- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2000

You watch the crowd gathered for the midsummer training session of staff from the Department of Parks and Recreation's (DPR) Camps and Arts and Smarts program. The Saturday meeting comes one week after intense media scrutiny and complaints about a few weed-covered, trash-strewn athletic fields and unpaid workers. You're with everyone else: People should get paid and grass should be cut. But here are the salient, and unanswered, questions: At the time of the news reports, how many workers had been paid, and on time? How many fields were cleaned and the grass cut?

You want perspective. Expecting Robert Newman, the director of a $30 million agency with nearly 400 sites under his jurisdiction, to know, personally, if the grass at particular fields has been cut is like asking the editor-in-chief of this newspaper or of The Washington Post which reporter doesn't have a functioning computer. If the editors-in-chief didn't know, a federal case would not ensue as it has with Mr. Newman. And few in the public or private sector would find it odd that Mr. Newman used in-house job titles on his resume, which has led some to suggest that he fraudulently enhanced his job status. Frequently in government, employees are hired under civil service titles, which tend to be uniform to facilitate universal use.

For example, in the District, workers who manage recreation centers were hired under the payroll title of "recreation specialists," but their in-house working titles are "site managers." Milou Carolan, the city's personnel director, who served in a similar role in Philadelphia, reports it was a practice used in that city. She said she called New York and learned that even there, the in-house working title for a position can be "somewhat different" than the classification title, which she relayed to reporters eager to nail an administration official. "I am satisfied with what I found," she continued. There is no disputing the accomplishments Bob Newman cited on his resume.

Still, Mr. Newman is not flawless; he has slightly green edges. He doesn't fully comprehend the media pack-dog mentality that causes journalists to stumble over each other when they sense a weakness or smell blood. He doesn't understand the relentlessness of the city's activist community, which can be both refreshing and frustrating. He spent more time on his big vision, erroneously thinking the basics were in place. And he doesn't understand the history of District government sabotage, where employees deliberately savage their supervisors; workers already are placing bets how long before he leaves?

Some folks know the danger in pushing out Mr. Newman: "We've been through hell with recreation directors in the past. He's the best thing that has happened," says Willie Flowers of the Satchel Paige Little League Baseball organization. Before Mr. Newman there were horror stories: centers not opening as scheduled, fights over ball fields, missing equipment, facilities falling apart while capital projects went unimplemented; top-level personnel under investigation. The agency, wholly dysfunctional, operated under the press radar because other agencies that affected more people were in worse shape.

You want to shout: Get a grip. You can smell an incompetent bureaucrat a mile away. Mr. Newman isn't one. He isn't Camille Cates Barnett, or David Watts or Valerie Holt.

But he has been challenged, since arriving a year ago. He remains stuck with a budget, some program designs, and performance outcomes developed by his predecessor. He faces insufficient resources. (For example, the D.C. Council failed to approve a $500,000 request made by his predecessor to improve maintenance, but put in $2 million for the unrequested "Roving Leaders," a group of adults who work with at-risk youth.) Even the plan to replace playground equipment at some sites was someone else's dream. But none of this was considered when he suffered blistering attacks from council members trying to elevate their visibility and residents fighting over ball fields, because, under the table, teams are making cash money; changes in use-schedule threaten their fiscal schemes.

Between bullet-dodging, Mr. Newman has made changes. He formally established 77 recreation center advisory councils, created an Urban Parker Rangers force, established a Young Ambassadors program; created 20 computer labs, developed a DPR web site, circulated bids for capital development projects some languishing for a decade and developed a fiscal 2001 budget that puts more resources at his disposal, improving the overall operation of the centers and the department. More recently, he developed a short-term, 90-day plan aimed at shoring up agency basics. For grass cutting fanatics, he has published a schedule. Now, go irritate those allergies.

You think that Mr. Newman's primary offense has been that he permitted poor-performing employees to keep their jobs. He needs to clean house quick, fast, in a hurry. "It's not him; its those same people who have been working at recreation for years," echoes Mr. Flowers.

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