Mayor presses for shakeup in park operation

City areas' appearance takes precedence, he says

Director was fired last week

`Get with the program' or get out, O'Malley warns

July 07, 2002|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley says he won't hire a new parks chief to replace the one he fired last week until his acting director, Kimberley M. Amprey, shakes up the department.

"I'm not looking for a permanent director," O'Malley said Friday. "I'm looking to improve the appearance of our parks and the performance of rec and parks now, and Kim Amprey is going to do it.

"When our parks are cleaned and the department is on the path of constant improvement, we'll look for a permanent director. Until that time, leaders of that department need to get with the program or get new jobs."

On Tuesday, O'Malley fired Marvin F. Billups Jr., the Recreation and Parks Department director he appointed in October 2000. O'Malley said the poor appearance of city parks contributed to Billups' ouster from the $99,800 job.

Administration officials said O'Malley also was frustrated with Billups' resistance - even hostility - to changes pushed by the Mayor's CitiStat office.

Billups declined to comment last week but has said in the past that his agency suffered from years of budget cuts. The department received $18.7 million in city funds for the current fiscal year, down from $28.9 million 10 years ago.

Amprey, 30, has worked closely with the parks department for two years as an analyst with CitiStat, a program that tracks departmental performance through a variety of indicators - from overtime expenses to, in the case of parks, the number of trees pruned.

Amprey said one of her top goals is to improve the appearance of the city's 5,700 acres of parkland. She hopes Baltimoreans will see a difference within weeks.

"Definitely one of the main priorities is the maintenance, the cleanliness, the upkeep," she said. "When you're driving by a park, things are overgrown, there's trash. We need to get a handle on that immediately.

"We want to look at our own staff and see what things we can improve, better organization of crews, better resource deployment, better use of current equipment."

Amprey said the department has to do a better job of adhering to its mowing schedule. The grass at city parks is supposed to be cut at least every 14 days, but Amprey said CitiStat reviews found that mowing has been "haphazard."

She said maintenance has been a problem with parks citywide, but she mentioned two parks in particular: Federal Hill Park, because it is in a prominent location visited by tourists; and Druid Hill Park, because she happens to pass it frequently while driving around the city. She complained about grass growing between the stones in the sidewalk and tall weeds sprouting along the perimeter fence at Druid Hill.

"Can we just get somebody to pull weeds?" she said. "I will be more than happy to get out there and pull it up."

Amprey will have some help that Billups did not have: $1 million for mowing by private contractors, included in the budget for the fiscal year that began Monday. The money came, in part, from savings the department expects to realize by contracting out 41 custodial jobs under the new budget.

The mowing contractor will supplement, not replace, the department's lawn-cutting efforts.

Billups' supporters say he was not given the resources he needed to keep the parks in good shape. In 1997, under then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the Department of Public Works took over park maintenance. O'Malley shifted that work back to the parks department when he took office, but the full lawn-mowing staff was not restored, said Thomas Driscoll, a city budget official.

Recognizing that Billups had been short-staffed in the last fiscal year, the city provided the $1 million for contract mowing, Driscoll said.

"If somebody can go in there and be successful with the budget Marvin had, I frankly don't believe they can," said T. Destry Jarvis, executive director of the National Recreation and Park Association in Ashburn, Va.

"If we see suddenly the parks department is getting the maintenance budget it needs and then they claim victory," then Billups unfairly suffers by comparison, Jarvis said.

In a letter Friday, the association urged O'Malley to reconsider his decision to fire Billups, who serves as president of the organization.

"Marvin is a thorough professional whose reputation is not just local or regional, but national, who is one of the more thoughtful and competent people in our profession," Jarvis said. "We are appalled that this kind of an action would occur to a professional and in such an apparently precipitous fashion."

Jarvis added that he was distressed that Billups had been replaced, at least temporarily, with "a 30-year-old budget examiner."

"It's not just something you can turn over to some auditor," he said.

Administration officials say Amprey is very familiar with the parks department from her work with CitiStat. A former language arts teacher at Pimlico Middle and English at Western High, she has a master's degree in urban planning from New York University.

Amprey is the daughter of former city schools superintendent Walter G. Amprey.

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