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Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Report Recommends Major Reorganization for Troubled Parks Department

• Proposal to Hand 130 of the State’s 280 Parks Over to ‘Other Entities’ Is Already Generating Heated Discussion

BY SUZANNE GULDIMANN

A controversial independent report issued by the Little Hoover Commission on the California State Park System paints a picture of a department that is out of touch, out of date, inflexible, uncooperative and increasingly unable to adequately manage and maintain its holdings.
The Little Hoover Commission, formally known as the Milton Marks "Little Hoover" Commission on California State Government Organization and Economy, is “an independent state oversight agency that was created in 1962 with the mission to investigate state government operations and—through reports, recommendations and legislative proposals - promote efficiency, economy and improved service,” the commission's website states.
The commission's report on the parks system identifies “several chronic conditions that threaten state parks with continued neglect, deterioration and a return to closures if not addressed:.”
According to the report, “ The Department of Parks and Recreation can't generate enough revenue on its own to replace continual reductions in taxpayer support; the current model of a highly centralized state-run park system is obsolete; the department’s staffing structure is ossified; bond borrowing has expanded the park system beyond the department's ability to staff and maintain it; relationships have deteriorated with many of the park system's most important partners and supporters.”
The report makes six main recommendations, including developing and communicating “a vision for the California Department of Parks and Recreation that articulates its mission, its evolving role and the importance of its relationships to other agencies, organizations and groups,” and “through a public process, should assess which parks  presently under state ownership have statewide significance and which parks serve primarily regional or local needs.  Parks that lack statewide significance should be transferred to local control.”
“We’ve got over $1 billion deferred maintenance because we can’t afford  to do it,” the department’s Michael Harris told commission staff in early 2012, according to the report. “What matters is that parks are falling down around our ears. Are we doing an adequate job?  The answer is, ‘No. We’re not,’” Harris said.
According to the report, California State Parks holds 339 miles of ocean coastline, 646 miles of lakes and reservoir shoreline, 327 miles of riverfront, 14,206 individual and group campsites, and 4522 miles of hiking, biking and equestrian trails, but is unable to determine how much it costs to operate each of its 280 units, according to the report.
The report states, “Former department Director Donald Murphy told Commission staff that approximately 150 parks can be considered the ‘core’ of the state system according to guidelines established by the 1928 Olmstead survey that guided early land acquisition. Mr. Murphy said the remaining parks - nearly 130 - might better be realigned to other entities or kept and managed by other partners.”
The report cites earlier transfers, including the budget deficits in the 1990s that resulted in the transfer of six state beaches, including Dan Blocker, Las Tunas, and Topanga—to Los Angeles County, and the transfer of ownership of  portions of Point Dume and Surfrider to the county in 1995.
“These transfers pioneered a mix of incentives and conditions that can provide guidance for a new assessment process.  The state committed to pay Los Angeles County $1.5 million annually for three years to help maintain the beaches. At the time the state also imposed conditions that restrict development at the sites and put an inflation-adjusted $250,000 cap on infrastructure projects such as restrooms, parking lots and maintenance or lifeguard  buildings.  Such conditions might need to be revisited. Some
Commission advisory committee participants said that even when adjusted for inflation, $250,000 doesn't build or renovate much in Los Angeles.” 
The report indicate “the state’s collection of cultural and historic artifacts likewise has not been scrutinized or assessed to determine which items are essential to telling the story of California. 
In testimony, Blaine Lamb, former chief of the department’s Archaeology, History and Museums Division, told the commission that only half of the system’s collection of one million artifacts is on display and the department lacks a complete inventory of its possessions.
The report finds that the department has focused almost entirely on promoting personnel with law enforcement backgrounds rather than individuals with management, education, conservation and other essential training.
“The new operating model will require a variety of skill sets, some of which do not currently reside within the Department of Parks and Recreation,” the report states. “The department should be given the flexibility to hire and promote employees who demonstrate the skills to manage and operate state parks in accordance with the mission of natural and cultural preservation, public access and education.”
“The state should establish the job classification of park  manager,” the report suggests. “These managers should not be required to obtain police officer standards and training certification.”
The report also recommends that the department “restructure the ranger classification to create a generalist park ranger classification with broad responsibilities and a park police ranger classification, which would focus on public safety in state parks operated by the department.  Rangers in  both classifications should be eligible for promotion into management.”
The report also finds that the department has resisted efforts to partner with other organizations to provide sponsorship or concession services, and has been reluctant to explore alternative recreational opportunities.
“The state must transition from a model of centralized state control to a more enterprise-based operating model that serves the mission of protecting natural and historical assets and increasing public access and enjoyment of these assets,” the report finds.
“The new model should have as its central goal the enhancement of the sustainability of the parks system as a whole...[and] recognize that not all state parks can be treated alike, and that parks have different cost structures and different capacities for generating revenue,” the report says. 
The new model should take advantage of experience with joint operating models and employ a greater degree of joint operations, or enlisting partners to take on responsibilities for operating units.”
“A new vision statement should include these components: State parks are a public good held in trust for current and future generations and deserve state support; the department is both a steward of important cultural and historic assets and a critical conduit of California's rich and diverse heritage to future Californians; shared management initiatives are essential to the future of the state park system; partners will be key players in decision-making and rule-setting; there is no one, single way to run the entirety of the state park system; and Californians have a right to have high expectations for their parks, and their sense of ownership should be respected.”
The report is available online at www.lhc.ca.gov

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