Scandal Jeopardizes State Parks Deal

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    NEWSLETTERS

    California State Parks
    The view from Castle Rock State Park in California. Some parks are facing closure due to severe budget cuts and restraints.

    For months, the city of Benicia has been working with the California state parks department on an agreement to keep the Benicia State Recreation Area open.

    The park was one of 70 parks around the state slated to close after the state cut $22 million from the parks department budget last year.

    But two weeks ago, an investigation revealed the department has been sitting on a $54 million surplus for several years. The director of the agency, Ruth Coleman, quickly resigned, and its chief deputy director, Michael Harris, was fired. The agency's chief counsel, Ann Malcolm, also left.

    “Now, we don’t know who is going to sign (the agreement),” said Mario Giuliani, economic development manager for the city.

    Across the state, municipalities like Benicia and nonprofits like the Benicia State Parks Association, which are working to sign agreements with the parks department to keep parks open, don't know what will happen to those efforts.

    “Up in the air,” is how Bob Berman, board vice president of the Benicia State Parks Association, described the status of the Benicia agreements.

    According to the state parks department, it has signed deals with nonprofits and government agencies to keep 42 parks open. However, it has not finalized agreements that would prevent more than 20 others from closing, including the two in Benicia.

    State park officials said they hope to complete those deals. 

    “We are going to continue working with them in good faith for potential agreements,” said Roy Stearns, a spokesman for California state parks department.

    Under its proposed agreement, Benicia had planned to pay the state $15,500 a year to keep water flowing to drinking fountains and a native plant garden, collect trash and maintain two portable toilets at the recreation area.

    But now the city wants to make those payments in quarterly installments, hedging its bets in hopes of seeing some of the department's budget surplus.

    “We want to be in a position where we can recover some of that money,” said Mayor Elizabeth Patterson, acknowledging that it will take time for the state to determine how the surplus can be spent. “It does take a while to get some action from the legislature and the governor.”

    In some cases, the proposed agreements would not restore all of the services the state has provided. In Benicia, the gates to the state recreation area's parking lot would be closed, but walkers, runners and bicyclists would have access to the park.

    Meanwhile, volunteers from the Benicia State Parks Association are continuing to lead tours on weekends at the Benicia Capitol State Historic Park.

    On its website, the association has advertised for a part-time park manager. "We're pretty confident that there will be an agreement for us to take over that responsibility," said Berman. 

    But he, like other state park supporters, fear the scandal will hurt efforts to keep the parks open.

    “It’s just going to make it that much more difficult to do our work, because of the betrayal of public trust,” said Berman. Since the scandal broke, the association has been assuring members that the approximately $88,000 it has raised stays in Benicia to be used only for the two state parks there.

    “It’s going to be very hard to raise money because until we can get this ironed out we’re going to have a crisis of confidence in the funding of state parks,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who is the chairman of the Assembly's Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife. “It may mean that the state needs to help out more than some of those agreements have called for.”

    The state’s attorney general is now investigating how the almost $54 million was hidden and why, while the state’s finance department is conducting an audit of the parks department. State legislators are also planning oversight hearings on the matter in August, while vowing to keep parks around California open. 

    “I think that one thing is clear is that the state has a duty to keep every one of these parks open, no matter what it takes while we clean house,” Huffman said. “The bad actors in the department who did this over the course of 12 years have just made it a lot harder for our partners with all of these local parks to help save them.”

    Since news of the scandal broke, some park supporters have threatened to withdraw their donations.

    “You’ve got people who love their parks and have come forward to try to rescue them, only to find that they’ve been betrayed by the very people that asked for their help,” said state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa. “It’s hard to know who to believe anymore.”

    This story was produced by Bay Citizen, a member of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.