Whitehead: Parks Dept. even worse than I thought


In last week's column, I commented on how the California Department of Boating and Waterways (Cal Boating) becoming a division of the Department of Parks and Recreation was simply a money grab for Cal Boating's dedicated funds. The parks department has been whining for years about being broke, and the only option is to close numerous state parks as the only alternative.

Therefore, the transferring of Cal Boating under the parks department looked great to the governor and state lawmakers in Sacramento as a means to tap into the non-general fund special dollars. Why not?

Cal Boating already looses roughly $25 million of the boaters' tax dollars annually to Parks, however, someone forgot to mention that the parks department has a $54-million surplus. Furthermore, some of these funds were being used for questionable purposes and findings have had heads rolling in senior management.

Parks Director Ruth Coleman resigned last week, but not before firing Deputy Director Michael Harris. As the scandal broke, another secret program was revealed that involved questionable vacation buyouts to staff for more than $250,000 that led to Deputy Director Manuel Lopez resigning in May. It appears that the unused vacation time buyback program was not approved, especially during these difficult financial times. Furthermore, the paper trail is difficult to trace as official forms are lacking with some requests submitted and written on note paper.

Reports say that this practice of hoarding taxpayer's money and illegal payouts have been going on for at least 12 years. This defies logic as to why senior management would allegedly hide the money except for some sort of personal gain.

In response to the recent financial discoveries, Gov. Jerry Brown has started an investigation with the Secretary of Natural Resources Agency John Laird, assisting the Department of Finance and the attorney general's office to uncover the details about this financial shell game. I find it ironic that the state requires municipalities to annually audit their financial records, yet the state does not require its own departments to conduct financial audits?

So now, we are throwing more meat to the wolves with the transition to the parks department of Cal Boating's annual revenues in the tens of millions of dollars. Can we afford to have the parks department manage Cal Boating, and can we allow them the fiduciary responsibility to manage the money paid by boaters?

"These news reports are of great concern," said RBOC President Cleve Hardaker. "We encourage boaters to contact their legislators in the Senate and Assembly, urging them to take action and demand a full accounting of boater funds that have been directed to state parks."

The boating infrastructure in California is aging, and the list is growing to rebuild launch ramps, marinas, public docks and restrooms, and pump out facilities. Many of these projects are facilitated by the grants and loans from Cal Boating, but I cannot see how the public can trust that the boater-paid monies will be going back to boating projects by the recent discovery of the parks department's past financial practices.

The local economies prosper and benefit from boating infrastructure by attracting boaters and others who spend money in the communities. I am baffled and amazed at the moral leadership of the parks department's senior management, and especially the lack of leadership by the recently resigned director who claimed that she knew nothing.

I have a gut feeling that there is more to be found as the rocks are turned over, and probably more heads are to roll. I have two closing thoughts. I wonder when an audit will begin, and can we introduce legislation to mandate Cal Boating reverts back into its own department?

And don't forget: Tune in to the No. 1 boating radio talk show in the nation, Capt. Mike Whitehead's Boathouse Radio Show, broadcasting coast-to-coast on the CRN Digital Talk Radio syndicated network at noon on Saturdays and replayed at 10 a.m. on Sundays. You can find the station listings, cable TV channels, live streaming on the Internet, and apps to listen to the show for your iPhone, Blackberry, iPod touch, Android, Palm, and Windows Mobile at http://www.BoathouseTV.com.

Safe Voyages!

MIKE WHITEHEAD is a boating columnist for the Daily Pilot. Send marine-related thoughts and story suggestions to mike@boathousetv.com.

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