A huge shakeup at the California Department of Parks and Recreation comes during a time of tough negotiations and community fundraising efforts to keep 70 state parks from closing, including the two in Benicia. It was revealed on Friday, after months of negotiations between community groups and the State, that the parks department had “hidden” or underreported $54 million in its budget. The department’s director, Ruth Coleman, resigned and Chief Deputy Michael Harris was fired. The matter is now under investigation.
Outrage has ensued over the discovery, especially in light of a recent story by the Sacramento Bee regarding the parks department’s unauthorized "secret vacation buyout program" in which employees sold their unused vacation time back to the state at a cost of more than $271,000 while parks were being closed. The Bee uses the Benicia State Recreation Area as an example of a park that might remain open if not for the illegal buyout:
"For example, the city of Benicia offered to operate Benicia State Recreation Area if the parks department would agree to contribute $77,000 – a fraction of actual operating costs. The department refused, and the park remains threatened with closure. Sacramento Bee, 7/15/12". http://www.sacbee.com/2012/07/15/4631669/unauthorized-vacation-buyouts.html#storylink=cpy.
Back in May of 2011, Coleman responded to Governor Brown’s plan to reduce the state parks operating budget by $22 million by saying, “We regret closing any park. But with the proposed budget reductions over the next two years, we can no longer afford to operate all parks within the system." Meanwhile the surplus has apparently been building for 12 years. Most of the parks on the closure list rely on these assets for tourism, including Benicia. Local representatives have been working diligently for months to work out operating agreements with the State to keep Benicia’s two state parks open—the Benicia State Capitol Historic Park and the Benicia State Recreation Area.
It’s unclear how the discovery of the extra $54 million will impact the closures. As new information unfolds, Senator Noreen Evans, Democrat from Santa Rosa, summed it up this way with a strong statement: "This discovery uncovers the ultimate betrayal of public trust,” she said. “It is inconceivable to me how anyone with an ounce of morals could outright steal $54 million of taxpayer money intended for our historic public lands.”