It is unfortunate that it took legislation to ensure proper stewardship of California’s nearly 1.4 million acres of state parks. But Californians and people who visit the state should be thankful that Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a bill to protect our public spaces.
In January, Brown announced that a $22 million shortfall in the budget would force the closure of 70 of the 278 state parks. In the Bay Area, that would have restricted operations, such as open restrooms and garbage collection, at 16 locations, including Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, and Big Basin Redwoods, Mount Diablo and Mount Tamalpais state parks.
After the announcement, nonprofits and municipalities scrambled to raise funds to keep these sites fully operational and open to the public.
As those park closures loomed, information emerged about a payout scandal in the California Department of Parks and Recreation, where workers were skirting compensation rules and cashing out vacation time. According to an investigation by the Sacramento Bee, a high-ranking department official between May and July 2011 bypassed the Office of Human Resources and approved vacation buyouts for 56 employees.
Then, after news of that scandal broke, it also came to light that the parks department was sitting on $54 million in funds from special programs. Lawmakers and citizens alike were rightly outraged, especially the groups that had come together to step in and operate the parks scheduled for closure.
Three bills were introduced to keep the parks open and provide for greater future oversight of the department. Brown signed the three pieces of legislation last weekend, sending a strong message about the importance of state parks and the need to rein in oversight of these natural treasures.
Assembly Bill 1478 by Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Woodland Hills, will prevent any state park from closing in the next two years, among other provisions. This is key for park users since it gives the department’s new leaders time and new tools to get their house in shape without unnecessary closures.
AB 1589 by Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, will provide the parks department greater budget flexibility and allow administrators to explore new fundraising opportunities.
And AB 1487 by the Assembly Budget Committee will provide greater financial oversight of the department.
This legislation is the beginning of the work that needs to be done to get the department’s finances in order.
But it also shows a willingness on the part of many state agencies to put safeguards in place to prevent unnecessary closures in the future.
And AB 1589 will make any future closures more transparent by requiring the department to disclose the rationale for shuttering sites or discontinuing services.
State parkland includes some of the most cherished locales in California, and Brown was wise to sign the pieces of legislation to keep them all open.
Now comes the harder work of making sure the parks are properly funded and overseen, to ensure that they remain open in perpetuity.