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Parks director candidates meet public

Tuesday, October 26, 2004 by

Struss, two others grilled by advocates

Advocates for Austin's park system met with the three finalists for the position of Director of the Parks and Recreation Department last night. The candidates include Acting Director Warren Struss, who took over when Jesus Olivares left to become City Manager of Eagle Pass, along with park directors from San Jose, California and Memphis, Tennessee. The three finalists were picked from a short list of six candidates, which had been selected from the 350 applicants for the position.

Although City Manager Toby Futrell will make the hiring decision, as she does with other city department heads, the public meeting allowed some of the park system’s chief users and supporters to pose questions to the finalists and provide feedback to the city. The city’s first Police Monitor went through a similar process as have some of Austin’s Police Chiefs.

Following an informal "meet-and-greet" session, the three candidates took turns addressing two separate groups in meeting rooms at the Palmer Special Events Center and answering their questions.

A 25-year veteran of the department, Struss addressed most of the audience members by name as he dealt with a series of questions about specific policies and projects ranging from operating hours at Deep Eddy Pool to the department's new soccer complex in southeast Austin. But Struss also got to address his broader vision for the future of the department.

"My vision is two fold…the first part of the vision is to protect and preserve the parkland for generations to come, and secondly to provide life-enhancing experiences for all the people of Austin," he said. "It's been an extremely difficult three years, financially and economically within the Parks Department and the rest of the city. The one thing that was most important in this last budget session was to position your parks and recreation department to be able to come out of the financial slide and move forward as the economics improve."

Struss was also asked about what he considered to be the benefits of promoting from within the department. "I feel that I have a good sense of community worth, I have a real strong sense of neighborhood values all the way through the city," he said. "I understand the nature of the communities and hopefully have a good sense of what each of our communities desire, and I think we can utilize that to improve each one of our neighborhoods."

The two outside candidates were also given ample opportunity to describe their philosophies and relate success stories from their careers. Both have connections to Austin. Wayne Boyer, who served as Director of Park Services in Memphis for eight years, has a son who lives in Austin with a grandchild on the way. Sara Hensley has been the Director of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services in San Jose since August of 2002. She previously worked in Austin as a program supervisor for PARD. Both cited Austin's nationwide reputation for the quality of its parks as another reason they were interested in the job.

Boyer, who served as Parks and Recreation Director in Davenport, Iowa for 19 years before his tenure in Memphis, touted his use of innovative public-private partnerships to help fund the operation of Memphis' diverse parks system. The operation of some key attractions, such as the city’s zoo, has been turned over to non-profit groups. "A group like that, their primary motive is to provide service…generally, they can do it better than we can do it," he said. While some audience members asked about the dangers of privatization, Boyer explained that his experiences in Memphis had involved outsourcing some functions to non-profit groups, not turning over core services to private for-profit companies.

Boyer also touched on his experience with two major areas of interest for parks’ users: trails and street trees. "We were working on a major project in Memphis," he said, "a 22-mile long trail system that goes from the Mississippi River across two other cities into another county. It's the second major trail system I've developed like that." He also explained how he had started urban forestry programs in both Memphis and Davenport.

Hensley pointed to the similarities between Austin and San Jose as she described her experience. Like Austin, she said San Jose had recently been forced to deal with budget cuts. She was able to find efficiencies, combining services with other departments and eliminate vacant positions. Also describing a community-based process for setting priorities, Hensley said, "We would strategically locate meetings across the city, so we could draw from the whole city. We culminated that information from local areas to a city-wide report." She added, "I find it more helpful to have public meetings and listen to people and talk to them one-on-one about issues."

Hensley said San Jose was dealing with two other issues familiar to Austinites. One neighborhood there had encountered an influx of coyotes, and solutions to the problem had to be carefully designed to appease both residents and animal-rights activists. She also said the community had an ongoing discussion about parking at park facilities, since parking spaces are at a premium in the city. "We are encouraging people to take the light rail; we are encouraging people to walk, but still people want to drive their cars," she said.

Asked about her three biggest goals should she take over the director's post in Austin, Hensley said, "The first thing is accreditation (with the National Recreation and Parks Association). It goes through and assesses your financial policies and procedures, your hiring policies and procedures, your asset management plan, your forestry, your programming, your training…It literally evaluates every single detail of your department," she said. "The other thing is continue to look at the city as a whole, and where the growth is, and make sure we're ahead of the curve for acquisition of land for future facilities. The other thing I would do is recommend a long-term reserve for the maintenance of the current facilities."

Struss and Boyer responded differently to the question of accreditation by the National Recreation and Parks Association. Struss said that he was interested in pursuing accreditation, while Boyer said he would need to review the time and cost associated with the accreditation process before making a decision.

Party chairs disagree over meaning of big vote

Travis County voters are responding like never before to the call of both Democrats and Republicans to let their voices be heard—during the early voting period, if possible. Last night, Travis County Clerk Dana de Beauvoir reported that 121,455 voters had cast ballots as of the close of business on the eighth day of early voting. That’s nearly 21 percent of the 584,250 registered voters in Travis County.

What motivates these voters and who are they voting for? Travis County Democratic Party Chair Chris Elliott thinks he knows the answer. "Unless I am completely misreading things, we're going to have a tremendous election for the Democrats," he said. Elliott predicted that Senator John Kerry would easily take Travis County. That’s not an unlikely scenario, considering that Al Gore would have won Travis County in 2000 but for the candidacy of Ralph Nader, who ran on the Green Party ticket. Nader won 10.3 percent of the vote four years ago but he is not on the Texas ballot this year. He appears as an Independent candidate on some other states' ballots and can be written in on the Texas ballot.

Elliott said he also expects Democratic challengers Mark Strama and Kelly White to oust incumbent State Representatives Jack Stick and Todd Baxter.

Elliott said polling data from Republican Stick's District 50 and Baxter's District 48 “shows that Bush and Kerry are neck-and-neck in those two districts. Countywide, Kerry has a substantial lead." Given those factors, he said, with the hot-button issue of redistricting, the Democrats have a good chance of ousting their opponents.

Asked to comment, Travis County Republican Party Chair Alan Sager responded via email: “As to Kerry carrying Travis, I am not sure. As to Strama and White, definitely not.” He did not elaborate on his predictions.

According to a story in yesterday’s Quorum Report, Stick's district is 53.9 percent Republican, but Democrat John Sharp, who ran for lieutenant governor in 2002 against David Dewhurst, won more than 52 percent of the vote in that district. Stick, on the other hand, defeated his opponent handily, carrying the district with close to 56 percent. Baxter, running in a considerably friendlier district for Republicans, defeated Ann Kitchen with 52 percent of the vote. She was the incumbent—but in a redrawn district that matched her against longtime Democratic Representative Elliott Naishtat. Kitchen moved in an effort to retain a seat in the Legislature.

That was before congressional redistricting distracted legislators—and the politically attuned Austin voter. With the many new voters and just a week to go until Election Day, neither race looks like a sure thing from here.

Texas Supreme Court says nothing . . . The Texas Supreme Court did not issue a ruling or set a time for oral arguments in the case involving use of corporate contributions by the Associated Republicans of Texas (ART). Last week, a Travis County judge froze ART’s corporate account based on a complaint filed by two Democratic candidates. They allege that ART is not in the category of political action committees allowed to collect and spend corporate money. ART’s attorney sought a mandamus to lift the injunction on Friday and attorneys for Bobby Glaze and David Liebowitz filed their response yesterday . . . Many meetings today . . . The City Council Audit and Finance Committee is scheduled to meet at 10:30am and the Council’s Committee on Telecommunication Infrastructure will meet at 3:30pm. Both groups will meet in Room 304 of City Hall . . . The Planning Commission will meet in Room 325 of One Texas Center . . . Fun and money . . . Democratic consultants Mark Nathan and Christian Archer have created a fun new game online at: The person who comes closest to guessing the exact number electoral votes collected by the two major presidential candidates and who also comes closest to predicting the exact percentage of votes John Kerry will receive in Texas can win $500. There’s one catch of course—if the winner predicts that President Bush is reelected, Archer-Nathan will give $500 to the Democratic Party in that person's name . . . Big luncheon at RECA . . . Regional development will be the topic of today's Real Estate Council of Austin luncheon. Mayors on the panel will include John Trube of Buda, Gary Nelon of Georgetown, John Cowman of Leander and Nyle Maxwell of Round Rock, along with Gary Farmer of the Greater Austin Economic Development Corp. The meeting will be at the Four Seasons at noon…. Historic ordinance slowed down . . . The revised historic preservation ordinance will go to City Council on November 18. Last night, the Historic Preservation Task Force approved Member John Donisi's recommendation for a revitalizing neighborhood historic preservation program. Donisi's proposal was patterned on a similar ordinance in Dallas. The task force is tentatively scheduled to meet one more time to review a draft of the task force's final recommendations . . . More in the pipeline . . . The historic pipeline is pumping again. Historic Preservation Officer Steve Sadowsky said that 13 historic landmark cases were on the way to commissions. A total of eight cases are going to the Planning Commission and five to the Zoning and Platting Commission, all of them owner initiated. Those cases are expected to end up before the Council on December 2 . . . Good news for homeowners… Rod Bordelon, Chief Counsel for the Office of Public Insurance Counsel told a joint legislative committee yesterday that home insurance premiums were likely to drop, once more, before the end of the year. That's because insurance carriers, at the current pace of premiums and claims, should see their most profitable year in the last 15 years… ACC news . . . More Central Texas high school graduates picked Austin Community College last fall than at any other college or university in Texas, according to a report from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and Texas Education Agency. ACC President Robert Aguero said, “Austin Community College offers quality instruction at an affordable price. The classes are smaller than most universities and our campuses are conveniently located near growing communities.” The study indicates that more than half of the students enrolled in Texas higher education in fall 2003 were attending a community college.

Copyright 2004 In Fact Daily

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