City sends workers in to clean up three parks

Push by mayor responds to criticism about upkeep

July 19, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Responding to criticism that Baltimore isn't moving fast enough to clean up its parks, Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration dispatched a small army of workers to Leakin Park yesterday to haul away truckloads of tires, rusty barrels, weeds and garbage.

O'Malley pulled on jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt and sweated in the heat for hours, picking up bottles and trash in two other small parks.

Wearing gloves as he raked up cans and litter in Briscoe Park near Memorial Stadium, O'Malley acknowledged that parks maintenance has been a weak spot in his administration.

But he said his recent decision to change the department's leadership and develop a plan of action for the parks should help reverse the decay, which he blamed in part on a decade of cuts under the previous mayor.

The plan isn't complete but is being worked out by O'Malley's staff and Acting Parks Director Kimberley M. Amprey. She replaced Marvin F. Billups Jr., whom O'Malley fired July 2 because the mayor thought he wasn't working fast enough to improve the department.

"We're trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again," said O'Malley. "But the people must play a role, too. The neighbors have got to call 911 when they see illegal dumping.

"And they've got to take care of their own parks like they're their own front yards."

He leaned over to pick his way through a drift of bottles and papers clogging a storm-water drain near the park's basketball court.

"We've got to get a lot more help from the neighorhoods and get people to take stewardship for their own parks," said O'Malley. "Look at all this stuff! The city government didn't put this here. The community has to help."

"It's good to see you out here," said a woman as she strolled past, stepping around the trash bag the mayor was filling.

The city's actions yesterday were part of a cleanup offensive by the O'Malley administration, which included a sweepup of Lucille Park.

But the mobilization was also a response to complaints from neighbors of Leakin Park that the city's much-ballyhooed park reform efforts - announced with Billups' firing - had failed to respond to their repeated complaints about illegal dumping near the Sloman Field baseball diamonds.

A crew with a bulldozer plunged into tall weeds yesterday to haul away hundreds of old tires that had been illegally dumped there.

Workers rolled dozens of rusty oil barrels out of a burned-out stable building, which they then boarded up. They whacked down overgrowth, bagged litter, and tossed chairs, electric fans and an old computer terminal into a truck.

They painted over graffiti on the doors of the baseball field's bathroom and cut down chest-high weeds beside the players' benches.

Neighbors said they were grateful to see the mess cleaned up.

But some said they were angered by the mayor's suggestion that they were responsible for cleaning the parks.

"This is a city park, and it's the city's responsibility to maintain the park," said William Allen, an 81-year-old retired telephone company supervisor who gardens a large plot in the park. "People can pick up bottles and cans, sure; but they can't clean up this kind of illegal dumping. That's the city's job."

Allen said he's disgusted that he paid $42 to the city this spring for the right to garden six plots in a fenced-off area, Leakin City Farms Garden, next to the rubbish cleared away yesterday. After he planted, Allen said, the city didn't keep its promise to provide water for his plots, with the pipes breaking in mid-spring.

Despite several calls to the city to complain, the water remains off at the garden. Volunteers have to ferry buckets of water from home by car several times a week to keep their hundreds of tomato, string bean and squash plants from dying.

Oakley Saunders, 75, a retired physician who gardens in the park, said yesterday that lots of senior citizens volunteer their time to walk through the park and pick up trash. They also plant flowers to keep the park beautiful.

Saunders said it's the city that has been slow in responding to complaints about dumping and lack of water for the gardens.

"We are all delighted to see this cleanup finally occur," said Saunders, who lives nearby in Forest Park. "But we all know what responsibility is. The mayor should be ashamed for his department's lack of responsiveness."

O'Malley said the problems in the parks department have been brewing for years.

He said that during the 1990s, when Kurt L. Schmoke was mayor and O'Malley served on the City Council, the city cut the parks budget a little bit every year because it faced chronic budget problems.

"If you decide you are not going to cut schools and you are not going to cut police, every other department has to suffer when you don't have enough money," said O'Malley.

O'Malley said he halted the cuts to the parks department. His administration released figures yesterday showing he increased its budget from $15.8 million in fiscal 2000 to $18.5 million in fiscal 2002, with the number of employees growing from 321 to 435.

People still complained about the condition of the parks, however, and the department's former director resisted O'Malley's efforts to reform the department, instead asking for more money, the mayor said.

"This is the last remaining city agency in which we haven't been able to pull off our reforms," said O'Malley.

"But we will, under [Amprey]. And if the public gets energized to help us, we can improve our parks a lot more quickly."

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