California State Parks may be rescued! Director Ruth Coleman resigned Friday morning after discovery of a nearly $54 million surplus in park funds that existed for as long as 12 years. At least one subordinate, her second in command, has been fired, and others are also at the heart of the scandal. Some of the less accessible, little used California State Parks have been shuttered in recent months, and hope is rising that they will reopen.
Her departure comes amid a recently revealed scandal involving another employee, the deputy director at State Parks, Manuel Thomas Lopez, who allegedly carried out an employee vacation buyout program that cost California more than $271,000 at a time when the department, thought to be nearly broke, considered closing dozens of state parks. Lopez orchestrated broad payroll violations, has been named in a sexual harassment lawsuit, and has recently filed for bankruptcy.
The Sacramento Bee says investigations are underway by the Attorney General’s office and the Department of Finance. Natural Resources Agency Secretary John Laird said his office is also investigating how and why the Parks and Recreation Department stashed so much money for so long. The agency monitors the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the non-profit California State Parks Foundation, said the news about the surplus money is disturbing and appalling.
“We at CSPF and the parks community have been working tirelessly over the last few months to temporarily keep threatened parks open and people inside the department have not been honest about the resources that were available to parks,” said Goldstein.
The surplus money — $20.3 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Fund — was discovered after The Bee submitted a Public Records Act request for fund data on Wednesday. It has triggered a massive scandal as over $2 billion in other state funds have been identified in other areas, at a time when California is struggling to pay its bills.
Goldstein said the “hidden” $54 million dollars would not cover $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance at state parks. But she hopes California will use some of the money to support the parks. Goldstein and others are also calling for the state to return money donated to ‘bail out’ the parks.
Governor Brown’s budget woes seem to be disappearing, as the state continues to uncover funds hidden by the prior administrations for over a decade. Expect more information on this debacle in the coming days.