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Name: Coleman, Ruth
Current Position: Former Director

Two scandals in one week were too much for Parks and Recreation Director Ruth Coleman, who resigned July 20, 2012. The department, which scrambled all year to find outside money to keep parks open through the summer, had a hidden $20 million surplus stashed away where not even the Department of Finance would find it.

The nine-year head of the department took all of the responsibility (“I must accept full responsibility”)—and none of the blame (“I was unaware of the excessive balance in the State Park and Recreation Fund”). Her second in command, acting Chief Deputy Director Michael Harris, was fired.

Coleman said she became aware of the hidden money—was beginning to address it—when the story became public. She denied that embezzlement was involved. A parks official said the money appeared to have accumulated because of an accounting formula error years ago and no one wanted to turn off the spigot.

The department had suffered through a miserable year. Faced with the threatened closure of 70 parks—nearly one in four statewide— to save $22 million,  parks officials and supporters lobbied the Legislature, chased nonprofit money, begged already-hurting municipalities, added user fee revenues and cut deals with private interests.

By the end of June, most every park was saved, at least for awhile.

The Sacramento Bee said it was investigating rumors of the hidden surplus when it learned of a story about 56 department officials claiming unauthorized vacation buyouts worth at least $271,264. Coleman had conducted an internal audit in October 2011after rumors of buybacks had swirled through the ranks. The Attorney General followed with an investigation the following January and Deputy Director of Administrative Services Manuel Thomas Lopez was demoted shortly thereafter before resigning.

A native of Fort Collins, Colorado, Coleman has served as director of the Department of Parks and Recreation under three governors.

She grew up on the edge of the Roosevelt National Forest near the Rocky Mountains where she developed an appreciation for the outdoors. In college, she was considered “green before it was popular” and had already picked up the nickname “Granola.”

Coleman earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Occidental College in 1982 and a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government in 1988. In between her educational pursuits, Coleman was a Peace Corps volunteer for three years, teaching mathematics in Swaziland, South Africa, when she wasn’t water skiing with 18-foot crocodiles on Zimbabwe’s Lake Kariba. Coleman remembers the crocs as being “a little disconcerting.”

She returned to California to work for several departments in state government, including the Legislative Analyst’s Office, where she focused on fiscal and policy issues affecting the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Fish and Game. She also worked for the Air Resources Board in the electric vehicle program.

As a legislative director for Democratic state Senator Mike Thompson from 1994-1998 and then policy director for Democratic Assemblywoman Helen MacLeod Thomson for a year, Coleman focused on environmental legislation, and on agricultural and water policy.

She joined the Department of Parks and Recreation in 1999 as deputy director for legislation and was promoted to chief deputy three years later by Governor Gray Davis.

Coleman was briefly acting director in 2002 before becoming permanent director. She was reappointed to the post by Davis’ successor, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The department credits her with overseeing the acquisition of over 115,000 acres of land valued at $682 million over the next decade, as well as disbursing $650 million for 1400 construction projects and $1.6 billion in bond funds that went to grants for local government groups building park facilities.

Toward the end of her tenure, she came under fire for her handling of the budget cuts imposed in California. A 125-member California State Parks Peace Officer Management Association sent a letter to Governor Jerry Brown asking that he appoint someone in her place and stating that they’d lost confidence in her leadership.

Her favorite music is Bach’s Mass in B Minor, her favorite movie is Sound of Music, her favorite book is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and her favorite television show used to be West Wing. She learned to play cello as a child and was in the Oxy-Caltech Orchestra, where she met her husband, Mike Coleman. Cellist Pablo Casals is the artist who has had the most influence on her life.


California Parks Director Resigns Amid Scandal (by Matt Weiser, Sacramento Bee)

Ruth Coleman, California Parks Director, Resigns Amid Scandal (by Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News)

Parks Employees Take Unauthorized Vacation Buyouts Even as Closures Loom (by Ken Broder, AllGov)

Biography (DPR website)

California Park Closures Light Fire Under Director (by Katy Grimes, CalWatchdog)

Ruth Coleman [State Park Protector] (Malibu Magazine Q&A)

Ruth Coleman (LinkedIn)

Back on Track (by Andy Faught, Occidental College)

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