Parks chief adding recreation to his list

Urban Chronicle

Change: With the departure of Kimberley Flowers, Connie A. Brown assumes responsibility for the city's rec centers and programs.

May 26, 2005|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

SEATED ON a bench in Druid Hill Park on a recent glorious spring weekday afternoon, Connie A. Brown spots an illegal dirt biker off in the distance and frets about the time that will have to be spent repairing the ground that is being torn up.

Not far away, he sees a young pit bull being allowed to run freely by its owner. "Dogs off-leash - that's a big problem," he says. "They scare people. They intimidate people."

He surveys the area around him, with nary a soda can nor scrap of paper in sight.

"We clean this every morning," he says. "On Monday, it takes until 2 or 3 in the afternoon because people trash it so much on weekends." He pauses, taking in the scene of warm sunlight streaming through the leaves of mature trees. "It bothers me that a small number of irresponsible people would mess up such a beautiful asset."

For the past two years, Brown has been Baltimore's chief of parks, overseeing about 5,800 acres of parkland and some 500,000 trees in the parks and along city streets. Now, at the start of the busy summer season, the 59-year-old retired Army officer will take on the added responsibility for 46 recreation centers and dozens of athletic programs as he becomes acting director of the Department of Recreation and Parks. He succeeds Kimberley A. Flowers, who is leaving June 3 to head Washington's equivalent agency.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley says the mayor has confidence in Brown's ability and has no plans to launch a formal search for the job, though others may apply. Brown makes no secret of the fact that he would like the position on a permanent basis.

"I would like to think I'm the only candidate," he says. "I'll accept leading candidate for now."

Jacqueline Carrera, executive director of Parks & People, a nonprofit group that works to support the department, said she believes the city could benefit by a search, though she quickly adds that Brown is a "perfectly qualified candidate" and praises the job he has done.

"Basic maintenance has been a challenge in this city for years," she says. "He has been able to deliver maintenance services. The department has really gotten a handle on that."

Over the years, turnover at the top of the recreation and parks department has rivaled that of the Police Department: Brown is the fourth person to head the department in 5 1/2 years, after Thomas Overton, a holdover from the previous administration; Marvin Billups; and Flowers.

Like Flowers, who came from the mayor's CitiStat operation and spent a year as acting director before getting the job full time, Brown had no background in recreation and parks before joining the department. He spent 31 years in the Army, most of it in the Corps of Engineers, and four years in private industry, then worked for a year as a consultant to the city's Office of Minority Enterprise before starting as parks chief.

Brown is a mix of droll geniality and military bearing. He says his first name is a family name (The Sun once mistakenly referred to him as a woman) and notes wryly that he gave his son his same initials but named him Curtis because of the grief he got growing up over his appellation.

Despite discernible improvements in park upkeep over the years, some problems in the department have persisted. This year, police and city prosecutors began investigating $5,400 in missing permit fees - which led to a policy of accepting only cashier's checks and money orders.

Reports last month by the city auditor of four special recreation facilities, including the Clarence H. Du Burns Arena and the Dominic "Mimi" DiPietro Skating Center, unearthed other administrative problems, including a failure to monitor overtime and to comply with bidding procedures. Last year, the department raised the fees for some activities so much that they had to be scaled back this year.

Brown acknowledges that he knows far more about the parks side of his department than the recreation side, but says he is getting up to speed quickly. He says the biggest challenge is managing an agency with a quarter of the number of employees it had 25 years ago and overcoming years of underfunding.

Most of the $1 million in extra funds the department will receive from the city's surplus for this budget year - and nearly $3 million for next year - will be used for repairing roofs in rec centers, replacing mowing equipment and reducing the backlog of requests for cutting street trees.

He is ready to measure his success not just by numbers, but by decibels and dallying.

"When the pools open, the more noise you hear from the pools the better," he says.

He adds: "We encourage loitering. We want people to sit on a bench like this. Our mission is to give people the opportunity to do nothing and feel good about it."

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