This summer has been riddled with stories about the failing California economy. With cities filing for bankruptcy and state, county and municipal employees retirements at risk, you wouldn’t expect that a department of the California state government would be hiding funds; but that’s exactly what has been uncovered.

California’s park system has been facing the same severe budget crisis as the rest of the state. Slashed budgets and tough decisions have meant California’s parks have had to face a far more meager future than they have become accustomed; or have they?

California's Amazing Yosemite Park

A recent audit has uncovered that the California Department of Parks and Recreation actually had something far rarer than transparency in the “Golden” state: a surplus. In fact the park system had a secret $54 million surplus that it kept hidden while begging local governments and others to assist, never revealing that they were actually flush with cash.

Now a new in-depth audit has been ordered and will begin immediately to find the extent of the deceitfulness exhibited by state park officials.

Republican Assemblywoman Beth Gaines, who led the effort to win bipartisan approval for the probe told, “These parks define us as Californians and this is a victory for transparency in California state government.”

California’s park system’s director, Ruth Coleman, resigned her position last Friday after state officials discovered the money, which had been carefully kept under cover and never reported to the state’s finance department.

The California park system’s second-in-command, acting Chief Deputy Director Michael Harris, was fired as well; adding to the revelations was news reporting that Harris’ past was quite checkered.

California’s Department of Parks and Recreation isn’t unfamiliar with scandal; Just last year the California park system was faced with inquiries into their handling of taxpayer money after they announced plans to close 70 of their 278 parks due to state budget cuts. The park system was able to avoid the park closures due to donations of foundation money, help from municipalities and corporate-management agreements; imagine how the donors feel after finding that the department had a $54 million slush fund?

California GOP Assemblywoman Gaines said Monday that the $54 million has been in state coffers for as long as 12 years, and she believes the money was intentionally hidden.

Gains said, “They use sticky notes” as record-keeping.

California governor’s office is remaining mum on the scandal, knowing that other state budgetary remedies, including the Governor’s tax increase set to be decided by voters this November, could be at risk.

The California park system audit was revealed just days before three high-ranking officials were disciplined for their part in an unauthorized park system employee vacation-buyout program that cost state taxpayers more than $271,000.

It’s hard to imagine, but with California cities going into bankruptcy and unable to fulfill its pension commitments was actually allowing more than 50 employees to trade unused vacation time for cash. Before you think the state’s corruption is limited to the park system, it requires California’s state human resources department to approve vacation-cash swaps. The officials involved were issued letters of letters of reprimand this past Monday.

“That’s not OK, laws were broken,” said Gaines, who intends to take the issue to the state’s attorney general.

The audit, being led by California State Auditor Elaine Howle, is part of a larger one expected to conclude in January 2013 and reportedly will cost taxpayers $300,000.

Democrat Assemblyman Jared Huffman, representing the district of San Rafael, told The Los Angeles Time the new revelations are “a disaster” toward efforts to build partnerships and create strategies to support the state’s 1.4 million acres of park. That would be an understatement. Who would want to donate money to support the park system if they knew they had created a rainy-day fund while asking for hand-outs?

Assemblywoman Gaines, whose district is about 20 miles northeast of Sacramento, said she is pleased about the audit but thinks California is still “a long way from restoring the public’s trust” and that the known problems are “just the tip of the iceberg.”

State municipalities believe they were hoodwinked by the parks department. The city of Whittier California put together an $80,000 package of public-private money to keep open Pio Pico State Park for roughly a year and sent the first quarterly installment of $20,000 before news broke about the hidden $54 million.

Whittier Assistant City Manager Nancy Mendez said they immediately demanded a refund but have agreed to wait 30 days in part to see whether the park system can use $20 million of the hidden money to keep parks open.

One has to assume that the actions of the California Parks and Recreation Department are not isolated. In a state that has shown a propensity for budgetary irresponsibility, the likelihood that other departments were covering their own derriere has to at least be considered. Expecting California to perform a statewide audit of all departments is not only fiscally impossible it certainly wouldn’t yield the transparency that Ms. Gaines is touting.

If the United States had a functioning and honest Department of Justice, perhaps they could take on such a momentous task; however in a state run by Democrats and a Justice Department that’s completely political, the citizens of California are going to need an internal revolution to find out why their tax dollars have be wasted.


Subscribe to Mr. Kaplan’s articles at
Read Mr. Kaplan’s blog at Conservatively Speaking
Email Mr. Kaplan at
Join Mr. Kaplan on Facebook at ConservativelySpeaking
Follow Mr. Kaplan’s tweets at ConsSpeaking