Over the years, California has added more parks to its state system than it can afford and should consider turning over control to local entities of the one-third that lack statewide significance, says a new analysis of problems that led to the threatened closure of 70 of the sites.
According to the Associated Press, the report released Monday (March 25) by the Little Hoover Commission even suggested that tourist favorite Hearst Castle might be better run by an operator such as the Getty Museum that is more versed in protecting the hilltop mansion’s European art collection.
While the outlandish Central Coast home of William Randolph Hearst is a major source of revenue, its upkeep exceeds the income it generates through ticket sales and the cost of needed maintenance is as high as $60 million.
“We have to take a fresh and rigorous look at the system from top to bottom,” said Stuart Drown, former executive director of the commission, a state oversight agency. “We need a new business model and fresh thinking.”
From the coast to the redwoods, the California parks system protects some of the most historic and breathtaking places in the world. For years, the department has allowed millions of dollars in maintenance problems to pile up as it struggled with shrinking budgets and a manager mindset unaccustomed to generating revenue or asking for help, the report said.
The commission began looking at the state park system a year ago. After decades of decreasing funding, a $22 million cut at the time from its $779 million budget threatened the closure of a quarter of the 278 parks in the system. Officials were unable to explain how the parks were chosen or the cost of operating individual sites.
The revelations — plus the discovery last year of a secret $54 million fund — damaged the public’s faith in the park system, even as dozens of volunteer groups were scrambling to raise funds and form partnerships to keep them open.
“The old model is obsolete,” the report said.
The commission is asking the governor and elected officials to give the parks department the tools, authority and flexibility required to develop a new operating model.
California state parks have finalized 10 matching fund partnership agreements to keep 10 state parks open and operating for the next two years.
The agreements are made possible by the AB 1478 Match Program, which appropriated $10 million back to the department to be used for matching funds in donor and operating agreements, YubaNet.com reported.
“State Parks’ partners and supporters are our strongest allies, and we thank their commitment to helping us to continue to serve the people of California and parks visitors by providing them with the best experience possible,” said Major General Anthony L. Jackson, director of California state parks. “We are encouraged by the positive outcome of these negotiations, and with the collaborative efforts of all parties involved to support parks across the state.”
Through AB 1478, the parks that were on the original list for closure receive priority for matching funds. Director Jackson noted the plan to close the 70 parks is in the past, stating: “If a future budget situation should require a reduction plan, I assure all that we will develop a new plan in an open and transparent fashion. The 70-park closure plan is not our plan for moving forward.”
In addition, 10 more agreements are pending and could be finalized soon.
Officials at the California attorney general’s office have reversed course and begun a deeper examination of the accounting scandal at the state parks department that could result in criminal charges.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the renewed probe was disclosed Wednesday (Feb. 20) during a legislative hearing on state parks. Previously, the attorney general’s office had concurred with a decision by the Sacramento County district attorney not to pursue a criminal case, much to the chagrin of some lawmakers.
During the hearing, state Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) asked why officials of the Department of Parks and Recreation weren’t facing criminal charges for hiding millions of dollars from the governor’s office and the Legislature.
“Fraud is a crime,” she said.
Peter Southworth, a supervising attorney general, said, “My office is still reviewing the matter,” but would not comment further. He also would not say whether Ruth Coleman, the former parks director who was ousted when the hidden money was revealed last year, would be subpoenaed as part of the inquiry.
“The decision was made to undertake a more thorough review,” Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said in a later statement.
The attorney general’s office released a report in January saying that some parks officials had deliberately hidden about $20 million of the $54 million surplus discovered in the department’s accounts. The rest was due to accounting discrepancies, the report said. However, Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully said the state’s review didn’t identify potential crimes or suspects.
A subsequent letter from Senior Assistant Attorney General Michael P. Farrell said state officials agreed with that decision.
“Nothing disclosed by any person … has prompted this office to commence a criminal investigation,” he wrote.
The central figure in one of the financial scandals that engulfed the California state parks department last year has agreed to pay a $7,000 civil penalty.
Manuel Thomas Lopez, 45, of Granite Bay, Calif., was deputy director of administrative services at the California Department of Parks and Recreation in 2011 when he authorized an illegal vacation buyout program for employees at the department’s headquarters in Sacramento, The Sacramento Bee reported.
The buyout, first exposed by The Sacramento Bee in July, cost the state more than $285,000 at the same time officials were slashing programs amid a budget crisis. A total of 59 parks employees benefited, including Lopez, who received the largest payout, totaling $28,646.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission undertook an enforcement action against Lopez for violating the Political Reform Act. The act forbids a public official from using his or her position for personal financial benefit.
In a settlement to be finalized at the commission’s Feb. 28 meeting, Lopez admits to two violations of the act – for receiving two vacation buyout payments in 2011 – and agrees to pay a $7,000 fine. That is less than the $10,000 maximum penalty, a commission staff report says, because Lopez cooperated with the investigation.
Lopez did not respond to a request for comment. He resigned from the department in May, just days before state officials planned to fire him.
The Sacramento County district attorney said Thursday (Jan. 24) that her office will not pursue criminal charges against California state parks officials in the “hidden funds” scandal because of a “failure to identify any crime” by the state attorney general.
District Attorney Jan Scully responded after the attorney general turned over its investigation into the matter, anticipating the district attorney would decide whether crimes were committed, The Sacramento Bee reported.
The investigation concluded that numerous high-ranking employees at the California Department of Parks and Recreation kept at least $20 million hidden in a “rainy day fund” for as long as 13 years, a violation of state budget rules. This continued even as the department moved in 2012 to close 70 state parks in response to general fund budget cuts.
“There is no indication who your office considers to be suspects, and if so, what crime they may have committed,” Attorney General Jan Scully wrote in the letter. “It is thus unclear why the matter has been referred to our office at all, and whether your office intends to retain its historic authority in the prosecution … of such cases.”
Officials at the attorney general’s office previously emphasized they were asked by Gov. Jerry Brown to conduct only an “administrative” investigation. Thus, most of its interviews with current and former parks employees were done without the legal admonishments required for a criminal proceeding.
Yet officials at the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees state parks, anticipated the investigation would allow the district attorney to decide whether crimes were committed. It now appears unclear whether the question of criminal behavior will ever be settled.
“I just hoped, after all this has transpired, that everything would be forthcoming and everything would be dealt with in the best way possible,” said Lynn Rhodes, a retired chief of enforcement at state parks who has been critical of previous management at the department. “I’m not sure whose place it would be to ask the attorney general to clarify its report.”
Six months after the public learned that California state parks officials had concealed $20 million even as they were crying poor and closing parks, one crucial issue remains foggy as ever:
Were any crimes committed, and if so, will anyone be held to answer?
The Sacramento Bee reported that the state attorney general’s investigation into the secret funds, released Jan. 4, made it clear that $20.5 million was kept hidden in the State Parks and Recreation Fund (SPRF). The fund is the primary collection point for all visitor fees paid at the 278 parks in the California Department of Parks and Recreation system. Another $33 million, held in the Off Highway Vehicle Fund, was not intentionally hidden, according to the report, but was obscured nonetheless by complexities in managing that fund.
The investigation also revealed that, although the amount of the hidden funds varied over time and originally piled up because of budgeting errors, numerous high-ranking officials at parks headquarters in Sacramento made a decision to keep the money concealed from state finance officials for as long as 13 years.
“It is clear,” the investigation states, “that by no later than 2003, and perhaps as early as 1999, the failure to accurately report all SPRF monies … became conscious and deliberate.”
This finding raises the specter of criminal conduct, according to several legal experts interviewed by The Bee. And many state parks advocates – who opened their own wallets and volunteered time to keep parks open – are waiting for answers to this question.
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Former California state parks leaders engaged in a “conscious and deliberate” effort to hide millions of dollars for as long as 13 years, according to an investigation by the state attorney general’s office released Friday.
As reported by the Sacramento Bee, the long-awaited probe was ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown after revelations that headquarters officials at the California Department of Parks and Recreation kept a stash of “hidden funds.”
At the time, the total was reported as $54 million, held in two special revenue accounts.
The attorney general’s investigation concludes, however, that only $20.5 million held in the State Parks and Recreation Fund was truly concealed. The remaining $33 million, held in the Off Highway Vehicle Fund, was not intentionally hidden but simply obscured by long-term complexities in managing that fund.
The $20.5 million piled up because the department had a practice of reporting one fund total to the state Controller’s Office and a smaller amount to the Department of Finance, the agency with final authority for compiling the overall state budget. This violated state budgeting rules.
The accumulation of money, however, was “unintended,” according to the investigation, and did not accrue from any misconduct.
Active efforts to keep the money hidden, however, raise questions about whether any employees committed crimes. The attorney general’s office, known as an aggressive law-enforcement agency in other arenas, did not probe this crucial question.
The investigators also were unable to fully explain how the money piled up, despite interviewing 40 key employees in more than 2,000 pages of testimony.
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Anthony Jackson can relate to the many Californians who are furious with the State Parks Department.
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, the retired Marine and his wife were among the outdoor enthusiasts who dug into their pockets this year to save a beloved local park after Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration announced there was no money to keep dozens of them open. Then it turned out that parks officials had concealed tens of millions of dollars — enough to keep almost everything operating — from state bookkeepers.
Now it’s Jackson’s job to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. In November, Brown appointed the state government neophyte to run the Parks Department, which has 280 facilities across 1.4 million acres and a $500-million budget this year.
“There’s a lot of pressure on me,” Jackson, 63, said in an interview. “Sometimes my wife chuckles, ‘You’ve got yourself in it.’ ”
Faced with an accounting scandal born of longtime insiders playing by their own rules, the governor put in charge an outsider with a record of order, discipline and creative thinking about the environment. In his last military post, Jackson, who had risen to major general, commanded more than 73,000 people on seven bases. He pleased conservationists by promoting green energy policies on those bases and helping to fight a toll road near Camp Pendleton that would have cut through San Onofre State Beach.
“It’s kind of shocking how much I like him,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California and a self-described “liberal peacenik.” In a November letter to Sierra Club members, she said Jackson “may be exactly the right man at the right time for state parks.”
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The grand act of atonement that California state leaders signed into law to correct a financial scandal at the state’s parks department may not turn out to be the healing gesture it first appeared to be.
As reported by The Sacramento Bee, the new law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September, AB 1478, allocates $10 million to provide “dollar-for-dollar” matching grants for private donations to the state parks system. The intent, in part, was to reassure wary parks supporters that at least some of the $54 million in “hidden money” discovered in the scandal would go back to the parks and not be diverted for some other government purpose.
The $10 million was appropriated from the State Parks and Recreation Fund, one of two special funds where California Department of Parks and Recreation officials were found to be hiding the $54 million for many years. Another $10 million, and other monies, are targeted to cover operating and capital costs.
This vast amount of hidden money, first reported by The Bee on July 20, would have been more than adequate to cover the $22 million in budget cuts that required the state to close 70 parks. Yet department leaders kept the money hidden even as they signed complex and unprecedented contracts with local governments and small nonprofits that agreed to operate the threatened parks.
Many of those groups viewed AB 1478 as a reprieve – a chance to use some of the hidden money to cover the enormous costs they incurred by agreeing to rescue the parks.
But none of the $10 million will be given to them in cash. The state’s lawyers determined that doing so amounts to a “gift of state funds” that would violate the California Constitution.
Instead, rules released by state parks on Nov. 13 specify that grants will be provided only “in kind” – meaning use of state employees or services – to match a financial donation.
“My position is it’s going to undermine the partnerships, for obvious reasons,” said Caryl Hart, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, which took over Annadel State Park near Santa Rosa when it was threatened with closure. “We need a dollar-for-dollar match to pay our staff to operate the parks.”
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California State Parks officials on Wednesday (Dec. 19) signed an agreement to use matching funds to ensure Henry Coe State Park near Gilroy will stay open for two years.
The agreement is the first signed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation under the terms of AB 1478.
The new state law, adopted in September in the wake of a scandal in the department, allocates $10 million for matching grants to keep state parks open, the Sacramento Bee reported.
The money comes from the $54 million in surplus funds that former parks headquarters officials were found in July to have hidden for years, even as state budget cuts led to park closures.
Henry Coe, at more than 87,000 acres of mountain peaks and oak-studded wilderness, is the largest state park in Northern California and the second-largest in the state.
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