- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2000

How much money does it take to run a tight ship at the District's Department of Parks and Recreation? $28 million, the funding level for the current fiscal year? $34 million, sought for FY 2001? How about $50 million? That's a nice round number. Well, folks, you can pull any figure out of thin air, because the correct answer is nobody knows. What struggling families and other residents do know is the department's problems do not stem from money. What must occur is for the director to take control of an agency that is running on automatic pilot.

"We are in call and fix it mode, but that is an improvement from the past," Director Bob Newman said in a recent interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. Mr. Newman's visit was a result of a recent editorial, "Paging Robert Newman," that outlined serious safety and management problems, and the concerns of parents and volunteers. Citywide, residents are critical of unmowed lawns, hazardous play areas and unfulfilled promises.

In that context, Mr. Newman's assessment was half right, because officials in prior administrations provided quality programs regardless of expense. The current administration, though, appears to be stumbling over itself. New high-level hires have not met Mr. Newman's own expectations, and many veteran managers have disappointed him as well. The mayor exempted parks and recreation from staff cuts, and parents, coaches and volunteers have leveled harsh criticism since early spring.

In response, Mr. Newman said he is "results-oriented," that he wants his department to have a "greater sense of accountability" and "do things more efficiently." He said, "I know the value of recreation" and that "for some kids it's all they have." Yet, he turned around and then said all the wrong things. He tried to explain his management problems by using the same keywords his predecessors used. Managers need "retooling," he said. The city "disinvested" in parks and recreation. He needs "$3 million."

If Mr. Newman wants to do right by children, and he seems to want to, he should make no excuses for the adults in his employ. If employees are not doing their jobs then he should fire them. If senior and veteran managers, many of whom are degreed and experienced professionals, need "retooling," then he should not depend on taxpayers to foot the bill. Mr. Newman needs to explain to his staff that providing clean and safe environments, organized and engaging programs and meeting the needs of the various constituencies are their responsibilities. He needs to tell them that their alternatives would prove far less profitable.

To his credit, Mr. Newman, who took over the agency in July 1999, has made a measure of progress in some areas, including increased security patrols. But he, along with Mayor Williams and the D.C. Council, must remember the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation never was a troubled agency, that it never had the longstanding mismanagement woes of other agencies, such as public works, human services and the police department.

So notwithstanding the few problems Mr. Newman inherited, he must be reminded that he is indeed in a "call and fix it mode." But that is not because of the ghosts of recreation directors past. That is because Mr. Newman has yet to get a grasp on the levers of power.

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