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Parks workers who cashed in on vacation buyouts must be held accountable

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More than 1.4 million acres of scenic land in California is set aside for public use and managed by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. In the Bay Area alone, those sites include Candlestick Point State Recreation Area, Big Basin Redwoods State Park, and Mount Diablo and Mount Tamalpais state parks.

Maintaining and providing services at the 278 park units across the state has proven to be a financial burden, with many of the locations having to enter into public or private agreements with third parties just to stay open for visitors. So it is disheartening to learn from a Sacramento Bee investigation that while the parks department was hacking millions of dollars out of its budget, workers were reportedly cashing in vacation time in a secret buyout program.

In the middle of 2011, the parks department was working to cut $22 million from its budget under orders from Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature. In January, Brown announced that the funding reductions would result in the closure of 70 of the 278 parks in the state. Sixteen of those so-called closures, many of which would result in services such as restrooms being locked and garbage service ceasing, were in the Bay Area.

Meanwhile, between May and July 2011, a high-ranking department official ran a secret vacation buyout, according to the Bee. Fifty-six employees took part in the buyout program, in which employees sold back unused vacation time to the state, according to Richard Stapler, a spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the state parks department. Such buybacks are allowed, but they must be approved by the California Office of Human Resources. A spokeswoman for human resources told the Bee that no such buybacks have been approved since 2007.

The Bee investigation cites documents that detail the plan, noting that many requests may have been made through informal methods, such as via Post-it Notes, to avoid email documentation. An attorney general’s report cited by the paper stated that many managers had warned against such buyouts. The same report stated that payroll codes were falsified so the payouts would be hidden.

Managers at the highest levels, including state parks Director Ruth Coleman, say they were not aware of the program. Once officials caught wind of the buyouts, an internal audit was launched, later followed by a state Attorney General’s Office probe.

But the investigations came too late to save the more than $270,000 that the secret program cost state parks — money that could have gone a long way toward keeping parks open for users. Only one state park has actually closed since July 1, but many are still threatened and working to find third parties to help them remain open.

The workers who lined their pockets with this secret program should be ashamed, but it is unclear how they may be punished. The Bee reports that one top parks official was relieved of his position after the buyouts became known. But other employees may have been told that the vacation payouts were approved.

Assemblywoman Beth Gaines has called for an investigation into the program and other financial matters in the state parks department. Workers who knowingly cheated the system should be punished, and safeguards need to be put into place so this sort of thing can’t occur again at other state agencies.