July 1, 2002 - From the July, 2002 issue

Former L.A. Recreation & Parks Gm Seeks Greener Pastures In San Diego

In her three years as the General Manager of the city of L.A. Department of Recreation and Parks, Ellie Oppenheim spearheaded many successful programs, turning around the department into a leaner and more productive contributor to L.A.'s quality of life. Recently, Ms. Oppenheim assumed a new role as Director of San Diego's Park and Recreation Department. TPR is pleased to present this exit interview with Ellie Oppenheim, in which she reflects upon her tenure in L.A. and the state of parks and recreation programs throughout the region.


Ellie Oppenheim

Ellie, first of all, describe the new position you have with the city of San Diego and the challenges and opportunities that motivated you to leave L.A..

My new position in San Diego is as Director of the Park and Recreation Department. It's an exciting opportunity because San Diego, while one-third Los Angeles' size, has more than twice as many park and open space acres as Los Angeles. San Diego has operated with an efficient and lean organization for a very long time. One of the challenges is to meet the expectations with limited resources.

One of the things that's exciting is that the city of San Diego is interested in developing a park master plan to help guide the future development of the system. The ability to map out a framework that will guide park development in the City for the next 10 to 25 years is very exciting.

No exit interview with a former city of L.A. General Manger can begin without asking for an assessment of your experience as G.M. Ellie, how difficult was it to turn around what many term the battleship – the Department of Recreation and Parks?

First, we very successfully accomplished a huge amount in the last three years in Los Angeles. The implementation of the CLASS Parks Program-Clean and Safe Spaces-revitalized 47 parks with physical park improvements and much needed youth programs.

Another success was the PREP-Park Restroom Enhancement Program-designed to ensure that restrooms in the most heavily used public parks were maintained and serviced more frequently and better so that they were always in a condition that patrons could comfortably use them. It's not glamorous, but it's important.

Projects like the Shane's Inspiration Boundless Playground in Griffith Park and Aidan's Place in Westwood took already popular playgrounds and adapted them so that able-bodied kids as well as children who have mobility impairments could take advantage of them. The one in Griffith Park is hands-down the most popular playground in the LA parks system.

The construction of the Venice Oceanfront Walk, the EPICC Exposition Park Intergenerational Community Center, implementation of the Off Track Youth Enrichment Program, and planned historic renovation projects like Barnsdall and the Griffith Observatory Renovation and Expansion are other examples of good successes we achieved in the last few years.

Getting initiatives created and changing the course of the battleship in Los Angeles is a very challenging and demanding task. It starts with the organizational structure. The Mayor is the CEO and department heads report to the mayor. But the nexus between the mayor and the Council rests on the individual personalities and initiative.

Some suggest that L.A. City general managers often build walls around themselves and become immobile so they can't be tugged and pulled in 16 directions by the council and mayor. Is that a fair or unfair description of GM behavior?

I would characterize it somewhat differently than that. But what I would say is you have the Mayor's Office pulling in one direction. You have the potential for 15 council offices pulling in different directions. You have, as in the case of the Recreation and Park Department, a board that is setting policy, which may be going in yet a different direction.

There are a number of examples of initiatives that came up through the department, went to the board, should then have gone to a council committee, and in some cases, simply were never scheduled by the council committee.

Are there advantages to the city manager form of government that San Diego employs over the council/mayor form of government in L.A.?

There are several things that a council/manager form of government can accomplish that makes it a more effective environment to work a common agenda and accomplish change. One of the advantages is you've got a city manager who is working to marshal all of the city resources to work together to both anticipate and respond to the agenda of the mayor and the council. For example it is easier to achieve results when one person can set priorities for and ensure that multiple departments are working together and when there is vehicle to resolve conflicts between Departments before they get to Council.

Term limits arguably has changed the relationship between elected representatives and city general managers. Notably, electeds can run/advocate for almost eight years against the city and never take responsibility for any projects being implemented. Does this outsider posture on the part of electeds make the professional general manager's job less attractive?

With term limits, politicians are always running, either for their present office or their next one. In that context it's hard to deal with difficult decisions that should be made in a long-term context when those decisions may not always be the most popular ones. Politicians need voter support right now, today, and in six months, or two years when they are running again.

With term limits having been voted in, in many places in California we've set up a dynamic tension whereby it's much harder for a city council to take a long-term view and vote for something that is the best long term decision for the City if it is unpopular today. The pressure is on for councilmembers to make their decisions based on the impact on voters in their district today.

Given the balkanized nature of LA government, is it practical to do capital projects in collaboration with other public partners like libraries, schools, and healthcare? What's the biggest obstacle to such joint-use?

The biggest challenge to acquisitions in L.A. is coming up with enough money to do any. Then, the next issue is where to acquire without having to look at very unpopular residential condemnation.

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Some cities, like San Diego, have been able to leverage significant public resources, like in City Heights. Do you expect, as San Diego's Director of Parks, to collaborate in more mixed/ joint-use developments?

Absolutely. Looking at opportunities to co-locate facilities and create civic centers at a neighborhood level with schools, parks, community centers, libraries, maybe fire stations, to create the core of a neighborhood is a very positive way to go. And there are some models. City Heights in San Diego is a very successful example of that, that not only is working well from that dimension, but it stimulated other redevelopment efforts by the private sector, and clearly has included significant nonprofit involvement in helping to launch and make the effort successful. I hope we can do a lot more of those here

What about Los Angeles?

One of the challenges to effective joint-use in Los Angeles, candidly, is to make the bureaucracies work together. Thanks to good efforts by the Dept, theMayor's Office and School Board members, we've just started to make successes in that area with several proposals that would locate schools adjacent to existing parkland and allow us to design facilities together that would best-support the needs of the community.

It hasn't always been easy to work together to accomplish and operationalize some of the goals that the city and the school board have agreed on.

L.A.'s South Park is being considered for joint development by LAUSD and Rec and Parks. Now that you're 120 miles south, what must happen for such a partnership to succeed?

LAUSD is trying to build 150 schools in 10 years and there's probably enormous pressure to just get out and get it done, community input or not. But if there are going to be innovative and interesting joint-use projects that create public service centers in neighborhoods, that will take a lot of hard work. It's a challenge in L.A. to get the school district, the Recreation and Parks department, and the community into the room together very early in the life of a project for a lot of discussion, joint planning and decision-making. Without that, the projects probably will just fade away, and the opportunities will be lost.

Over the last decade, Los Angeles has done an extraordinary job at protecting its existing open spaces, i.e. the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy and Baldwin Hills Regional Park. But the challenges, in a dense metropolis, of taking back open space is much harder. Could you comment on how difficult a challenge that is, given current growth projections?

One significant challenge is to create more green space, more park areas, and places for young people to play and families to come together in the dense urban cores of the city, and those high density areas exist in many different geographic parts of Los Angeles. It's not confined just to the central area of Los Angeles.

Accomplishing that is extraordinarily difficult for a number of reasons. One, people don't want to be displaced from their homes. Two, it's expensive land to buy. L.A. hasn't had a lot of money to purchase land. We worked very hard in the Recreation and Parks department to complete acquisitions and were successful in those that we went after.

But there simply isn't a stream of funds flowing in that's allowing the city of L.A. to acquire meaningfully sized properties in the inner-city area. It's why I was a supporter of pocket parks. The Lexington Pocket Park off Western near Santa Monica, Central Avenue Jazz Park, those are good examples of very well appreciated small parks created typically in residential neighborhoods on one or two residential lots.

The Los Angeles Rec and Parks Department was challenged continually to meet expectations regarding building out new capital purchases. It has a very small staff and is under-funded. A decision was made to farm it back out to City public works and engineering, who charge 40% overhead for building out these projects, which negatively impacts the money available to build out these same projects. What can be improved so that these new parks can be acquired and built out in the most cost-efficient and creative ways?

Clearly the Recreation and Parks department didn't have adequate staffing. The request the department was making to augment that staffing and more expeditiously complete the projects didn't seem to be garnering the necessary resources. If public works could get the resources to do accomplish the job, it made sense to me to press ahead so that the capital program could be expedited.

In terms of lessons learned, it should be no surprise that the overhead was needed in the first place. If Recreation and Parks had been supported with that adequately, based on the competency of the staff, I have every belief there that they would have been able to complete the capital projects just as effectively as Engineering hopes to.

Every park and recreation department I've talked to up and down the state is grappling with the same problem. There's a huge influx of park bond money coming in, and the infrastructure is not in place to support that funding level. The relatively static number of project managers most City Park and Recreation Departments have is getting spread very thin across a growing number of projects, leaving little time for appropriate planning and supervision-key ingredients for on time on budget performance.

Lastly, any unsolicited advice you want to share with your successor, Manny Mollinedo?

There's a great team in the Recreation and Parks department, which has come together in the last year or two and stepped to the plate to become a progressive, innovative and hard-working group. I hope that he builds on their strengths and talents and I hope to hear great things about how the department is doing in the future. All the ability is there. I'm sure he'll be a strong addition to the team.

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