The director of California's state parks resigned and a deputy was fired Friday after officials learned the department sat on nearly $54 million in surplus money for years, while parks were threatened with closure over budget cuts.
Parks Director Ruth Coleman stepped down, and chief deputy Michael Harris was let go, amid questions about the underreported funds dating back 12 years, according to Clark Blanchard, a spokesman for the secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department.
Local officials expressed a mixture of outrage and astonishment at the news that the parks department intended to close 70 parks to save $22 million over two years while reportedly sitting on reserves of more than twice that amount.
"You don't go around coercing community groups and nonprofits to solve your problems while you're sitting on reserves that size," said Caleb Dardick, executive director of the South Yuba River Citizens League, which has taken a leadership role in raising awareness and funds to keep open two Nevada County parks - Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park and South Yuba River State Park.
In February, Dardick led a contingent of local environmental leaders, conservationists, park advocates and children from Grass Valley Charter school, to hand deliver more than 10,000 petitions to Coleman.
At the time, Coleman praised the contingent, including western Nevada County officials and the children for developing a sustainable plan to keep the park open.
Dardick said those words now ring hollow.
"The state parks staff betrayed the public trust, they betrayed our community and betrayed our children," he said. "As a sign of good faith, the parks department should immediately restore full services to both parks."
Alden Olmsted, who has undertaken a comprehensive fundraising effort that encourages people to provide $1 to buckets strategically placed at businesses around the state, said he has long suspected something wrong was afoot.
"Now I know why it was so difficult to try and help the parks system," Olmsted said.
Olmsted said he repeatedly pressed park officials for specific figures regarding what it would take to keep specific parks open and was repeatedly rebuffed.
"The numbers were erroneous all along," he said.
Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) who emerged as a consistent critic of how the parks department conducted the park closure process agreed with Olmsted in a Friday news release.
"As we've dealt with the parks funding crisis, I've repeatedly expressed my concern about the lack of transparency and the fortress mentality at State Parks," Huffman said. "The only good news I can see from this scandal is that it will bring much-needed transparency, accountability, and a serious 'reset' to an agency that desperately needs it."
State Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale, joined the chorus of voices in denouncing the fiscal fiasco.
"Though I am happy to discover there is money to keep California's parks open, I am disappointed in the State Parks Director and her staff for concealing money from California's taxpayers while calling for the closure of 70 state parks," LaMalfa said.
The attorney general's office is investigating and state finance officials will conduct an audit, Blanchard said.
The resignation comes at a time when state lawmakers and park advocates have been trying to find ways to keep most parks open despite ongoing budget cuts. Last month, park officials announced most of the 70 state parks once slated to close would remain open due to various operating agreements.
The Sacramento Bee first reported Coleman's resignation Friday, after inquiring about the possibility of a surplus. In addition, the newspaper reported Sunday about a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters that cost taxpayers more than $271,000.
State officials said the "hidden assets" that prompted the shake-up were found by new park fiscal staff while the attorney general's office was looking into the unauthorized vacation buyouts.
It's not clear why the accounts weren't properly reported. A preliminary investigation shows the parks department underreported two funds as far back as 2000.
The state parks and recreation fund, which is generated from park fees and rentals, held $20.4 million more than was reported. The off-highway vehicle fund, which is generated from registering ATVs and similar types of vehicles, held $33.5 million more than reported.
Officials said Gov. Jerry Brown accepted Coleman's resignation and has appointed California Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland as acting interim director of the department.
California operates 279 parks, which include famous beaches to redwood forests. The parks that were at risk of closure got a reprieve last month after the governor signed a bill allocating new funds for the beleaguered parks system for the next year.
The state has also reached agreements with nonprofits, local governments and others to keep 40 parks open at least for a few years.
A large share of nonprofit funding has come from the California State Parks Foundation, a nonprofit arm of the state parks that raises money to support the parks mission.
The foundation has issues $833,000 in grant money over the past two months to help finalize operating agreements, according to the foundation's Director of Communications Jerry Emory.
Emory said the foundation is "shocked and dismayed" at the news of the parks department shake-up, but said the discovery of the funds does not necessarily mean the fiscal crisis has passed.
"The California State Parks' budget has been reduced by 33 percent in the last four years," he said. "There is still $1.3 billion looming in deferred maintenance - these parks are falling apart.
Nonprofits and community groups will still need to continue to raise the necessary funds to ensure the long-term viability of all 70 parks on the list.
California State Parks recently came to a donor agreement to keep Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park open through the next year.
The agreement involved SYRCL, the Malakoff Diggins Park Association and the Olmsted Park Fund and a reduction of services.
Dardick had planned to meet with Marilyn Linkem, the supervising ranger of the Sierra District next week to finalize the agreement, but it remains unclear on Friday how the news of the underreported funds will impact this agreement.
To contact Staff Writer Matthew Renda, email email@example.com or call (530) 477-4239. Judy Lin of the Associated Press contributed to this report.