08/06/2012 11:00:00 AM EST
State Net Capitol Journal: CA State Park Donors Cry Foul
Last month California officials revealed that the state Department of Parks and Recreation had stashed away $54 million it had not reported to the state Department of Finance. The news came as quite a surprise, especially to the groups that had generously donated to keep state parks open that the department said had to be closed to save $22 million.
"They sort of came to us under false pretenses," said Reed Holderman, executive director of the Sempervirens Fund, a nonprofit conservation group. "They cried wolf, and we responded."
Holderman's group pledged $250,000 to keep Castle Rock State Park open, and he said the parks department should at least refund the money nonprofits donated.
"An elegant solution would be for them to refund the nonprofits, and put whatever is left into parks."
But donors that aren't in the nonprofit category are also demanding restitution.
U.S. Rep. Linda Sanchez (D) sent a letter to the parks department demanding it refund $30,000 the city of Whittier donated to keep open Pio Pico State Park.
"I am extremely proud our community stepped up to keep this treasured state historic park open," she wrote. "However, based upon the recently discovered budget surplus, it is clear that there was no need for the city to use their general funds for this purpose."
There is no evidence any money was embezzled or stolen at the parks department, but critics are calling the threatened park closures a political gimmick to try to convince voters to support Gov. Jerry Brown's (D) tax increase measure in November.
State Parks Director Ruth Coleman has since resigned, and her top deputy has been fired. And the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department, said it will recommend the extra money be spent on the parks. But it said that decision will ultimately be up to state lawmakers.
Legislative leaders were noncommittal on the issue.
"There's no determination at this point," said Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D). "The priority is to get to the bottom of the situation and figure out what happened. And then we go from there." (SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS)
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