Recommendation: Nine-month ‘grace’ period for an 11-member parks and rec commission

After Mayor Debe Hollingsworth expressed a desire for the Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Commission to be disbanded, the panel received a reprieve Wednesday afternoon from the city council’s public works committee, which voted unanimously to recommend that the commission be given a nine-month probationary period of sorts to show if it can satisfy its council-mandated requirements to the city.

The committee also voted to increase the size of the commission from five to 11 members.

The committee’s recommendation likely will be put before the full council in ordinance form at the council’s March 4 meeting. In addition to the nine-month assessment period, stipulations will include that parks and recreation payroll records will be turned over to the city’s human resources department and the commission will ensure that the parks and recreation department will implement a council-approved policy and procedure manual and its employees will be held accountable to guidance within the city workers’ handbook.

In the early moments of the meeting — attended by current commissioners Chris Blunt, Carson Fields, Jeff Pulliam and Abel White and former commissioner Tiki Hunt Jimenez — Hollingsworth asked that “personalities and people” be disregarded in discussions and for participants to “look only at numbers.”

That arrangement didn’t last long, however, as Blunt and Pulliam pointed fingers of blame toward Parks and Recreation Director Angela Parker for departmental woes, including a loss of $88,924.45 in a 2012 summer youth program. The program employed approximately 40 persons with salaries totaling $103,452 while taking in just $14,508 in payments from parents of 61 student clients.

Evelyn Horton, the mayor’s executive assistant, pointed out that the department went over its 2011 budget by approximately $50,000, a point referenced later by Hollingsworth when she initially protested Alderman Steven Mays’ recommendation for a grace period. Hollingsworth said she wanted to go on record as wanting the commission to become an advisory committee and parks and recreation to be a city department reporting directly to the mayor.

Noting the shortages of the past two years, the mayor asked, “If that’s not enough to show that there’s a problem, what will be? How long will it take?”

Mays, the committee chairman, said he wanted the commission to “have a chance to show what it could do.”

Aldermen Bill Brumett and George Stepps had a brief verbal exchange when Stepps said he thought the commission might have been hampered by communication problems involving Parker. Brumett accused Stepps of trying to blame Parker for the commission’s failures. Stepps asked why Brumett had been opposed to an earlier move to disband the commission but in favor of the current effort. Stepps implied that Brumett’s stance “had to do with who’s on the commission.”

Stepps said the council and not the mayor has the authority to decide on the commission’s fate. Horton then read from city guidance that commissioners are to be appointed by the mayor.

“The buck stops with me,” Hollingsworth said. “I’m ultimately responsible for any overspending. I currently have no oversight of the parks and recreation budget and neither does the council. I think that for at least the next two or three years while we go through the projects being financed by the bond issue — and I want to say this in a peaceful, cordial way — we need to disband the commission and move parks and recreation under the city umbrella. The commissioners could still give input as members of an advisory committee.”

Horton said the 2012 summer program salaries figured out as an expenditure of $1,566 for each of the 61 students. Jimenez said that wasn’t a big sum for a quality summer program and questioned if the amount was being discussed because the children involved were from low-income families. She added that her parents had paid more than $3,000 so that she could participate in a summer program. White said he was disturbed that officials seemed more concerned about money than children.

Hollingsworth said the parents of the local program students weren’t paying the $1,566 per child and the city had to be “careful” with its spending of taxpayers’ money. She added that $1,566 would be a substantial amount for most families here, and suggested that the monies could have been distributed more wisely to help additional children. She termed the excessive spending “mismanagement of funds.”

Jimenez took issue with a report from Horton that the commission hadn’t been providing reports to the city as directed. Jiminez said she delivered several reports to the city as a commissioner but never received anything in response. Horton also referenced commission meeting minutes in which Pulliam had reported inaction by the commission’s finance committee.

Fields said that commissioners weren’t made aware of the financial problems within the summer program “until after the fact.”

Pulliam said there were several factors that handicapped the committee. Blunt said the commissioners — all appointed by former mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. — were never instructed on their duties. Mays pledged that guidance would be provided in the future. The commission has a vacancy as former chairwoman Kami Hunt recently resigned. And with White’s term ending soon, Hollingworth will be able to make eight new appointments to the panel.

Pulliam said he’s putting together a strategic plan for the department, prompting Hollingsworth to ask why such a blueprint hadn’t already been formulated. Pulliam began providing reasons for the delay.

“I don’t run a business that way,” the mayor said. “We can play the blame game all day long. But I want results.”

Mays scolded commissioners, saying they had behaved “like the mayor and council don’t exist” and “need to stop all your bickering.” After the committee’s recommendation, Hollingsworth said the commission “should make a monthly accounting to the council.” The committee agreed.

Stepps supported Mays’ admonishment of the commission. After acknowledging that he and Hollingsworth sometime disagree, he defended the mayor.

“I have never been disrespectful of the mayor and I would not allow anyone else to be in my presence,” he said.

“Thank you,” Hollingsworth replied.