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Salvage the wreckage of the State Parks debacle

Scores of state parks —  including local landmarks Railtown 1897, Columbia and Big Trees — have labored over the past two years under budget cuts and the threat of closure due to California’s overspending.

Then, last week, came a big revelation: The State Parks Department is sitting on $54 million in untapped funds — more than double the amount cut from the department in last year’s budget. 

That would seem like good news. Gov. Jerry Brown spun it as such Wednesday, quipping at a news conference, “Hallelujah. More money is better than less money.”

But just the opposite is true.

The money was squirreled away in a pair of accounts — $20.4 million in a reserve fund and $33.5 million in fees collected from off-highway vehicle users. Its existence was revealed following a newspaper investigation concerning $271,000 in unauthorized vacation buyouts for Parks Department employees.

Embarrassed and disgraced, the Parks Department Director Ruth Coleman resigned and her deputy Michael Harris was fired.

The scandal’s implications, however, are far broader and deeper than the money involved.

It first begs the question of what other cash is squirreled away in various hidden accounts, unbeknownst to our government leaders, lawmakers sand bean counters. Heck — the State Parks Department accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s annual spending. Most goes to schools, prisons, pensions and health care.

A broader accounting is needed.

As for the 150 year old State Parks Department, the scandal’s implications are deeper.

That hidden $54 million, at this point, can apparently be appropriated by the state for any reason and so would be lost to State Parks funding.

More critically, the department has damaged its credibility with its base of support — the public that values open spaces, recreation and the preservation of historical landmarks. And this bungled $54 million accounting mistake further erodes Californians’ confidence in the general competence, transparency and honesty of state government.

When Railtown was on the chopping block earlier this month, community members in Tuolumne County rallied around a host of efforts to save the park — an expanded visitor-lodging tax that failed at the polls in June (Measure C) and private fundraising efforts that generated tens of thousands of dollars to keep operations going.

The generosity and public-spirited role of the Sonora Area Foundation in providing a $75,000 matching grant to help save Railtown was an important and welcome donation. Yet how frustrating and annoying it must be to the SAF board to make this kind of sizable gift — while $54 million in state park funds lay hidden away, unused and unreported. 

In addition to the SAF, the coordination, energy and ticket-selling effort by five local Rotary clubs to raise $75,000 in matching funds — and the wonderful support from local residents in buying those tickets or making outright personal donations was a terrific show of public support for Railtown.

Most all of them must feel betrayed by the bureaucrats in Sacramento. And they are rightfully angry. 

This same scenario played out in other communities statewide as well.

Coleman, Harris and possibly others in the department shouldn’t get off so easy.

The Attorney General and Finance Department are investigating. The Legislature should do likewise.

Any possible criminal or civil wrongdoing should be prosecuted vigorously.

The next action that Gov. Brown should undertake is to restore the $54 million back to the State Parks operating fund. Beyond that, the legislature should “fast-track” a proposed law — that has bi-partisan support — to allow taxpayers to deduct the cost of state park passes from their state income tax and offer state commemorative license plates for sale. All of these new funds would be used for park maintenance and operations.

The State of California can salvage the wreckage of this scandal by restoring all 270 parks to a solid financial footing. 

Pendley’s credibility continues to erode

“It is better to deserve honors and not have them, than to have honors and not deserve them.”

— Mark Twain

The Columbia Elementary School District board announced in May that Superintendent John Pendley will be leaving. But not anytime soon.

June primary delivers decisive wins, close races, disappointment

The recent primary election produced some interesting storylines across the board. There were some genuine surprises; several races “too close to call”; and a disappointing vote — from our perspective — on Measure C.

Thank the volunteers who bring us ‘Rope, Ride, Ribbit’

Over the next 10 days, our unique and special part of California is the place to be!

We’ll share in the excitement and spectacle of the Mother Lode Roundup’s parade and rodeo; followed by Sonora’s hosting of Stage 4 of the Amgen Tour of California cycling race; followed by the popular Calaveras County Fair and Jumping Frog Jubilee. All of this — family fun activity, sporting events and tradition — will be showcased under sunny skies and warm temperatures. It’s springtime in the foothills!


Support expansion of TOT; Measure C

Union Democrat gets new look, fresh start

Changes to our newspaper, promised six weeks ago in this editor’s column, are about to be realized.


All this week we’ll be rolling out a number of design and format changes, including the addition of new features and expanded leisure content. A re-packaged, free-standing TV section debuts on Wednesday; a new feature section, Sierra Living, appears on Thursday; and you’ll find some added content and enhancements to our popular Weekender arts and leisure section, publishing every Thursday.



Columbia trustees trample Brown Act, First Amendment

Who can say how far Columbia Elementary School District Board members will go in defending their superintendent, John Pendley?

How about attempting to subvert the First Amendment and the state’s Ralph M. Brown Act, which assures Californians’ right to speak openly and participate in public meetings?

Indeed, drawing on a paranoid, scheming mindset and some half-baked legal advice, the board majority Tuesday announced that the public will no longer be allowed to discuss at open meetings the campus’ 2010 sex scandal involving Pendley’s son, Brennan.

This is outrageous.

California’s prison-realignment plan an abysmal failure

California’s prison-realignment plan — Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature’s answer to a court-ordered reduction in the populations of the state’s 33 prisons — is just months old but has already proven to be an abysmal failure.

AB 109 has put the public at risk, diminished the punishment for some serious criminal offenses to mere handslaps, strained local law enforcement resources and gutted the state CDCR’s system of inmate firefighting camps — an important firefighting tool.

Four problems to offset one big, recurring problem: our lawmakers’ inability to balance the state’s budget.

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