Q&A 2002

We polled five parks and recreation pros from around the country and got some interesting responses representing a diversity of subjects and opinions.

It's our hope that you learn something of value and find a nugget of insight, inspiration or raw information. Or better yet, all of the above...

Next year we plan to expand on this concept but need your participation. Do you have a question that crops up a lot, and you don't have a good answer?

One of the experts we talked to for another article in this issue is looking for the best way to coordinate the endings of multiple races so that everyone finishes around the same time. What is the best way to make that happen? Do you know?

Well, that's what it's all about. Whether you have questions or have some great answers to the challenges of running a parks and recreation department, we'd like to hear from you.

Send us an e-mail at editorial@northstarpubs.com, give us a call at (330) 721-9126, fax us at (330) 723-6598 or go to www.parksandrecbusiness.com.

Q: I've heard good things about these Credit/Debit Card systems that a lot of public agencies are using now. Are they really all that good and, if so, what makes them so great?

A: Many public agencies that used to use "blanket numbers" (usually a four- or five-digit code linked to the division code of the department) switched to various credit cards to accomplish the same purpose.

The "ProCards" allow purchases to be made by authorized representatives of a company (within pre-established parameters i.e. - "not to exceed $500 per purchase") by simply using a designated Visa or MasterCard.

This replaces the old PO way where there was need to match an invoice with a delivery ticket with a purchase order. It reduces the paper pile by having all entries on one statement and it saves time having to sort though "coding" each delivery receipt. A variety of articles have been placed in publications created by the National Association of Purchasing Management (NAPM) and the National Institute of Governmental Procurement (NIGP) that endorse the use of Procards and most stories about them are stories of success.

ProCard usage will also streamline the future use of Internet buying as systems become more sophisticated.

-- Ronald D. Ciancutti is the purchasing manager for Cleveland Metroparks, a metropolitan park system that encircles Cuyahoga County and includes more than 20,000 acres of natural land, six golf courses, seven nature centers, a variety of special interest facilities and the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Ron can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.

Q: What's an effective way to get management together for long-range planning?

A: Every November I meet with the team leaders of the Department for a two-day retreat at the location of another parks and recreation facility within the vicinity, but outside of the city.

We have an enormous agenda –- that all team leaders contribute to -– and we work through the department's operations, including:

• Evaluating each team/division -- If they are working effectively, personnel concerns, hours of operation for facilities, responsibilities, programs, services and events

• Reviewing the master plan for parks, recreation and culture -- Establishing committees to accomplish the work set forth in the plan, reviewing accomplishments and setting goals for the next fiscal year

• Dissect the operating budget of each team, revenue and expenses, making recommendations for the next fiscal year

• Plan the department meetings and training for the next calendar year

• Review the capital improvements budget in conjunction with the master plan

• Evaluate vehicles for the department

• Discuss IT and HR needs, policies and concerns

-- Michele McGleish is the director of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Culture, Gaithersburg, Md.

Q: How do I start an internship program?

A: Internship programs should be rewarding and beneficial for the sponsoring agency, the school and the intern. Therefore, it is important that the planning process include all three components.

First decide what you need an intern for -- what they will do for you and what you will do for them. They should not be perceived as cheap labor to perform jobs no one else wants to do.

Interns can bring new energy and ideas to a department while you can provide experience and venues for on the job learning and development.

Contact universities with accredited programs and they will assist. School programs vary and you should seek school partnerships that complement your organization's role and ensure that your intern requirement fits with the school's curriculum.

Talk with previous and current interns to learn what they desire from internships and what their needs and expectations might be. Also, contact other parks and recreation agencies that have reputable intern programs and learn from them.

While it is logical that an agency would look for an intern majoring in the field of or a related field to parks and recreation, other degree programs are beneficial as well, depending on the needs of the department.

You might consider Landscape Architecture, Urban Planning, Horticulture, Forestry, Business Administration, Marketing and Information Technology. Choose students that will be very flexible in work schedule and job duties and that you are sure will benefit from your organization as much as you will benefit from them.

-- John Powers is parks and recreation director for The Woodlands, Texas

Q: How should I determine who the age group, format, and timeframe to start a sport camp or program?

A: I would systematically survey what sport camps and programs are currently offered in your area. I would find out the age groups that attend each camp, if it is a day camp or overnight camp, the length of each camp, and the actual dates that each camp is conducted. What you may find is that there is a target market that has not been tapped that could be a niche that you can develop.

For example, there may not be a sport camp that caters to the 6-10 year old athletes in that sport. Or there may only be overnight camps in the area, which usually makes the price substantially higher.

Another niche that hasn't been developed is specialization camp by sport position. A goalkeeping camp is a natural. Another niche might be developed by offering a strength training and conditioning camp which would appeal to the very serious athlete across all competitive sports.

Finally, research the camper volume of each camp. Are 300 athletes enrolled a week or just 75? If people are looking for personalized instruction because most of the established camps have swelled due to their popularity, the personal touch may be very attractive to both the campers and their parents. What caliber of staff will you need depending on the size, age and expertise of your camp to ensure the quality of the product?

-- Dr. Sue Langlois has more than 20 years of experience as a college professor, athletic administrator, camp director and sport facilities consultant. She is currently the Dean of Sports Science at Endicott College.

Q: When an employee asks, "What should I do?" What should you do?

A: This is probably not a question -- it's probably a trap. If you are careful about hiring, your employees will be very capable and know what to do.

What is really happening here is one of several things...

A. Employees disagree and want you to be the judge.

B. The employee knows the answer but doesn't like the answer so is hoping you will change the rules or parameters and the answer will be what the employee wants to hear.

C. The employee already has an answer but wants to add you to the list of people backing that answer.

D. The employee doesn't want to put forth the effort to find the answer.

Interestingly, these all sound very negative. But look beyond the initial reaction to discover the reason for the reluctance to act independently.

A director can help more by enabling and coaching the employee into discovering or deciding what to do than by simply providing the answer and sending the employee on his/her way.

First, the reason for the employee not being as independent as desired needs to be identified. It could be as simple as the employee's supervisor is not allowing the employee to work independently. The answer to that is to work with the supervisor, demonstrating to the supervisor the benefits of delegating and the rewards of seeing subordinates develop under their tutelage.

It may be that the employee's behavior or personality does not support independence. If this is the case then it may be best to forget it and continue with specific work assignments.

The employee may be struggling with self-confidence. Start with smaller independent assignments that you feel confident the employee will successfully complete.

As the list of small successes grows, gradually increase the scope of the responsibility, always offering constructive criticism and support along the way. Provide sincere positive feedback.

-- Steve Dice is the director of park operations for Cleveland Metroparks

Q: How can you have a skatepark with all of the liability issues?

A: Safety is paramount in all parks and recreation facilities and programs and their resulting liability is always a concern. Skateparks can present many challenges that will vary widely depending upon the local environment.

Some communities are afforded varying degrees of immunity and some states have passed legislation limiting liability. There are some insurance underwriters that have positive experiences with skateparks while others have no experience. Whatever the case, one must work with risk managers and insurance providers early in the process.

Additionally, parks and recreation professionals should educate themselves and quite possibly their risk partners on the latest safety and injury statistics, all the types of parks and equipment, local demographics and user groups, maintenance, operations and programs and be prepared to be the sometimes sole adult professional advocate for such a facility.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission, National Safety Council, American Sports Data, and the National Sporting Goods Association are good sources for statistics. The International Association of Skateboard Companies is also a good source of information.

In our case we provided our risk manager and insurance provider our plan for design, equipment, maintenance and operations, along with current safety statistics and area demographics.

We proposed to conduct a pilot program of six months in a temporary location to gain some experience, determine the needs, and organize the users into a bike, board and blade club to help provide input and ownership into a permanent park.

With adequate signage, inspections and maintenance and the fact that we would not charge a fee, our carrier agreed to treat the skate area like any other non-supervised, open-play, free-of-charge, park facility.

Once a fee is charged, the liability exposure changes dramatically. Our six months was very successful and three years later we have four "wheel-friendly" areas or skate parks with no claims.

Professional design, construction and equipment, coupled with sound management, maintenance and signage makes for a safe and pleasant experience -- for the user, the community and the underwriter.

-- John Powers

Q: What are the benefits of having a skatepark? Why should we do it?

A: The benefits of a skatepark are the same as those relating to traditional recreational facilities, such as basketball courts and soccer fields. They provide a safe place to play, they enable kids to develop skills, new friends and self-esteem, they protect property, they can help reduce juvenile crime, and they can provide an economic benefit.

We must face the fact that in every community there are those who enjoy skateboarding, BMX, and in-line skating and they need places to play and practice their sport.

While it may be difficult for some to embrace rolling sports as core recreational services, statistics prove that the sports are here to stay and there is a large under served demand.

Remember when all we had were swings and sandboxes and played stickball in the street? Society has changed and continues to change. So should our parks.

-- John Powers

Q: What's the best response to, "Why are we doing this?"

A: With the rate of change exponentially increasing, communication that includes explanation seems to increasingly fall by the wayside.

Because the director is supposed to know everything, the director's ear becomes the place to insert all questions related to what's going on. The frequency of this type of question being asked can be a barometer indicating when things are moving ahead too fast or when it is time to re-establish the need for communication.

If the question can be answered briefly, do so. Otherwise send the employee to the person who is responsible for ensuring understanding about the issue.

If, in fact, that person is you, learn from your mistake. Answer the question but communicate to all who need to know. If you missed one you may have missed more in the communication process.

The key point to this is that the director is not the only source of information. The entire agency must take on the responsibility for honest, forthright accurate communication of information.

Directors should not allow themselves to become communication central. The line at the door, the e-mails and the phone calls will grow into infinity.

Starting with the director, reliable and accurate lines of communication must be established. This can be accomplished through newsletters, staff meetings, email and fax notices, information bulletin boards, one on one meetings, in other words a director must insure that time is scheduled by everyone for communication. Is communication on your task list?

-- Steve Dice

Q: What are some ways to handle crises that affect the local community?

A: Following the horrific tragedies of September 11, 2001, crisis and risk management took on a whole new meaning here, particularly since the city of Gaithersburg, Md., is so close to Washington, D.C.

My staff and I met with the city police to create new policies and procedures regarding threats, purchased new radios for the buses and main facility (hub) and created guidelines for their use for communication of announcements.

We also established protocol for bus transportation for field trips, and reevaluated our communication networks with the parents and other city staff and officials.

A second crisis that Gaithersburg had to endure was the sniper attacks in Montgomery County. This situation brought together the city, other local municipalities, and the county regarding decisions of having or canceling classes, programs, and special events.

The point is to closely coordinate with all local entities to help figure out what the parks and recreation department's response should be in the event of a crisis.

-- Michele McGleish

Q: What do you say when an employee asks, "I need more money in my budget for staff, operating supplies, equipment, etc? Why can't I be allocated more money?

A: Simple answers... First and easiest is that there is no more money. Employees need to understand that, just like at home, financial resources are finite.

Sometimes there is more money, but there are other more pressing priorities. Explain that -- don't try to sidestep the inevitable comeback. Explain why, as a director, you (or your board) have established the priorities as they are.

-- Steve Dice

Q: How do you respond to, "The public wants this? Why are we doing that instead of what the public wants?"

A: Substitute board or professionals for public and the gist of the question is the same. This can be a tough one because of the politics and special interest groups that influence what we do. My philosophy has always been to be honest with a positive spin.

Say you're the director or executive director of a conservation-based park and recreation agency. The enabling legislation creating your agency defines that as your legal charge.

A group of parents contacts you asking that ten acres of "old woods that nobody uses except to walk through on a trail" be bulldozed flat and soccer fields built.

No doubt with considerable challenge it will be your job as director to help the parents understand that they are to be commended for their effort to seek out the creation of organized recreation facilities to benefit their children's development.

However, the legal role for your agency is to provide user directed conservation and natural resource-based recreation activities such as trails through woods.

Turn this into an opportunity to help the parents understand the benefits of natural greenspace in a community, and the benefits to the environment and sustainability for future generations such as their children.

-- Steve Dice

Q: How much should I charge for a sports camp or program and should I give team discounts?

A: Researching the price structure of existing camps is a must, but also look at the type of value that they give for that price. Is there a marquee athlete who has his/her name on the camp? What is the staff-to-camper ratio? How qualified are the staff members? Is there a certified athletic trainer on staff? What types of facilities are offered? Are there indoor and outdoor facilities and are there fitness amenities like weight training and a swimming pool?

As far as team discounts, you will probably find that most sport camps do offer them to teams of six or more and many allow the coach to attend without charge or at a reduced rate.

-- Dr. Sue Langlois

Q: What's the advantage of these "as needed" bids and how do they work?

A: "As needed" bids give the full advantage to the buying entity. The bid is written in a way that allows the buyer to purchase one or 100 of any item at a locked-in price. It reduces the need for high inventories and assures the buyer of full-year availability.

For bids like lawn and garden tools, shop tools, and so on, these bids can save a substantial amount of money. Zone managers will not feel the need to stock up on major supplies if they know total availability is still there.

-- Ron Ciancutti

Q: What if an employee asks, "What is our (3-, 5-, 7-, 10-, pick one-) year plan?"

A: If this question is asked, there has been a screw-up. Either there is no plan (uh oh), the employee asking about the plan was not involved in the planning process (everyone needs to be involved) or the final plan has not been communicated effectively. Fix it.

-- Steve Dice

Q: What's your response to, "Why wasn't I selected for a promotion?"

A: This is often asked in another way... "Why was so and so selected for the promotion." This is a great opportunity for employee growth and development.

Utilize this opportunity from the perspective that the employee, once past the disappointment, is giving you the opportunity to help them be a more productive employee. Seize the moment.

The ideal situation is to have the immediate supervisor meet with the employee to honestly and forthrightly discuss the employee's attributes and challenges, personal professional goals and plans to achieve them.

Then encourage the employee to pursue improvement through cross-training, education and work assignments that will build a foundation for further advancement.

Back to the honest and forthright... The difficult challenges are those employees who have set unattainable goals. Either they have prepared for a career track that is not offered by the agency or they are just never going to be qualified (Peter Principle). It is difficult but the supervisor must be honest.

-- Steve Dice

Q: How should you handle this question from employees -- "Why don't you visit us more often?"

A: Ouch. Employees need to understand that most directors would like to be out there with their roots. Explain the demands of the position, and the role of the position (directors need to spend most of their time working up and across, not down the organization chain of command). Don't let the employee leave without having scheduled a visit to their workplace.

There are eight directors, an executive director/secretary and a three-person board at Cleveland Metroparks. In Park Operations there are over 200 full- and part-time employees within the Department of Park operations reporting through the chain of command to the director.

To effectively pursue and capture our agency's goal, the director of Park Operations must create teams of qualified professional and technical employees to handle the detail of day-to-day operations.

This frees the director to work across (with other directors) and up (with the executive director /secretary and the Board) to establish a vision, establish broad goals, monitor public support, solve large scope challenges and select and appoint effective employees.

-- Steve Dice

Q: How can I make work more fun for my staff?

A: Some might answer by going FISHing. While that concept is currently popular and easy to understand, it is often difficult to create an organizational culture that has fun.

It either comes naturally or, for most organizations, you have to work hard at having fun. Everyone recognizes that a fun working environment is more productive, efficient and responsive to the community/ customer.

So having fun must be a priority and placed on our to-do list along with annual evaluations.

Even we, parks and recreation professionals, the managers of play, can lose sight of the fun aspect of work. One aspect of having fun that we must remember from our childhood is that we usually have fun with those that we like and can relate to.

So first and foremost hire people that are fun loving and that will be a good fit with your organization's behavior. Don't hire a stick in the mud unless you like to play in the mud.

Eat together often, offer fitness exercise opportunities together, celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, play cards. Create fun things for staff to do and relax the work stress level so that people can feel comfortable. This also means managing properly and effectively -- solve problems, deal with conflict, recognize star performers, train, coach, mentor, be a leader.

Once staff is comfortable and secure in the work environment, fun can happen more naturally.

Not always do employees like one another, so we should strive to provide a working environment where their job is fun. Often times it takes some education on what the real value of their job has to the organization and to the community. One must have a sense of purpose and importance in order to perform their job with passion and fun.

-- John Powers