Parks scandal threatens trust in state officials 

Twenty-two million dollars. That’s what it would have taken to keep 70 of California’s 278 public parks open this year. Instead, they were scheduled to be locked up and sealed off from the public. Only the extraordinary fundraising efforts of private donors have kept them open so far.

Now, thanks to the work of The Sacramento Bee, it turns out that the state Department of Parks and Recreation had the money all along. To be precise, the parks department was sitting on nearly $54 million it had stored away for years.

That’s enough to keep the 70 parks on the state’s kill list open for at least two years.

The funds were tucked away into two accounts: $20.4 million in the department’s Parks and Recreation Fund, and $33.5 million in its Off Highway Vehicle Fund.

The Bee’s reporters learned of the money while pursuing a separate scandal, in which parks department employees were secretly allowed to cash in vacation time for money, to the tune of more than $271,000.

As of now, no one knows why the nearly $54 million was stashed away, who did it or how. No one knows why the parks department’s highest officials chose to keep this money in reserve, at the very moment when such funds could keep critical state resources open. The California Attorney General’s Office has launched an investigation into the affair.

Meanwhile, State Parks Director Ruth Coleman has resigned as a result of this scandal. Her second in command, acting Chief Deputy Director Michael Harris, was fired. The money has been transferred into the state’s general fund, where the Legislature will decide what to do with it.

So far, there is no evidence that suggests that any public official hid the money for personal gain. Indeed, every person  connected with this affair seems mystified as to how so much money could have simply vanished into a bureaucratic rabbit hole.

And in some ways, that could be even more damning for the future of California’s finances. This November, Gov. Jerry Brown will ask voters to approve increases in the state’s sales tax and income tax for residents earning more than $250,000. California’s voters have been historically reluctant to approve such increases, even if they could mean the difference between schools that educate children and schools that merely warehouse them.

Much of California’s surplus can be blamed on fat pension schemes for public employees, and Brown has worked with state employee unions to whittle down their benefits.

The governor’s deals have gone a long way toward convincing state  voters that he and his colleagues are taking their tax commitments seriously.

But scandals such as these make a strong case that even if public employees give ground on retirement and health benefits, the government is simply too inept to be trusted with taxpayers’ money.

This is the real damage done by Ruth Coleman and her lieutenants. They have poisoned the very notion of public parks, and the public funding we need to keep them open. Coleman should cooperate with state investigators, and then go someplace quiet and reflect upon how she has failed.

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