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Those Coast Parks & Rec Grants

California State Parks has withheld two grants from the Mendocino Coast Recreation & Parks District (MCRPD) for over two years. Through a prompt response from MCRPD staff to a public records request the AVA has obtained several documents detailing the ongoing controversy. 

At an August 19 meeting of MCRPD's board, the subject was not broached though it is clear that the current board chair raised the issue previously at a June 17 board meeting. Perhaps that was due to the freshness in her mind of a memo authored by attorney Douglas Provencher and sent to the MCRPD board.

Provencher authored his correspondence on June 15, after a conference call meeting that also included MCRPD board members Barbara Burkey and Leslie Bates, MCRPD staff leaders Monique Wooden and Carly Wells, a representative of Westamerica Bank, an attorney for that institution, a State Parks Department attorney, the grants manager for State Parks, another State Parks official, and an assistant California Attorney General.

The focus of the meeting: a hoped for reinstatement of two State Park grants, one for planning and one for restoration, that had been on hold since 2018. However, Provencher's communication confirms that the Parks Department attorney stated those grants were still suspended due to “inappropriate conduct between the California Recreation Alliance [CRA] and the District [MCRPD] regarding the use of the grant funds and the District's required matching funds.”

Provencher added that the state parks’ attorney “declined to get into specifics.” A slight positive note for those involved is reflected in Provencher's comments. The matter had been referred to the Attorney General's office for potential investigation into criminal conduct. Approximately a month prior to the June 15 conference call Mr. Provencher was told that the “Attorney General would not be pursuing any criminal charges.”

However, Provencher's memo to the MCRPD board goes on to say, “Because of this alleged misconduct, the Parks Department will not proceed with the grants so long as any Board Member that approved the arrangement with the California Recreation Alliance remains on the Board. She was careful to state that since the Board is an elected body, the State cannot mandate any changes. But she also said, in view of the history of alleged self-dealing, the Parks Department could not authorize any additional funds under the grants.”

See AVA reports in the August 12 and August 19 editions for more details on the three board members — John Huff, Kirk Marshall, and Bob Bushansky.

Provencher mentioned the expiration dates for the two grants, the end of August and November of this year. Clearly, those deadlines will not be met. He also remarked on the possibility of extensions to the grants, but noted the financial obstacle of MCRPD having to contribute $100,000 to the planning grant and a million dollars to the restoration grant. A portion of the funding could be measured in labor contributed, but Provencher noted, “[I]t obviously cannot come from the California Recreation Alliance.”

Provencher's conclusion about the Highway 20 property, the site of the controversial grants, “As for moving forward, the District is once again faced with finding a path to either deal with or get rid of the property.

Using that property east of Fort Bragg as an off highway vehicle (OHV) park already raised some ire from certain locals when the idea was first raised, but MCRPD went ahead, applying for grant funding through California State Parks Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division (OHMVR). Documents acquired through the public records request process from October, 2017 and April, 2018, detail the planning and restoration grant funding. The most significant dollar expenditure from state coffers would have come in the form of $2.6 million to install fencing and thirteen gates along the perimeter of the Highway 20 MCRPD property.

This is where MCRPD's grant writer, Sarah Bradley Huff, ran afoul of the state. Ms. Huff is executive director of California Recreation Alliance (CRA). Allegedly, a CRA member is also an operator of the company that was going to be awarded the bid to construct the fence and gates. In addition, Ms. Huff's spouse, John Huff, was a member of the MCRPD board until he resigned in July. Though it technically cannot force the exodus of any member of the publicly elected MCRPD board, state parks officials have made it clear there will be no state parks grant funding until all three members who voted in favor of the fencing bid leave the board. The other two members are Kirk Marshall and Bob Bushansky. Marshall's term concludes at the end of the year and he is not seeking re-election. As of this writing, Bushansky has not made any expression indicating he would leave the board.

Among items in the restoration grant funding were $55,000 for rental of all terrain vehicles (ATV) “to access remote areas of the property.” The rental fees for the ATVs were to be paid to CRA members. CRA members were also to be paid $40,000 for truck rentals.

The restoration aspect of the OHV project, that included the $2.6 million fencing contract from state funding, was seemingly good to go in April, 2018. However, on July 11, 2018, the OHMVR division chief sent Ms. Huff a letter. “This letter is to inform you that effective immediately all grants that your agency currently has and/or all grants that may be pending with the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation (OHMVR) Division will be on hold until further notice. Any activities being conducted by agency staff, volunteers, and/or contractors should be halted until these matters are resolved as to not incur costs that may not be reimbursable with grant funds and match funds.”

The letter cited an OHMVR audit, but did not get any more specific than stating that “certain OHMVR grants items were discovered that require further research.”

A February, 2019 interim audit report from OHMVR proved more explicit. “In our tests of staff/volunteer timesheets we found timesheets signed up to six months after dates of service, timesheets that were neither signed nor dated, double billing of hours, and miscalculated timesheets. We disallowed hours claimed for Sarah Bradley [Huff] as at the time of of service under this grant, she also worked for the Department, causing a conflict of interest. Although Ms. Bradley was not paid under the grant, her hours were charged as Match and used to access grant funding. The Public Contract Code states in part that any employee of the state shall not contract on their own behalf with any state agency to provide goods or services. We disallow costs totaling $7,882.11.”

Under the category “Equipment Use,” the audit stated, “Invoices for Dark Gulch [Environmental Consulting] appear to be billed prior to work completion for the month of April. Dark Gulch invoices were inconsistent in numbering sequence and format. We note that Sarah Bradley (Huff) is the owner/operator of Dark Gulch Environmental Consulting. Any invoices from Dark Gulch were disallowed due to the conflict of interest involving the employment of Sarah Bradley to the Department as referenced above… We disallow costs of $7,834.85 in total for equipment use.”

Further along in the interim audit report, “In our tests of indirect costs we found timesheets that were signed up to four months after date of service, one that had no signature and date, and timesheets for Sarah Bradley that caused a conflict of interest since she worked for the Department at the time of service to MCRPD. The meetings charged to the indirect costs were meetings that were broader in scope other than just for this planning grant. Since MCRPD also has a restoration grant simultaneously OHMVR needs to be aware there is a chance that costs may be billed to both creating a double billing… We are disallowing costs of $2,817.29 in total for indirect costs.”

That interim audit report also disallowed $1,478.94 in travel costs and $8,978.94 in contract costs.

On the same day, February 20, 2019, OHMVR sent CRA and Sarah Bradley Huff the following, “[W]ith regards to your request to review the audit reports... The OHMVR Division concurs with the audit findings and as a result, a total of $457,427 is due to the State of California.”

Ironically enough, on that same February 20, 2019, MCRPD held a board meeting. During the meeting, the minutes reflect that the district administrator, Dan Keyes, presented Sarah Bradley Huff with a “Distinguished Service Award.”

(It seems almost certain there will be more to come on this matter…)

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