Mccann Receives Hot Roasting, Warm Praise At Tribute

Parks, Recreation Director Retires From County Service

April 05, 1992|By Elise Armacost | Elise Armacost,Staff writer

They joked about Joe McCann's temper and talkativeness, his "Joe knows" jock image and I-hate-to-lose intensity.

But underneath the good-natured ribbing from those who roasted the county's colorful longtime director of Recreation and Parks Thursday night was a serious tribute to a man who changed the way Anne Arundel looks at leisure.

After 23 years with county government, including 16 as head of Parks and Recreation, McCann retired Tuesday at 48.

"It's time for someone else with a new vision," said the Philadelphia native, triathlete and former football coach. "In later years I've had to guard too much against pride of authorship."

Never one to mince words, McCann also said he was sick of the pressure and anxious to make more money. He has three children in private school, college and law school. "If it weren't for them," he said, "I'd be down on the North Shore of Hawaii."

McCann's relatives joined about 250 elected leaders, government officials and Parks and Recreation workers who came to honor him Thursday at Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie.

Among the notables who paid tribute: U.S. Rep. Tom McMillen, D-4th; state Sen. Philip C. Jimeno, chairman of the county's five-member Senate delegation; Del. Michael Busch, head of the county's 13-member House delegation; the County Council; and three of the four county executives underwhich McCann served.

County Executive Robert R. Neall sent his aide, Walter Chitwood, who joked that Neall couldn't make it because hewas attending a meeting of the "Maryland Association of Port-a-PottyDealers" -- a reference to last summer's furor over the elimination of portable toilets from park facilities due to budget cuts.

Former Executives Joseph Alton, Robert Pascal and O. James Lighthizer all were on hand.

"I loved him like a kid brother," said Alton, who hired McCann as a budget analyst in 1969. Three years later, Alton promoted McCann to the post of chief lobbyist, and three years after thatPascal appointed him head of Recreation and Parks.

Pascal, who once dismissed McCann after an argument, made light of their volatile relationship. "The paper said I fired him once," he said. "I fired himonce a day."

Today, Parks and Recreation has a budget of almost $10 million with 125 full-time employees. It supervises a network of 7,000 volunteers and 42 recreation councils serving 50,000 children.

In contrast, when McCann took over the department under Pascal, theagency supervised 50 community parks with an $800,000 budget and 21 employees. Under Pascal, the county began focusing on expansion of community parks and construction of sophisticated recreation facilities.

McCann's most significant projects were completed during the Lighthizer years -- the B & A hiker-biker trail, Joe Cannon Stadium, theArundel Olympic Swim Center and Quiet Waters park.

"That (Quiet Waters) was the one Joe and I bled over," said Lighthizer. The $18 million project drew opposition from anti-property tax groups and some environmentalists.

It was also under Lighthizer that McCann began purchasing large tracts of land for preservation, most notably the 400-acre Beverly Triton Beach property and the 200-acre South River farms. Still, McCann's most vocal critics have been environmentalists whosaw him as too eager to develop land they preferred left in its natural state.

"It caught me by surprise," McCann said. "I overlooked the fact that local citizens came to expect us to play a role in preservation. The environmentalists had a right to raise my consciousnessto (that issue).

"But I don't regret Joe Cannon Stadium or Quiet Waters or the trail, because those are the facilities that accomplished what I consider our major mission -- giving citizens the opportunity for a leisure experience."

McCann takes play seriously. As broke as counties are right now, he rejects the new thinking that all butthe most basic services -- police, fire protection, education -- should be cut.

"Governments are sacrificing the future to pay for thepresent," he said. "If we forget how to get in touch with the child in us, and to teach our children the same thing, we will be a sad society."

In past years, McCann resorted to gimmicks to attract attention to his department's needs. Once, he walked into County Council chambers wearing nothing but a barrel to show how badly the departmentneeded money; another year, he brought along a county referee who called penalties on council members who didn't vote to increase funding.

The reason for those performances -- raising the profile of the department -- no longer exists, McCann says. But, were he still in office, he said, he'd be digging in for a king-sized fight to save Parks and Recreation from the budget ax.

State Program Open Space money, which paid for much of Quiet Waters and other expensive projects, has dried up, and anti-tax sentiment means a possible reduction in county money. The budget McCann prepared for fiscal 1993 is barely enough to maintain the existing system, he said.

For all the honor bestowed on him last week -- including a new study center at the Jug BayWetlands Sanctuary that is being named in his honor -- McCann's career has had its ups and downs.

He got in trouble with Lighthizer several years ago when he had some firewood delivered to his home on the Eastern Shore by a county worker on county time. (Lest he forget the incident, he was given a gift-wrapped log at his farewell party.)

And his temper is legendary. "When you were in a meeting with Joe, you never had objects on the table that could be thrown," said Mike Phennecie, a consultant who worked with McCann.

McCann now lives inTowson with his 15-year-old son. Tomorrow, he starts a new job as a stockbroker with Legg Mason. He also begins collecting a full county pension.

County Parks Administrator William Rinehart is serving asacting director of Parks and Recreation until Neall hires a permanent replacement. The county is conducting a national search for someoneto take McCann's place.

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