Coastal Voices: Action needed in park scandal

By Elizabeth Goldstein August 06, 2012 04:47 pm

Here are excerpts from a letter sent to Gov. Jerry Brown, President Pro Tem Steinberg, and Speaker Perez:

On behalf of the California State Parks Foundation, our 130,000 members statewide, and our 43-year history of enhancing, protecting and advocating for parks, I cannot convey enough how deeply shocked and dismayed we have been to learn of the irregularities that have surfaced from the Department of Parks and Recreation in the last several days.

The news of the unauthorized vacation buyout program, coupled with the discovery of more than $50 million in 12-year fund balances that should have been disclosed and directed to parks and recreation operations, has affected our members, our partners, and the public’s trust in our state park system.

Our state parks have been used as a political football in recent years and have been repeatedly held hostage to broader budget and policy fights. That context is neither justification nor an excuse for the scandals that have come out, but contributes in part to the current state of affairs affecting our state parks.

Our state park system — the 279 parks themselves, the legacy they protect, and the promise they bestow to the future — is and always has been bigger than any governmental bureaucracy. Since the first park closures were proposed in January 2008, CSPF has worked tirelessly to build a network across the state of individuals, organizations, businesses, local governments, and countless others to take on the cause of saving our state parks on as their own.

Following the budget decisions last spring that enacted a significant, permanent cut to the park system’s General Fund, and the resulting announcement in May 2011 of the 70 specific state parks that would close, we more than redoubled our efforts to activate Californians to speak up for their parks.

For the last 14 months, we have publicly and repeatedly made the urgent case for citizen volunteerism, activism, and, most critically, financial contributions to keep our parks open.

In every forum available, we informed the public that its time, talent and dollars were vitally needed to keep our parks open and accessible for future generations. Our efforts, and the efforts of dozens of community organizations that scrambled to get up to speed, build capacity, and conduct outreach to their communities to raise funds in these recent months, is the reason why there is a temporary but real safety net for parks, as was announced by DPR just days before parks were slated to close.

That case for the public’s attention and support for our state parks remains. Yet the recent news has damaged the public’s confidence and undermined the urgency and necessity that we and park partners across the state so clearly and vehemently articulated.

An erosion of the public’s confidence in our state park system is heartbreaking. There are few other symbols in California of our state’s greatness, our collective history, and our very identity as the Golden State.

It would be easy for us and all partners and supporters of our state park system to remain angry. It would be understandable to do so.

But we at CSPF feel a commitment and duty to all park visitors to ensure that these scandals do not define our state park system. You, as leaders of our state, have an obligation and an opportunity to restore confidence and rebuild this system for California.

We support all efforts to legitimately obtain answers as to how and why these irregularities occurred, and ensure they never happen again. As those inquiries begin, we offer the four points below as a framework for the near-term proceedings and legislative actions:

1) We urge that an independent audit be conducted by the State Auditor. Other investigations under way should continue, but it is critical that an autonomous and unimpeded audit be conducted.

2) The more than $50 million in “found” funds must be dedicated and appropriated to state parks and recreation purposes as originally intended. To contemplate that those funds could be siphoned and directed to another state budget purpose would add insult to injury.

3) Funds that will be appropriated to the state park system’s operations should be used specifically to: (1) keep parks open now in a way that matches or leverages the investments and contributions of communities across the state, and (2) provide seed funding for enterprise projects and proposals that will generate revenues and make the state park system more self-sufficient where that is possible.

4. A qualified, independent body of dedicated and skilled citizens that ensures transparency, public engagement, and participation must be empowered to oversee and guide DPR. The existing State Park and Recreation Commission might be strengthened to serve this role.

Elizabeth Goldstein is president of the California State Parks Foundation, an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting, enhancing and advocating for California’s state parks. For more information, visit calparks.org.