trash, arrests, rowdy conduct, drugs, etc. were at previous picnics but were not as noticeable because cleanup always happened the next day. Even the household furniture was not a problem because the cleanup crew either donated it to some group or disposed of it some other way. This worked well until this year. Someone had the bright idea that the city could get extra money by having Blaine pay the city for cleanup and using free prisoner labor to cleanup after the weekend. The resulting pictures of the trashed river stage area are definitely a "what were they thinking" moment. The answer is simple. The city government had done what governments and organizations at all levels do. They took a multi-dimensional problem and reduced it to a single dimension: Money. The page one photos of the aftermath did show that money was not the only, or even the most important, consideration but by that time the damage had been done. Blaines successful money making picnic was now an embarrassing problem that couldn't be ignored.

The aftermath of the picnic revealed another "“what were they thinking"” area. When the citizens outraged by the trash started digging, they discovered the public safety problems. There were numerous arrests during the picnic and as people were leaving. The descriptions of drug use, under age drinking, lewd conduct presented at the next council meeting were disturbing. There were problems, but not significantly more than in prior years. It's interesting that outside one letter to the editor last year, the biggest complaint had been the shortage of porta-potties. The security at this years picnic was also different with sheriff's deputies doing the security that was previously done by SAPD officers, mostly because they gave Blaine a better price. There have been attempts to say the deputies didn't do as good a job, but if the arrests reported for both events are accurate, then there was really little difference. Still it is one of those decisions that when a problem occurs make people ask "what were they thinking."

Now we come to the most amazing part of this whole process: how they came up with "the solution."” Once the trash made the news, the council put the picnic and river stage policies on the agenda. The May 16th meeting showed that city staff really had no good answers for the concerns raised. The fact that cleanup had been delayed to save money looked foolish next to the pictures of the area. The fact that arrests were not really much higher than previous years only made people ask why this wasn't fixed before. Then someone remembered that there is a civic events board that is supposed to set policies and regulations for city owned facilities like the river stage. So the problem was handed off to a different board for study and recommendation. The heat was off of the city council for a while, but there was still no solution.

The Civic Events Board is 9 advisors appointed by city council to develop policies and regulations that the council has to approve. Most of the time, they try to come up with ways the city facilities can be used more frequently and make more money. Policies that affected cleanup, furniture, and alcohol haven't changed for years. Most of the time, board membership is a part time, low risk, position. The only qualification is someone that wants to be involved and help the city. This group of well meaning volunteers was handed this hot potato. I was at the CEB's June 26th meeting, and by that time the problem of how to have a safe, family friendly picnic with quality live entertainment had transformed into how do we prevent under age and problem drinking. They already had a prepared plan that called for the elimination of BYOB at all ticketed events. There was discussion of alternative controls and rules, led mostly by the Mayor, but at the end of the meeting they put forward the proposal with a ban on BYOB at ticketed events. As the meeting broke up, most of the board members were confident they had "“solved the Blaine's Picnic Problem." The fact that Blaine had said he wouldn't put on a picnic that was not BYOB was met with "good riddance."” They had been embarrassed and weren't going to let that happen again.

Almost 2 months after the CEB meeting, their proposed rules were presented to the council. I thought that in that amount of time, supporters of the picnic could have organized themselves and presented an effective and workable alternative to a complete ban on BYOB. There were a number of supporters of a picnic that was BYOB but outside of various suggestions made by the Mayor and some supporters, there was no coherent or organized plan put forth except for the ban. No one effectively made the point that the ban wouldn't solve the problem, it would just move it to a different location. In the end, the council took the easy way out. The approved the advice of the board they had appointed specifically to advise them on such matters. I look back on what happened so far still have to ask "“what were they thinking?"

Blaine Martin has been conspicuously absent from this process. I couldn't understand this for a while, but this is really not his problem. What we have is people in the local government that finally woke up to a bad situation. They were embarrassed by the results of their habit of reducing all decisions to a question of money. They made sure that Blaine won't embarrass them at the River Stage next year. Any unintended consequences were never presented coherently enough to be considered

After eight successful picnics, Blaine will have no problem finding someone willing to host his picnic. We know that none of the larger west Texas cities has a wide open BYOB policy, but there are plenty of private sites just out of town that would be fine for a picnic like Blaine's. Instead of having the picnic in town where realistic rules can be applied, where both sheriffs department and police department resources can be used the picnic will likely be held at a location with little required security and from which drunks will drive back to town.

I am sure that by this time next year I won't be the only one asking "What Were They Thinking?"


  1. Maybe they were thinking "How can we get rid of young people's fun?" It's pretty disappointing that anything family oriented gets nixed, like the waterpark possibility several years ago. If they want San Angelo to be a "retirement community", fine. Just make sure they advertise it, so we won't expect family fun to be here.

  2. To be fair, part of what they were thinking was that the picnic was far from family oriented. They were also thinking that under age drinking was not what they wanted to promote as young peoples fun.

    There is also the question of how much sense there is to a water park on the edge of a desert during a water shortage.