Underfunded Parks Department Hiding Millions; Director Resigns

Monday, July 23, 2012

Moments after news hit Friday that the Department of Parks and Recreation—which scrambled all year to find outside money to keep parks open through the summer—had a hidden $54 million surplus stashed away where not even the Department of Finance would find it, Director Ruth Coleman sent out her letter of resignation.

The nine-year head of the department took all of the responsibility (“I must accept full responsibility”) and none of the blame (“I was unaware of the excessive balance in the State Park and Recreation Fund”). Her second in command, acting Chief Deputy Director Michael Harris, was fired.

Coleman said she became aware of the hidden money days ago and was beginning to address it when the story became public. She denied that embezzlement was involved. A parks official said the money appeared to have accumulated because of an accounting formula error years ago and no one wanted to turn off the spigot.

The department has suffered through a miserable year. Faced with the threatened closure of 70 parks—nearly one in four statewide— to save $22 million,  parks officials and supporters lobbied the Legislature, chased nonprofit money, begged already-hurting municipalities, added user fee revenues and cut deals with private interests.

By the end of June, most every park was saved, at least for awhile.

The Sacramento Bee said it was investigating rumors of the hidden surplus when it learned of a story, which it published last week, about 56 department officials claiming unauthorized vacation buyouts worth at least $271,264. Coleman had conducted an internal audit in October after rumors of buybacks had swirled through the ranks. The Attorney General followed with an investigation in January and Deputy Director of Administrative Services Manuel Thomas Lopez was demoted shortly thereafter before resigning.

The hidden money was stashed in the Parks and Recreation Fund ($20.3 million) and the Off Highway Vehicle Fund ($33.5 million). Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird, Coleman’s boss, said the scheme may have stretched back over 12 years.   

Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland was appointed acting interim director by Governor Jerry Brown.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Parks Director Resigns Amid Scandal (by Matt Weiser, Sacramento Bee)

Resigning Parks Director “Appalled” to Learn of Hidden Surplus (by Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

California Parks Had $54 Million Hidden Surplus, Officials Say (by Chris Megerian and Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times)

Ruth Coleman, California Parks Director, Resigns Amid Scandal (by Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News)

Jerry Brown Appoints Interim Parks Chief in Wake of Scandal (by David Siders, Sacramento Bee)

Parks Get a Reprieve Despite Governor’s $31 Million Budget Veto (by Ken Broder, AllGov)

Parks Employees Take Unauthorized Vacation Buyouts Even as Closures Loom (by Ken Broder, AllGov)

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