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Environmentby Mark Reutter7:52 amSep 26, 20130

A trip to Houston to improve Rec and Parks in Baltimore

Board of Estimates approves nearly $19,000 for Rec and Park staffers to attend a conference in Texas.

Above: Ernest Burkeen at his swearing-in ceremony, flanked by mayoral aide Kaliope Parthemos and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Baltimore’s perennially cash-strapped Recreation and Parks Department will be sending eight staffers to a conference and trade show in Houston next month, but it’s all for a good cause, says an agency spokesperson.

The Board of Estimates yesterday approved $18,705 in travel expenses for the group – the priciest travel request made by a city agency in many months.

The trip is part of an initiative by incoming Rec and Parks Director Ernest W. Burkeen Jr. to win accreditation by the National Recreation and Park Association, which hosts the conference and bills itself as the national leader in serving the parks community.

When Burkeen arrived in Baltimore last December (after stints as the director of the Miami and Detroit parks departments), he was the only NRPA-certified professional on the staff, according to Kia McLeod, the agency’s director of media relations.

“He believes getting certification is very important for the department,” McLeod said. So eight senior staffers, led by parks chief William Vondrasek, will undergo training in Houston to get up to snuff on the best professional practices nationwide.

Two staff members will take accreditation courses. One will attend an off-site training course (“examining model parks in Houston and surrounding areas,” McLeod said). And five will be attending training and continuing education courses during the October 6-11 meeting.

Longstanding Ties

Burkeen, who is not going with the group, has been associated for many years with the NRPA, which exhibits playground and park equipment and sponsors research and seminars.

He’s been a trustee on the group’s national board and is past president of its Ethnic Minority Society. He arranged for the accreditation of the Miami Parks Department shortly before he was terminated in 2012 by Miami Mayor Tomas P. Regalado.

Recruited to Baltimore, Burkeen has maintained a low profile as his boss, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, pushes to consolidate and modernize recreation centers and update park property on a bares-bone budget.

The spending board, controlled by the mayor, granted $3,482 to pay for registration fees at the convention, plus $15,223 for travel, lodging and meals. Two park managers, Robert Dallas and Robert Wall, will spend a full workweek at the conference, while other members will stay for two or three nights.

NRPA’s following among government agencies is chiefly limited to the South and Southwest. Very few parks or recreation departments in the Northeast or Midwest have gotten accreditation, which requires a lengthy self-evaluation process, among other things.

In Maryland, the only accredited NRPA members are the Howard County Recreation and Parks Department and the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, according to the organization’s website.

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