State Parks Director Resigns After $54 Million in Surplus Money Discovered

The Bureau of State Audits discovered July 20 that the California Department of Parks and Recreation has been sitting on an undisclosed $54 million surplus for the past 12 years. The department kept this money even while planning on closing 70 parks statewide before many were saved by donations from nonprofits and local governments.

Surplus funds normally are reported to the Department of Finance or the State Controller's Office, but it is unknown why they were kept secret in this case. The surplus came to light thanks to an investigative report by The Sacramento Bee, and it is not known whether it would have been disclosed to the public by state officials absent media attention.

State Parks Director Ruth Coleman, the longest-tenured director in the department's history, stepped down following the news, and her direct subordinate was fired.

The surplus was found in the department's two main operating funds: $20.3 million in the Parks and Recreation Fund, and $33.5 million in the Off Highway Vehicle Fund. The decision on how to use the surplus funds will be determined by the Legislature.

The news comes on the heels of a scandal involving a secret vacation-buyout program at the department headquarters last year that cost the state more than $271,000. The program was managed by Manuel Thomas Lopez, who resigned in May. The program allowed employees to sell unused vacation time back to the state, without first getting the required approval from the state Department of Human Resources. To avoid a paper trail, some of the buy-out requests were submitted on Post-It notes, The Bee's investigative reporters found. (Source: The Sacramento Bee, July 15, July 20 and July 26.)

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