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Park advocates hope for change

Disappointed by news of the state parks scandal, Save the Adobe moves forward with plans for keeping the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park open.

Terry Hankins/For the Argus-Courier
Published: Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 27, 2012 at 9:27 a.m.

After the revelation last Friday that the California Parks Department was hiding a $54 million surplus at the same time it had threatened to close 70 state parks, including the Petaluma Adobe State Historic Park, nonprofits that rallied to keep the parks open for another year are worried about how the news will affect their fundraising efforts.

“I think there's going to be a lot of cynicism,” said Save the Petaluma Adobe Chairman Philip Sales. “It's a shame because so many people worked so hard to keep these parks open and keep people paying attention to this issue. To be blindsided by the very organization you are trying to assist is very disappointing.”

The scandal erupted when reports of secret parks department vacation time buyouts involving 56 employees and more than $271,000 led to the discovery of a large surplus and the resignation of Department of Parks and Recreation Director Ruth Coleman. State Parks and Recreation Chief Deputy Michael Harris was fired.

A preliminary investigation by the State Natural Resources Agency revealed that for at least 12 years, the parks department had underreported nearly $54 million in reserves to the finance department. Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday instructed the California Attorney General's office, the Department of Finance and the Natural Resource Agency to launch independent formal investigations into the parks department's management of its money.

The scandal has also led the state to investigate its other 560 “special funds” — accounts that make up $37 billion statewide and are separate from typical general funds — for any financial discrepancies, though none have been reported as of yet.

Petaluma City Councilmember Teresa Barrett said that she finds the whole situation “very unfortunate.”

“It's insulting to the people who have been working so hard to keep parks open,” she said.

Assemblymember Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who helped draft the legislation allowing nonprofits to assist the state in keeping parks open, said in a statement this week that he has been concerned about the lack of transparency of the parks department and hopes that this news will help bring much-needed accountability to the agency.

“On thing that's clear from this scandal is the state has the duty to keep every park open while we clean house at the parks department,” Huffman added.

But Sales said he sees a silver lining to this whole debacle in that it may have helped communities prepare for financial shortfalls that would have come in spite of the reserves. He explained that of the more than $53 million parks surplus, approximately $33 million was designated for off-road vehicle parks. It is unclear at this point if any of those funds could have been used to save any of the 70 parks slated for closure earlier this month. Sales says the remaining $20 million is only enough to keep the 70 parks open for one more year and doesn't even begin to tackle the $1 billion maintenance backlog that parks face.

“We still would have been facing some level of local control over state parks,” Sales said. “So, in an odd way, we may have been operating ahead of the curve, along with the 70 other organizations that saved their parks.”

Sales added that until there was the threat of closing parks, support organizations like Save the Petaluma Adobe had brought in only a few thousand dollars a year.

“To suddenly be in a situation where you are raising tens of thousands of dollars was very different,” he said. “Knowing that we did it this year makes us more confident for next year, when we know we will definitely need the money.”

Looking ahead, Sales said his organization and donors still have many unanswered questions, including what the state plans to do with the surplus of funds it now possesses. The state is currently looking at best possible uses for the funds, which may include paying to keep some parks open or go to maintenance or future costs.

Sales said this option is most important for parks where support organizations have not yet raised enough money to cover all the operating costs for the year. Petaluma Adobe's $70,000 in annual operating costs have been covered, but the money is not completely in the state's hands because a lot of the donors required that their donation be doled out on a monthly basis.

“The donors did not just want to hand over a huge check to the state,” said Sales. “So even if the state helps out and we don't have to make our monthly payments, the donor money will go into the park in some other way. But for other parks, like Jack London, the organizations taking over were fundraising as they went. Hopefully, they will receive some sort of state help now.”

Save the Petaluma Adobe is considering a proposal to take over operations at Adobe and is currently working on presenting options to its board later this month. Sales said that they will be asking the board to postpone any decisions regarding their proposal until after the dust settles at the state level.

In the meantime, Sales said that because the park will still need financial help again next year, plans for his organization's August production of “Two Gentlemen of Sonoma” — a spin-off of Shakespeare's “Two Gentlemen of Verona — will continue as planned. He said that any money raised will go back to the Adobe.

Sales also pointed out the opportunity for change in the face of this major disappointment. “Have we lost some faith? Of course. But I'm hoping that this will bring about some overhaul and new methods to run state parks.”

For details on “Two Men of Sonoma” visit www.so nomacommunitycenter.org.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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