Robert P. Newman, director of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, could not seem to get things right. Under fire for months and his credibility in shreds, he decided to stop trying. On Monday, Mr. Newman handed in his resignation. The call was a tough one for Mr. Newman, himself nurtured through public recreation programs in New York City. Nonetheless, Mr. Newman made the right decision. As he said this summer, “I am the one, ultimately, who’s accountable.”
Mayor Williams is struggling with the decision as well, and that is understandable. The mayor likes Mr. Newman, and has defended him despite many months of confusion and obvious mismanagement. Over and over again, the mayor stood up for Mr. Newman, saying he had specific long-term action plans to do this or fix that. Over and over again, the mayor said he believed Mr. Newman was the right man for the job and that Mr. Newman shared his commitment to operate first-rate parks and programs. Misspent tax dollars and misplaced priorities, however, became the hallmarks.
Mr. Newman’s supporters believe he was the victim of a “broken” department, although no one, including the mayor, articulated specifics. His critics believe his missteps were the direct result of his own professional flaws, flaws that led him to ignore the advice of his own employees and advisory councils. In either case, Mr. Newman started on the wrong foot, focusing on long-range plans and what he characterized as “aggressive capital projects.” Even changing the agency’s name from Recreation and Parks to Parks and Recreation set a clear example of where priorities lie with things instead of people.
His efforts proved a near disaster during the department’s busiest season. For example, in early 2000 Mr. Newman and the mayor publicized maintenance and renovations for several parks, play courts and ball fields. The delays meant grass went uncut for several weeks, trash went uncollected, ball fields were unmarked and computer learning centers were not hooked up to the Internet. The gymnasium at one center has sat condemned and unused since May, infuriating parents and disappointing youngsters. Recreation officials, meanwhile, appear nonplussed.
There were other major blunders as well. A federally funded summer camp for 3,000 youngsters had only 450 children enrolled when it opened in mid-June, summer workers received incorrect pay, or worse, no pay at all and Head Start programs are now in jeopardy because of contracting disputes with the recreation department. Just last week reporters discovered that the director of a recreation center in upper Northwest coached Mr. Newman’s daughter and her basketball team at Mr. Newman’s request and on government time.
To his credit Mr. Newman created a new security team, a new team of youth ambassadors and a new team of advisory councils at centers around the city. And, although his resignation is not effective until Nov. 3, he will have considerable sway, including suggesting an interim chief. The mayor has to find a permanent replacement, and it is hoped that new director has the credentials, commitment and credibility to restore public confidence.