What follows is a brief account of deceit, betrayal, and scandal at the headquarters of the State Department of Parks and Recreation. Arguably, this tawdry affair is shaping up to be the most destructive example in many years of why ordinary Californians have come to distrust state government. It is a story of a massive deception inside DPR to hide $54 million dollars, pretending all the while that the money did not exist. It is a betrayal of trust on the part of the DPR which openly encouraged donors and volunteers to find the means of saving 70 state parks from closure. And, it is a scandal that calls into question the way the state operates at every level — -departmental, administrative, legislative, and executive. When the scandal broke into the open on July 20th, it became immediately clear that Director Ruth Coleman’s leadership at DPR has severely damaged the reputation and effectiveness of the department. It will take years to undo the damage, if ever. At the end of this article, an assessment of where things stand today raises some troubling questions that need to be addressed by the Governor, state legislators, and the Department of Parks and Recreation. It is not enough to know what went terribly wrong. We need to know how the state government proposes to restore fiscal stability and effective management of the state parks system.
Deceit & Deception
Ruth Coleman took up the duties of DPR director in 1999. When she resigned last Friday, her letter of resignation to the Governor stated in part, “I am personally appalled to learn that our documents were not accurate.” How stupid must we be to believe that she did not know that $54 million was being hidden inside the department’s budget for over a decade? The deception (is fraud too strong a word?) is reported to have existed since 2000. Either Ruth Coleman was indeed fully aware of the hidden $54 million all along or she simply was not up to the task of managing the department. Ruth Coleman resigned immediately upon exposure of the hidden funds. Her #2 in the department, chief deputy Michael Harris, was immediately fired. If Ruth Coleman knew nothing, why immediately resign? The only logical explanation seems to be that she did know and did nothing about it. Otherwise, one might expect her to claim her innocence and try to ride out the storm. But, in that case she would certainly have to give sworn testimony before the legislative hearings that have already been proposed. By resigning immediately, she will make it harder for investigators to demand her sworn testimony. She could simply invoke the 5th amendment. In any event, you can assume that Ruth Coleman will receive a hefty pension. As for her chief deputy, (Michael Harris) he was immediately fired. Neither disgraced official is likely to admit how it was possible to hide $54 million dollars for twelve or more years. The full story of this deception may never be known.
Just how did the “hidden assets” come to light? It appears that The Sacramento Bee followed up on a rumor that the DPR had a secret vacation buyout program. Fifty-six headquarters employees sold their unused vacation time back to the state, to the tune of $271,000. This might not have raised a red flag, but for the fact that the Human Resources Department, which sets the policy for buyouts, has not authorized any such buyouts since 2007. And, how could this get by the auditors? Well, the DPR did its own internal audit, thus bypassing the normal and required Bureau of State Audits, the watchdog that is supposed to spot such irregularities and stop them.
Perhaps the most destructive aspect of this deception has been the steady stream of dire predictions, media pronouncements, and claims that no alternative was possible short of widespread parks closures. The DPR instituted reduction of services, cut back hours of operation, closed some parks before the deadline, and stripped park units of maintenance vehicles and personnel. It was all done in the name of necessity. At any time, if state park officials were serious about avoiding closures, they could have declared the crisis over due to finding the money (that is the $54 million). That amount would have been sufficient to carry operations forward for the next three years, during which longer term remedies could be instituted. How does the timeline of three years stack up? Simply by applying the monies in three installments of $11, $22, and $22 million, the DPR could have kept all the parks open. The Governor would have his budget cuts without the necessity of closing a single park.
Betrayal of Trust:
From the day of the announcement that 70 parks would be shuttered, May 13, 2011, dozens of volunteer organizations began rolling up their sleeves and setting to work to save their parks. No one had any reason to believe that the crisis was not real or that it was a manufactured crisis on the part of high officials at DPR. In short, who would believe that the trust placed in the hands of DPR would be betrayed? Anyone who has ever accessed the DPR website is familiar with the high sounding claims made in its mission statement. The DPR represents itself as THE protector of California’s natural and scenic resources, for the benefit of all Californians and the millions of out-of-state visitors who annually come to enjoy our most “treasured asset.” How does the song go? “From the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters, this land was made for you and me.” (Thank you Woody)
Volunteer organizations and potential donors scrambled to find the means to keep the parks open. Some volunteer organizations, such as Mono Lake Tufa SRA, have been well organized for years and immediately put their fund raising skills in gear. Citizens of Santa Clara County, the richest county in the state, with 2,000,000 inhabitants, found that it could indeed raised $900,000 over three years to save their treasure, Henry W. Coe SP. An early helping hand came from the National Park Service, which agreed to take over three parks that abut National Parks. Individual counties, such as Sonoma County and Humboldt County assumed responsibility for selected parks. Even cities stepped forward to assume the operations of some parks (Colusa, Benicia, Whittier). The Sempervirons Fund, Save the Redwoods League, and California State Parks Foundation all stepped forward with donations and critically valuable expertise. The California State Parks Foundation has commitments totaling over $833,000 to be used to save a number of parks. Special note should also be made of individuals who have generously stepped forward. Alden Olmsted, whose family donated the land that became Jug Handle State Park, has given at least $13,000 to save the park. The list of organizations, individuals, and businesses that have stepped forward is much more extensive than the examples cited here.
What does this add up to? On the one hand we have a state department, namely the DPR, operating as if it is unaccountable to the citizens of California. The department has been anything but transparent. Requests for information have been ignored. Even formal requests through the Public Records Act for information have been ignored. Worse, the DPR legal office claimed executive exemptions to critically important information. Many well-meaning and committed organizations have felt the cold draft of being summarily dismissed by DPR officials. Perhaps Caleb Dardick, executive director of the South Yuba River Citizens League put it best: “You don’t go around coercing community groups and nonprofits to solve your problems while you’re sitting on reserves that size.” (ala the $54 Million) He also is crystal clear as to how he sees the current state of trust between volunteer groups and DPR. “The state parks staff betrayed the public trust, they betrayed our community and betrayed our children.” Alden Olmsted echoed these sentiments when he said, “Now I know why it was so difficult to try and help the parks system.”
Locally, it is instructive to understand how the Hendy Woods Community feels about this turn of events. “Although it is now clear that the impression of a fiscal emergency was a lie…” it is important not to lose sight of the important connections that have been made between park staff, visitors, and the community. Kathy Bailey goes on to call for a “complete housecleaning” of DPR, with a new Director from the outside, someone with a true commitment to put the state parks on a strong and sustainable footing.
Scandal in the making
For almost 9 months, I have tried to raise awareness of a long term threat to the state park system, namely the “taking” of selected parks by private, for-profit companies. At the Park Advocacy Day meeting in Sacramento in March, I was told repeatedly “Don’t Go There.” Well, we are now there. The DPR has already entered into agreements with American Land and Leisure Company to operate five state park units, namely Turlock Lake SRA, Woodson Bridge SRA, Brannan Island SRA, and Limekiln SP
and Benbow Lake SRA. As state assemblyman Jared Huffman has said, these units represent the “low hanging fruit” ripe for the pickings. They are, after all, developed camping venues that promise rich takings by way of visitor and camping fees. Instead of real park rangers and professional staff, they are in all likelihood going to be staffed by a work force that is compensated at minimum or near minimum wages, with little professional training or commitment. The questions begs for an answer: If a for-profit company can run it for profit, how is it that the state park system can’t?
Make no mistake: There are already loud calls for privatizing the entire state park system. One especially strident advocate of privatization is Katy Grimes, CalWatchdog’s news reporter who appeared in a televised panel discussion with Ruth Coleman and Shelly Sullivan (AB32 implementation group). Katy Grimes put her case this way: “Scandals such as this one can’t occur without many people knowing about it. The gross mismanagement, an abuse of taxpayer money, and an abuse of power and position, and everyone involved should be brought up on charges.” She goes on to say that “This is a textbook example of why the state parks should be privatized. Since Coleman is soliciting for private dollars to keep parks open, those donating money, as well as taxpayers, should push for total privatization.”
I for one, as a private citizen who cares about our parks and believes they should be properly managed by the Parks Department, consider such an assault on the Peoples’ Commons for what it is, just one more campaign to promote an ultra right, rabid taking of public property for the profit of the few. It has to be acknowledged that the state parks, under Ruth Coleman’s leadership, began the unraveling. Five state parks have already been surrendered to the hands of a for-profit company. It could very well be only the first wave of privatizations, unless we all stand our ground and say to elected officials and government bureaucrats “This cannot be and it will not stand.” How the parks department undoes the damage it had already inflicted on the state parks system is still unclear. As a first step, they could, now that the money has been found, abrogate the operating agreements already in place with American Land and Leisure.
As for our state legislature, Jared Huffman, as chair of the Water, Parks, and Wildlife committee has the power to hold hearings and promote corrective legislation. Senator Noreen Evans also has power to see that the state senate is actively involved in promoting corrective actions. They have shown genuine initiative in the past, and they can now take the steps necessary to put the state parks house in order.
In the meantime, the state legislature is in recess and John Laird, Secretary of Natural Resources, has already moved to install an interim director for the department, Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland. She may be a very capable administrator. However, she carries with her the taint of business as usual in Sacramento. When someone muddies the waters, do you simply pull them out and replace them with another insider? No matter how qualified or committed Ms. Beland may well be, this is no time for Sacramento to be playing musical chairs, not with a real scandal on its hands.