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‘On the right track’

City’s parks director gets high marks for fixing problems

(Published January 28, 2002)

By SAM STRIKE

Special to The Common Denominator


Neil Albert, who took over as director of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation when his predecessor was forced out in November 2000, works with young campers last summer at his department's Camp Riverview. Albert is getting praise for working with the community in general to fix many of his department's internal problems that have frustrated city taxpayers for years.

For 10 years there had been two retaining walls that were splitting on the property behind the Edgewood Recreation Center in Northeast Washington. There was no equipment in what was supposed to be a playground in recent history, and everything that was supposed to be inside the rec center had been stolen.

Debbie Smith, president of the Edgewood Civic Association, said she complained to D.C. officials for years, but the community never saw any response.

Then she met Neil Albert, the current director of the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

When Albert took the director’s position in 2000, the two sat down to talk and Smith explained the recreation issues in Edgewood. Within a day or two of their meeting, Smith said the issues were resolved.

"He has really come through," Smith said of Albert.

The walls are no longer splitting, there is a fully functioning playground area and the recreation center got a new refrigerator, computer, games, TV and a microwave. Albert even made sure before putting them inside that the building was secure, Smith said.

Such swift action did not happen under the department’s previous directors, Smith said.

When Albert, 41, left his position as deputy director to replace Robert Newman, who resigned his position in November 2000, the department "was in a difficult way," said City Councilman Kevin Chavous, D-Ward 7, who chairs the recreation oversight committee.

"Grass was not being cut, pools were not open … the community got sick of it, and rightly so," Albert said.

In 1999 Albert was hired as the department’s deputy director under Newman, with whom he had worked in the New York City government.

Albert was born in Guyana, a country in South America, and he attended elementary and high school there before moving to New York with his family. There he attended the New York Institute of Technology and earned a degree in accounting and finance.

His first experience working in government was for the New York Department of Youth Services, where he eventually became the chief financial officer of the agency, which was three times the size of the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), he said.

Like DPR, that agency was not in good shape when he arrived, Albert said. There were major complaints regarding the financial services, and one of the first things he did was to evaluate the agency’s personnel and institute reforms to make the staff sensitive to the communities they served, he said.

Another major problem in the department was the lack of technology. While he did end up instituting the use of diskettes (there was no e-mail), it was not good enough, Albert said. They then bought modems and connected some of the nonprofit organizations -- a pilot group for the exchange of information.

He then worked at the Fund for the City of New York, where he did what he described as "capacity building" in the government and nonprofit organizations -- increasing the capacity of loan programs. He left after one year, but in that time worked to bring technology to nonprofits so they could serve their communities better. He provided training for a case tracking system for the city of New York. He said he is most proud, however, of his work in providing computer training for the homeless.

When he came to work in the District, Albert said he had to get used to working on a smaller scale.

As he did in New York, in 2000 Albert took charge of an agency that hardly had any computer support systems in place, meaning no server that would connect all of the computers in the department and no running programs on the few computers they had, Albert said.

The future success of the department hinged on many things, he said -- one being the capability of efficient electronic patron tracking, as well as maintenance and feet management.

So the department bought a server and gave computer access to 400 employees (there are more than 600 people in the department). Albert also immediately looked at the employees in the department, making a lot of promotions, but also weeding out those who had "retired on the job," he said.

"There are a lot of people in [the department] who don't have the same level of attention to detail as Albert, and unless they change, they have to go," said Councilman Adrian Fenty, D-Ward 4.

Fenty said he says such things "aloud so Albert has the leverage to make the changes."

Albert said he is trying to "professionalize" the staff members, whose average age is 53, by providing various training and development.

"I just came to the agency. … To be successful, I have to empower those who have been here longer," he said.

Bob King, special assistant for community affairs, said that among many internal changes, Albert has brought "maintenance and program people together to develop one artery for the flow of information ... to better understand the mission."

While the mission of the department is not simply to get the grass cut and the pools open on time, those are the visible signs that D.C. residents are beginning to see under Albert’s reign.

Albert "has the insight to change the infrastructure and see issues at the administrative level, and because of that the grass is getting cut," Smith said.

Albert said that he knew if a grass-cutting contract was not in place by December, they would not starting cutting in April. So he set that contract as a priority, and in April 2001 the grass was cut in the first week of the month -- the earliest it had been done in six years, he said.

"Taxpayers’ money is being spent on things they can actually see," Smith said.

As of the end of October 2001, Albert had signed off on a grass-cutting contract for the upcoming spring.

"While we made a good step last year, we need to take it to the next level," Albert said. For example, start providing landscaping beyond grass-cutting, making sure that capital projects are completed on time, and renewing public areas like Watts Branch Park in Ward 7.

"I dream of the day when I drive down 16th Street with beautiful shrubbery lining the median," Albert said.

But Albert and the department have many more pressing problems to address before being able to maintain beautiful shrubbery.

He needs to "get a handle on the maintenance issue…and aggressively upgrade programs," that will interest kids and teenagers, Chavous said.

Albert said he heard many complaints about the lack of quality of the city’s summer programs. In past years they had been hastily planned, so he again started planning in November 2000 for the summer of 2001.

The food and supplies had arrived on time, and the quality of instruction improved, he said, due to two-week training of summer program employees instead of the two-hour training that they would have normally received.

As of November 2001, they have not heard any complaints about the program, Albert said.

In fact, complaints in general have declined, "simply because we’re doing our job. People will give you a break if they know you’re doing your job," Albert said.

There are many people across the District, like Smith, who call the department often, and all interviewed for this article said that Albert has been attentive and responsive to them -- except for Mary Baird Currie, ANC 5A06 commissioner in Brookland.

Currie said she has been requesting a meeting with Albert a year now regarding the planned new Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in Northeast Washington.

The proposed recreation center, which will include a swimming pool and gymnasium, has already been funded and designed. The site, located between Michigan Avenue, 10th Street and Shepherd Street NE, will also have a new ground design, she said.

Construction on the lot was supposed to start before Newman left, and Currie said she expected a slight setback because of the change in the department. But "people, after three years, are asking serious questions" about the future of Turkey Thicket, she said. She said that her experience working with the department has been "a promise of a date that has not materialized."

She said that it is the Office of Planning's procedures that are holding the project up, but that they need to coordinate with the Department of Parks and Recreation.

"There’s a knot in the bureaucracy, and I want to know what it is," she said.

She said they want a meeting with Albert so he can tell them where they are in the process and so that they can hold him accountable for it.

"My staff has been involved with that community every step of the way," Albert said in response. He said that it is the Office of Property Management that is managing the project, not his department.

"I feel her frustrations," Albert said.

Smith has lived in Edgewood for more than 40 years, and she said in the last 10 years they have not been getting many services from the department. Unlike in the past, reports and are being documented and tracked, she said.

"Now I have only one person to go to and the issues are solved, and I’m given a response in a timely manner," Smith said. She can call King and he will get back to her the same day, she said.

"A lot of people in this town have been involved in recreation for many years...it's very important to listen to them and be willing to address them," King said.

Around this time last year, Albert said, he was extremely disappointed in what he saw; but this year he has been pleased, especially regarding the interaction with the public.

"He works well with the community -- which should be a prerequisite with that job if it isn’t already," Fenty said.

King said he recently finished putting together two successful community meetings covering all of the wards, in which participants raised long-standing issues, questioned the status of particular projects and offered their congratulations to Albert.

He's in the process of responding to everyone who spoke at the meetings, King said.

"We got people now who say 'let us know when your budget meeting is and we’ll go down with you'...that's what happens when the community believes in you," King said.

But while the community at-large might appreciate the changes Albert has made so far, everyone knows that there is much more that needs to be done with the department.

"Now we’re on the right track, but still a long ways away" from an excellent parks and recreation department, Smith said.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator