Wednesday, July 10, 2013

National recreation area: When the person behind the desk doesn't match the name on the door

A recent article in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune noted that backers of a national recreation area for the San Gabriel Watershed are trying to build support among area cities for a larger recreation area than the one proposed by the National Park Service in April.

Without getting into the merits of a national recreation area, large or small, for the area, the park service's plan leaves open the question: "Who will be in charge?" With the park service offering at most coordination services and planning assistance (per the agency's own documents), the public should be concerned.

The likeliest candidate appears to be the state's Rivers and Mountains Conservancy -- and this should raise alarms, both for the agency's own history of questionable financial practices and for the financial wrongdoing that appears widespread among agencies of its parent, the state Natural Resources Agency.

The RMC was taken to task in a 2009 state audit for the conflict of interest inherent in the fact that the same people staffed it, a grantor agency, and the Watershed Conservation Authority, the grantee. "This lack of arms-length separation compromises the state's oversight of bond funds," said the Department of Finance.

But such bad behavior isn't unique to the RMC. It appears endemic to the Natural Resources Agency, of which the conservancy is part.

In January, the Los Angeles Times reported that the state attorney general had determined that the California parks department had "deliberately stashed away" $20 million. According to the paper, the AG's report said officials made a "conscious and deliberate" decision not to reveal the existence of the extra money.

Later that same month, the newspaper reported that "the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection [Cal Fire] hid $3.6 million rather than depositing it into the state's cash-strapped general fund as required, interviews and documents reviewed by The Times show."

Another question that should be top of mind for residents and taxpayers: "Who will pay for the national recreation area -- and how?" Will the new boss turn to the lucrative method used in the Santa Monica Mountains by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority: stop-sign cameras?

In 2005, before the cameras went in, MRCA rangers wrote 315 tickets total. In 2008, after installation of the cameras, the authority issued 13,004 failure-to-stop violations -- a truly massive increase.

One anti-camera activist, speaking to the LA Weekly, described the executive director of the MRCA as being "like one of those Southern sheriffs who set up speed traps."

Again, this is not about the merits of a national recreation area. This is about governance and accountability -- and the fact that crucial questions are being deferred. And it all boils down to that question raised during the age of Rome: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Indeed: Who watches the watchmen?

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