Since the state placed the Petaluma Adobe on its list of closures last May, Philip Sales has spent countless hours working to keep the historic park open.
He and other volunteers formed the Sonoma/Petaluma State Historic Parks Association, held fundraisers and talked up the issue at farmers’ markets and other community events.
Eventually, the group scraped together $70,000, signing an agreement to pay the state to keep the park, which houses the largest functioning adobe in California, open one more year.
But on Friday, the group learned that the California Parks Department had withheld $54 million for years, even as it said it had a $22 million budget shortfall and needed to close 70 parks.
“My stomach just sank when I found out,” said Sales, an actor and long-time volunteer at the Petaluma Adobe. “We feel like we had the wool pulled over our eyes.”
The association had wanted to continue fundraising efforts at Saturday’s Rivertown Revival, but instead opted to promote its upcoming play based on Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona.
“It’s embarrassing to be asking the public for money now,” Sales said, adding the revelation undermines the public’s trust in government and could hurt tax initiatives on the November ballot.
“But it’s also an opportunity to start afresh and implement many reforms that are needed in the state parks department,” he said.
Proposed changes could include everything from replacing expensive rangers with non-sworn staff for functions like collecting entrance fees and picking up garbage, to reviewing current restrictions on charging fees to film at state parks.
Meanwhile, the Attorney General, the California Department of Finance and the Natural Resources Agency have launched separate investigations into budgetary irregularities at state parks.
According to the Sacramento Bee, which broke this story last week, “the department had a pattern of underreporting the actual size of the funds in its regular dealings with the state Department of Finance.”
Some blame may also fall on the California Department of Finance which apparently never verified the numbers that had been submitted to them, meaning there is a very real chance other departments had been providing false budget information, according to the Bee.
Besides keeping $54 million off the books, the parks department also sold unused vacation time back to the state, a practice that is allowed, but must first be approved by the Department of Human Resources.
Since the news has come out, Parks Director Ruth Coleman has resigned and a deputy director has been fired.
“It’s shocking…I mean, how dare they?” said Lenore Brashear, a longtime docent at the Petaluma Adobe and another member of the Sonoma/Petaluma Historic Parks Association. "I love the adobe and don't want to see it go down into nothing."
The recent revelation calls into question whether the into with the state to fund day-to-day operations are is still valid, whether groups will have to continue making payments and how to make sure the money that has been collected is used for intended purposes.
Whatever happens, Brashear fears the scandal will make fundraising for parks more difficult in the future.
“People are going to be suspicious,” she said. “Because if the parks have all that money, why do we need more?”
Under the state plan, announced last spring, 70 out of 278 California state parks were slated for closure, effective July 1, 2012. In Sonoma County these included Annadel State Park in Santa Rosa, Glen Ellen’s Jack London and Austin Creek in Guerneville, although all have been kept open through extensive fundraising efforts.
What do you think about the recent revelation that the state parks department hid funds while calling for a closure of 70 out of 278 parks? Share your thoughts in the comments below.