- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2000

D.C. officials yesterday defended the troubled Parks and Recreation Department before a panel of council members, saying they have learned from recent mistakes and are making improvements.

"I ask you to remember the 99 percent of the time that this department does not fail," said Carolyn Graham, deputy mayor for children, youth and families. "We are committed to continuing the progress we made this year."

Robert Newman, the department director who resigned Monday after months of management missteps and service failures, did not attend the hearing.

Although council members said they wanted to move forward, they insisted that Mrs. Graham and others explain how to prevent this summer's missteps from happening next year.

Mrs. Graham responded by telling the council that administration officials were scheduled to meet last night to decide on an interim director, and to make an announcement of their choice this morning.

Mrs. Graham and City Administrator John Koskinen have been interviewing several candidates from within the department for the position.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams will meet with community leaders to hear what they want in a new department director before the search for a permanent director begins. Mrs. Graham could not provide a timetable for when the permanent director would be selected.

Several council members suggested the mayor look within the department for Mr. Newman's successor, rather than finding another outsider who will bring in a new team that must learn the District's convoluted government system.

The council members also hammered department officials for having vague answers and information, and for making the agency too top-heavy and unresponsive.

Mr. Newman came under heavy criticism this summer for unmowed ball fields and parks, and for decrepit facilities.

As for grass cutting, Mrs. Graham said, "This year, we fell short of that mark because the new team leading the organization had not yet learned how to navigate many of the District's difficult systems," such as procurement and contracting.

But when it came to detailed questions on personnel and finances, department officials could not answer.

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, asked Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Neil Albert a series of questions, but he could answer very few of them.

Later in the hearing, Mrs. Graham shifted the blame away from Mr. Newman, saying, "Some of this dysfunctionality did come from the bottom up."

That didn't sit well with council member Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat, who lectured Mrs. Graham and said she should have taken more responsibility for the Parks and Recreation Department, one of several agencies which falls under her authority.

Two council members relayed stories about how they and their children were affected this summer by poor service from the department.

Council member Kevin Chavous, Ward 7 Democrat and chairman of the committee on education, libraries and recreation, said when his wife tried to pick up their 10-year-old son, she was told the boy had been moved to another recreation center.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, recounted how he and his wife left work early this summer to enroll their children in a sports program, but found the center in their neighborhood closed.

"And no one showed up. No one showed up," he said. "There was no sign, no nothing. That kind of performance is unacceptable."

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