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Pretty Parks, Messy Books

June 10, 2004

Over 24 years, the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, led by the booming, charismatic Joseph Edmiston, has helped acquire and protect 55,000 acres of open space in Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Creating huge stretches of parkland in one of the densest and fastest-growing regions in the nation has won the conservancy and Edmiston, its executive director, much-deserved accolades. But two decades of tributes may have led to some cavalier fiscal practices.

In a Department of Finance audit released last month, state officials detailed mismanagement of voter-approved bond funds earmarked for parkland acquisition. That audit should now prompt tighter oversight. Among its findings:

* The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which the conservancy created 19 years ago to operate its parkland network, charged administrative costs many times what six other state agencies charge.

* The conservancy improperly used bond money earmarked for parkland purchases to pay for building upgrades, educational programs and legal costs. Edmiston also charged the conservancy for membership in a VIP airline club, telephone bills, airfare for his wife and food and meeting costs above state limits. He has since reimbursed the state for some of these charges.

* The close ties between the conservancy and the authority, and the fact that Edmiston runs both, make it hard to monitor wasteful or improper spending. That finding has prompted the two agencies to put some needed daylight between them, agreeing that their separate board chairs, not Edmiston, must sign off on future contracts.

Fixing other problems will require the Legislature's help. Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) has introduced language in the pending budget bill that would clarify what she called "gray areas" in the agencies' spending authority, giving the state attorney general the final say on questions about whether a particular expense was appropriate.

An attitude adjustment also seems in order. Leaders of the mountains conservancy and the authority have unfortunately tried to justify what the state's chief auditor called "creative" spending by insisting that the ends -- more parkland -- justified those means. As one conservancy board member argued, buying property is only the first step. It's "for someone else to decide" whether using bond funds to help run the agencies that keep these special parks open and in good repair is legal, he said.

That someone, in the form of state auditors, has now spoken. Unless both agencies put their financial houses in order, with the Legislature's help, taxpayers may not be so generous the next time bond funds run out.

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