SACRAMENTO — The director of California’s state parks resigned and a deputy was fired Friday after officials learned the department sat on nearly $54 million in surplus money for years while parks were threatened with closure over budget cuts.
Ruth Coleman, director of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, stepped down, and chief deputy Michael Harris was let go amid questions about the underreported funds that date back 12 years, according to Clark Blanchard, a spokesman for the secretary of the Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the parks department.
“This is in light of the fund balances that just in the last 48 hours have come to light,” Blanchard said Friday. “This money is obviously one-time money and we will be working with the Legislature to see how to best use it.”
The attorney general’s office is investigating and state finance officials will conduct an audit, Blanchard said.
Coleman said she was unaware of the surplus but accepted responsibility for the accounting problem.
“I am personally appalled to learn that our documents were not accurate,” she wrote in her resignation letter released by the governor’s office.
The shake-up comes at a time when state lawmakers and park advocates have been trying to find ways to keep most parks open despite ongoing budget cuts. Last month, park officials announced most of the 70 state parks once slated to close would remain open.
The Sacramento Bee first reported Coleman’s resignation after inquiring about the possibility of a surplus. In addition, the newspaper reported Sunday about a secret vacation buyout program for employees at department headquarters that cost taxpayers more than $271,000.
State officials said the “hidden assets” that prompted the shake-up were found by new park fiscal staff while the attorney general’s office was looking into the unauthorized vacation buyouts.
It’s not clear why the accounts weren’t properly reported.
A preliminary investigation shows the parks department underreported two funds as far back as 2000.
The state parks and recreation fund, which is generated from park fees and rentals, held $20.4 million more than was reported. The off-highway vehicle fund, which is generated from registering ATVs and similar types of vehicles, held $33.5 million more than reported.
Officials said Gov. Jerry Brown accepted Coleman’s resignation and has appointed California Natural Resources Agency Undersecretary Janelle Beland as acting interim director of the department.
California operates 279 parks, which include famous beaches to redwood forests. The parks that were at risk of closure got a reprieve last month after the governor signed a bill allocating new funds for the beleaguered parks system for the next year. The state has also reached agreements with nonprofits, local governments and others to keep 40 parks open at least for a few years.