Recreation, parks chief is resigning Bourne forced out by county executive, sources say

Will step down Jan. 25

Olympic village plan tied to Smith farm said to anger Ecker

December 16, 1997|By Craig Timberg | Craig Timberg,SUN STAFF

Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker forced Jeffrey A. Bourne, the county's top recreation and parks official, to resign after he publicly suggested that a sensitive Columbia property be turned into an Olympic village.

The soft-spoken executive and his garrulous parks director had long-standing differences that flared last week when Bourne proposed building a 75,000-seat stadium and other facilities on the 300-acre Smith farm, which county officials hope to buy.

The proposal, though intended mainly to provoke discussion at a meeting about the Smith farm, angered Ecker and led to Bourne's forced resignation Friday, say county government sources.

Ecker named Gary J. Arthur, a Bourne deputy, the acting director. But community activists worry that Bourne's departure has cost the Department of Recreation and Parks an energetic, forceful leader.

"We have the finest recreation and parks department in the state, and Ecker just cut the guts out of it," said Willa J. Brooks, head of the department's advisory board and chairwoman of the department of recreation, parks and leisure studies at Community College of Baltimore County-Catonsville Campus. "It's just crazy."

Bourne and Ecker were guarded in their comments yesterday.

"Jeff has done a wonderful job during the years he's been with the parks and recreation department," said Ecker.

"This has been a dream," said Bourne, 49, a resident of Columbia's Long Reach Village. "I'm one of those guys lucky enough to do what I adore."

But several county officials told of a relationship that had been rocky for years. Bourne sometimes made public proposals that caught Ecker off guard when he learned of them -- often from newspaper articles.

"I think there's just been some differences as the years have gone on, and they've never been smoothed over," said Councilman Darrel E. Drown, an Ellicott City Republican.

In recent years, Bourne has publicly proposed charging admission to parks and removing most park trash cans. Ecker rejected both ideas soon after Bourne aired them.

Ecker declined to comment about the specifics of Bourne's resignation, but he did acknowledge a history of disagreements.

"We've had differences over the years," Ecker said, "but I've had differences with a lot of people."

Last week's flap began Tuesday night, when a group appointed by Ecker met to consider plans for the Smith farm, a 300-acre parcel off Route 175 and the last major piece of undeveloped land in east Columbia.

The property was left by Elizabeth C. "Nancy" Smith, who refused to sell her property when the Rouse Co. built Columbia. Smith died in February without a will, prompting a battle by community activists and politicians to prevent housing developments on the property.

As a way to stimulate discussion, Bourne presented plans for "Millennium Park" -- complete with 75,000-seat stadium, hotel and restaurants for the 2012 Olympics. Baltimore and Washington have teamed to bid for the games.

Bourne made several traditional proposals, including soccer fields, basketball courts, a nature preserve and a small stadium of 8,000 seats or less.

Planning Director Joseph W. Rutter Jr., who attended the meeting, said the Olympic village proposal was intended only to inspire creative thinking on a sensitive subject.

"Was it the right thing to do?" said Rutter. "Sometimes we're not serious enough, and you can't joke around about some things."

Bourne, a native of Maine, moved to Howard County in 1972 to work for the Columbia Association, the huge homeowners association. He joined the county Department of Recreation and Parks in 1975 to head the new Bureau of Parks.

Since taking over as director in September 1989, a year before Ecker took office, Bourne has faced tight budgets that have forced the department to operate increasingly like a business.

Arthur, 50, a resident of Cooksville, was chief of the Bureau of Recreation and Administrative Services until his promotion Friday to acting director. Ecker hopes to keep Arthur, who will make about $79,500, in the job until Ecker's administration ends next December.

Bourne, who made $82,875, will remain on the county payroll until Jan. 25, when his vacation and leave time is used up.

"I think everyone here is going to miss [Bourne's] leadership and creativity," said Arthur.

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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