Acting parks chief aims for action

Amprey says she's ready for high expectations - and few city resources

August 11, 2002|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's new acting parks chief was strolling through Druid Hill Park on a sweltering afternoon recently when a companion pointed to graffiti scrawled all over a century-old picnic pavilion not far from the door of her office.

Embarrassed, Kimberley M. Amprey flipped open her cell phone. She demanded that a work crew remove the blight from the gold-trimmed Latrobe Pavilion, one of the oldest park buildings in the country.

Amprey apologized to her visitor, a news reporter, and explained that perhaps maintenance workers saw so much vandalism that they'd become indifferent to it.

But when a laborer showed up a half-hour later, he offered his new boss a different explanation for the decay of the park system.

"We just don't have enough people to do it all," said Steve Hoffman, who noted that there were 64 building repair maintenance workers like him in the mid-1980s and only six today. "The city made so many cuts, the bottom line is there isn't enough money left for maintenance."

The conflicting explanations for the neglect shed light on a broader problem that Amprey faces as she takes on the Herculean task of overhauling Baltimore's troubled parks system.

Cutting staff

On one hand, Mayor Martin O'Malley selected the diligent young urban planner because he wants her to rebuild a department that many have criticized for its sluggishness and cronyism.

Yet O'Malley himself may have worsened the more than decade-long starvation of the parks system last year. He cut the maintenance and tree-trimming staff from 219 to 109 during a shift of responsibilities from one agency to another, according to parks department numbers.

And many of the city's 19 parks are sadly dilapidated today, with broken benches, missing basketball hoops and graffiti blanketing the play equipment.

This mayor is not the first to be accused of shortchanging the park system because of the city's financial crisis. Former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke slashed the agency's staff from 920 in 1990 to 345 in 1999.

O'Malley's supporters note that he's increased parks funding by $5 million, to $25 million, over the last two years, and installed new playground equipment in 42 tot lots.

The mayor's staff also says the loss of maintenance workers has been somewhat offset by the use of private janitorial and mowing contractors and inmate labor crews.

Tomorrow, O'Malley and Amprey are scheduled to attend a news conference to announce that they will extend the evening hours at 20 recreation centers across the city, allowing them to close at 10 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. or 8 p.m.

They hope this will help keep kids out of trouble and perhaps help slow a recent surge in juvenile homicides.

Some observers say Amprey is caught in a difficult position. She's stuck between severe financial constraints and the mayor's public promises of extensive improvements.

"I have a lot of respect for Ms. Amprey. But if the mayor doesn't really put money into that department, he's setting her up for failure," said City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, chairman of the council's subcommittee on recreation and parks.

`Do more with less'

O'Malley has expressed his strong support of Amprey and the campaign to improve the city's park system. He said he might be willing to give the department more money, perhaps to hire more private contractors.

"But there are always requests for more staff from every department in the city," the mayor said. "Everybody has to learn to do more with less."

Amprey has no experience in parks or management. But those who know the 30-year-old describe her as intelligent, creative, driven and a quick study.

The Randallstown native graduated from James Madison University in 1994, worked as an English teacher in the city's public schools for two years and earned a master's degree in urban planning from New York University in 1998.

Amprey said she draws inspiration from her father, former city schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey. He was also known as a creative person who turned to privatization when he took on the tough job of running the city's schools from 1991 to 1997.

"My father has advised me on how to deal with high expectations and not much resources," Amprey said.

Her father's relationship with an influential former top city official played a role in her getting a job with the O'Malley administration.

Inspired by O'Malley's energetic efforts to revive the city, Amprey in September 2000 submitted a resume to officials who were creating the mayor's Citi- Stat program, which uses computerized charts to measure the effectiveness of city services.

Then, acting on her father's advice, she talked to one of his old colleagues, Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, who advised O'Malley's transition team.

Embry gave a glowing recommendation to O'Malley's chief of staff, Michael Enright. Enright hired her because he was impressed with her abilities, according to those familiar with the hiring.

Action over planning

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