If Anthony Jackson likes a challenge, he's landed in the right job.
Jackson is the retired Marine major general picked by Gov. Jerry Brown to head the state's scandal-plagued Parks and Recreation Department. On the job barely a month and still getting his bearings, Jackson has inherited another headache with the attorney general's conclusion that former parks officials engaged in a "conscious and deliberate" effort to hide millions of dollars.
The attorney general's findings issued Friday, coupled with a critical audit of financial management within the department released a week earlier, will only begin to assuage public anger if they mark a clear change of course for the agency.
California state parks draw upwards of 50 million visitors annually. Individuals and organizations stepped up with money and manpower last year to prevent the closure of 70 parks as a cost-cutting measure. Among the donors was Jackson, who crisscrossed the state visiting parks during his first year of retirement after 36 years in the Marine Corps.
Now, he's taking charge of a department that must improve its management if it wants to restore its image. Jackson says everything is on the table.
"Everything," he recently told the Los Angeles Times, "except fouling the beauty of our parks. We're not going to turn our parks into Disney World or an arcade."
His first order of business should be creating financial controls to prevent a repeat of the budget scandal that surfaced last summer.
For as long as 13 years, according to the report released Friday by the attorney general, parks officials failed to fully account for money collected from visitors fees and rentals. As much as $29 million accumulated in a fund for park operations but wasn't reported to state budget officials.
When the surplus was discovered in 1998, parks officials feared that reporting it would result in a reduction in state general fund support. Later, the report said, they were embarrassed to admit they had concealed money but decided to keep it hidden as a contingency fund for park repairs in the event of a storm or disaster.
The attorney general found no evidence of theft and cleared department officials of concealing a second fund, which contains $33 million earmarked for off-highway vehicle areas.
Jackson already promised changes after the state auditor criticized parks officials for failing to provide clear rules for employee credit cards or adequate training for lower-level employees to ensure proper reporting of department finances.
About a quarter of the state park system was slated for closure last summer. There's been a reprieve, but there are few assurances for the long-term. The $20 million currently in the parks fund will supplement volunteers and donors, but a permanent funding plan is still needed.
Restoring public confidence in the department is a big challenge, but Jackson recently said he wouldn't have come out of retirement "if this place were running smoothly." We wish him well.