The inner workings of local government are foreign to the masses. While city councils and county commissioners make the big decisions that turn into headlines, it’s left to anonymous worker bees to implement directives and carry on the day-to-day, nuts-and-bolts business of running the machine. Most of these lower-level agency bureaucrats, contrary to popular belief, are a hard-working, honest lot trying to do good work for relatively low pay–often while being obstructed by their politically hypersensitive or inept bosses.
So when dissecting the dubious achievements of Durham’s embattled municipal sector, the names of the perps on the ground don’t really matter. With a dysfunctional system geared to failure, it’s remarkable that the hands-on workers can accomplish anything at all. Durham’s mismanagement of its parks provides yet another classic case study.
The city’s ill-conceived attempt to sell off Erwin Field to Duke University stands as one of the more boneheaded ideas in Durham’s checkered annals of governance. The field, used heavily by area soccer teams and other recreational groups, is surrounded by Duke property and is part of the university’s long-range master plan. At some point earlier this year, Duke reached an agreement with the city to buy the field for $500,000. In exchange, Duke would “share” the field with the townies for two years, at which point a new field would be ready to accommodate the displaced ballers.
The deal sounded good to the folks in Durham’s property and facilities management department, who are responsible for developing and maintaining the city’s parks. After all, they reasoned, half a million was twice the assessed value of the property, and alternative fields were available on paper.
That makes sense, if you live in a bubble on another planet. Durham lags badly behind other cities in the region when it comes to recreational facilities, and the few sports fields they have are over-taxed and poorly maintained. Construction of new fields, such as the C.M. Herndon Park near Southpoint, have been delayed for years and won’t come close to covering demand even when they’re ready.
It’s also no mystery that available (and affordable) land in the nation’s inner cities is increasingly difficult to find. With every large and mid-size city under the sun struggling to locate suitable sites for new parks, the idea of selling an established park seems numbingly short-sighted.
If someone in property and facilities management saw the deal as reasonable from a real-estate perspective, someone further up the food chain should have balanced that with more important considerations–the replacement cost of Erwin Field, for example, which dwarfs its assessed value. A close look at whether alternatives would be ready in time, or whether other fields would be close enough to Erwin to serve the citizens who use it, should have killed the proposal on the spot.
The parks and recreation department, which programs but does not maintain parks, was asked to develop options for Erwin Field, including the possibility of keeping it. Whether the department issued a recommendation is unclear: Reaching anyone at parks and rec by phone these days is a challenge, and tracking how decisions are made can consume a natural lifetime. Regardless, the matter eventually filtered to the top brass, assistant city manager Sharon Laisure and her boss, Marcia Conner. Let’s sell it, they said.
Missing in the deliberations was any meaningful input from the people who use the park. George Dubay, who heads the Durham-Chapel Hill Strikers recreational soccer team and is a member of the Durham Recreational Advisory Committee, heard about the plan by email from a concerned citizen. At a city council work session, he pointed out that the proposed sale had never come before the committee, which is supposed to be apprised of just such plans. A parks staffer claimed otherwise, citing the meeting date. Yes, Dubay responded, he himself had raised the question at that meeting after hearing a rumor about the sale, but had been assured by a parks official that the deal was off the table.
The council members were apparently clueless about the proposal or its implications. Though they rejected the sale of Erwin Field–for now, at least–after dozens of well-armed residents dismembered the plan, the result left more questions than it answered. How did the idea ever advance that far in the first place? What if the Erwin supporters hadn’t mobilized in time? And why were they not consulted? “I think at the very least, with a park like that one, there should have been public discussion,” says council member Lewis Cheek.
Just add those to the litany of questions about city parks that have been raised since passage of the 1996 bond referendum, which included more than $20 million for improvements to the system. Many residents concerned with the sorry state of their neighborhood parks received assurances before the vote that repair and maintenance of their facilities would be a priority; seven years later, most are still waiting even though the money has been spent or committed to other projects. Parks that did benefit from bond funds have suffered from a lack of maintenance and fallen back into disrepair. Mismanaged projects shot over budget and continue to consume city resources that must be diverted from other needs.
The parks and recreation department recently unveiled the draft of its facilities master plan, which identified more than $60 million in upgrades that are needed now and in the immediate future. With no money on hand to pay for the improvements, the city will have to ask the public to approve another bond referendum.
The preliminary message delivered to council members at a recent public comment session on the master plan was simple: Until the city shows it can take care of the parks it already has, support for a bond referendum will be a tough sell. A representative of the Duke Park Neighborhood Association delivered an analysis of the master plan that summed up the skepticism that has become ubiquitous when Durham’s parks are discussed: “We are concerned over the management of funds from the 1996 parks bond, and have reservations about whether funds from any new bonds will be managed in a more effective manner.”
It’s not hard to understand the frustrations of Duke Park residents. Verbal promises to invest $800,000 in improvements were never met and have now been cut in half; ancient playground equipment resembling Stonehenge artifacts sits unused throughout the park; an abandoned swimming pool and condemned bath house pose safety hazards to neighborhood kids. The lack of action contrasts with the efforts of the neighborhood homeowners, who have met numerous times with parks personnel to no avail.
Typically, city officials have dismissed the delays, cost overruns and other breakdowns as due to forces beyond their control. But sources in city government offer other explanations. For example, the lack of coordination between parks and rec and the property and facilities management department (recently renamed general services) has led directly to the horrendous maintenance backlog, which is acknowledged in the parks master plan: “The current relationship between [the two agencies]…is currently not working out well for staff or citizens.”
Severe staff shortages and managerial incompetence add to the problem. So does high staff turnover–the parks and recreation department has burned through two directors since Marcia Conner arrived and will eventually replace the current interim chief, and that doesn’t include the dozens of key staff members who have left or transferred–from parks and other departments–in recent years.
None of these factors are beyond control, presuming those in positions of authority are capable of wielding it. Blaming Conner is easy and, to some extent, justified. But it’s time that the city council accept some responsibility for Durham’s inability to effectively manage its affairs. Having hamstrung Conner’s ability to conduct the city’s business in the wake of her contracting excesses, council members are too overwhelmed by their micromanagement duties and lack a working grasp of complex issues. Mayor Bill Bell and the council should either let Conner try and do her job or cut her loose. Until that happens, the community can only wait helplessly for the next grim revelations.
Contact Burtman at burtman@indyweek. com