Editorial: State parks needs to dig into rail foundation's finances

12/23/2012 12:00 AM

12/23/2012 10:44 AM

When Californians visit a state park, what happens to the money they pay for activities? Typically, it goes into the State Parks and Recreation Fund for all state parks. That fund is undergoing close scrutiny after The Bee's Matt Weiser found that individuals deliberately hid some of that money.

But there's another place that the money goes, and it's one the new state parks director, retired Maj. Gen. Anthony Jackson, should examine closely. Many parks have "cooperating associations," nonprofits that have a contract with California State Parks, so money earned at a state park can stay at that state park – instead of going to the State Parks and Recreation Fund.

How is that money being spent?

The 89 cooperative associations range in size from large (more than $2 million a year in revenue) to very small (less than $50,000 in revenue). At a meeting with The Bee's editorial board, Jackson said he would be looking closely at the larger cooperative associations, including one in Sacramento – the nonprofit partner to the California State Railroad Museum state park.

That contract is ripe for a close look. The parks department needs a strong partner for the proposed Rail Technology Museum in the historic Central Shops buildings in the downtown railyard. Jackson has visited the site and sees "tremendous potential that requires a great capital outlay."

California State Parks is doing its part. Jackson has assigned a project manager and will be naming a new capital district superintendent after Jan. 1. He has $11.6 million in state bonds, plus $4 million in federal grants, for the first phase.

But the department needs a strong partner for a $40 million fundraising campaign. That's where the California State Railroad Museum Foundation, a cooperative association with the parks department since the 1980s, comes in. The foundation gets most of its funds from state park activities – $2 million a year from museum memberships, train excursions (including Polar Express) and the museum bookstore.

Jackson should look at where that public trust money actually goes – from $92,290 for the executive director to more than $131,000 in legal fees between September of last year and August of this year. Could more funds go to an endowment for the proposed new museum?

Jackson also needs to ensure that the 1998 contract with the foundation gets updated. A 2007 governance study said that to increase its capacity for fundraising, the foundation needs major organizational change, saying it does not have "policies and practices in place to ensure a reasonable rate of turnover to provide a combination of new perspectives and energy "

Some have been on the board for the foundation's 25-year history; half have served 10 years or more. The foundation told The Bee's editorial board that rotation would mean "losing" people from the founding of the California State Railroad Museum. Nonsense. Set up an "Emeritus Council" to seek advice from former board members. Jackson should insist that the foundation's contract limits board members to three consecutive three-year terms.

The foundation also needs a succession plan for selecting a chairman. The board says it has "full confidence" in the current chair, Bob Slobe, who has served six years – longer than any previous chairman. Asked about Slobe's public outbursts, one board member replied, "he's not like that with us." That's a clear sign this board is in denial about the critical need to build a strong relationship with state parks and the Sacramento community. With his experience and leverage as the state parks director, Jackson should make it a priority to get the rail museum project back on track.

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