Parks still need our support
The scandalous revelation last week that a former deputy director of California State Parks had squirreled away more than $54 million of unreported revenue in a purported “rainy day” fund could not have come at a worse time.
After announcing the intended closure of 70 parks to cover a $22 million-a-year budget shortfall, it turns out State Parks had more than two years worth of deficit-fixing operating revenue sitting in the department’s accounts. Meanwhile, non-profit groups, local, regional and federal government agencies, and a park-loving public had already stepped up to fill the budget gap for all but a dozen or so of the targeted park facilities and only one of the proposed closures went into effect by the state’s drop-dead date of July 1.
After gallantly falling on her sword and taking responsibility for the flawed judgment of a since-resigned underling, State Parks Director Ruth Coleman herself resigned. Her departure will be a loss of visionary leadership for a department that desperately needs to chart new directions and develop new strategies. A little over a year ago, Coleman stood on a portable stage under a moonlit sky in Jack London State Historic Park to show her support for the remarkable public/private partnership that has emerged to keep that incomparably important local treasure open.
The occasion was a preview performance by the Transcendence Theatre Company as they unveiled their vision for a series of public concerts by Broadway professionals in the old winery ruins beside Jack London’s historic writing cottage, with part of the gate going to preserve the park. Last year’s vision has become a thrilling reality this summer, with five concerts down and nine more to go through Sept. 1. It stands as a dramatic example of what can happen when urgency overcomes inertia, imagination trumps tradition and citizen action is allowed to supersede entrenched bureaucracy.
To her credit, Coleman embraced the new vision for a public/private collaboration that made the Transcendence concerts possible. To her detriment, she was unable in her lengthy tenure to shake the cobwebs off an agency so hidebound that commonsense decisions not in conformity with State Parks policy sometimes didn’t get made. One example: a regional superintendent was able to block a proposal for public access to the new Montini Open Space Preserve through an unoccupied corner of the Vallejo Home Historic Park because the access trail didn’t conform to park policy.
A subsequent superintendent took a look at the proposal and quickly found a way to approve it.
The 278-park system administered by the state is a public trust resource with – many observers have lately argued – more than enough revenue-producing potential to not only eliminate the $22 million annual deficit, but to begin rebuilding a budget that, at $384 million, has shrunk by a third in the last few, budget-starved years.
The unreported $54 million won’t solve the parks deficit but it might falsely persuade some people no more help is needed. That would be a double shame. Our parks still need our support.