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Independent Commission Calls For Big Changes In State Parks Department


An independent commission is calling for the “fundamental transformation” of California’s archaic State Parks system, including the creation of an outside organization to help raise money and coordinate volunteers.

The Parks Forward Commission formed as the California Department of Parks and Recreation struggled to recover from a dark time in its history: a financial scandal amid deep budget cuts that nearly led to park closures. Its mission, from Governor Jerry Brown and the California Legislature: Lay out a road map for the system’s recovery. That road map is now pointing the way.

“A certain group of stakeholders and a certain group of parks employees think this is just a money issue,” says the governor’s Natural Resources Secretary, John Laird. “You just give more money to Parks and everything will be fine. What this report demonstrates is that there are many, many structural issues wrong with Parks.”

Among the commission’s most significant recommendations: Create a non-profit organization completely outside state government to do what government can’t: Raise money, organize volunteers and implement projects without the constraints of bureaucratic hurdles.

The idea isn’t new; in San Francisco, the federal government’s Presidio Trust works closely with the non-profit Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Executive director Craig Middleton says the Trust has combined public and private funding sources to become completely self-sufficient.

“So it’s an interesting funding model. We have a lot of flexibility, in terms of how we operate. And we’re accountable to the public,” Middleton says.

The commission also says the Parks Department should open up top leadership jobs like park superintendents to everyone – not just law enforcement personnel. Park rangers have raised concerns about this, but their statewide association now says it’s open to the idea. Sen. Jean Fuller (R-Bakersfield) says it makes sense to hire the right person for each job.

“In my mind, it’s okay if we have a horrible business problem to hire a business genius to fix it,” Fuller says.

And the Parks system has lots of business problems. Until recently, for example, visitors couldn’t use credit cards to pay for entry or parking. That’s one area the state has already begun working to change. And the Parks Department recently created what it calls a “Transformation Team” to tackle a system and bureaucracy that a memo from the Parks Director calls “outdated, broken and stuck in time.”

Asm. Mark Levine (D-San Rafael), who chairs the Assembly’s Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee, says he’ll hold hearings on the report in the coming weeks.

“We can’t just have the Parks Forward Commission’s recommendations, put them in place, and then spike the football and walk off the field,” Levine says. “This is a matter of making sure they’re implemented well, or adjusting over time as well.”

As for how to sustainably pay for the Parks system in the long-term? The Brown administration doesn’t want to even start having that conversation until the Department implements the commission’s recommendations and joins the modern world.

Parks Report by Capital Public Radio

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