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State parks' hidden money angers donors, local governments

State parks system sitting on $54 million

After learning that the state parks system was sitting on $54 million even as officials were pleading for donations, the Californians who pitched in to save the parks now want their money back.

The threat last year that a lack of funding would force some of the state's 70 parks to close this year spurred residents and local governments to jump into action -- they held bake sales, cities dug into their reserves, and nonprofits rallied big donors.

Now there is only outrage. Donors say they were duped at a time when they could least afford it.

"A lot of children were putting their nickels and dimes together to keep the park open," said Ventura County Supervisor John Zaragoza.

Ventura County supervisors this week sent a letter to state officials demanding the immediate return of $50,000 earmarked to repair a crucial sewer line at McGrath State Beach near Oxnard. Last year, the state said the popular beach would close because it lacked $500,000 for the fix.

The city of Oxnard, which also donated $50,000 for McGrath, asked for a refund, too.

Three months ago, supporters of the Coe Park Preservation Fund handed a check for $279,000 to Ruth Coleman, then the state parks director. Thousands more had been raised and another $600,000 committed for Henry W. Coe State Park, a rugged 90,000-acre expanse near San Jose.

Last month, Coleman was forced to resign when news of the department's hidden surplus was revealed. She has denied knowing about the money at the time she solicited donations to keep the parks open.

"If she did know, shame on her," said Robert Patrie, one of the Coe Park fund's prime movers. "If she didn't know, shame on her. It's hard to be anything else than very, very disappointed."

Through bake sales and bequests, the public helped save 69 of the 70 parks threatened with closure. But the scandal hurts.

Carolyn Schoff, head of the California League of Parks Assns., sees it as a betrayal.

"We're the ones in the trenches raising funds for state parks and now there's a dark shadow over us," she said.

State officials have urged the public to bear with them as they try to make sense of the situation. In a letter to parks donors, Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird and Janelle Beland, acting director of state parks, said they were "as outraged as you are about this news." Gov. Jerry Brown's administration has launched an audit, the attorney general's office is also investigating, and the Legislature plans hearings.

In Whittier, the City Council has asked for a refund of the $20,000 it dedicated to saving Pio Pico State Historic Park, a landmark of early California and a point of local pride.

"Having the state demand this contribution from an economically struggling population at a time when there are surplus funds in the budget is obscene," said City Manager Jeffrey W. Collier in a letter to state officials. The city had to lay off six people and reduce services, but still managed to find funds to help the park.

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--Steve Chawkins and Chris Megerian

Photo: Jack Baffa, 4, plays at McGrath State Beach near Oxnard, one of the parks threatened with closure. Ventura County and the city of Oxnard donated money to help keep the park open. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times

 
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