Fired parks and rec director says she was on city manager’s ‘target list’
SALISBURY — Gail Elder White says she was fired May 8 from her job directing the city’s Parks and Recreation Department because new City Manager Doug Paris is cleaning house.
Since Paris took over city management in July 2011, five top administrators have left, including City Engineer Dan Mikkelson, who said his sudden departure earlier this month came after Paris asked him to retire.
White also defended her former department’s method of tallying participation at parks and recreation events, saying the city’s financial services team helped come up with the measurements five years ago.
After Paris was asked last week by the Post to expound on the “unsatisfactory results” he noted in White’s termination letter, he said parks and rec had been inflating participant numbers for years.
However, Paris later emphasized the numbers were not the reason he fired White and Jeff Holshouser, the parks and rec program manager, and eliminated their positions. Paris said their jobs were cut in a management consolidation that allowed him to redeploy $240,000 toward parks and rec improvements.
Paris said this week he would have eliminated the positions regardless of participation numbers.
“Our parks centers have been resource-starved,” he said. “We needed more revenue.”
Dr. Dale Roenigk, director of the North Carolina Benchmarking Project at the UNC School of Government, said Salisbury’s parks and rec participation numbers look “abnormally high” when compared to other cities.
Salisbury is the smallest of 13 cities in the School of Government’s new parks and rec benchmark program. So far, seven cities have sent participation statistics from last year, and Roenigk said Salisbury’s are the highest.
White said Paris has been getting rid of department heads he inherited from the former city manager.
“I have always felt that I was on the target list since I was one of David Treme’s department heads and the current manager’s systematic removal of others from service to the city,” White wrote in an email. “But to remove Jeff was totally uncalled for.”
White, 57, worked for the city for more than 17 years. Holshouser, 47, was a city employee for more than 22 years. Both had six years until they were eligible for retirement.
Holshouser had back surgery the day after he was fired.
Five top administrators have left since Paris took over city management — White, Mikkelson, public information officer Karen Wilkinson, Fibrant Director Mike Crowell and Planning Director Joe Morris.
Wilkinson resigned and could not be reached for comment. Crowell, Mikkelson and Morris retired.
Morris said he chose to retire and take a new job. Crowell said he had no comment.
Mikkelson said Paris asked him to retire. After an hour-long discussion with Paris on April 26, Mikkelson said he agreed.
The city sent a memo to employees within an hour announcing the retirement, Mikkelson said.
A 30-year veteran of city government in Salisbury and Charlotte, Mikkelson said it was Paris’ prerogative to ask him to leave to save money and build a new management team, and he is satisfied with the way he was treated.
Paris said he never asked Mikkelson to retire.
Unprofessional or analytical?
Mikkelson said while he understands a management decision to consolidate the parks and rec department, Paris then attempted to discredit White and Holshouser. He said White is well-respected nationally as a parks and rec leader, and the department was a finalist in 2011 for one of the most prestigious awards in the nation.
He had retirement to fall back on when he left the city, Mikkelson said, but White and Holshouser didn’t.
“The way that the city manager treated Jeff and Gail is inexcusable, unprofessional and immature, and it shows Doug’s greatest weakness — his lack of experience,” Mikkelson said.
Paris said Mikkelson’s criticism is sour grapes after a disagreement over re-striping Statesville Boulevard.
Mikkelson wanted to eliminate a vehicle lane and add bike lanes to slow traffic, which would have adhered to the city’s new bicycle master plan.
Paris decided to keep four vehicle lanes, saying there wasn’t enough time before a state repaving deadline to seek community consensus. Many residents opposed the change during a heated public forum last year.
Mikkelson said while he was passionate about the bike lanes, he did not resist once Paris made the decision.
Mikkelson’s assessment of his retirement and the job eliminations at parks and rec are “opinion and speculation,” Paris said.
“What I’m doing is very analytical,” Paris said.
When he became city manager, Paris consolidated four positions into two, eliminating Wilkinson’s vacant post and his old assistant city manager position, to free up $180,000 for employee raises, he said.
“We need to reward our employees,” he said.
Parks and rec
Now, he has consolidated three positions into one, saving $240,000 in salaries, benefits and administrative overhead to spend on parks and rec centers, Paris said.
Parks and rec is supposed to bring in enough revenue to cover 15 percent of its costs, but the department has missed the mark for several years, Paris said.
He provided a chart showing cost recovery hovering between 8 percent and 10 percent from 2010 to 2012 and now trending downward at 6.8 percent.
He also provided a comparison between Salisbury and Apex, which have similar populations. Apex reported that 31 percent of residents participated in parks and rec programs last year, while Salisbury reported that 241 percent of its population participated.
The discrepancy was larger for youth participation — 47 percent of Apex youth and 459 percent of Salisbury youth.
The same person was counted multiple times in Salisbury, giving a total greater than 100 percent.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” Paris said.
Paris said he asked the new leadership — parks and rec now reports to Assistant City Manager Zach Kyle — to improve the revenue recovery rate and make sure participation is accurately measured.
“Our focus from this point forward will be on improving the services delivered by the programming division to our citizens,” Paris said in a statement.
Inflated numbers vs. ‘definition problem’
Roenigk, the professor with the School of Government, said he doesn’t know why Salisbury’s numbers are high and had planned to meet with parks and rec staff from all cities, including Salisbury, participating in the new benchmark program.
Roenigk said he needs to better understand how cities define participation and collect and report data.
“When we see numbers stick out like (Salisbury’s), they don’t seem right,” Roenigk said. “It raises concern that we did not define everything correctly. We are trying to make sure we all collect data in same way.”
So far, Salisbury’s cost recovery is the second-lowest among cities that have submitted numbers, Roenigk said.
In Apex, the cost per participant last year was $32.90, while in Salisbury, it was $249, Paris said.
Roenigk said the participation numbers reported to the School of Government are preliminary. But Paris said Salisbury’s numbers are not preliminary, and because they are inflated, they skew the department’s efficiency and effectiveness measures.
Roenigk said he anticipated that parks and rec would be one of the toughest services to compare between cities because they may count participation differently, and free events can attract large crowds where attendance is estimated.
Like Salisbury, a city could have a rate higher than 100 percent if it counts participations, not people, Roenigk said. In that case, the same child would be counted multiple times if he plays in a basketball league, goes to the city pool and takes an arts and crafts course, he said.
“Salisbury’s numbers look abnormally high,” Roenigk said. “We could have a definition problem.”
All 13 cities received the same instructions in August 2012: Count the number of participants in organized programs and sports fields, Roenigk said.
“Participants means participations, so one individual may have multiple participations,” he said.
Still, Salisbury’s numbers were higher than any other city so far, he said.
Roenigk said he doesn’t know if that’s because Salisbury is doing a great job, using a different definition or misreporting numbers.
“We just don’t have the information yet,” he said. “We haven’t had the discussion about, are we counting this in the same way?”
‘Misrepresentation of the facts’
Paris said he didn’t give White and Holshouser a chance to address participation numbers before he fired them because eliminating their jobs had nothing to do with the statistic.
He said he had talked to parks and rec for more than a year about improving the performance.
But White said she presented two different improvement plans to Paris in February and received no feedback. Holshouser said he repeatedly asked the city’s marketing team to help promote parks and rec events, but his emails often went unanswered.
White and Holshouser have hired Charlotte attorney Nicole Gardner to represent them in a potential lawsuit against the city for wrongful termination.
“The manner in which participations were counted is consistent with widely-recognized best practice and is utilized by many cities across North Carolina. It has been used in Salisbury for years,” Gardner said in an email. “Mr. Paris owes both of these individuals a public apology, and he ought to reinstate them immediately.”
White said the idea that the city’s financial services team had just discovered that parks and rec was using participations as a measurement “is truly a misrepresentation of the facts.”
“They have been involved and actively helped create that benchmark,” she said. “Also, parks and recreation staff has never been advised that this method of tracking was not acceptable to the city manager.”
Holshouser said several factors have had an impact on the parks and rec budget, including the city’s decision to pull in the landscape and cemetery divisions, as well as two years of staff cuts that decreased the department’s ability to generate revenue with programming.
Despite the changes, Holshouser said he thought the department was doing better financially, and he was working to increase revenue by attracting more tournaments to the city-owned park on Hurley School Road.
Paris said he asked Kyle to recommend how to spend the $240,000 in savings from White and Holshouser’s jobs. Paris suggested putting air conditioning in a gym in the city’s West End neighborhood.
White said she’s been requesting that project for years.
“I hope the salary savings will indeed be used for air conditioning in Hall Gym,” she said. “We have been requesting that for years, and it will greatly improve the services delivered to the citizen of Salisbury.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.