After scandal, Jerry Brown signs bill to keep parks open

Published: Wednesday, Sep. 26, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A

Gov. Jerry Brown gave California's 278 state parks a two-year reprieve from closures Tuesday after embarrassing revelations that parks officials were hiding funds for years.

The governor signed Assembly Bill 1478, which prohibits the state Department of Parks and Recreation from closing a park or proposing shutdowns until July 2014.

The legislation also provides $10 million to match future contributions from donors who help keep parks open, $10 million for operating costs and $10 million in bond funds for park improvements.

Brown had previously threatened to close 70 state parks because he said California could not afford to keep them open. He solicited donations from private contributors, who stepped up to ensure that parks like the Governor's Mansion in Sacramento would operate.

Rather than give money back to donors who presumed the parks system was penniless, the governor proposed in August that state funds be used to encourage more contributions as AB 1478 requires.

"Much remains to be done to keep our parks open," Brown said in an August statement. "The disclosure that the Parks department had millions in additional revenues is mixed – it's better to have more money than less, but it's totally unacceptable for Parks personnel to squirrel away public funds."

After The Bee asked about a parks surplus in state Controller's Office documents, Brown administration officials announced in July the parks department for years cloaked $20 million in a fee-based parks special fund and $34 million in off-highway vehicle money. Brown and his Department of Finance said they did not know about the extra money until that month.

The announcement came after The Bee reported that a senior parks official had devised an unauthorized buyout of employee leave time. Transcripts of an internal investigation revealed that former Deputy Director Manuel Thomas Lopez and other parks officials repeatedly found an unexpected surplus at the end of each fiscal year despite the standing threat of park closures.

In a quick audit of other state special funds, Brown's Department of Finance found other discrepancies between its data and those compiled by the Controller's Office. But Finance said it did not find any other instances where state employees intentionally masked funds. The department did turn up $28 million extra in a fund for crime victims and significant accounting anomalies in Public Utilities Commission accounts that the state is still investigating.

Brown last week signed a separate bill, AB 1487, requiring that Finance and the Controller's Office use the same accounting methods and reconcile their data on a regular basis.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Kevin Yamamura



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