Thursday, October 11, 2012
Less than two years ago, Monterey Peninsula Regional Park District became the poster child for inflated government salaries. That the little district had the highest-paid parks manager in the state – even The L.A. Times picked up on former General Manager Joe Donofrio’s $306,000 annual salary – trained an uncomfortable spotlight on the agency.
Now MPRPD has settled back into a rhythm as hushed as wind through coastal scrubland. The district’s new GM, Jim Sulentich, is paid $154,500 per year to manage 13 employees. He answers to a five-member board, two of whom are stepping down when their terms end in November. The race to replace them is tepid.
“The park district needs and deserves a board member focused on the policy level. And we need someone with a demonstrated passion for parks,” Sulentich says. “We went through a rough patch, and I think the board has responded.”
In Ward 1, covering Marina, 13-year incumbent Jennifer Fellguth is not running for re-election. Kelly Sorenson, director of Ventana Wildlife Society, is unopposed in his bid for her seat. He says the post combines his passions for outdoor education, wildlife conservation and open-space land use.
In Ward 2, covering most of Seaside and part of Sand City, two are vying for the seat vacated by 14-year incumbent Ben Post.
Candidate Chris Moss, a 63-year-old program coordinator for the county health department, says she’s witnessed the link between public resources and health outcomes. “If we’re in a community where it’s easier to find french fries than produce, where it’s easier to drive than to walk, we know where that leads,” she says. “Parks are a bright light in that dark landscape.”
Moss says she’s glad the general manager’s salary has been “rectified” to a more modest number. Noting the growth of the Latino population in Ward 2, she says she supports more collaborations with schools, bilingual programs and the district’s “Let’s Go Outdoors!” activities.
The other candidate, Rogers Hawley, a 29-year-old mortgage banker, blames the board for failing to reign in Donofrio’s salary when it had the chance. “You hear about debt and government borrowing in other areas, but you don’t expect it to be in your own backyard,” he says.
Hawley would like to focus on getting more Seaside residents out to the regional parks, including his own favorites, Garland Ranch in Carmel Valley and Frog Pond Wetland Preserve in Del Rey Oaks. (The district is working on an acquisition to expand the latter’s adjacent parkland.)
Departing incumbent Post, a computer consultant, says he accomplished his goals during his board tenure – including the acquisition of Palo Corona Regional Park and the transfer of district-owned Sand City beach parcels to California State Parks. He backs Moss as his successor, saying Hawley seems out of touch with what the district does.
“He’s not in favor of government,” he says. “I think he’s being disingenuous.”
The district’s 2012-13 fiscal year budget is almost $1.4 million in the red, but that’s mostly due to the board’s decision to make a lump payment toward retirees’ medical benefits. The shortfall will be drawn from the district’s reserves.
The district is, however, anticipating a spike in grant revenue this year, including up to $1.5 million from state Prop. 117 funds.
On Oct. 18, the California Coastal Conservancy will consider giving the district up to $1 million to acquire the 317-acre Whisler Wilson Ranch across Highway 1 from Point Lobos in Carmel, a property currently owned by Big Sur Land Trust.