Our local Recreation Commission was quite generous with our money in 2019 in that they gave Christmas bonus payments to six of their top managers. The bonus checks ranged from $4,171 to $6,166 each with the Recreation Commission director getting the biggest bonus despite his being hired just over one year ago.
For those who don’t know, all the county parks and recreation programs and staff are managed by a citizen’s panel of nine volunteer members, eight of which are appointed by Board of Commissioners Chairman Marcello Banes as best I understand its structure. The Recreation Commission was appropriated $1.8 million in tax funds this year. The rest of their budget is from fees paid by participants in various recreation programs.
A few observations are warranted. First, the “bonuses” totaled $28,501 and are probably illegal under the gratuities clause of the state constitution which prohibits giving away public funds for nothing. Second, the Recreation Commission awarded these bonuses after laying off at least four other employees then claiming there was “excess” salary money in the budget. Third, it is troubling that the appointed Recreation Commission members and new director did not recognize that this action was inappropriate if not illegal. Fourth, why didn’t the county HR director or the county manager block the inappropriate payments? Lastly, the bonuses were said to be 8% of the salary of the recipients, which means a select group of managers received generous Christmas gifts even though all are paid from $52,000 to $77,000 per year.
The bonus payments are just the latest of several controversial actions by the Recreation Commission. Their failure to investigate strong allegations of wrongdoing by the former director in 2016 and their botched dismissal of him in 2017 led to a settlement of $500,000 paid to that individual in 2019. That fiasco was further amplified by the BOC chairman when he dismissed the existing Recreation Commission members and appointed new ones without any changes in how they would operate. Then, the new commission hired a new director with the unrealistic expectation that they could effectively oversee his management of the parks and recreation staff and programs.
The improper bonuses, whether repaid or not, represent another argument for placing all recreation programs and parks under the supervision of a full time, competent county administrator who answers to the elected BOC. The Recreation Commission members are just citizen volunteers who cannot be expected to know all the rules for spending public funds and managing government employees. And, with just monthly meetings, they apparently cannot provide the necessary oversight to ensure that the public interest is always best served. The tremendous cost of the bungled firing of the former director was ample justification to make changes so the best possible recreation programs are provided at a reasonable cost. Unfortunately, the status quo has prevailed and county residents and recreation program participants continue to pay for this kind of mismanagement.
— Larry McSwain