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by Mark Reutter9:09 amMar 31, 20160

The exodus begins: Rec and Parks director says he’s leaving

The long goodbyes of a lame-duck administration

Above: Ernest Burkeen (right) joins Bob Wall, head of the recreation division, at an event at Patterson Park. (Fern Shen)

In a scene that’s likely to be repeated at other city offices in the coming months, Ernest Wisdom Burkeen Jr., director of Recreation and Parks, gathered his staff together on Monday and told them he was leaving.

His resignation, not yet made official, comes not long after one of City Hall’s highest-ranking officers, Khalil Zaied, handed in his papers as deputy mayor of operations.

Burkeen, who has faced health issues, told staff he will be returning to Florida, where he will manage parks and recreation for the town of Plantation.

Zaied, meanwhile, is headed for El Paso, where he will become a deputy city manager.

Another senior appointee, mayoral spokesman Howard Libit, is also jettisoning City Hall, in his case heading just a couple miles up Park Heights Avenue to the Baltimore Jewish Council.

The waning days of the Rawlings-Blake administration are beginning to weigh down on senior staff. The mayor’s term ends on December 5. For many department and division heads not protected by civil service, now’s the time to update those resumes and seek new opportunities.

For Burkeen, Rec and Parks has been home for three years, which made his tenure at the agency one of the longest in modern history. There have been three department heads and one acting head since Stephanie Rawlings-Blake became mayor. Since 1989, there have been at least 12 directors.

Recruited from Miami, where he had been parks chief before running afoul of Mayor Tomas Regalado, Burkeen was viewed as a committed, thoughtful, but at times disengaged boss.

He has had some accomplishments under his belt (he kept most rec centers open), but will leave Baltimore with his top goal unfulfilled – winning agency accreditation from the National Recreation and Park Association.

Audits and Accreditation

Burkeen saw that seal of approval as a critical step in professionalizing the department. But his effort was doomed in part because accreditation required an annual audit of the agency’s activities.

While Burkeen supported the audits, his bosses at City Hall are allergic to them – the best they will do is quadrennial (every fourth year) audits of the larger departments.

Forced by City Councilman Carl Stokes to undergo an audit before Burkeen arrived in 2012, Rec and Parks was scheduled for a quadrennial audit last year.

The audit was due last September, but has yet to materialize. According to the administration, a draft audit has been completed and is “under review.”

Speed Camera Mess

Zaied worked his way up to the mayor’s office after serving as director of the Department of General Services and then Department of Transportation.

In the latter position, he oversaw the speed camera program that first became mired in criticism for its inaccurate recordings, which resulted in erroneous citations to motorists, then collapsed and was withdrawn from service three years ago. That program also is currently “under review.”

Libit was recruited to the mayor’s office from KO Public Affairs, an “advocacy” firm that helped persuade the mayor to hand out $107 million in tax increment financing (TIFs) to the Harbor Point/Exelon development and various city improvements around it.

He was named the mayor’s first director of strategic planning and policy until her press spokesman, Kevin R. Harris, left. Then he was anointed both chief of public affairs and director of strategic planning and policy.

None of the departees appear to be in a rush to leave. Burkeen told his staff he’ll probably stay on at Rec and Parks until around Memorial Day, while Zaied said he wasn’t required to be at his new job until June 30. Libit is expected to leave sometime in May.

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