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Calif. State Parks Operate with 1950s Mentality

July 30, 2013 by · Comments Off on Calif. State Parks Operate with 1950s Mentality 

The California State Parks system is grappling with modern funding problems as it strains for cash while its staffing, recreation and maintenance needs grow. But according to critics and even the parks’ new director, the department’s business practices are stuck in the 1950s.

Bay Nature reported that to pay for parking at the parks, visitors must shove exact change and cash into metal posts known as “iron rangers.” Accounting and budgeting software lacks consistency throughout the state from park to park. Park rangers are still required to have law enforcement experience, even though much of their work involves providing education, visitor assistance and community programs. And state parks has yet to create a working relationship with the state travel and tourism commission to market the parks.

A bit of modernization and thoughtful reworking could help the cash-strapped park system regain its footing as it searches for ways to become economically sustainable, according to a couple of study commissions seeking to revamp the department.

The most recent effort was announced by state parks and the California Natural Resources Agency in early June with the formation of the Parks Forward Commission. The panel of experts and citizens are being chosen by Secretary of Natural Resources John Laird to recommend improvements to state parks’ financial, operational and cultural practices.

Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for California State Parks, declined to list the specific problems the commission plans to address, but she said the panel will consider any viable solutions that would help sustain the parks.

“Everything’s going to be on the table, as we understand it,” she said. “It’s going to be a top to bottom assessment of the state park system, including the 280 parks.”

Major General Anthony Jackson, the new state parks chief who stepped in after former director Ruth Coleman resigned in the midst of a budget scandal, has been more blunt about the department’s outdated practices. While speaking at a Regional Parks Association forum on June 15 in Oakland, Jackson said that state parks hasn’t made a cultural or business change since the 1950s and continues to lack a marketing or business department.

Jackson said he will create a new business and marketing department in the next couple months and will begin promoting the parks more aggressively with state park passes for sale at retail outlets, as well as television advertising campaigns.

“We haven’t done a good job of marketing what we have, and need a broader tourism strategy,” said Stuart Drown, executive director of the Little Hoover Commission, a bipartisan state agency that also offered recommendations to improve California State Parks.

 

California Senate OKs Jackson Appointment

July 3, 2013 by · Comments Off on California Senate OKs Jackson Appointment 

Anthony Jackson

The California State Senate on Monday (July 1) confirmed retired Marine Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson of Fallbrook as state parks chief, easily overriding complaints from some Republicans that he sidestepped controversies involving a proposed toll road and protections for the popular Trestles surfing spot near San Onofre State Beach.

“This gentleman came in to lead the department during some of its roughest and most publicly difficult times,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat who championed his appointment.

Not all Republicans were convinced, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Sen. Mimi Walters, R-Lake Forest, accused Jackson of neglecting his duty by not intervening to prevent a special historic preservation designation for Trestles despite objections from the Marines. Officials at Camp Pendleton said such a move would compromise military readiness by interfering with training.

In turn, that threatens the renewal of the San Onofre State Beach lease with the Marines when it expires in 2021, Walters warned.

“Now more than ever we need the leadership in the parks department — something that Gen. Jackson has failed to provide,” she said.

Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Solana Beach, said Jackson should have stepped in for another reason: the historic designation will be used as a tool to block the construction of the proposed State Route 241 toll road toward I-5 and San Onofre.

Advocates say a toll road is needed to relieve congestion and assure motorists of an alternative escape route in the case of an emergency, such as an earthquake.

“By taking that action, this nominee has effectively made it almost impossible for this to occur,” Wyland said. “It is utterly irresponsible. It ignores the need for a vast community.”

Jackson had his defenders, even among Republicans.

In a statement after the vote, Sen. Joel Anderson, R-La Mesa, called Jackson “well-qualified,” citing his 36 years of military service, much of which was in command roles.

During the floor debate, Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, said Jackson has proved himself. “He has turned things around. Morale is up … He has a love of parks. He has made great things happen.”

The vote was 28-4.

Gov. Jerry Brown tapped Jackson in November to run a Department of Parks and Recreation besieged by scandal. Department officials had hidden money at a time when budget cuts were threatening to shutter parks. There were also reports of paycheck padding and other financial mismanagement.

Jackson has drawn widespread praise for connecting with divergent park users, especially members of the Off-Highway Vehicle community. They spoke in his favor at an earlier committee hearing.

Jackson did not issue any formal reaction to Monday’s vote. But in an earlier interview and testimony, he explained his positions on San Onofre.

Jackson testified that he could not take action because he was advised by the state’s attorney that he should recuse himself. As former commander of Camp Pendleton he had previously been involved in decisions regarding the toll road and historic designation for Trestles. Today, he is in a different role, and represents the governor.

Jackson also said he did not feel it was the role of the parks director to intervene since the historical preservation commission was appointed by the governor and is supposed to act independently.

“You don’t want a director telling a commission what should be on their agenda,” he said.

Jackson signaled he would now oppose any toll road that threatened the park and its accompanying San Mateo campground.

“My job is to preserve and protect California State Parks for future generations,” Jackson said.

Jackson oversees about 280 parks in the system, spanning 1.4 million acres of coast, forests and mountains. He oversees a budget of $574 million.

Jackson’s salary is $150,112 a year.

 

Jackson Update: California State Park Status

July 2, 2013 by · Comments Off on Jackson Update: California State Park Status 

Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson

California’s beloved state parks have been in the news in recent months but not always in a good way, KPBS Radio, San Diego, reported.

Last year, the public learned that state park officials were keeping millions of dollars in surplus funds, even when state budget cuts threatened to close 70 parks.

Since that time, there’s been a change at the top and a retired Marine general from Fallbrook, Calif., has been named to head the agency.

Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson is hoping to bring big changes to the way the state parks are managed.

Click here to listen to the 20-minute interview.

Click here to read a transcript of the interview.

 

Judge Affirmed Punishment for Parks’ Worker

June 13, 2013 by · Comments Off on Judge Affirmed Punishment for Parks’ Worker 

A California state parks employee who was punished last year for her role in an illegal buyout of employee vacation time has lost her appeal of that disciplinary action.

Paris Jackson, assistant personnel director at the California Department of Parks and Recreation, allegedly falsified payroll codes so a select group of employees at parks headquarters in Sacramento could cash out unused vacation time. The buyout was ordered by Manuel Lopez, former deputy director of administration at the department, who resigned, the Modesto Bee reported.

Jackson was slapped with a 5% pay cut as punishment for her role. The pay reduction began in August 2012 and runs for a year. She retained her position at the department and continues to work there.

In an appeal to the State Personnel Board, she asserted that she was merely carrying out orders and following precedent set down by prior buyouts. She asked that the disciplinary action be dismissed and her pay restored.

In an April 22 ruling, administrative law judge Jason Krestoff denied the appeal. He called the penalty appropriate and found that Jackson had a duty to make sure executive staff orders are carried out according to the rules.

“Appellant’s lack of awareness of her own actions weighs in favor of a substantial penalty,” Krestoff wrote.

The Bee obtained the ruling last week through a Public Records Act request.

Jackson’s attorney, Jeffrey Fulton, said his client is content with the ruling because it acknowledges she did nothing intentionally malicious or deceptive.

“Quite frankly, we’re pleased with the decision because it exonerated her of any intentional misconduct or anything that was nefarious,” Fulton said.

The buyout, first reported by The Bee, was illegal because the California Department of Human Resources had previously banned all vacation buyouts due to the state’s tenuous financial position. Lopez claimed he authorized the buyout to spend down a cash surplus in the department at the end of the fiscal year in 2011.

A total of 56 employees received vacation payouts, costing the state about $250,000 in the midst of a budget crisis. Lopez personally received the largest buyout payments among all employees who participated.

 

Editorial: Privatize All Ops at Calif. State Parks

June 12, 2013 by · Comments Off on Editorial: Privatize All Ops at Calif. State Parks 

Editor’s Note: The following editorial appeared in the San Mateo, Calif., Daily Journal.

John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, recently announced the formation of a study commission tasked with drawing up a plan to reinvent the state’s troubled park system.

Our longstanding view of government commissions is that they almost always are a waste of both time and money. They come up with recommendations that infrequently are implemented.

But we are inclined to reserve prejudgment of the newly created Parks Forward Commission, not the least because it appears that its membership will not be dominated by representatives of activist environmental groups, nonprofit parks associations and the state park rangers association.

Instead, there promises to be strong representation from the state’s business community, including panel chairman, venture capitalist Lance Conn. And the commission’s 18 months of work will be privately financed, by the James Irvine Foundation, among other philanthropies.

“Our goal is not to write a love letter to the parks,” said Mr. Conn, “or to create a theoretical white paper that gathers dust, but to come up with a broad and innovative plan to create a sustainable future for our parks.”

That Mr. Laird chose Mr. Conn to chair the commission — which oversees nearly 1.4 million acres, including more than 280 miles of coastline, 625 miles of lake and river frontage, nearly 15,000 campsites and 3,000 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails — suggests that he recognizes the system needs to be run less like a charity and more like a business.

A year ago, the state Department of Parks and Recreation was under orders to close a quarter of the state’s 280 parks, after a $22 million cut to its $779 million budget.

Closures were averted with the discovery of $23 million in “surplus” funds secretly maintained by the parks agency, itself an indictment of the department’s management practices; and which led to passage of last year’s California State Parks Stewardship Act, the law calling upon Mr. Laird’s agency to create the Parks Forward Commission.

We believe the state park system would be well-served by privatizing some or all operations at some if not all its parks. And a report last year by the state Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) concurs.

Not only would the state government save in the low tens of millions of dollars by privatization, the LAO estimated, private companies would procure new equipment and implement new projects more quickly than the state.

Currently, the state park system has some 200 concessions contracts with private providers, which generate roughly $12.5 million a year in state revenue. The contractors provide a range of park amenities, including food service, recreational gear rentals, shopping, golf courses, marinas and lodging.

Mr. Laird promises that the commission will not rule out any good ideas to improve the state park system. “Everything is going to be on the table,” he told the Associated Press last week.

That absolutely ought to include an expanded role for the private sector in park operations, with, of course, oversight by Mr. Laird’s department.

 

AUDIO: Calif. Director Explains Parks Forward

June 6, 2013 by · Comments Off on AUDIO: Calif. Director Explains Parks Forward 

Logo for California’s new Parks Forward commission.

The following story is courtesy of KPCC, Southern California Public Radio.

It’s been a rough stretch for California’s state park system, between budget woes and the threat of park closures. Last year, the state parks director resigned after officials learned the department has been sitting on nearly $20.5 million in surplus money for over a decade.

Now state officials are taking new steps to improve the system by launching a new commission called Parks Forward.

Anthony Jackson, state parks director, joins the show with more.

Click here to listen to a 4-four minute interview with Jackson.

Parks Forward: Make Calif. Parks ‘Sustainable’

June 4, 2013 by · Comments Off on Parks Forward: Make Calif. Parks ‘Sustainable’ 

California officials on Monday (June 3) launched a new program to analyze and overhaul the state parks system, to be led by a volunteer commission.

Called Parks Forward, the effort is required by the California State Parks Stewardship Act, passed last year in the wake of a financial scandal that upended the leadership ranks at state parks headquarters, the Sacramento Bee reported.

The system has been under scrutiny since The Bee revealed last year that top officials at the Department of Parks and Recreation hid $20 million in “surplus” money even as they set about closing 70 parks due to budget cuts.

Among its other troubles, the department has a deferred maintenance backlog at its 280 parks that exceeds $1 billion.

That is partly because the state general fund subsidy for parks has declined over the past 20 years, and revenues from visitor fees have not filled the gap.

California Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said Monday that Parks Forward aims to make the parks department “sustainable” over the next century.

“We would like to get to a point where we are not deferring maintenance and we are adequately funding the stewardship of the parks,” he said.

Laird will appoint the commission members, to include park users as well as experts on conservation and finance. The only commissioner named so far is Lance Conn, a venture capitalist and former investor for Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Parks Forward will be funded by grants from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation and others, under the auspices of the Resources Legacy Fund. For more information, visit: www.parksforward.com.

Click here to read the entire story.

 

Study Goals: Overhaul California’s State Parks

June 3, 2013 by · Comments Off on Study Goals: Overhaul California’s State Parks 

The California state parks system, beset by financial problems and scandal, is launching a study commission that leaders hope will reshape the system and restore public confidence and financial stability.

The group of private sector business leaders will study everything from how big the park system should be, to whether individual parks can do a better job generating revenue, and if the current practice of promoting only law enforcement rangers to leadership positions has led to a lack of innovation at the top, the San Jose Mercury News reported

“Everything is going to be on the table,” John Laird, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), told The Associated Press.

Today (June 3), Laird is scheduled to announce formation of the independent Parks Forward Commission, a privately financed panel that will study how to revamp the parks system for 18 months. It comes a year after scandals and problems threatened to shutter a quarter of the state’s 280 parks.

Laird will appoint up to a dozen leaders from business, finance, public policy and arts communities to examine the structure of the department and assess future needs for a state of 38 million people and growing.

“They have to be intellectually honest and creative in coming up with solutions, especially in how we are organized,” said Anthony Jackson, a retired Marine Corps major general appointed last fall to lead the parks department out of its troubles.

Jackson already has hired new top management and is looking at other changes. Staff is testing technology that allows visitors to swipe credit cards to pay for entrance and parking, rather than collecting cash and driving it to the bank as is done now in what Jackson called “1950s technology.”

Jackson also is looking at making park passes more accessible by selling them at retail sporting goods outlets, as fishing and hunting licenses are.

And he’s looking to undo the culture that said only rangers with law enforcement backgrounds were eligible to become superintendents, leaving behind naturalists, archeologists and others who might be innovative managers. It’s something the commission will examine.

 

Coke’s Donations to Calif. Parks Mishandled?

May 16, 2013 by · Comments Off on Coke’s Donations to Calif. Parks Mishandled? 

Anthony Jackson, director of California state parks, reveals part of Coca-Cola’s donation to state parks was diverted.

A private company hired to raise money for California state parks is accused of spending almost $1 million of a large donation on its own bills, an accusation it denies as legislators say they want more information, KXTV-TV, Sacramento, reported.

In a letter dated Tuesday (May 14) to legislators and obtained by News10,  Anthony Jackson, state parks director, told the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that a portion of a donation made by Coca-Cola to help fund parks operations was “diverted” by Pasadena-based Good Solutions Group Inc. “to pay some of its creditors.”

“As I have said since my arrival at state parks,” writes director Anthony Jackson, “I am committed to ensuring transparency with regard to departmental operations, partnerships, and financial issues.”

The money, estimated by Jackson as $918,263, was part of $2.6 million donation made by Coca-Cola in March 2009. The money was paid to Good Solutions Group Inc., which was working for the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation. In turn, the foundation was to oversee the transfer of the money to be held in trust for parks restoration and preservation projects.

Some $1.6 million of the soft-drink company’s money has reportedly already gone to parks projects as intended. But the money in question was not paid on time, and a spokesman for the nonprofit parks foundation says that triggered questions to the Pasadena company. The money dispute began in January; state parks officials were informed in February. But only now is the Legislature getting the information.

Maybe not so good a solution if state’s investigation proves money was mishandled.

“How can this happen, especially after we began asking questions about the off-books record keeping that they had before?” said state Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield. Her comment refers to the 2011 saga in which state parks officials admitted that tens of millions of dollars were hidden away for as long as a decade. That incident led to the resignation of the then parks director, and remains under investigation by the state attorney general’s office.

In a letter back to parks officials, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, says he wants more information from the nonprofit parks foundation on exactly what they found out, and what happens next.

Jerry Emery, a spokesperson for the foundation, says a formal legal agreement was signed with the company in question in March to secure a payment plan of the missing money.

Just before our story went on the air, a spokesperson for Good Solutions Group Inc. asserted no money was misspent … at all.

Meg Aldrich, Good Solutions Group Inc. spokeswoman, denies wrongdoing by the company.

“There has been no diversion of funds,” says the statement, sent by spokesperson Meg Aldrich. “To receive funding, parks must provide complete programming and accountability practices, which have not been demonstrated satisfactorily to date.”

But that denial is rejected by both state officials and the nonprofit parks foundation.

“We must get to the bottom of it, and we must address it as quickly and feasibly as possible,” said Richard Stapler of the California Natural Resources Agency.

The process of soliciting private donations to help fund the beleaguered state parks began in 2003, and the decade-old contract is up for reconsideration later this year. Some $4 million has been raised over time for everything from park restoration projects to the planting of trees.

But the new accusations could spar tough questions from lawmakers about continuing these kinds of outside ventures.

“Why aren’t we being told, and why aren’t people following the rules?” said Sen. Fuller.

 

Funds Due Calif. State Parks Not Collected

April 19, 2013 by · Comments Off on Funds Due Calif. State Parks Not Collected 

California’s state auditor has found shortcomings in management and oversight of special license plate programs meant to provide funding for causes like Lake Tahoe, anti-terrorism efforts and state parks, the Sacramento Bee reported.

The report, released Thursday (April 18), found that the state has failed to collect more than $22 million in revenue that should be generated by the special plate holders in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 fiscal years. In some cases, agencies appeared to spend the money they did receive on “unallowable or unsupported” expenditures.

California motorists can elect to order special plates benefiting one of 11 causes. Revenue from the sales are supposed to go to state-run accounts like the Yosemite Fund, the California Arts Council and a fund intended to “fight threats of terrorism in the Golden State.”

But that hasn’t always happened. The audit found cases where money generated by the special plates was not used for the designated purposes.

Fixing the problems, the Department of Motor Vehicles responded, may require such a costly computer upgrade that the program may not be financially viable.

The Department of Agriculture, for example, spent nearly $900,000 generated by one plate fund for expenses like employee compensation and building leases that they could not justify. The California Emergency Management Agency was unable to show that employees paid from funds generated by a special plate were working on the intended goal of preventing terrorism. In other instances, agencies failed to submit required reports on the funds to state lawmakers.

In some cases, the money was never collected in the first place. The audit found that the Department of Motor Vehicles, which issues the plates, missed out on $12 million in renewal fees it should have collected in the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 fiscal years. The motorists who did pay were undercharged by an estimated $10 million. The DMV also overcharged Environmental Plate Fund more than $2 million to cover administrative costs.

The audit calls on DMV to do a better job collecting and administering the funds and recommends a series of steps to increase monitoring and documentation of the spending.

In its response to the audit, the DMV pledged to conduct a review of whether it is charging the correct amounts for the plates. But the agency said efforts to do a better job tracking and collecting renewal fees could require a costly upgrade to its database systems.

“The costs associated with such an effort could be substantial and likely would result in severely reducing any net proceeds to the special plate funds or even eliminating the programs’ viability altogether,” Chief Deputy Director Jean Shiomoto wrote in a letter. “As a result, further study is warranted to identify alternatives and determine the true cost to implement necessary changes before a final decision can be made as to what is the most appropriate course of action for the State, taxpayers and special fund stakeholders.”

 

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