Governor Deval Patrick's administration launched a major overhaul of the state's parks agency yesterday, moving to oust two senior officials and naming three others to newly configured roles intended to revitalize the state's 450,000-acre park, beach, and forest system.
Leaving the Department of Conservation and Recreation are Karst Hoogeboom, deputy commissioner for planning and engineering, and Patrick Flynn, director of the division of urban parks and recreation. Both were appointed by Governor Mitt Romney in 2004.
Jack Murray - a former official in the Clinton White House and the US Transportation Department, who most recently has been managing Hurricane Katrina relief efforts for the US Public Health Service in Louisiana and Mississippi - was named to the new position of deputy commissioner for park operations.
Rosemary Powers - chief of staff to state Senator Jack Hart, a South Boston Democrat who chaired a legislative commission that urged major upgrades in management of department-run beaches - was tapped for a new position as director of government affairs with a mandate to improve the department's frayed relationships with legislators and local officials.
"We inherited a failing park system, and restoring our parks and restructuring DCR to deliver on its core parks mission is my top priority," said Ian A. Bowles, state secretary of energy and environmental affairs, who oversees the agency.
Legislative and environmental leaders, frustrated by years of underfunding for parks and a 2003 merger by Romney of two agencies into the department, hope that the system is finally poised to turn a corner.
In 2003, Romney got the Legislature to approve combining the Metropolitan District Commission and the Department of Environmental Management into the new Department of Conservation and Recreation, promising that it would save millions of dollars in overhead costs that could fund "a world-class park system" for the state.
But Romney eliminated few top officials. Funding for state parks, forests and beaches dropped from $127.4 million in 2000 to $86.6 million in 2004, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed group that tracks state spending. Romney cut spending to cover what he called a $3 billion budget gap, and legislators, annoyed by what many called unresponsiveness and ineffectuality by managers at the Department of Conservation and Recreation, refused to give them more funding.
This year's funding is $121 million, still below 2000 levels, the foundation said. The agency faces an estimated $1.2 billion maintenance backlog statewide, including hundreds of millions for repairing the Storrow Drive underpass and Longfellow Bridge.
Richard K. Sullivan Jr., a former Westfield mayor whom Patrick named commissioner of the Department of Conservation and Recreation this summer, said the overarching rationale behind the personnel changes is to get the department, - whose responsibilities include everything from bridges, parkways, and land protection around reservoirs to inspecting dams and licensing well-drillers - focused on offering excellent parks.
"The governor, the lieutenant governor, and the secretary have all been clear: All of these facilities, across the Commonwealth, need to be cleaner, safer, and more accessible, and we will make that happen," Sullivan said. For the first time this summer, Sullivan had the department publish a public schedule of how often it promises to collect trash, clean beaches, mow grass, and perform other maintenance tasks at specific parks. "We're saying to the public: Hold us accountable," Sullivan said.
Hoogeboom and Flynn didn't respond to phone messages left for comment. Flynn's removal will require a formal vote later this month by the department's Stewardship Council, a 13-person oversight board appointed by Patrick.
In another change at the department, Sullivan will give Suzanne Wilson - a former vice president of the
Representative Frank Smizik, a Brookline Democrat who chairs the legislative committee overseeing parks and environmental issues, said: "We hope it's a new day for DCR. Parks are a very popular issue in the Legislature."
Smizik said he agrees that the department's fundamental problem is inadequate staff, equipment and money, but added that Patrick's move to improve its relationship with legislators is key.
"I would say it's one of the least popular agencies up here," Smizik said. "Legislators are constantly coming to me saying they're upset" that the department failed to clean a park or beach after they called.
"We need to build a team of reputable, reliable people" to give legislators confidence that the department merits funding increases, said Hart, whose district includes several Boston Harbor beaches supervised by the department.
Frank Gorke, director of Environment Massachusetts, a Boston organization that has sought to boost support for state parks, said: "It is encouraging that the governor and secretary are focusing on our parks. They've been neglected for a long time."
Peter J. Howe can be reached at email@example.com.