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Two women vie for job of Austin Parks director

Tuesday, August 26, 2008 by Mark Richardson

Council members and the public met the two finalists Monday for director of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department. The two women still in the running share amazingly similar backgrounds and philosophies. A third candidate dropped out of the race after his current employer gave him a promotion.


During a noon-hour called meeting, Council members heard from Cindy Curtis, the current Director of Parks and Recreation in Virginia Beach, Va., and Sara Hensley, Director of Parks and Recreation in Phoenix, Ariz.  Randle Harwood, former Acting Director of Parks and Community Services in Fort Worth took his name out of contention after he was offered a job as that city’s Director of Program Management.


Following a 90-minute meeting and Q-and-A session with Council members, the candidates met with the public at open meetings in the afternoon and evening at the Mexican American Cultural Center.


The two candidates have ties to each other and one has ties to Austin. Curtis and Hensley once worked together at the Virginia Beach PARD in the late 1990s, and Hensley worked for the City of Austin from 1985 to 1989 as director of the old Austin Recreation Center on Shoal Creek Blvd.


Curtis and Hensley also seem similar in the way they approach their work. Mayor Will Wynn asked each of them how they would maintain Austin PARD’s status as a national award winning department.


“I believe that workforce development is the key,” said Hensley. “To have a department that excels, you have to have people that excel. The only way to be a nationally recognized program is to have top-notch people. The best way to keep those people is to promote from within.”


Curtis said modernizing the department’s processes is her way to stay on top.


“I’m a Navy brat, and that mean’s I’ve traveled all over. And Austin is one of those city’s where its people make it a dynamic community,” she said. “I see some challenges here, especially on the technology front. I would institute more programs like the ability to register online for the city’s programs. I would also move forward on renovations of key facilities to keep them both relevant and safe.”


Both candidates said they are currently in situations where they are having to make some budget cuts because of their economy. Council Member Randi Shade asked how they approached handling organizational change.


“My first move is to take the pulse of the community,” said Hensley. “There are a lot of needs, but by listening to the community we realized what they wanted in the department. That was a guide for how to evaluate programs and focus the department on what the stakeholders wanted.” 


Curtis said her first step was to get a clear picture of where the organization was and where it needed to go.


“As much of a cliché as it is, we peeled back the layers of the organization to get a look at its core,” she said. “We needed to change the culture in order to meet the new mission. We were faced with a situation where as much as 30 percent of the organization could have retired within a year. And we did lose a few people who didn’t want to deal with the changes, but we ended up with a stronger organization.”


Both said that they believed that a city’s Parks Department should be at the table when economic development is being discussed. They also believed in a strong public input component to major decisions.


In Virginia Beach, a city of 425,000, Curtis currently handles a parks system with a budget of $52 million, managing 208 parks spread over 4,000 acres, with six community centers and six swimming pools. She has 24 years in Parks management with stops in Prince Williams County, Richmond and Virginia Beach in Virginia.


In Phoenix, a city of 1.3 million, Hensley manages a parks system with a budget of $110 million and 37,000 acres of parkland.  They city has 46 community parks, dozens of smaller, neighborhood parks, 10 lakes, 29 swimming pools and 265 miles of trails. She has worked in Austin, Champaign, Ill., Virginia Beach, Va., San Jose Calif., and in Phoenix.


By comparison,   Austin has an operating budget of $50.3 million, 545 full-time employees and 700 seasonal employees. The park system encompasses 16,700 acres and includes 205 parks, 172 athletic fields, 17 recreation centers, 3 area lakes, 4 museums and more than 117 miles of hiking and bicycle trails.


Assistant City Manager Bert Lumbreras told Council members that the finalists were chosen from a group of 12 following a national search. He said each candidate had already gone through a strenuous interview by a team of experts to determine finalists who match the criteria Austin has for a director.


“My goal is to make the decision very difficult,” for City Manager Marc Ott,  he said, “and I believe we have.”

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