California State Park Managers Oppose Agency Director

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California State Parks

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California state park managers said they have lost confidence in their director and urged Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint someone else to the post.

The 125-member California State Parks Peace Officer Management Association sent a letter to the governor’s office last week expressing disapproval of Ruth Coleman, who has been serving as state parks director for nearly a decade.

Scott Elliott, president of the association, said there is frustration over how Coleman has handled budget cuts. A survey of the association’s members found that more than 90 percent have no confidence in their leader, he said.

The state announced earlier this year that it would close as many as 70 of the state’s 278 parks to save $33 million over two years. The closures will take effect July 1, 2012.

“We’ve felt there hasn’t been a cohesive plan,” said Elliott, an acting superintendent in the Lake Tahoe area. “There’s just been a lot of knee-jerk reactions and some decisions that were made to close parks without analysis.”

Parks department spokesman Roy Stearns said Coleman has been leading the charge to keep parks open. He said the state has found donors and sponsors to keep nine parks open, and 27 are in negotiations for partnerships.

“We’re clearly not sitting on our hands,” Stearns said Tuesday. “All of this has been Ruth Coleman’s initiative to push the envelope of creative things to keep as many parks open as possible.”

Coleman was appointed by former Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2002 and reappointed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Gil Duran, a spokesman for Brown, said the governor does not comment on personnel matters. The California Department of Parks and Recreation has about 2,500 workers.

Elizabeth Goldstein, executive director of the nonprofit California State Parks Foundation, which provides financial support to the department, said she was surprised by the letter because her group has worked “very closely and extremely well” with Coleman. She said the letter represents just a fraction of state workers in the department.

Goldstein said even though the governor does not face a deadline for that appointment, it might be time for him to make a decision.

“This is the moment for the governor to have anointed a leader, put them in place and back them up,” Goldstein said.

The letter signed by Elliott described Coleman as an honorable person but said she has been absent from public discussion on leading the parks system through the state’s fiscal problems.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that morale is at a disheartening low in the Department of Parks and Recreation, some of it because of budget problems, yet even more from a woeful lack of credible leadership,” he wrote.

Elliott said he has seen ranger and maintenance positions drop by as much as 50 percent in his area, while seasonal staff has fallen to 30 percent of pre-recession levels.

He expressed concern about Coleman’s plans to hand off state parks to nonprofits, local governments and private vendors who lack the experience of managing parks. Elliott said the new caretakers may not share the state’s philosophy on sustainability.

“There are a lot of people who have dedicated their lives to running parks,” Elliott said. “It’s just a little bit of a risky proposition to hand these treasures off to people who maybe don’t have the same level of experience running them.”

Stearns said it’s not surprising that state park managers are dissatisfied given that state workers have been forced to take furloughs and staffing has been reduced throughout state government.

California voters in November 2010 rejected Proposition 21, an $18 registration fee for vehicles that would have raised an estimated $500 million for state parks. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the parks system has been operating on about $300 million annually, with half the money coming from the state’s general fund and the other half from gasoline tax and park user fees for admission, camping and other uses.

Stearns said without additional revenue, the state cannot run parks the same way.

“It’s a reality that really stinks,” he said.

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