By Katharine Mieszkowsk, The Bay Citizen
A little-known commission could be empowered to provide more oversight of the California Department of Parks and Recreation after an investigation revealed the department sat on a multimillion-dollar budget surplus for years.
This week, state Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, plans to introduce legislation giving the State Park and Recreation Commission new authority.
"The commission is the citizens' oversight committee for the parks," said Evans in a phone interview. “I want to make it a commission that actually has some teeth to it."
While some members of the commission support Evans' plan, another member, Maurice Johannessen, thinks that it has all the authority it needs.
"The commission is an oversight body that can go in and find anything that they want," said Johannessen, who is also a former state senator. "If I wanted to review a budget, then I would ask for it."
The commission once ran the state parks system, according to Joseph Engbeck, an environmental historian who is the author of “State Parks of California from 1864 to the Present.”
“Little by little, over the years, the legislator and the governor moved power away from the commission,” Engbeck said. “To the point where all the commission can really do today is to approve general plans and new names for parks.”
The commission has little power, staff or budget today. It currently has one employee, and five of the nine seats on the commission have been filled. It has not held a meeting since January and has no plans to convene until late September. Its last annual report to the governor on the state parks system was dated 2010. That report, which was eight pages long, covered a 2½-year period through December 2009.
Evans said her legislation will beef up the commission's staff and funding, although she declined to give specifics, explaining that she's still drafting the bill. She said the legislation would expand the commission's purview to include reviewing the department's budget. It would also give the legislature power to make some appointees to the commission, according to Evans. Currently the governor appoints the commissioners, who are unpaid.
A spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown was noncommittal about the prospect of expanding the commission's role: "Like any legislation, we'll closely consider any bill that lands on the governor's desk," said Evan Westrup.
The state parks department sat on a $54 million budget surplus for years, an investigation last month uncovered. While more than half of that surplus was found in a fund dedicated for buying and managing land for off-road vehicle use, an additional $20 million was sitting in the State Parks and Recreation Fund, which is primarily made up of user fees.
That money could have prevented some cutbacks at parks across California after the state last year slashed $22 million from the department's budget. At the time, the department said it would have to close 70 state parks as a result of the budget cuts but made no mention of its surplus funds.
Since the scandal broke, the director of the agency, its chief deputy director and chief counsel have all left the department. The state’s attorney general is now investigating how the department hid the surplus. Meanwhile, the California Department of Finance, which conducted an audit of 560 special funds in state departments, announced Friday that it found no other state agencies had hidden assets.
Also on Friday, Brown said in a statement that he wants to use $20 million from the State Parks and Recreation Fund to keep parks open. He is also seeking an additional $10 million for maintenance projects at parks.
Commissioners say they had no knowledge of the surplus in the parks department because they are often kept in the dark about key decisions. “We do not have fiscal oversight of state parks,” said Caryl Hart, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks, who is chairwoman of the commission.
"If we are going to be commissioners, then we need to know what the budget is, what the staff is doing and what they are proposing," said Tommy Randle of San Dimas, who also serves on the commission.
Since the parks department is not the only one with special funds, Johannessen thinks that it is up to the state's finance department to provide "a little closer accounting" of all those funds going forward.
Evans, the state senator, said that "either the Department of Finance or the controller should have known of the discrepancies," which is why the parks department needs more oversight.
State park supporters are also urging lawmakers to consider an outside agency to oversee the parks department.
In a July 25 letter sent to state leaders including the governor, Elizabeth Goldstein, president of the California State Parks Foundation wrote, “A qualified, independent body of dedicated and skilled citizens that ensures transparency, public engagement, and participation must be empowered to oversee and guide” the department. The letter suggested that the commission “might be strengthened to serve this role.”
For those relying on the commission in its current form, there can be a lot of waiting.
In August 2011, the state Assembly and Senate passed a resolution recommending that Eastshore State Park in the East Bay have the name "McLaughlin" added in front of it in honor of one of the co-founders of the nonprofit Save the Bay.
Now, advocates are going before the commission. "We think that the time is now to honor Sylvia McLaughlin. We want to have this happen in her lifetime. She is 95 and a half," said Patricia Jones, executive director of Citizens for East Shore Parks, who has been waiting for months for the commission to hear the issue.
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.