Scandal Puts Calif. Parks Agreements in Limbo
For months, the city of Benicia, Calif., has been working with the California state parks department on an agreement to keep the Benicia State Recreation Area open.
According to the Bay Citizen, San Francisco, the park was one of 70 parks around the state slated to close after the state cut $22 million from the parks department budget last year.
But two weeks ago, an investigation revealed the department has been sitting on a $54 million surplus for several years. The director of the agency, Ruth Coleman, quickly resigned, and its chief deputy director, Michael Harris, was fired. The agency’s chief counsel, Ann Malcolm, also left.
“Now, we don’t know who is going to sign (the agreement),” said Mario Giuliani, economic development manager for the city.
Across the state municipalities like Benicia and nonprofits like the Benicia State Parks Association, which are working to sign agreements with the parks department to keep parks open, don’t know what will happen to those efforts.
“Up in the air,” is how Bob Berman, board vice president of the Benicia State Parks Association, described the status of the Benicia agreements.
According to the state parks department, it has signed deals with nonprofits and government agencies to keep 42 parks open. However, it has not finalized agreements that would prevent more than 20 others from closing, including the two in Benicia.
State park officials said they hope to complete those deals.
“We are going to continue working with them in good faith for potential agreements,” said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for California state parks department.
Under its proposed agreement, Benicia had planned to pay the state $15,500 a year to keep water flowing to drinking fountains and a native plant garden, collect trash and maintain two portable toilets at the recreation area.
But now the city wants to make those payments in quarterly installments, hedging its bets in hopes of seeing some of the department’s budget surplus.
“We want to be in a position where we can recover some of that money,” said Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, acknowledging that it will take time for the state to determine how the surplus can be spent. “It does take a while to get some action from the legislature and the governor.”
In some cases, the proposed agreements would not restore all of the services the state has provided. In Benicia, the gates to the state recreation area’s parking lot would be closed, but walkers, runners and bicyclists would have access to the park.