When Jessica Leys walked into the interview in the fall of 2019 she was hoping to take a recreation administrator job in the Anne Arundel Recreation and Parks Department.
After more than two decades in county government — the last 15 in the Budget Office —Leys wanted a change of pace. A physically active person in her personal life, she sought to channel her energy and enthusiasm toward a job that would keep her outdoors rather than behind a desk.
“It’s one thing to sit behind the spreadsheets and build budgets and make policy decisions, versus being out in the field and serving the public on the front line,” Leys said.
Little did she know, one of Leys’ interviewers, Rick Anthony, longtime rec and parks director, was actually considering her for a much higher position: Anthony’s deputy director. Anthony was impressed with her grasp of county government and the rec and parks department and thought she could be more than an administrator.
“I knew if I wanted to continue the legacy of the department, I needed to find my successor,” he said. “She brought a skill set that was missing and she complemented my skills. I joke that she was always a deputy director but was disguising herself as a budget officer.”
A year and a half after she was hired to be Anthony’s second in command, Leys officially took over as director Saturday.
Anthony retired last month after 11 years on the job.
Over the last 14 months, the department has had to shuffle staff and resources to meet demand. Now, as the pandemic slowly subsides, Leys sees her role as continuing to provide as many services as possible heading into the summer months. Leys’ years in the Budget Office could prove invaluable during this budget period and beyond as the county begins to look at how to best respond to residents’ needs post-COVID.
On Friday, County Executive Steuart Pittman submitted his fiscal 2022 budget, which includes $28 million for rec and parks in operating expenses — a 1.6% increase over last year — and $47.4 million in capital projects.
The budget includes improvements to more than two dozen parks, trails, courts and fields in the next fiscal year.
“We are trying to take care of what we already owned,” Leys said. “Before we spend money on building new things — we’ve got 150 parks that the county owns — and we need to make sure that we have adequate money to maintain and hold those parks to a certain standard.”
Leys said her priorities include improving the county’s existing park infrastructure and continuing to meet that increased demand. She is taking a “do more with less” approach to her department’s budget and is considering keeping fees flat this year while reorganizing staff without increasing costs.
“All of our programs will evolve to meet the needs of the public at their comfort level,” Leys said. “By offering those alternatives that maybe in the past weren’t offered because of the cost or because of the participation that now today we’re able to balance having more opportunities to allow residents to decide what they’re most comfortable doing.”
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Part of balancing that continued demand for services and managing the stress those needs have on her department’s resources will be constant communication with her staff. She sees the “open door” policy between management and employees that was established during Anthony’s tenure as playing a critical role.
“I want employees to feel comfortable and confident that talking to me is the right thing to do,” Leys said. “I want to be able to be approachable and I think that I have that personality to go out into the field and engage with the employees from the ground level all the way up.”
Leys is the first woman to lead the Recreation and Parks Department. But, in some ways, she has been doing the job for more than a year.
A few months after she was named deputy, Anthony went out on medical leave and Leys stepped into his role for nine months while he was away. She described the experience as “being thrown into the fire.”
In March, COVID-19 reached the county, upending life as large swaths of the county were closed to prevent the spread of the virus. Quickly the county’s parks system became an essential outlet for residents eager to escape their homes after being cooped up under government-imposed restrictions. Public participation in all areas of recreation, from parks, walking, biking, hiking, sports programs and more, skyrocketed — a 200% increase, Leys estimated.
Those early months of the pandemic were “an eye-opener” to just how much residents rely on her department. It also provided a convenient, albeit unexpected, way to learn the ropes of the job she now holds.
“The pandemic validated our importance,” she said. “A lot of people joked that I was going to the ‘Department of Fun’ ... but it ended up that rec and parks is one of the most critical and essential departments during the pandemic so I’ve been fortunate enough to learn a lot in the last year.”