For five years, Rick Smith considered his job with the city's Recreation and Parks Department as something of a crusade to keep Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park clean and safe.
He hunted down illegal dumpers and recruited volunteers to clean debris from the park, which is along Baltimore's western border. But Smith's crusade came to an abrupt end in April when he was reassigned across town to Patterson Park.
Smith was transferred after he argued with Bob Wade, the former University of Maryland basketball coach who now works as the city's superintendent for recreation.
Smith's transfer has brought an outcry from neighbors and community leaders near Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park. They say the park has been full of trash and generally unkempt since Smith left. And Smith's reassignment so angered his boss that she resigned as the park's administrator.
The argument took place April 13 in the park's Carrie Murray Outdoor Education Center. Smith says he argued with Wade after Wade and members of his family entered the building after it had closed. Wade was relatively new to the city job, and Smith says he did not recognize him.
Shortly after the encounter, Smith and his supervisors were called to the recreation and parks administrative offices for a meeting with Wade. Smith says Wade told him that he was being transferred because he was incapable of dealing with the public. He was reassigned to pick up trash at Patterson Park.
"This is purely punitive. I'm being punished because a man didn't like me. That's it," says Smith.
Wade says Smith was transferred only because he had been working out of his job classification as a laborer-chauffeur at Leakin Park.
The transfer "had absolutely nothing to do with any confrontation he and I might have had. It was simply trying to put employees in their proper job classifications," says Wade, who refuses to discuss the argument.
Wade also says he was not responsible for Smith's transfer. Wade says Parks Superintendent Calvin Buikema reassigned Smith.
But an April 16 letter from Wade to Smith says:
"I was appalled at your rudeness and your continued attempts to rush me and my family out of the facility even after I had identified myself to you. No member from the public should ever be treated in such a manner. . . . I now feel the time has come for you to be moved within the park system."
Wade's letter also says the transfer to Patterson Park would bring Smith's duties more in line with his job classification.
Smith says he subsequently wrote a letter of apology to Wade but received no response.
Since Smith's transfer, several people who live near Leakin Park have lobbied the Schmoke administration to reinstate Smith.
They say the illegal dumpers have had free rein in the park without Smith policing the 1,216 acres of woods. Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park is the largest park in the city and the largest undeveloped park in a U.S. city.
Gail Abrams says she resigned as the park's administrator last week partly because of the way the city administration treated Smith.
"Rick was my one and only staff member who worked on the trails," she said. "He's the one who kept the park clean. He single-handedly found dumpers and had them prosecuted." Abrams now runs a private nature center in New York state.
"Two weeks after he left the park, it went back to what it had been six years ago when I came there," she said, referring to Leakin Park's reputation as a dumping ground for trash.
Veroneca Burgess, president of Friends of Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park, said, "Believe me, the park is really suffering because Rick's not there. It's amazing what one person can do. There is trash everywhere. It's overgrown."
Burgess, whose home borders the park, said she wrote two letters to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke in attempts to get Smith's transfer reversed, but never received a response from the mayor's office.
"If Rick was rude to this man [Wade], I thought the transfer was a bit much," she said.
Another park neighbor, Gillian K. Gabrielle, wrote to Marlyn Perritt, recreation and parks director, and to Schmoke, but received no response, she said.
Gabrielle said she never would have bought her house bordering the park 16 months ago if it weren't for conversations with Smith, who convinced her that the park was safe and clean.
While Smith worked in the park, Gabrielle wrote to Perritt, "I would frequently be working in my garden to look up and see Rick going through the woods, either looking for kids on dirt bikes, or cleaning up the trash frequently left on the trails . . . there are unexplained and sometimes unnerving things that happen here, but I feel much safer knowing Rick Smith is here.
"Now -- I find out that he's been transferred. I am dumbfounded, shocked and outraged. What could have possibly inspired this?" she wrote.
Alma Bell, spokeswoman for the Recreation and Parks Department, said, "We've been treating it as a personnel matter. Mr. Smith has not been disciplined or had a change in status. He has not been laid off."