Salisbury parks and rec director, program manager fired

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 9, 2013

SALISBURY — City Manager Doug Paris on Wednesday fired the director of the Parks and Recreation Department, as well as the program manager, after he said staff discovered the department has been inflating participant numbers for years.
Parks and Recreation Director Gail Elder White and Program Manager Jeff Holshouser lost their jobs, according to city spokeswoman Elaney Hasselmann.
Their positions were eliminated, and the Parks and Recreation Department now reports to Assistant City Manager Zack Kyle. 
The job cuts will save $240,000, which will go to frontline parks programming and services, Paris said.
Paris said the city’s financial services team conducted a performance review of Parks and Recreation and found that participant numbers were inflated. The false numbers were skewing the department’s performance measures, making it appear more efficient and effective than it actually was, Paris said.
“That was unsatisfactory,” he said.
Instead of counting people who took part in programs and services, the department was tallying each participation, even if it was the same person multiple times, Paris said.
He said he could not comment on whether the inflation was intentional or a mistake.
Holshouser, who has worked for the city for more than two decades including five years as parks and rec program manager, told the Post he was blindsided by the termination.
He said the department has counted participations, not people, for as long as he’s been there, and no one ever told him that was wrong. He said he knew nothing about inflated statistics until the Post asked him about it Wednesday evening.
“This is how we’ve been keeping track of it for years,” Holshouser said. “If you have a summer program five days a week and 40 kids come every day, instead of counting it just 40, we count it 40 times five.
“I have never been told this was a problem.”
Holshouser said Paris told him the position was being eliminated as part of a management consolidation.
Elder White could not be reached for comment.
Since Paris took over city management in July 2011, five top administrators have left — Elder White, public information officer Karen Wilkinson, Fibrant Director Mike Crowell, City Engineer Dan Mikkelson and Planning Director Joe Morris.
In identical termination letters on Wednesday, Paris told Elder White and Holshouser “the Program Division has delivered unsatisfactory results in efficiency, effectiveness and revenue generation.”
“This decision regarding your employment is being made to turn around these unsatisfactory results,” Paris wrote.
Paris also said consolidating parks and rec management under Kyle will reduce duplication, improve communication from program division employees to management, redeploy financial resources to the front line and “ultimately improve the delivery of services to our citizens.”
The letters do not mention inflated participant numbers.
Paris told the Post the Parks and Recreation Department is supposed to bring in enough revenue to cover 15 percent of its costs.
The department has missed the mark for several years, he said, with performance hovering around 10 percent and currently trending at 6.8 percent.
Holshouser said he thought the department was doing better financially.
“We do not make a whole lot of money. We serve a lot of low-income families,” Holshouser said. “We provide free and reduced-cost programming and services.
“But our revenue is up $10,000 from last year.”
The city asked him to provide more family-friendly events, Holshouser said, and he and his staff came up with Movies in the Park, a free event that premieres May 31, as well as Touch a Truck and other events.
“My staff was happy and excited, totally excited,” said Holshouser, 47, who had six years to retirement.
Holshouser said he and his staff made a presentation about improving City Park, which City Council considered closing last year to balance the budget, but never heard a response from Paris or the management team.
He said he repeatedly asked the city’s marketing team to help promote additional parks and rec events, but his emails often went unanswered.
Holshouser, who said he is scheduled to have back surgery today, said he is considering hiring a lawyer and filing a wrongful termination lawsuit.
Paris has asked Kyle to lead a team of city staffers “to develop a plan of action to increase results and provide for more efficient and effective delivery of programming services to Salisbury citizens,” Hasselmann said.
Top priorities for Kyle will be ensuring that parks and rec participation is properly and accurately measured and finding a way to achieve the 15 percent revenue goal, Hasselmann said.
Paris said city residents will see a benefit from the additional $240,000 in the programming budget, which he called a sizeable increase. Although Kyle will decide where to spend the money, Paris said he has a few ideas of his own.
“I have a gym in the West End in the summer that doesn’t have air conditioning,” Paris said.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.