Parks & Reclamation 

The Cleveland Metroparks Has More Money Than Ever, Six New Lakefront Parks and a CEO With a Grand Vision. It Also Has Plenty of Problems.

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Love spoke with Jim Bell, a Metroparks engineer, and Nancy Desmond, the director of special projects. He said much is still unknown about this mysterious hollow area, but that it may have been a historical relic of the old amusement park's infrastructure, possibly a large storage area or network of storage areas and tunnels for workers and equipment.

When Scene contacted Nancy Desmond, she said that she wasn't the right person to talk to. She directed questions to Sue Allen.

Allen verified that "consultants and engineers" had been working hard at the lakefront parks, but when asked about the specific situation regarding the underground tunnels at Euclid Beach, said, "I don't know anything about that."

Her avowed ignorance came as a surprise, given the barricades and spray paint marking off the area, the work of Metroparks' maintenance crews [photo above].

Stephen Love, Brian Friedman and others are not concerned with the Metroparks' stewardship: They know that CMP has the financial resources and management expertise to enhance the quality of the lakefront parks. The bigger issue is communication.

"We want to be good partners," said Brian Friedman in a follow-up call. "But I'm happy to say publicly that I don't know what's going on, and I'd like to know."

Friedman said that though the Metroparks is a "good" organization, they're not used to working in neighborhoods with residents who expect to be engaged and who expect their feedback to be taken into consideration.

Joel Wimbiscus felt the same way, and said that "they've learned a lot" in their short time at the helm. He also said that ultimately, CMP had no obligation to honor the Euclid Beach proposal. "It wasn't their design process and something, necessarily, they were envisioning," he said.

Stephen Love suspected that money from the levy will be spent on enhancements to the park, even if major capital investments aren't on the docket. What worries him is that transformative action may be taken without something like community meetings. He was led to believe that the park may be shut down for a significant period of time and that millions of dollars would be necessary to correct the "imminent danger" the tunnels represented, affecting the pier and the fountain and aspects of the park residents have serious emotional attachments to.  

"We hope to really have an open door, and a way to affect the process and provide input," Love said, speaking in macro terms.  "We voted yes [on the levy], and there was a lot of excitement around that June transfer. There's an opportunity for them to capitalize. And unfortunately if they don't, some of the five-years-out conversations will be negative. I think as time goes by that excitement will turn into anticipation, and then eventually frustration."

The CEO Problem and a Matter of Transparency

Brian Zimmerman, in his opening remarks after being sworn in as the executive director-secretary of the parks in 2010, suggested that three items were essential to his tenure at the outset: maintenance of the park system's current infrastructure, acquisition of new land parcels and financial integrity. From the outside, he appears to have been doing a bang-up job on all three.

Yet one source characterizes Zimmerman's leadership slightly differently.

"It is common knowledge that Metroparks administration thrives on an environment that is [laden] with abuse, intimidation, workplace bullying, hidden cameras, and coercion," they said.

Common knowledge, perhaps, to employees; but not to those unfamiliar with park operations and not — in all likelihood — to most voters. And while employees' opinions may fall on either side of the argument, the highly secretive nature of the Metroparks means even former employees aren't likely to talk. The source describes dismissals of long-tenured workers while Zimmerman oversaw the ballooning of salaries for administrative personnel, as well as massive payroll dollars for consultants and lobbyists.

Other sources have confirmed that former employees were bullied into non-disclosure agreements that prevented them from talking about their departures and their time at the Metroparks.

 In March 2011, the Center for Marketing and Opinion Research (CMOR), based in Akron, conducted an employee satisfaction survey of the Metroparks' employees. The survey consisted of questions related to job satisfaction, opportunities for advancement, organizational culture, training, communication, leadership and diversity.

According to sources, the results of the survey showed low job satisfaction, a distrust of leadership, and a culture of suspicion. CMOR would not verify the results of the survey. Since that time, more than 50 employees have retired, and an unknown number of people have quit or been fired. The minutes from board meetings show that Zimmerman often brings around "retiring guests" to "honor their service" to the park district.

In the meantime, administrators and directors continue to make bank. Listed in the board minutes for Dec. 22, 2011, is an action item related to wage structure and salary increases. There is a charge listed at "$5,000 - $20,000" for an outside consultant to conduct a compensation survey for 12 positions.

A compensation survey had already been performed just three years prior (listed in the board minutes Dec. 18, 2008). That survey resulted in a 3-percent increase to 2009 salaries for full-time and part-time non-union employees, and a 3.5-percent increase for both the executive director and treasurer.  

The results of the 2011 survey resulted in a 2.85-percent salary increase for full-time and part-time non-union employees, and a 7.5-percent pay increase for Zimmerman and 5-percent increase for CFO Dave Kuntz.

In addition to the unproportional pay increase, the Archer Company consultancy recommended increasing the pay grades to add three additional grades at the high end. Until that time, the salary structure provided salary grades 21 through 38. Archer recommended that the Executive Director-Secretary position (Zimmerman) be assigned to salary grade 41, which will ultimately allow him to make more than $200,000.

Currently, via a public records request to the Metroparks, Zimmerman makes $165,000 with $14,000 in benefits. In 2010, his salary was $145,000 plus a signing bonus. One source familiar with the Metroparks' finances suspects that Zimmerman is in store for another significant raise in 2013 and predicts that it will only be reported as a percentage.

Though other top public officials make roughly commensurate salaries — Mayor Frank Jackson makes $136,000, for comparison — Zimmerman stands to become the highest paid park chief in the state and the second-highest official in Cleveland (second only to Ricky D. Smith, the director of port control) when he reaches his pay grade's maximum.

Meanwhile, consultants are providing redundant or completely unnecessary services. Commissioners okayed $30,000 for an executive search for a Chief Operations Officer. Zimmerman eventually tapped his pal from Milwaukee, Joe Roszak, to be his second in command.

The point here is that the Metroparks have a tremendous amount of money on hand. And, after the levy's passage, they now have substantially more. Because the public is paying premium tax rates, CMP owes it to the public to be accountable and transparent about their spending. The fact that they make their board meetings available online is excellent. The fact that issues regarding compensation, personnel and real estate — issues in which the commissioners often have vested business interests — are excluded from public record, the stuff of private "executive sessions," is troubling.  

One source called the Metroparks a "secretive" organization, a trait bred out of excessive caution. "They just like to have their ducks in a row."

Another source called Zimmerman a "tyrant."

Regardless of personal impressions, though, the positive results at the lakefront are a real thing. The cosmetics have drastically improved. The tone for safety and security have been set. It remains to be seen how and when the Metroparks will make changes at Euclid Beach and the other parks in the Emerald Necklace's newest holdings, but the public will keep asking.  

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