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Parks and Recreation director looks back on first year in office

Friday, December 4, 2009 by Josh Rosenblatt

It’s been one year since Sara Hensley came to Austin to take over as director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, and during that time she’s dealt with sickly trees, hybrid grass, errant dogs, shrinking budgets, the Austin City Limits Music Festival, 570 employees, 16,700 acres of parkland and trails, and the city’s famously engaged citizenry.

But Hensley was the parks director in four cities before coming to Austin, so she knew what was to expect. Plus, she knows the territory, having worked for Austin Parks and Recreation as a supervisor more than 20 years ago. “I always wanted to be in Austin,” she told In Fact Daily, “so this was a great opportunity to come back to what I call ‘home.’”

Looking back at 2009, Hensley sees it as a “crazy, fact-finding year, where we‘ve been figuring out what we have and what we do and how we do it.” Her first goal was getting the department’s budget, contracts, and legal obligations in order, a task that led her to the realization that rights to the new boathouse on Lady Bird Lake (a result of the demands of the upcoming Waller Creek Tunnel project) couldn’t simply be handed over to the current boathouse’s tenants, the Austin Rowing Club, but needed to be established through more bureaucratic, legislative channels.

“We in the department have things that we should have been reviewing on a yearly basis,” Hensley said, “like the boathouse, which is why we’re doing a Request for Proposal. We had an agreement since 1981 for the Austin Rowing Club to use the site, which is on park land. But the agreement was supposed to be year to year, so after all this time, as we were looking at it and getting ready to do the brand-new building, because of the watershed program that’s coming in, I read it and said, ‘We can’t just hand this over to another group. We really need to do a request for proposal.’ And as we did that we started looking at other contracts that we needed to be keeping up with. Our contracts are really something that we’ve been looking into and getting on top of.”

Of course when traditions (like the Rowing Club) get shaken up, citizens come out to air their grievances. That is why Hensley’s second goal has been to increase departmental transparency, so that members of the community know exactly what is happening and why and what they can do to be involved.

It’s an approach that has served her well, particularly when dealing with the ailing trees at Zilker Park. When the department, along with arborists, determined that some 30 trees around the springs were sick enough to pose a danger to park goers, concerned citizens stepped in to protest their being cut down, and Hensley encouraged their involvement.

“We wanted input from the community,” she said, “and so we walked through the park with arborists and members of the parks and environmental boards and concerned citizens, and we went tree by tree and determined which trees needed to come down and which could be saved. And it turns out we didn’t have to cut down as many trees as we originally thought. And so we saved trees, plus we made new friends and established a dialogue. And from the meetings we’ve had with citizens’ groups, we’ve been developing a tree maintenance plan, and money has been donated, and the community feels involved.

“Out of contention comes good things, like the good trees do to eliminate pollution.”

Hensley also took over responsibility for the nearly year-long renovation of Zilker Park’s “Great Lawn,” which reopened Aug. 21 with high-quality hybrid grass paid for by C3 Presents, the producers of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Of course ACL festival goers turned the lawn into an enormous morass of mud a month later, but the renovation efforts will, in the long run, allow for more sustainable use.

But, according to Hensley, those kinds of setbacks are par for the course in a city as big and as park-friendly and as involved as Austin. For example, there were inevitably going to be problems between pet-owners who want a dog park at Bull Creek and neighborhood residents concerned about the beauty of the park and environmentalists worried about watershed protection and city scientists concerned with potable water and levels of bacteria. Passionate citizens, Hensley believes, are part of the solution to the problems and challenges facing Austin’s parks.

“What keeps me going is the great public I work with,” Hensley said. “Even when an issue was controversial – whether it was the trees in Barton Springs, issues around the trail of lights, or the boathouse – it has been evident to me that the community cares, that they will step up to help you if you ask for it. And even if you disagree on something, the truth of the matter is that they actually care. In a lot of cities across the country there’s not that kind of involvement and participation from citizens. I like to have citizen involvement because they’re willing to put their energy and their money where their mouth is and help us get things accomplished.”

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