By all outward appearances, Burlington’s public parks are clean and green — the envy of any small city in America. The infield grass at Smalley Park’s baseball field is neatly mowed. There isn’t a trace of litter on Blanchard Beach at Oakledge Park. On a nice day, the city’s crown jewel, Waterfront Park, teems with people throwing Frisbees, licking creemees and taking in Lake Champlain’s awe-inspiring sunsets.
Closer inspection, however, reveals some cracks in the asphalt — and not just on the basketball courts at Roosevelt Park in the Old North End.
For years — as long as a decade, by some accounts — the Burlington Department of Parks and Recreation has struggled with management and morale problems. The worst ones made front-page news, such as the 2008 scandal that led the city to fire its longtime waterfront manager over allegations he mismanaged city funds and viewed pornography on a city computer.
Less visible was the internal strife. “There was no true leadership in the department,” says Mari Steinbach, who served as parks and rec director from 2009 to 2012. When newly elected Mayor Miro Weinberger decided not to reappoint Steinbach — hers was one of only two heads that rolled — it brought more negative attention to the department.
Steinbach says three years weren’t enough to fix the problems she found when she took over for longtime parks and rec director Wayne Gross, including handshake deals where the city should have had legally binding contracts. Steinbach says parks and rec staff had become distrustful of each other and disconnected from the community.
Rep. Chris Pearson, who became a member of the Burlington Parks and Recreation Commission around the time of Steinbach’s hiring, puts it bluntly: “Mari really inherited crap.”
The person Weinberger has picked to clean up the mess is 32-year-old Jesse Bridges, a New North Ender who spent the last decade in the athletics and fundraising departments at the University of Vermont.
Although he came in with no parks experience, Bridges is viewed as someone who may be capable of brokering the kind of public-private deals — partnering with corporations and private philanthropists — that could bring big bucks to ambitious park projects the city couldn’t otherwise afford.
“Just think of the publicity when Burlington hosts the X Games on the waterfront at the new Burton Skate Park,” Bridges wrote in his cover letter applying for the job.
No single camera could capture the enormity of the task before him. Burlington’s parks and rec department maintains 37 parks spread over 550 acres with a staff of 42 full-time and 200 seasonal workers. It runs recreation programs that serve 200 individuals and after-school programs for 400 children at four sites.
Parks and rec also oversees a 137-site campground, a 200-slip marina, three public beaches, eight miles of bike path, the Leddy Park ice arena, the Burlington Community Boathouse, 400 community garden plots, three city-owned cemeteries, Memorial Auditorium and 12,000 urban trees. It maintains every city-owned building. All this on a budget of $5 million collected mostly from user fees.
Bridges has a lot of work before him, and the stakes are high.
“To me, this is probably the most important department in the city,” says Dave Hartnett, a city councilor who served four years on the Burlington Parks and Recreation Commission, including two as its chair. “It affects literally everybody, from the day you’re born to the day you die — we do the playgrounds and we do the cemeteries.”
Adam Cate Scandal
The problems at Burlington parks and rec predate what became known as the “Adam Cate scandal,” but the 2008 news story thrust them into the public eye.
A longtime parks and rec employee, Cate had worked his way up from seasonal status to waterfront manager in charge of 30 employees and day-to-day operations at the city-owned Community Boathouse. Cate fell from grace when he was accused of mismanaging boathouse funds and viewing pornography on a city-issued computer.
According to a judge’s finding of facts in a lawsuit Cate brought against the city, Cate hacked into his former supervisor’s email account by guessing his password and accessed another coworker’s account that was not password protected. Over the next few months, Cate accessed both accounts several times and printed numerous emails. His motive? Apparently, Cate worried the coworkers were trying to thwart an effort by then-parks director Wayne Gross to reorganize the department.
After learning he had been placed on administrative leave while the city investigated his conduct, Cate phoned a boathouse employee and instructed her to remove $2500 in cash from the safe; he asked another employee to hide the city laptop he’d been using.
The city’s investigation concluded that Cate had misused the laptop to view porn and that he followed irregular financial procedures at the boathouse, though police found that all funds were accounted for.
The city fired Cate, but he appealed to the Parks and Recreation Commission. While calling Cate’s actions “extremely serious misconduct” that warranted dismissal, the commission nonetheless reversed the termination and reinstated Cate as boathouse manager after a 30-day suspension. Among the “mitigating” factors cited by the commission were Cate’s 16-year employment history and the willingness of his supervisor — Wayne Gross — to give him a “second chance.”
But four months later, Cate was in trouble again after a boathouse employee complained that he was verbally abusive. A judge’s ruling in a wrongful termination lawsuit brought by Cate — now on appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court — says that Cate admitted to referring to the male employee as “pussy, bitch and faggot” but considered this “acceptable guy talk.”
Because he was on probationary status at the time, Cate was fired with no right to appeal. Gross retired from the department, leaving it leaderless.
Then-mayor Bob Kiss sought to fix parks and rec by replacing Gross with a former parks manager from Scottsdale, Ariz., Mari Steinbach. Moving east to take the job, it appeared Steinbach was in it for the long haul.
Left to Dangle
When she arrived in Burlington in October 2009, Steinbach says the Parks and Recreation Department was in “messy” shape. She says she encountered a staff that felt “unsupported and undirected,” a budget that was “severely underfunded,” and city parks facilities suffering from “incredible deferred maintenance.”
“There was a lot to heal within the staff themselves,” Steinbach recounts during a recent interview at August First Bakery & Café, a block from where she now works as a sales rep at Skirack.
Steinbach also discovered that parks and rec had struck many deals with partners and vendors using what state Rep. Pearson calls “cocktail-napkin agreements.” For instance, the city had for years been paying the electricity bill for the Spirit of Ethan Allen, the cruise boat that docks at the waterfront.
How much? “We got meter readings and we were paying $50,000 in utility costs,” Steinbach says incredulously. “We were collecting $75,000 in rent, meaning we were only making $25,000. Staff had a real hard time with that.”
Steinbach also learned that the Community Boathouse had operated under a “barter system.” She explains: “Business owners or individuals in the community used to be able to give things to the department in exchange for a boat slip.” In one instance, she says, computers were traded for boat slips. “You can’t do that,” Steinbach says. “It’s unethical.”
But even as she sought to right old wrongs, Steinbach stumbled into new controversies. She was roundly criticized for how she handled the merging of two after-school programs — one run by parks, the other by city schools — even though she says doing so eventually saved taxpayers $500,000 a year.
Steinbach was also blamed for not efficiently spending Penny for Parks money, funds collected through a special tax for capital improvements. The tax collects $355,000 a year. But over the three years Steinbach was director, the department only spent a combined $383,594 on 32 projects, leading to criticism that she was sitting on taxpayer money while parks facilities crumbled.
At a ribbon cutting for a playground repaired with Penny for Parks dollars last November, with Bridges by his side, Weinberger lamented the “backlog” of park improvements and pledged to get “stuck and stalled projects moving again.”
In her defense, Steinbach says that, at the time, her parks superintendent and park planner were both brand new in their jobs. She wanted to give both time to “wrap their heads around the needs” before deciding how to allocate funds.
Secondly, she says the department set aside $350,000 for repairs following the spring floods of 2011 but couldn’t release those funds for other parks projects until the Federal Emergency Management Agency finally said how much Burlington would get to repair flood damage. That didn’t happen until this year.
Lastly, she argues that “economies of scale” justified letting Penny for Parks funds accumulate. Resurfacing a single tennis court could cost $100,000, for instance, while resurfacing two courts might cost just $50,000 more.
“That’s what we did, and it was the right thing for taxpayers,” Steinbach asserts. The problem, she admits, is that neither she nor then-mayor Kiss communicated that message to the public.
“I’ll never speak poorly of Bob Kiss, but I had it characterized to me that I was left to just dangle out there,” Steinbach says. “It sure would have helped if the mayor would have stood side by side and said, ‘Here’s what we’re doing and here’s why we’re doing it.’”
Steinbach never got the chance to stand “side by side” with the new mayor. When her contract was up last June, Weinberger announced Steinbach would not be reappointed; he was taking parks and rec “in a different direction.”
In a recent interview at city hall, Weinberger called Steinbach “a consummate professional” but said he was responding to a “broadly felt sense” that a change of leadership was needed.
Hartnett, the city councilor, takes it further, saying Steinbach had become incapable of leading the fractured parks and rec department.
“She was not going to be successful in a department that had already judged her,” says Hartnett. “The staff was not going to work for her.”
One of those staffers, land steward and community garden coordinator Dan Cahill, says Steinbach’s arrival was a “breath of fresh air” in 2009, but her tenure quickly encountered a string of problems, not all of her own making.
“The politics and the timing just didn’t work to her benefit in the long run,” he says.
Today, Steinbach says she feels scapegoated for what were long-standing departmental problems. She says she wishes she’d had the chance to prove herself to the new mayor, as did other department heads held over from prior administrations. Steve Goodkind, the retiring public works director first appointed by then-mayor Bernie Sanders more than 30 years ago, was allowed to leave on his own terms, she notes.
“At the end of the day, it really does come down to politics,” Steinbach says. “The public works director was protected politically. I wasn’t.”
Bridging the Gap
Bridges was thrown into the deep end of Burlington politics — and his new department’s disorganization — even before his first official day as parks and rec director.
On October 20, the Sunday before he would start the job, Bridges was home watching a Patriots game on TV when the phone rang. It was Burlington Free Press cops reporter Mike Donoghue asking for comment on a city-sanctioned rave that ended with 16 underage partiers in detox. The Barstool Blackout Tour happened at Memorial Auditorium, a city-owned property managed by parks and rec.
As Bridges soon learned, parks and rec had no official policies guiding the rental of Memorial Auditorium, beyond prohibitions on circus acts and rock concerts. In other words, almost anyone could rent the city-owned facility for any purpose — with few questions asked.
The parks and rec employee who approved the Barstool Blackout party, Alan Campbell, soon came under fire for green-lighting the booze-fest and missing obvious red flags, such as a warning from the promoters themselves that the city might hear negative comments about the rave and face pressure to cancel it.
But Bridges refused to cast blame on Campbell — either in that initial interview with the Free Press or anytime after. Sitting at the boathouse on a windy spring day, Bridges explains that he saw the PR disaster as an “opportunity” to say to the public, “We’re going to change the way things are.”
Within 30 days, Bridges and his staff had written a new policy for events at Memorial Auditorium that codified the city’s authority to reject promoters with spotty track records. Bridges’ supporters offer that as an example of how he is helping to rebuild trust within the department.
“That was his biggest challenge coming in the door: He needed to put this department back together,” Hartnett says. “It wasn’t to find out what park needed to be mowed, or what kind of lawnmowers we were using. I think he’s been successful.”
Bill Rasch, a 30-year parks employee, concurs. “For the first time in a long time, we finally have strong leadership. Jesse seems to be a very sharp guy.”
Bridges knew the score coming into the job. “The department had been through hell and back,” he says. But he adds that he’s never shied away from a challenge and, after a decade working at UVM, he was eager to take on a new one.
A self-described “policy-administration-systems-government-politics geek,” the fast-talking Bridges says he wasn’t intimidated by a job that he calls “huge,” nor by Burlington’s notoriously thorny politics. He had worked as a “minion” on Weinberger’s 2012 mayoral campaign doing “lit drops” and was familiar with the Queen City’s political pitfalls.
Vermont-born Bridges speaks Burlington’s language, Pearson observes, and that’s helped him improve relations with staff and the public alike. “He grew up around here,” says Pearson, “so when he goes to public meetings, he just fits.”
Pearson commends Bridges for how he’s handled a delicate matter involving the city’s push to permit events on the waterfront year-round; presently, they are only allowed from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
“Some of the neighbors that live down there in the fancy condos looking over the waterfront are really up in arms because, for them, it’s their front yard,” Pearson explains. “And Jesse has been able to just bring the temperature way down. He’s been very successful at making neighbors feel heard and responding to their concerns where that’s possible.”
Weinberger, too, is pleased with his appointee’s performance so far, and last week he re-upped Bridges’ contract for another 12 months. “He’s greatly improved employee morale within the department,” the mayor says, as well as among “people who do business with parks and rec,” such as the Burlington Business Association and Local Motion.
Bridges has reinstated monthly all-staff meetings, rotating them among various park facilities. And for the first time in years, the parks and maintenance staffs are eating lunch together, reports Cahill, the department’s land steward.
Bridges’ self-assessment? “I think people feel they can actually do their jobs now,” he says. “They’re not having to navigate politically, because I can help do that.”
The Path Ahead
Heading into his first summer as parks director, Bridges has a full plate of projects. Weinberger wants him to break ground this year on the Waterfront Access North project, which includes rebuilding streets, burying utilities, cleaning up polluted brownfields and constructing a new skate park.
Also on Bridges’ 2013 to-do list: securing permits to repair the bike path through Waterfront Park and finishing a dozen Penny for Parks improvement projects. Weinberger says Bridges is well positioned to succeed but acknowledges he’s benefiting from groundwork laid by his predecessor.
Steinbach concurs. “Every single initiative he’s closed the deal on so far were all initiatives that we started,” the former parks director says. “So Jesse’s job now is just simply slam the door closed on it.”
Long-term, Bridges faces several key decisions that could be politically perilous. He must convince state environmental regulators to amend the city’s Act 250 permit for Waterfront Park to allow for events that fall outside the summer season, such as the Vermont City Marathon and Special Olympics Penguin Plunge.
“We have to apply for an administrative amendment to do a mental-health walk in September because it’s outside the date range,” Bridges says, looking worried.
Bridges and the Weinberger administration will also have to figure out how to drum up as much as $17 million to widen and repave the entire length of the bike path. Bridges is planning to start a “community conversation” on what to do with the North 40/Urban Reserve, the undeveloped waterfront parcel north of the skate park.
On top of that, the Parks and Recreation Department is undertaking its first-ever parks master plan to chart a future course for Burlington parks and rec programs.
All that will take creative thinking — and money. That’s where Weinberger hopes Bridges’ fundraising experience will come in handy. The department’s budget doesn’t have much room to grow, the mayor says; about 70 percent comes from parks fees, the rest from general-fund tax dollars.
So to fund future priorities, they are counting on private donations funneled through the newly established Burlington Parks Foundation. Bridges, who as head of UVM’s Victory Fund ran the university’s annual fund for athletics, sees “huge untapped potential” in the parks foundation.
“We’re not going to be raising taxes for parks and our programs,” Bridges says, “but it would be great if we could get more money into these programs.”
In the meantime, Bridges says he’ll continue spreading the good word about Burlington parks and rec to what he calls “my 42,000 parks directors,” referring to the number of Burlingtonians — all of them — who may take an interest in the subject.
“Despite bad perceptions and a certain amount of noise, there’s a lot of love for our recreational activities and programs,” Bridges says. “Parks and rec is what builds community.”
The original print version of this article was headlined "Parks & Wreck"