- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2000

Even as District of Columbia Parks and Recreation Director Robert Newman submitted his resignation yesterday, Mayor Anthony A. Williams defended him and the troubled department, saying they were on track to "fulfill ambitious goals."

Mr. Newman came under fire for service problems this summer, misusing government funds this fall, missing out on a federal grant because he failed to sign a contract on time and, most recently, directing a city employee to coach his daughter's basketball team.

But Mr. Williams and top administration officials yesterday insisted that Mr. Newman has improved the department, and that news accounts have overlooked his accomplishments.

"Director Newman made important improvements in parks and recreation throughout the city," Mr. Williams said in a statement, listing new pools, parks, playgrounds and computer centers the director has opened. "He also made important progress in meeting his scorecard goals."

Several D.C. Council members who had called for Mr. Newman's removal and planned to grill him at a hearing today disagreed with that assessment, saying the volume of complaints this summer and fall was unprecedented.

"The department was just not functioning like it had in the past," said council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat. "I hadn't had problems like that before."

Mr. Newman, who decided to step down Saturday, formally resigned yesterday and will stay on the job for another two weeks. His severance package will be four weeks' pay, or about $8,400.

Mr. Newman, who took his post in July 1999, does not plan to attend today's hearing because he feels "there's nothing to be gained by rehashing everything," City Administrator John Koskinen said.

Carolyn Graham, deputy mayor for children, youth and families, will speak in his place, he said.

Mr. Williams and other officials wanted Mr. Newman to keep working through at least the end of the year, but the director told them, "I don't think I can effectively manage the department with this background noise," according to Mr. Koskinen.

"He didn't think he could continue to be effective" with all the news reports about department problems and council members calling for him to step down, Mr. Koskinen said.

"The department had a lot of problems, and Bob tried to make changes," he added. "It's clearly in better shape than it was."

The mayor's call center and recreation advisory councils reported "no outpouring of massive complaints" about the Parks and Recreation Department, Mr. Koskinen said.

That doesn't square with the experiences of council members, according to recent interviews.

Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, yesterday said the complaints he received and reports he saw about the department were unprecedented.

"Every year should be better than the last, and this year wasn't," Mr. Mendelson said. "Management is the issue, like many other agencies in this city. The issue was with leadership rather than with something else."

Mr. Evans, who received calls at his office and home this summer from irate parents who said a city pool in Georgetown was not opening on time, called the department's recent performance "poor."

Vincent Orange, Ward 5 Democrat, recently said community leaders told him of upkeep, management and organizational problems on a scale he had never seen.

Mr. Newman did make mistakes, administration officials said, but they emphasized that agency heads should not be cut loose after a few errors.

"It's important that we send a message to managers all over the country, if you come to the District government, we'll stand by you," Mr. Williams said. "There needs to be some graduated sanctions."

Even with Mr. Newman's departure, the department is not in the clear.

Several D.C. agencies the Office of Inspector General, Office of Chief Financial Officer and Office of the D.C. Auditor are investigating service, management, personnel and finance issues at the department.

The auditor's office, which has been probing the department's maintenance performance and finances since July, is examining credit-card purchases made by employees, The Washington Times reported Saturday.

No direct evidence of misuse or wrongdoing with the credit cards has come to light, but Mr. Newman's questionable use of department money prompted the new inquiry, the sources said.

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