It's no secret that Metro Parks and Recreation director Roy Wilson is holding onto his job by a thread. At an administrative working session with his board last week, Wilson confirmed that Parks suffered a $700,000 shortfall in the last fiscal year. Then on Tuesday, Metro Finance Director Rich Riebeling told Parks board members that his office is currently projecting a $1.77 million deficit for Parks in fiscal year 2010.Wilson admits the controversy has taken a toll, raising questions about his future in the job. "I'm consulting with my doctor, to get his advice about how all this job stress might impact my health," the embattled Parks chief told the Scene.
But some Parks board members and staff say that Wilson's fiscal difficulties are merely part of a larger pattern of mismanagement. They point to inconsistent leadership, hiring that violated personnel policy, and haphazard engagement with the board as also contributing to an all-time low in morale.
"A lot of us feel that Parks has been going downhill for the last five years due to a lack of direction from the top," says one decade-long staffer, who (like most of the Parks staffers and insiders contacted for this story) requested anonymity for fear of reprisal. "We've always had such pride in what we do. These are really tough times financially; everybody knows that. But it's as if the head guys [Wilson and James Gray, assistant director for finance and administration] have blinders on, they're not acting responsible."
A decision for which Wilson was directly responsible was a hire that went against stated Parks personnel policy, as well as the judgment of his own staff: William Frank Pillow Jr.
Frank Pillow is a former TSU football player who also spent time in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Bucs. In April of 2006, he applied for two seasonal, part-time jobs in Parks: as an umpire and a community center recreational leader. The applications ask a routine question: "Have you ever been convicted for violation of the law?"
Pillow's response—found in his personnel file, which is open to the public—says "domestic violence and weapons possession."
Parks department policy precludes hiring an applicant who has "any felonious conviction, which includes the act of violence or possible act of violence toward another person within the past five years." Letters between Parks' human resources coordinator and Metro Human Resources cite background checks that confirm Pillow failed the "felonious conviction" condition. The search turned up incidents dating to 2003 and 2004, as well as more than one name associated with his Social Security number. As a result, Pillow was informed that he would not be hired for either position.
On April 29, however, Roy Wilson received an email from then-Councilwoman Brenda Gilmore recommending Pillow for a Parks position. In response, Wilson directed James Gray and Paul Widman—Parks' assistant director for recreation—to hire Pillow for the rec leader position.
"I am not sure what Parks personnel policy is, but Frank Pillow is a young man that I have known since he was a child," Gilmore explained by email when contacted by the Scene. "He has had a troubled past, but I thought he had changed and I wanted to help him get a second chance. Apparently, he did not learn the lessons of life well enough and unfortunately, he messed up again."
Pillow subsequently shifted from seasonal to permanent part-time status before gaining full-time employment—and civil service protection—as rec leader at the Hartman community center in 2007. There are no "mess-ups" recorded in his Parks personnel file until 2008. Then complaints surface about "aggressive behavior with unruly teens and youth," a "verbal altercation" with a boy and his father, and in July, putting a 13-year-old in a headlock.
For the latter offense, Pillow was subjected to a disciplinary hearing administered by James Gray. Pillow's immediate supervisor, Bobby Jones, as well as Parks recreation superintendent Bill Troup and Widman all recommended that he be dismissed. Instead, Pillow received a three-day suspension and was directed to attend counseling. Later that month, he was transferred to the Madison community center.
In March 2009, Pillow was forbidden to drive Parks vehicles due to a DUI charge. But it was not until June—when WTVF-Channel 5 reported that the parent of a boy involved in one of the 2008 incidents had taken Pillow to court—that Pillow left Parks employment. The day after the broadcast, Wilson told the Scene last week, he called Pillow in, told him he had "become a liability for the department," and gave him the option of resigning.
"Frank gave me his letter on the spot," Wilson says.
Maybe Frank Pillow is just a guy with some anger-management issues who was allowed to occupy a job in which calm-cool-and-collected is a crucial skill. It's also true that government jobs have always been "it's not what you know but who you know" territory. That's why governments have personnel policies, to give administrators an official out, a piece of paper to wave in the face of lobbyists and politicians asking for favors.
But Wilson didn't wave the piece of paper. "I always bow to elected officials," he explains. "Perhaps I shouldn't have this time." Given that the Metro Council once featured a member who wanted to put a UFO landing pad in his district, it seems wise for department heads to think carefully before bowing too deeply.
If the Pillow hire and the budget overruns were the only blemishes on an otherwise impeccable record, Wilson would likely not be under the same fire. But another Parks veteran says that Wilson's "lack of leadership" has had a trickle-down effect on the Parks board. "When you have a vacuum where the leadership should be," the staffer says, "the Parks board can get itself into trouble."
The "trouble" to which the staffer refers concerns decisions by the Parks board and its acquisitions committee to give the Harold S. Vanderbilt Bridge Education Association—a not-for-profit group of card players—the go-ahead to move forward with plans to use land in Centennial Park to construct a building to host club activities. The club would pay for the 6,000-square-foot building and be responsible for operations and maintenance; Metro would own the facility.
The proposed site lies at the edge of Centennial Park, so the building would be minimally intrusive. But any plan to insert private purpose onto public parkland poses troubling questions about the establishment of precedent.
The timing of the bridge club proposal is driven by the fact that the club is losing its quarters on the Vanderbilt campus. In 1989, what was then called the Mid-State Bridge Club struck a deal with the university to pay for the construction of a 4,000-square-foot building on the campus near the stadium. At the expiration of the 20-year lease—September 2010—both property and building revert to Vanderbilt. The university has told the club to find new space.
In a June letter to Wilson, Larry Hays, chair of the club's relocation committee, describes the Centennial building plan as "a win/win situation" for Parks and the club because the building could "accommodate alternative uses by Metro or the community for classes, meetings, or other functions" when not used by the club.
When asked his take on the bridge club proposal, Wilson says, "My position is to adhere to the board's position." He adds, "It could be a worthwhile addition to our system, because it would be shared by Parks and the club and give us additional meeting space."
The current schedule posted on the club's website, however, indicates that bridge games begin at noon and again at 7 p.m. on weekdays and at 1 p.m. on weekends. This schedule suggests that availability of the facility to Metro and the community could be limited mostly to mornings and weekend evenings if non-card-playing space wasn't included—not exactly peak hours for most community centers.
The positive vote by Parks' acquisitions committee and board also raises conflict-of-interest issues. Tonya Jones, the Planning Commission's representative on the Parks Board and a member of its acquisitions committee, is also a member of the bridge club. Not only did Jones not recuse herself, she voted for the club's proposal during deliberations by acquisitions committee and board.
Wilson says he was unaware that Jones was a member of the bridge club at the time of her votes. He also explains that "it's up to whomever controls the gavel in a meeting"—in this case board chair Stan Fossick—"to suggest a board member recuse, if the person doesn't volunteer to recuse him or herself. I report to the board, and it's not the right thing to chastise my employer."
Wilson seems blind to an unwritten duty of administrators: to protect board members from making mistakes. No department head wanting to keep his head would proclaim a board member's need to recuse at a public meeting. But a private warning to the board chair before the meeting would have been sound protective action. And if Wilson was unaware of Jones' membership in the club—a lack of awareness not shared by his staff—then he's isolated indeed.
Still, it's the budget debacle that has brought the criticisms of Wilson to a head. At the Parks Board meeting this week, Riebeling said Wilson didn't alert the administration of last year's impending shortfall until it was too late to get a supplement through Metro Council to balance the books. Riebeling also says this fiscal year's deficit—running so far at $100,000 a month—is due in part to the fact that Wilson and Gray have not yet implemented all the cuts they proposed for this fiscal year during budget hearings last spring. Before Parks starts any new cuts, Riebeling says, it must implement the ones already in place.
"We need to slow down and look at what's appropriate from a broad perspective rather than just randomly plugging holes," Riebeling told the Scene. "We want to find the cuts that will have the least impact on services to the community." Riebeling says his target is to have an analysis on the budget problems "before the end of the month."
The lack of communication about the Parks budget extends to the most basic level. Wilson and Gray have not supplied the board with even simple monthly statements about revenues and expenses—a practice of previous Parks director Jim Fyke.
"When you have to get to Sept. 28 of this fiscal year before you find out that we were $700,000 over for the last fiscal year, and that we're another $100,000 short for July, and then again in August—well, this is certainly a haphazard way to run things," Fossick told the Scene. "Roy has painted himself into a real tight corner."
Wilson is not the only Metro department director to run over budget last year, as Riebeling noted. Wilson has also had the bad luck to succeed one of the most popular department directors in Metro history. Jim Fyke left Metro Parks—to become Phil Bredesen's commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation—trailing clouds of the closest-to-glory that government gets: a reputation for competence, political savvy and a willingness to admit when he'd screwed up.
Wilson lacks Fyke's skills at working the often greasy gears of Metro government. That lack has made his tenure precarious. As early as last winter, the word on the street—at least the street going and coming from the Metro Courthouse—was that Wilson was history as soon as Mayor Dean got a majority of his own appointees on the Parks board and Wilson had served the five years in Metro sufficient to qualify for his pension—both of which occurred last April. Summer waxed and waned, and nothing happened.
Now the Parks department's budget difficulties have surfaced, to give increased focus to discontent over Wilson. And there's blood in the water.
Editor's note: Christine Kreyling is a member of the Greenways Commission and the Centennial Park Master Plan Committee.
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