By Scott Shafer
July is supposed to be quiet around Sacramento, with the Legislature on recess and all. But that was not the case Friday, as longtime State Parks Director Ruth Coleman quit and her number two was fired after revelations the Parks Department had a secret fund of $54 million, an unauthorized pot of money used to buy back vacation time from department employees.
All this comes to light as state parks have faced closures and reduced hours. As the scandal unfolded Friday, State Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned, although she insisted she didn't know about the slush fund.
"I wish people would have told me and that this wouldn't happen, but you have to take responsibility for how things transpire," Coleman said. "I guess it's better to go out without any sense of bitterness. I'm disappointed in them, no question about it. I always like to operate with the utmost integrity and transparency. That's sort of been what I've been wanting to do. I just think that right now the right time is for me to move on and take this one for the team."
The man who oversees the State Parks Department is John Laird, secretary of the State Natural Resources Agency. Deflecting a bit, Laird said Friday that the secret Parks fund goes back a decade, over three different governors.
"We are trying to upright the ship and do this in a way that's expeditious as possible, be as transparent as we learned that this is going on. And I think with the attorney general coming in to take a look, the finance department coming in to do an audit, and an interim director who's my undersecretary who I really trust. We're working to get to the bottom of this in short order and start the road back for parks," he said.
Reaction from state legislators was swift. Democrat Jared Huffman chairs the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife.
Jared Huffman: "It's very distressing. I think like, everyone when you hear this news it just sort of makes you sick, frankly, because this is no way to manage the public's money. But I would also say as someone who has been grappling with this parks closure crisis for the past couple years, periodically bringing parks officials in to testify in my committee, and writing letters and asking questions, there have been signs of problems at the department for a long time. In some ways this news is consistent with some of the concerns that I've had for some time about a fortress mentality, closed process, lack of transparency. It's good that this is coming out, because this is an agency that really does need a serious reset."
Scott Shafer: What were the signs of problems?
Huffman: "You may remember that when we started asking hard questions about this park closure process, the department really couldn't provide any documentation about how they chose parks for closure, about how they evaluated one park against others that might not have been proposed for closure. At the end of the day they admitted that they had simply gathered a group of their high level managers in a room and basically arbitrarily drew up the list. That speaks to an agency that's out of touch, that is not transparent, that doesn't listen, and doesn't really want to engage with people outside of its inner circle .It's a fortress mentality. Unfortunately, this off-the-books, secret reserve account is just another aspect of that."
Joe Simitian, a Democrat from Palo Alto, chairs the State Senate Subcommittee that oversees parks funding. He's concerned about the long term effects this scandal might have on Californians.
Joe Simitian: "I think it's understandable. Folks around the state are going to be tremendously disappointed at best and frankly, quite angry and understandably so. I do think we're going to have to jump on this one pretty quickly, as soon as we go back into session first week in August and try and get some answers, and perhaps most importantly make sure something like this doesn't happen again. I'm also troubled, frankly, by the loss of trust I think comes with something like this, inevitably occasions in terms of public support of the parks department in particular and government more broadly. Something like this can only make a bad situation worse."
Shafer: You said that there are a lot of questions that need to be asked and answered quickly. What's the most pressing question in your mind?
Simitian: "The obvious question is, 'How on Earth did something like this happen?' I think things we're going to have to get answers to are: 'Was this an oversight, or was this purposeful?' If it was purposeful, who's responsible, but more to the point if it was purposeful how is it that checks and balances, the oversight process that we have in place, didn't catch this year after year. It's been a long standing practice."
Shafer: Does it make you wonder if there aren't other funds like this one squirreled away throughout state government?
Simitian: "I think you can't help but be concerned that this isn't a one-time-only issue. We've got the recent problem with vacation accruals being converted to cash; we've got the funds that are unaccounted for, first in the parks fund which is the general fund for the parks department, then in the OHV, the off-highway vehicle fund, which is another separate fund. One, two three, just in the last week and just in one major department. It's obviously going to raise questions about whether the same kind of thing can happen and is happening in other departments and agencies. My first concern is that we get things right in the parks department, but my very next concern is that we not let this series of incidents damage the important work that Parks does. These are national treasures, not just state treasures, but national treasures. And they're also extraordinary opportunities for folks of modest means to get some recreation at reasonable cost, and they're tremendous economic development and jobs creators in some of the most depressed parts of the state. So I hope we don't lose sight of that as we deal with the appropriate concerns that everyone's going to have about how on earth something like this could happen."
As for Ruth Coleman, the State Parks director who resigned over all this, she hopes now that the funds have been discovered, they'll be put to good use.
"The fact of the matter is that these funds are available, they could be expended by the Legislature should they choose to, so the funds are still there. And I hope they get used to help the parks and promote the partnership that we've worked so hard to put together. The state department needs a lot of resources still and I hope some of these funds can help match some of those and make these parks a bit more sustainable. They're one-time funds, but they could be used wisely and I hope they are," she said.
One final note: with more than two dozen California parks still on the chopping block, state officials say they'll now do a full audit of the Parks Department to see if they can't keep at least some of them open.