Park advocates hope for change

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.

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