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Pam Slater-Price has been the county’s loudest elected official cheerleading for arts and culture. Now she’s preparing to step out after 20 years, and the thought of a Slater-Price-shaped hole in county leadership is sparking concern in the arts community.

In a La Jolla auditorium last October, Kevin Chaisson, a longtime arts leader, outlined the challenge to about 100 insiders from San Diego museums, dance troupes, theater companies and musical ensembles.

“There’s huge amounts of money on the table for all of us in terms of funding from the county,” he said. “We have to make sure that her seat is definitely going to be a very arts-friendly individual.”

Since the late 1990s, Slater-Price has directed more than $10 million in county grants to arts and culture institutions, according to a review of county records. Money has flowed to arts even when county leaders made budget cuts.

For that, she’s achieved special standing in the local arts community, which has itself grown in prestige during her tenure. But her relationship with arts and culture has also made her a target.

One of the men angling for her seat, Steve Danon, wants to blow up the funds Slater-Price has used to finance arts. Arts insiders are grooming Dave Roberts, whom Slater-Price endorsed, but even he wants to change the programs.

Slater-Price’s departure leaves the arts community wondering who will be their next champion.

Herself a Republican, Slater-Price joined a mostly Republican board just a few years after a late-‘80s explosion of conservative attacks on national government arts funding.

Slater-Price said it didn’t take much to assume the local arts advocate mantle.

She’d held season tickets to the San Diego Symphony for years and led frequent trips of schoolchildren and Brownie troops to Balboa Park museums. When she got into office, she said she didn’t see anyone talking about the arts as economic driver, nor the way seeing a concert could change kids’ perspective, nor any of arts’ “spiritual and human value.”

“Since I was already going to so many different things, I would just talk about it,” she said.

Just talking about it grew into giving it money — more than $10 million during her tenure.

That’s about one-third of the money she’s overseen from two grant programs. The programs allow each supervisor to designate funds to nonprofits, schools, parks, libraries and arts.

Each supervisor gets $1 million pulled from the county’s general budget and about half a million dollars from hotel-room taxes to distribute to groups that apply each year. Though the whole board officially approves the allocations, each supervisor exercises discretion in prioritizing the money.

Slater-Price usually chooses to fund parks or nature preserves, animal protection, kids’ programs and the arts, but most of her top picks are arts. She’s given close to $3 million to San Diego Opera over the years, more than $1.6 million to The Old Globe, $1.4 million to the La Jolla Playhouse and nearly $800,000 to Mainly Mozart. Her non-arts favorites included the North County Animal Shelter and the San Elijo Lagoon Conservancy.

“In the arts world, she’s really our hero,” said Ann Campbell, development director of San Diego Opera.

Outside the arts world, that largesse drew criticism from people who saw the setup as a way for the politicians to curry favor.

‘As Opposed to Just Filling Potholes’

Slater-Price hasn’t been the lone arts funder; other supervisors have given to the arts. Dianne Jacob is the only supervisor who has not sent money to the opera or Mainly Mozart.

Meanwhile, Jacob directs most of her money to East County high schools and business groups. Ron Roberts has favored a Balboa Park sports museum, a global trade organization, golf training for kids and a tourism group. Greg Cox has funded libraries, business groups and parks in his district. Most of Bill Horn’s top designees are inland North County chambers of commerce.

Slater-Price has developed close friendships in the arts world. One friend, Nancy Laturno Bojanic, threw her a wedding reception at her Bonita home, one of several local parties for the supervisor and her husband, Hershell Price, after their Hawaii wedding in 2005.

Bojanic directs Mainly Mozart. She said she and Slater-Price have established ground rules that they don’t personally communicate about county funding; instead, Bojanic approaches Slater-Price’s staff, she said, and sometimes gets turned down.

“Nancy and I have many interests in common,” Slater-Price said. “I will remain friends with her long after I leave office.”

Slater-Price’s intersection with arts and culture has occasionally drawn scrutiny. For years, her name and photograph appeared in concert programs next to high-level lists of donors at some of San Diego’s most prestigious events.

But unlike the philanthropists she appeared beside, the donations that landed her there were county taxpayer dollars, not her personal wealth. Other supervisors received similar kudos for their grants. The whom-to-thank issue grew so large that the board revised the rule to insist recipients thank the county overall.

Slater-Price has also been criticized for being too close to organizations she funds.

She had to pay a state fine after she failed to report free tickets to The Old Globe and the San Diego Opera. She said it was an oversight and reimbursed the organizations personally. Mainly Mozart, brought her along on a trip to Austria. And people who run or work at many of the organizations she’s funded have donated to her campaigns.

County critics call the pots of money “slush funds” and say the program allows supervisors to reward their friends and campaign supporters.

The supervisors have made new rules for the programs several times. They say the grants help kids, incentivize tourism and make life better for their constituents. Even in years when they cut county staff in public safety and social services, the supervisors held onto their discretionary funding. They did, however, decrease the pot from the day-to-day operating budget — from $2 million each per year to $1 million each.

Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, said arts and culture attract new businesses and teach kids. But the societal importance goes beyond that, he said.

“It’s a way to mark our moments on this earth,” he said, “as opposed to just filling potholes.”

’Right Now It’s a Question of Priorities’

Some of the sharpest attacks have come from candidate Steve Danon, who wants to abolish the grants.

“Would you like to do everything for every group out there? I mean, who wouldn’t?” said Danon, Rep. Brian Bilbray’s chief of staff. “Do I think it’s worth $10,000 to be given to the San Diego Guild of Puppetry?”

I asked him what that specific grant, which Slater-Price made in 2004, signifies.

“I use that as an example that, as much as arts and culture’s important, right now it’s a question of priorities,” he said.

He had the opportunity to see the programs from the inside when he served as Supervisor Ron Roberts’ chief of staff. But he declined to say whether he’d had any conversations then with his boss about the problems with the grants he now trumpets. Even if he had, he said, those conversations would be private.

Slater-Price said social service programs are black holes the county could throw all of its money at and still not solve. San Diego County ranks among the lowest of large California counties at providing an economic safety net for its neediest residents, and Slater-Price and her fellow supervisors have historically resented the state for requiring programs but not providing enough money to distribute them.

She said it was important to continue the grants to parks, nonprofits and arts even while the board made budget cuts elsewhere.

“I certainly would not say it was a ‘let them eat cake’ situation. I do not think that the arts are a frivolous activity,” she said. “I vehemently disagree that it’s simply some sort of elite entertainment.”

Danon knows it’d be tough to convince the other four to kill the grants. He wants to at least appoint a vetting committee for the grants and organizations. To help arts and culture, he wants to use his office to connect private corporate and philanthropic money with needs.

Having faced Danon’s attacks for years, Slater-Price endorsed a Democrat, Solana Beach councilman Dave Roberts. Now he’s the arts world’s heir apparent.

Danon and Roberts had a close showing in Tuesday’s primary election, with Danon netting 32.8 percent of the vote and Roberts 31.6 percent. The two will progress now to November in a head-to-head matchup.

Choreographer Jean Isaacs met Slater-Price when the supervisor’s daughter, now grown, took dance classes. Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theatre has received nearly $390,000 from the supervisors over more than 10 years, around $350,000 of which Slater-Price designated.

Because of their tax-exempt status, nonprofit organizations can’t officially endorse one particular candidate. But their leaders and boards are homing in on arts-sympathetic ears.

“We’re all supposed to be not political,” Isaacs said. “But as a human being, who believes arts funding is important, I’m doing a fundraiser for Dave Roberts at my home.”

Roberts said he’d thoroughly examine the programs once inside, but he already knows he’d tighten application rules and ban gifts to the supervisors. He’s publicly proclaimed support for arts and culture as an economic engine.

Arts leaders have wondered for years whether the county should follow the city’s rigorous application process, in which an independent panel of arts experts publicly vet and rank institutions’ applications. They’ve not raised the issue loudly, for fear of biting the hand that feeds them.

But what if the person to take Slater-Price’s seat doesn’t favor the arts? As their county champion prepares to leave office, the question lingers.

“She’s the one who’s really kept the torch for the arts alive in the county,” Davies said. “What’s worrisome is that it’s so much based on the personal predilections of the office-holder.”

I’m Kelly Bennett, arts reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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