Field Day

Under Bob Lanier and director Bill Smith, the city's Parks Department has been on a budget-busting blowout. But who's counting, right?

The clouds over Moody Park made the midday ceremony more bearable than the average outdoor summer function. Barely breaking a sweat, Mayor Bob Lanier and wife Elyse arrived all agrin and ascended a set of portable steps to take their usual front-row seats on-stage with the other designated celebrities. Sticking to a script as tightly choreographed as a Ronald Reagan press briefing, all read their prepared speeches about the park's grand reopening and posed for the two official photographs that would commemorate the event.

For someone who prefers a low, if not invisible, public profile, Parks and Recreation director Bill Smith was surprisingly animated. He even deviated from the speech penned by one of the many marketing specialists in his department, credited everyone he could credit and thanked everyone he could thank, and though the bespectacled Smith spoke in somewhat of a dull monotone, his point was clear -- the city had spent $2 million to overhaul Moody's ball fields, walking trails, paving and lighting, and today was the glorious unveiling.

Well, actually, more than $2.5 million, when the generous, no-bid design contract with architectural firm Clark Condon and Associates is included. But, to pose a question considered many times since Smith took office, who's counting?

Inarguably, the city's Parks and Recreation Department has come a long way since Lanier took office in 1992. Prior to his arrival, a succession of mayors for whom parks were an afterthought had squeezed the budget dry, leaving little funding for basic necessities like maintenance. Lanier placed the revitalization of the city's parks near the top of his agenda, increasing the department's budget by more than 63 percent, reinstating bond money that had been diverted elsewhere and launching ambitious recreation and redevelopment programs.

And the parks are better for it. A long-neglected symbol of the city's indifference in the heart of the near north-side barrio, Moody Park was once a veritable war zone better known for drug dealing and the infamous 1978 riot on its grounds. Now it stands as a testimonial to changed priorities, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool and other amenities still to come.

But beneath the Parks Department's shiny new exterior -- carefully packaged and sold by its 50-strong marketing staff -- there's a darker side that hearkens back to the less glorious past, when its dealings were often just a revelation away from scandal. It's a department that has dramatically exceeded its budget since 1993, where fiscal restraint has been replaced by a desire to get things done quickly -- no matter the cost; where friends and associates are rewarded with jobs and contracts; where arrogance has bred carelessness about the rules; and where people who speak out about their bending or breaking are threatened or punished for their disloyalty.

The Press interviewed more than 25 current and former Parks employees for this story, as well as a number of others who have done business with the department. Most would not go on the record, citing fear of reprisal. "A lot of us are afraid to say anything because of retaliation," says one employee with more than ten years on the payroll. "Morale is at an all-time low."

Bill Smith himself refused repeated requests for an interview, instead designating spokeswoman Susan Christian to respond to questions about him and his department. At one point, the Press faxed Smith a list of allegations that should have taken half an hour to answer. Eight hours later, Christian faxed back a terse, carefully crafted single sheet of replies. The excessive caution about the director apparently runs so deep that a Press request for a copy of Smith's Moody Park speech was never honored -- even though the event had already passed.

To a great extent, the Parks Department reflects the personality of Bill Smith, a political appointee whose primary responsibility is to execute the orders of Lanier and Jimmie Schindewolf, Smith's former boss in the Public Works and Engineering Department. In exchange, he's given free rein to run the parks the way a former director of the Houston Contractors Association and Public Works yes-man knows how. "He just isn't a parks man," says a former member of the Parks Board, the nonprofit adjunct to the department that serves as a bank for various projects. "He's a contractor. He knows sidewalks and concrete and mowing."

In fact, the department looks more like a subsidiary of Public Works these days than its own entity. Sara Culbreth, who now oversees the department's budget and finances, was shifted from Public Works late last year. Two recent hires in Smith's own office, Mike Huddle and Brandi Smith (no relation), likewise came from Public Works, and are still being paid by their old department. "We're just an extension of Public Works," says one executive staffer.

And that, says the staffer, defines Bill Smith's role with the Parks Department: "Answering to the mayor and Schindewolf is a full-time job."

Back in the late 1970s and early '80s, when the Parks Department's finances were a mess and dead people were on the payroll, the department had a reputation as a dumping ground for political hacks and others deemed deserving of being put out to pasture. To this day, finding people who agree on the details -- especially the roots of the problems -- is as difficult as locating anyone who admits they were actually part of it. But former employee Steve Brooks, who now works for a transportation consulting firm in Virginia, confirms the basic fact that kept the department moribund. "There seemed to be a lot of deadwood because of political appointments," Brooks says.

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