Death puts focus on pared-down parks department

May 13, 2006|By ROB KASPER

If any good can emerge from the aftermath of the tragic death of Deanna Green, the 14-year-old girl who was electrocuted at a softball field in Druid Hill Park, I hope it would be an increased emphasis on park maintenance.

The explanation city parks director Connie A. Brown put forth in a news conference this week that a freakish combination of circumstances led to the accident seems plausible. He said that the tip of metal fence post tapped into an underground cable, sending a lethal dose of electricity into the softball player when she simultaneously touched two metal fences along the sidelines.

Preliminary tests of other ball-field fences in city parks have found none that was electrified, Brown said. Late this week, the city announced that a contractor would survey city parks looking for any underground cables installed near metal fences.

But I also view this tragic incident against a background of a parks department that over the years has endured budget cuts and shrinking staff. There has been turnover at the top. Brown is the fourth person to head the parks department in the last 6 1/2 years. Staff levels have taken hits as well. Last year, Brown told The Sun's Eric Siegel that his biggest challenges are managing an agency with a quarter of the number of employees it had 25 years ago and overcoming years of underfunding.

The tide has turned somewhat recently as city budget surpluses have resulted in more money going to parks. Unlike some summers when the grass in the city parks was as high as an elephant's eye, lately the parks have been looking good.

Still, the effects of the years of contraction linger, as was apparent this week when officials had to track down a retired parks department employee to learn how the fence at the Druid Hill field was built. Moreover, as the official explanation of who was responsible for wiring the parks wound its way from department to department, I got the impression that parks ranks low on the municipal totem pole, that it had too few people burdened with too many responsibilities.

Deanna Green was, judging by what her parents told The Sun's Brent Jones, an exceptional young woman. She was a talented singer, a good student and an athlete. I did not know her. But I am familiar with Field No. 8, where her church softball team was playing when the accident occurred. From my vantage point in a nearby community vegetable garden, I have watched many softball games played on that field. In other seasons I have seen that field, and its adjacent piece of ground, play host to football players young and old, rugby players male and female, golfers working on their short game, and to some painfully loud music festivals. It has, in other words, represented the best of what a park can be - a shared civic space.

A few years ago, Field No. 8 also served as an impromptu batting practice spot for one of my sons. On idle summer afternoons I pitched many a fastball to him there, retrieved many a fly ball that landed in the "short porch" of its left-field woods, and bounced many foul balls off those sideline fences.

So like many people around Baltimore, I am shaking my head with disbelief at the random, unfair nature of Deanna Green's passing, and my heart goes out to her family.

I hope that in the wake of this sad event, the proper steps are taken to ensure that it cannot be repeated. Our parks after all should be safe and welcoming places, a community's common ground.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

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