Discovery of California parks fund provokes backlash from donors

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When cash-pinched state officials announced last year that they couldn’t afford to keep 70 California parks open, residents jumped in to help. Neighbors held bake sales, cities dug into their reserves, and nonprofits rallied big donors.

With the recent disclosures of a largely unknown $54-million pile sitting in state parks accounts, that can-do spirit has been replaced by a how-could-they indignation. Several local governments are demanding their money back, saying they were duped at a time when they could least afford it.

In Ventura County, supervisors Tuesday sent a letter to state officials demanding the immediate return of $50,000 earmarked to repair a crucial sewer line at McGrath State Beach near Oxnard. Last year, the state said the popular beach would close because it lacked $500,000 for the fix. Officials even urged McGrath fans to vote early and often in a Coca-Colacontest that would award $100,000 to America’s “favorite” park.

“A lot of children were putting their nickels and dimes together to keep the park open,” said Ventura County Supervisor John Zaragoza.

Oxnard, which donated $50,000 for McGrath, also asked for a refund.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird as John Lair; it also incorrectly described the Pio Pico adobe as having 15 rooms.

Three months ago, beaming supporters of the Coe Park Preservation Fund handed a check for $279,000 to Ruth Coleman, then the state parks director. Thousands more had been raised and another $600,000 committed for Henry W. Coe State Park, a rugged 90,000-acre expanse 35 miles southeast of San Jose.

Coleman was forced to resign when news of the department’s hidden surplus was revealed last month. She has denied knowing about the money at the time she solicited donations to keep the parks open.

“If she did know, shame on her,” said Robert Patrie, one of the Coe Park fund’s prime movers. “If she didn’t know, shame on her. It’s hard to be anything else than very, very disappointed.”

Organizations that support parks, meanwhile, say the affair has tainted their ongoing pleas for donations.

“There was a sense of betrayal,” said Carolyn Schoff, head of the California League of Parks Assns., an alliance of nonprofits. “We’re the ones in the trenches raising funds for state parks and now there’s a dark shadow over us.”

Talks with donors for an additional $500,000 for Coe Park collapsed in the scandal’s wake. Patrie said his organization wants its money back if the Legislature fails to use $20.4 million of the newly discovered cash to keep parks open. The remaining $33.5 million is from the Off-Highway Vehicle Trust Fund, an account that benefits the state’s recreational sites for off-road trucks and motorcycles.

State officials have urged the public to bear with them as they try to make sense of the situation. In a letter to parks donors, Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird and Janelle Beland, acting director of state parks, said they were “as outraged as you are about this news.” Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration has launched an audit of the department’s accounting practices, the attorney general’s office has mounted its own investigation, and the Legislature plans hearings.

Through bake sales and bequests, the public helped save 69 of the 70 parks threatened with closure. But the scandal has quashed further expectations. In Sonoma County, officials canceled plans to ask voters to raise the sales tax, which would have gone toward local parks.

“Parks are worse off because now it’s going to be more difficult to raise money,” said Caryl Hart, chairwoman of the State Park and Recreation Commission and director of the Sonoma County Regional Parks Department.

In Whittier, the City Council has asked for a refund of the $20,000 it dedicated to saving Pio Pico State Historic Park, a landmark of early California and a point of local pride.

“Having the state demand this contribution from an economically struggling population at a time when there are surplus funds in the budget is obscene,” said City Manager Jeffrey W. Collier in a letter to state officials. The city had to lay off six people and reduce services, but still managed to find funds to help the park.

The five-acre site, with the 19th-century adobe home of Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, has been threatened with at least partial closure for years.

Schoff heads Friends of Pio Pico as well as the statewide group of park nonprofits. In the last year, she and other volunteers orchestrated numerous events — the Pesos for Pio Pico recycling drive and the Pedal for Pio Pico bike-a-thon among them — but their most complex task was persuading big donors to help fund one of the state’s smallest parks. Now it will be even more so.

Nonetheless, Schoff said she saw an upside to the debacle: “We see this as an opportunity for more transparency in government.”