State Parks Scandal Rocks the Not-So Golden State

After a year of drama over the possible closure of dozens of state parks due to California’s on-going budget crisis, the director of the agency has resigned after the revelation that almost $54 million in taxpayer funds may have been hidden from state lawmakers.

The Sacramento Bee reports that Ruth Coleman, director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, resigned yesterday (July 21) morning after officials learned the department had been holding a nearly $54 million surplus for as long as 12 years. At least one subordinate, chief deputy Michael Harris, has been fired, according to Clark Blanchard, a spokesman for the secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department.

“This is in light of the fund balances that just in the last 48 hours have come to light,” Blanchard said yesterday.

“This money is obviously one-time money and we will be working with the Legislature to see how to best use it.”

The attorney general’s office is investigating and state finance officials will conduct an audit, Blanchard told the Associated Press.

Coleman said she was unaware of the surplus but accepted responsibility for the accounting problem.

“I am personally appalled to learn that our documents were not accurate,” she wrote in her resignation letter released by the governor’s office.

Anza-Borrego State Park south of the Coachella Valley is favorite with Snowbirds and weekenders from San Diego. Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Officials said Gov. Jerry Brown accepted Coleman’s resignation and has appointed California Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland as acting interim director of the department.

The shake-up comes at a time when state lawmakers and park advocates have been trying to find ways to keep most parks open despite ongoing budget cuts. Last month, park officials announced most of the parks once slated to close would remain open.

These departures come amid a recently revealed scandal involving the deputy director at State Parks, Manuel Thomas Lopez, who allegedly carried out an employee vacation buyout program that cost the state more than $271,000 at a time when the department, thought to be nearly broke, considered closing up to 70 state parks.

The Bee says investigations are underway by the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Finance. How and why “the Department of Parks and Recreation squirreled away so much money for so long,” is still not known.

The state parks and recreation fund, which is generated from park fees and rentals, held $20.4 million more than was reported. The off-highway vehicle fund, which is generated from registering ATVs and similar types of vehicles, held $33.5 million more than reported.

The surplus money was discovered after The Bee submitted a Public Records Act request for fund data on Wednesday.

California operates 279 parks, which include famous beaches to redwood forests. The parks that were at risk of closure got a reprieve last month after the governor signed a bill allocating new funds for the beleaguered parks system for the next year. The state has also reached agreements with nonprofits, local governments, and others to keep 40 parks open at least for a few years

Salton Sea State Recreation Area is one of 70 state parks originally scheduled for closure. Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

John Laird, who leads the California Natural Resources Agency, expressed regret for a sweeping fund-raising effort to preserve state parks even though the department responsible for them had socked away $54 million in unreported revenue, the LA Times reports.

“I’m deeply disappointed and feel truly sorry for everyone who was involved without this being known,” Laird said.

Some of those donors reacted angrily yesterday when they learned that the parks system had a hidden surplus that has accumulated for at least a dozen years.

“It disgusts me,” said Myra Hilliard, who donated and helped raise money for the Pio Pico State Historic Park in Whittier.

“Is anybody honest about anything anymore? Here we are working so hard to keep the park open and they have all this money they aren’t telling us about.”

Hilliard said elementary school students even held a bake sale to raise $120 after being told the park might close. The park costs $80,000 to keep open for one year.

Worth Pondering…

There’s nothing wrong with Southern California that a rise in the ocean level wouldn’t cure.

—Ross MacDonald, author (1915-1983)

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