By DEREK MOORE & BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The stunning revelation Friday that the California Parks Department had a hidden surplus of nearly $54 million while dozens of state parks were threatened with closure brought angry condemnation from parks advocates and an abrupt end to a Sonoma County plan to raise more park revenue through a sales tax increase.
“It’s just completely the most devastating news that I can imagine,” said Caryl Hart, Sonoma County’s regional parks director.
Hart and other county officials on Friday abruptly halted plans to advance a ballot measure proposing a countywide sales tax increase to support local parks.
The decision was made only hours after State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, who had led the agency since 2003, resigned amid revelations that the department had nearly $54 million in surplus money that possibly could have been used to keep 70 state parks off a closure list.
Almost all of those parks, including four in Sonoma County, got a reprieve after nonprofits, county governments and other organizations entered into operating agreements with the state to take over park operations on a temporary basis.
Advocates now are worried about public support for parks eroding in the wake of Friday’s developments. The news also threatens a nonprofit’s pending application to take over operations at Austin Creek State Recreation Area in Guerneville.
Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods was notified Thursday that its application must now go through the state Attorney General’s Office before it can be considered for final approval, according to Michele Luna, the group’s executive director.
She said Stewards already had received tentative approval to operate in the park and that the group was planning to purchase a used truck on Monday on the contingency that the money would be reimbursed from the state.
“We’ve been working so hard this whole year, and now we see something like this. Yeah, we’re concerned,” Luna said Friday.
Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday directed the Attorney General, the state Department of Finance and the Natural Resources Agency to conduct separate investigations into the circumstances that surround “significant budgetary irregularities” within the parks department.
A preliminary investigation into the agency’s finances revealed that for at least 12 years, the agency under reported nearly $54 million in reserves to the finance department, according to John Laird, the state’s Natural Resources Director.
Laird said state finance officials were not aware that the State Parks and Recreation Fund had an additional $20 million and that the Off Highway Vehicle Fund had an additional $33 million above their official, most recently reported balances. It’s unclear how much of the money is dedicated for specific purposes or can be used generally on things such as staff salaries or to keep parks open.
In her resignation letter to Brown, Coleman stated that she was “unaware” of the “excessive balance” in the park and recreation fund. But she took responsibility for what she presented as the actions of her staff.
“The signature characteristic of a leader is to take responsibility and to be held accountable for the organization they lead,” she wrote.
Coleman’s departure also followed a story in Sunday’s Sacramento Bee that reported that a deputy director at the parks department carried out a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters last year that cost the state more than $271,000.
A total of 56 employees took advantage of the buyout. To avoid a paper trail, the buyout requests were submitted in some cases only on Post-It notes and not official forms, the Bee reported.
The Attorney General’s investigation into the buyout program and a separate review of parks department records conducted by the agency’s fiscal staff revealed the hidden assets, according to Laird.
Mike Harris, the acting chief deputy director of state parks, also was fired Friday as a result of the scandal.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who drafted the legislation that allowed partnerships between state parks and groups seeking to save them, on Friday said he was “distressed and upset” by the revelations.
“It is certainly a dark day for the trust and confidence that we need to have in our parks officials,” Huffman said. “It is hopefully the beginning of a serious reset that turns this agency around.”
Huffman and Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, took part in budget hearings this year in which the two funds in question were looked at as possible funding sources for state parks.
Evans and Hart, who in addition to her county role is chairwoman of the California Parks and Recreation Commission, spoke Friday about the need to reconstitute the organization to give it more oversight of the state parks department.
Evans said she also plans to introduce legislation that would stiffen penalties for “public theft.”
“If there was embezzlement involved, it should carry special penalties in court,” she said.
Sonoma County officials had been planning to go public Saturday with their plans for a proposed quarter-percentage point sales tax increase to support city, county and state parks under local control.
If approved by voters, the measure would have generated more than $17 million a year for city, county and state parks under local control, including Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa. Officials were set to present the proposal on July 31 to the Board of Supervisors.
“I don’t see how we can go forward,” said Hart.
The proposal was driven quietly in the past several months by local park advocates, including the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation. A June poll paid for by the group showed that nearly three quarters of the 800 registered voters surveyed said they would vote for a tax to fund park improvements and water quality projects.
The Sonoma County Water Agency would have received some share of the tax money to support stream restoration and water quality projects. Currently much of that work is grant supported, said Grant Davis, the agency’s general manager.
“What an unfortunate set of circumstances,” he said about Friday’s news.
A majority of the tax funding would have gone to county and city parks as well as locally operated state parks and parks managed by unincorporated districts.
Melissa Kelley, executive director of the Sonoma County Regional Parks Foundation, said it was unlikely the group would seek to independently place the measure on the ballot for this November. She did not rule out reviving the proposal in the future.
“We’re really saddened that we’ll not have this opportunity immediately,” she said, adding “we’re going to continue to work very hard to make sure the parks system in Sonoma County is as strong and vibrant as it can possibly be.”
Friday’s developments could also threaten a plan to charge visitors $8 a day at numerous beaches along the Sonoma and Mendocino Coasts, 20 years after a similar effort sparked months of furious protest that ultimately forced the state to rescind the fees.
State parks officials on June 26 submitted an application to Sonoma County planners seeking a coastal development permit to install 15 self-pay machines at the beaches, including Goat Rock in Jenner, Bodega Head, Salt Point State Park and at several other beaches where access now is free.
Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose district includes those beaches, on Friday said those plans “should be put on the back burner.”