SACRAMENTO — A group of California business, education and nonprofit leaders — including Sonoma County Regional Parks Director Caryl Hart — has agreed to help revamp the state parks system in an effort to restore confidence and financial stability to an institution rocked by scandal.
The dozen volunteers will spend the next 18 months addressing the problems that led the state to threaten to close 70 of the 280 parks in the system, including four in Sonoma County, after long years of funding shortages, as well as more recent revelations that now-departed leaders socked money in a secret fund.
The Parks Forward Commission will design a blueprint to make the park system financially viable by studying everything from potential revenue sources to whether a lack of innovation at the top is tied to the practice of promoting only law enforcement rangers to leadership positions.
"Under the weight of budget cuts, added acreage and outmoded systems, our parks are struggling to meet the needs of Californians, and visitors from around the country and world," said John Laird, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources.
"This is a top-notch panel that will roll up its sleeves to craft a long-term plan for a financially sustainable and functionally relevant state parks system that meets the needs of a changing population."
Laird said everything is on the table.
The state legislature ordered the formation of the advisory group in the wake of the scandals.
Hart, the former chairwoman of the California State Park and Recreation Commission, said she hopes the new Parks Forward Commission will push the state parks toward more entrepreneurial ideas being championed by local agencies, including her own. She has been active in building a membership program to raise funds for Sonoma County parks. Programs like that build greater public support for parks, she said.
"State Parks needs to change the way they do business, and so far they haven't," she said.
The privately financed commission will be led by co-chairs Christine Kehoe of San Diego, a former state senator and champion of state parks, and Lance Conn, a Bay Area businessman and conservationist.
Laird's goal had been to appoint leaders from business, finance, public policy and arts communities to examine the structure of the department and assess future needs for a growing state that already has 38 million people.
Other members include Michael Lynton, CEO of Sony Entertainment; Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium; John Reynolds, a former National Park Service superintendent and regional director; Hawk Rosales, executive director of the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council; and Michael Woo, a former LA City Council member and dean of the College of Environmental Design at Cal Poly Pomona.
The State Parks leadership has been criticized in the past for a lack of revenue-generating innovation. Consequently, the department has allowed millions of dollars in maintenance problems to pile up as it struggled with shrinking state budgets. Critics also say managers were slow to figure out how to generate money.
Last year, a $22 million cut from the system's $779 million budget threatened the closure of 70 parks. Then the discovery of $54 million, which was hidden from the governor and Legislature in two special funds, damaged the public's faith in the system of towering redwoods, breathtaking beaches and old Gold Rush sites.