Atlanta says, ‘We did drop the ball’ by skipping residents’ input in parks contract to oversee recreation center
By David Pendered
A controversy over the management of an Atlanta recreation center illustrates the types of problems that can emerge when city departments function with an interim commissioner.
Some residents of East Atlanta are irate that the city didn’t contact them before moving ahead with a plan to extend a lease with East Atlanta Kids Club, Inc. to operate the recreation center at Brownwood Park.
The proposal was skating through City Hall until Atlanta City Councilmember Natalyn Archbong asked that it be tabled at the Sept. 15 meeting. Since then, Mayor Kasim Reed has nominated a parks commissioner, and the proposal regarding Brownwood Park is up for discussion at Monday’s city council meeting.
The position of parks commissioner is one of several cabinet positions Reed is continuing to fill in the 11 months since his reelection. Vacancies include planning commissioner and CEO of Invest Atlanta, the city’s development arm.
Amy Phuong has served as interim parks commissioner since May, when former parks Commissioner George Dusenbury abruptly left the administration. Reed announced Phuong’s nomination on Sept. 24.
A series of recent emails between Phuong and Ed Gilgor, chairman of NPU-W, indicates neither Phuong nor anyone else in the parks department thought to check with the NPU about plans to extend a lease with East Atlanta Kids Club.
Gilgor said he was outraged when he learned that the city intended to extend its contract with East Atlanta Kids Club without consulting area residents.
In an email to Phuong, Gilgor wrote:
- “The idea that Parks was willing to make decisions regarding the future of the facility for years to come without any shred of community input is beyond the pale.
- “I have no idea who handles community relations for Parks (which I suppose says quite a bit about the way in which Parks operates), but whoever is in charge of these matters should be severely reprimanded for the gross mis-handling of this venture.
- “The first question surrounding the Brownwood Recreation Center is why the city is unable to staff it at this point in time. When the City abandoned it, it was due to budgetary constraints. Since those constraints no longer exist, I would like to understand what obstacles currently stand in the way of the city fulfilling its obligations to the citizens of East Atlanta and stop it from properly operating the facility. Once that issue has been clarified and if it can be shown that the city is unable to operate the facility, then is the appropriate time to consider alternatives to city staffing.
- “However, until the question of why the city cannot perform this fundamental governmental duty, any discussion of the operation of the facility by anyone else is entirely premature.
Phuong responded that the city did “drop the ball” by not communicating with residents about extending the lease – but only because city officials thought East Atlanta Kids Club is a “good partner” with the city:
- “The East Atlanta Kids Club has been a good partner in programs with the City and in operating Brownwood Recreation Center. We did drop the ball in engaging the community about the renewal but it was not with ill intent to circumvent the process.
- “Honestly, we looked at the renewal process with the lens that the programming and partnership was going well overall and that there are opportunities to strengthen the overall results. As such, we didn’t think through the complete checklist of steps and missed the community engagement…
- “Overall, while the city continues to gain fiscal stability, we continue to operate with a budget that is still significantly less than pre-2009. We will continue to work together to achieve high quality programs and community access specific to Brownwood Recreation Center with all parties involved similar to other centers and park assets across the city.”
East Atlanta Kids Club was incorporated as a non-profit in Georgia in 2000, according to the Georgia Secretary of State.
According to its IRS tax return, the mission of the organization is to:
- “Build a promising future for children in southeast Atlanta. We have two core programs – an after school mentoring, tutoring and enrichment program for disadvantaged youth, and a one-on-one mentoring program.”
Like many non-profits, East Atlanta Kids Club reported wide swings in revenues in recent years. Tax returns show revenues in 2009 were $253,027; in 2011 revenues were $239,249; and in 2012 – the latest year available – revenues were $364,747, according to tax returns accessible on guidestar.org.
Jill Sieder serves as executive director and the names of the six board members are available on the organization’s website.