Search launched for parks official; Administration team criticizes Overton; he'll try to keep job


With the City Council and mayoral advisers deeply divided over whether Thomas Overton should remain head of the Recreation and Parks Department, the city has launched a national search for someone to fill the post.

Overton, a 28-year department veteran who has been recreation and parks director since 1997, is welcome to reapply for the job overseeing the city's 6,500 acres of parkland, 421 parks and a $20 million annual budget, said Mayor Martin O'Malley. The deadline for applications is April 14.

Overton defended his record and said he will try to keep his $87,600-a-year post. "We're going in the right direction, and there's more programming than ever," he said.

City Council President Sheila Dixon and a majority of council members have voiced support for Overton's reappointment. Fifteen members of the 19-member council signed a letter circulated by 2nd District Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young urging O'Malley to reinstate Overton.

However, the mayor's 13-member transition team issued a scathing report on Overton's record in January, calling for "a new director -- a stewardship leader and a creative and efficient manager" who mirrors O'Malley's energy.

This marks the first time the council is openly at odds with the transition committee, which O'Malley picked to help fill his Cabinet. Should the mayor heed his advisers, Overton will join Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, public works Director George G. Balog and Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III as agency heads from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's administration whom O'Malley has replaced.

O'Malley will only say that Overton is a "nice man and dedicated department head" who had fared well under "trying circumstances" when his department was "whacked" fiscally.

Overton's critics and defenders agree: He was forced to make do with much less. But some say he could have fought harder against the cuts.

Dwindling budget

When Schmoke took office in 1987, the department's budget was $35.1 million. The current budget is slightly less than $20 million, and has more demands placed on it because O'Malley recently closed nine of 32 Police Athletic League centers. The centers had provided activities for hundreds of city children, reducing the demand upon park and recreation resources.

Overton said the agency faced more than $5 million in cuts since he took over. In his first budget, released this week, O'Malley included an extra $500,000 for the department. "We're back on our feet, coming together as a team," Overton said.

Overton said he is particularly proud of reviving the city's playground program at 12 sites and a "safe aquatics program" at 23 city swimming pools.

Several members of the transition team said they were unimpressed by a presentation Overton made to them outlining his vision for the city's parkland. Members said Overton spent an undue amount of time discussing pet programs and a new dog water fountain.

"The mayor brought a great crucible of hope, and what we heard [from Overton] was not an articulated vision matching existing resources to a future strategy. We need an innovative, effective director," said advisory committee co-Chairman Selwyn Ray, deputy director of the Safe and Sound Campaign youth service.

The advisory committee also said that years of budget cuts and weak management cost the department "the trust of communities."

Others close to the department faulted Overton for failing to instill a sense of enthusiasm and mission internally or externally, though millions of dollars were cut from the parks budget during his tenure. The reductions occurred as several agency functions, such as park maintenance and forestry, were transferred to public works and the Police Athletic League.

Overton said he "greatly" disagreed with the committee's conclusions about his record. "The [transition team] report failed to give specific reasons" for its recommendations.

The volunteer chairman of the recreation and parks board, Lloyd Michner, said Overton deserves more time to prove himself. "He's very hard-working and has a nice rapport. The budget was cut to bare bones. Some people think all problems can be solved if they replace the leader."

A Baltimore native, Overton, 52, started as a playground volunteer and rose through the ranks, despite a "promotional practices" lawsuit he filed against the city a decade ago. The suit was settled for $30,000. He and his wife, Kay, live in a house on city parkland near Perring Parkway. Kay Overton also works for the recreation bureau, managing the Myers Soccer Pavilion.

Several onlookers said Overton has been lobbying vigorously to keep his post. A number of senior citizens, perhaps his most vocalsupporters, are letting their representatives know they want Overton to stay.

'He's tuned in'

At a recent lunch with 500 seniors, 1st District CouncilmanNicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. led a chant supporting Overton. After the luncheon, 5th District Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector said, "He's tuned in, responsive to communities."

While most City Council members publicly back Overton, Dixon, 3rd District Councilman Robert Curran and others acknowledged O'Malley's right to appoint his own staff. "We should allow the interview process to happen," said 5th District Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings, who has not openly backed Overton.

Curran said the search, advertised in a professional journal, is creating a stir outside the city and might attract strong candidates. "That's good that Baltimore's getting attention and new energy," he said. "That's the O'Malley spark."

Advisory committee co-Chairwoman Sally Michel, founder of the nonprofit Parks and People Foundation, also underscored the sense of a new era: "O'Malley has created great expectations of Baltimore, and that includes a great parks system. We need someone who matches the mayor's energy and expectations."

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