Park complaints rev PR machine

Ehrlich aides' e-mails document worsening conditions, shed light on workings of inner circle

October 06, 2005|By DAVID NITKIN AND GREG BARRETT | DAVID NITKIN AND GREG BARRETT,SUN REPORTERS

OAKLAND -- Enticed by commercials featuring a folksy governor extolling the pleasures of a day off in Maryland, Pennsylvanian Dave Paterson visited a Garrett County waterfall last summer but was disgusted by the trash he found at Swallow Falls State Park.

"Your governor has been advertising big in the Pittsburgh area, where we are from. The catch is his family just shows up at someone's home ... and sends the common folk out to vacation in Maryland while his family does the chores," Paterson wrote in a blistering message to a state parks superintendent. "He needs to spend some time in his own area to clean up! I wish he could get a copy of my e-mail, but I'm sure he won't."

It is unclear whether Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. read the comments, but his top aides did - and jumped into action. Paterson's e-mail launched a chain of responses, provided to The Sun, in which high-ranking administration officials acknowledge a growing number of complaints about the condition of state parks.

Years of budget and staff reductions have led to maintenance problems and reduced services, the e-mails and interviews show.

The e-mails also provide a rare glimpse of the thinking of Ehrlich's inner circle and show how top staffers worked to turn Paterson's complaints into a series of public relations opportunities for the governor - while also arranging to clean the park.

Ideas ranged from persuading workers to spend their own time on a "volunteer" cleanup day to having Ehrlich appear at Swallow Falls at an event coordinated by the governor's promotions squad. Paul E. Schurick, the Ehrlich communications director, who was participating in the e-mail exchange, called the employee volunteer cleanup idea a "PR stunt" in one message.

Two weeks after sending the e-mail, Paterson said he received a gift basket from the governor's office and free Maryland state park passes for a year. A few days later, Ehrlich called him personally - promising him that the park would be cleaned. Interviews with parks officials show it was.

"I understand there has been 180-degree turnaround, just like the governor promised me. He kept his word," said Paterson, 48, a manager with a heating and air-conditioning company. "In my book, he's OK."

The governor also visited Swallow Falls a few weeks later, delivering a check for nearly $1 million to Garrett County while standing on a platform overlooking one of the park's waterfalls. The event received extensive news coverage in Western Maryland.

But wider problems with the state parks system cannot be addressed as promptly, state officials and parks advocates say.

The parks division within the state Department of Natural Resources has experienced 15 years of budget reductions, and its staffing has dropped from 383 people to 203, including the transfer of 100 park ranger positions to the natural resources police force, said Col. Rick Barton, superintendent of Maryland's 49 state parks and forests and a 28-year veteran of the agency. The former rangers still help enforce laws at the park but no longer guide visitors or perform maintenance, Barton said.

"We've been struggling to replace these multitask people. There is a gap, but we will overcome it," he said. "We're understaffed, but we're not complaining about it. It is what it is."

Barton lists his e-mail address, tellrickbarton@dnr.state.md.us, on posters at state parks, and that's where Paterson sent his message July 7.

Four days later, the superintendent forwarded it to Dennis M. Castleman, director of the state tourism office, who has overseen the ad campaign in which the governor asks families to "Seize the Day Off" with a day trip in Maryland - a campaign credited with driving up tourism numbers in the state, including parks visits.

Barton said he agreed with concerns raised by the Pittsburgh resident about the fairness of fees charged at Maryland parks and told Castleman he was "available to discuss ... ideas to improve the efficiency and service at state parks."

Castleman forwarded the message to Edward B. Miller, a deputy chief of staff to Ehrlich with responsibility for the natural resources departments. "I fear we are facing issues at our state parks. I'm seeing way too many complaints," Castleman wrote, in an acknowledgement about state management problems that the Ehrlich administration almost never makes in public.

Castleman listed four complaints. "1. Charging for entrance to our parks. 2. Charging out of state visitors more. 3. Cleanliness of parks. 4. Competition (Surrounding states) are spending more to upgrade parks and facilities."

With tourism on the rise, Castleman said, "we need to look at the park system."

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