APR Mismanagement Part 1 – A Clear Failure of Leadership

Opinion by Dean Silver

The Oak Knoll Golf Course

The golf course subcommittee of the Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission met on March 29 to discuss the future of the Oak Knoll Golf Course. (agenda) (video)

The golf course is facing challenges on two main fronts: funding, and irrigation. The meeting was designed to explain those challenges, and to take the first steps toward finding solutions.

These problems are not new.  But as APR Director Michael Black stated at the meeting, “I’ve been here eight years, and the golf course is still here.”  He’s had eight years to recognize and mitigate the problems at the golf course.  Instead, it’s been business as usual.  But last year, the lack of Talent Irrigation District water brought the problems to a head.

What was APR’s response to the lack of irrigation water?  It just turned on the tap for city water.  This was not the first time APR has used drinking water for irrigation—in fact, it is used extensively throughout the city for parks that do not have access to TID water.  But this year, APR went wild at the golf course, sucking up city water like a drunk at a free bar at a party.

But “this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco”; it’s not money for nothing, and the water is not free.  They say “whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting” because water is too precious to squander.

I have analyzed and documented APR’s egregious water use extensively in a previous article.  I discussed how much water APR used in the last fiscal year, so far this fiscal year, and how severely the budget has been exceeded.  Those are the facts. 

I’m Open for Questions Now… But not THAT Question

The questions remain: why did this happen, and what to do to address the problems.

When something goes wrong, is it worthwhile to analyze the situation and try to discover what went wrong and why it went wrong?  The goal would be to prevent negative outcomes in the future.  Most people would agree.  Most who don’t are those who know that the analysis will reflect poorly upon them, or provide evidence contrary to their position.  Case in point: virtually the entire Republican caucus in Congress regarding the January 6 insurrection.

So it was illuminating to observe the dynamics when the meeting turned to questions from the committee.  Committee member Bret DeForest asked why so much water had been used.  Rather than transcribe the entire conversation, I urge reader to view the interchange for themselves.  The questions begin at 30:30.  Regarding the excessive use of water, Mr. DeForest asked, “I’m wondering how that could have happened, I understood it was $78,000 during that time period… why wasn’t that monitored…?”

Michael Black, immediately on the offensive, responded, “Did you see a $78,000 charge in the data that I showed you?” DeForest: “I did not.” However, he had in fact seen that figure in the data that Black showed him, but he may have been so distracted by Black’s attempts to confuse the viewers with a blizzard of numbers, many of them speculative estimates, some simply irrelevant, that he forgot.  That figure was in the data presented on a chart presented by Black at 13:16 in the video, despite his unnecessarily aggressive denial.  It was the actual YTD expense for water, as was confirmed by staff later.

Black twists himself into veritable knots trying to avoid addressing the issue: how was this allowed to happen?  He offers two “options”: “it didn’t happen, one, or it did happen and it was a mistake of the city and they credited us for water that was used that was not supposed to.” It should be obvious to anyone that both of those options are absurd.  But he cannot take responsibility for his failure to monitor the situation, and his failure to react responsibly.

He then proceeds to place blame on the crew at the golf course, suggesting that they gave him an inaccurate estimate of the cost of the water.  Nothing could be more ridiculous, because these charges for city water use have been piling up for at least two seasons.  If Michael Black was not aware of those charges, and/or he didn’t understand the significance of them, he was not doing his job.

(33:36) Black: “And there wasn’t a $78,000 charge.”
Tara Kiewel (administrative analyst): “$78,000 is our year to date water charges, our total for the fiscal year.”

(33:51) DeForest goes on to question Clubhouse Manager Patrick Orapollo about the water use. Patrick replies that they watered to a level that he “considered normal for a golf course.”

(35:12) DeForest: ”I’m flabbergasted by the fact that we didn’t do something before we got to the nuclear decision….”

(35:22) Black interrupts: “So Brad, Brad, Brad, I’m going to have to stop you.  You’re going way beyond questions here and I think you’re trying to diagnose what the problems are….”  And with that slap in the face, DeForest was silenced, and no one else on the subcommittee saw fit to ask any additional questions.

Black’s response in essence is that we just don’t know, it is what it is, it’s water under the bridge, it’s ancient history, what’s done is done, nothing to see here, let’s just move on.  It is in no way surprising that Michael Black would not want to discuss how and why the water consumption got so out of hand, since he is ultimately responsible for it, and every last penny that is spent by his department.

Next, there were a number of interesting public comments, all recognizing the disastrous condition of the golf course and suggesting other options.

Michael Black again took control of the proceedings with a statement that just has to be heard, and read, and then reread in order to believe you heard it. (49:27) It was his response to a public comment that asked to see the actual revenues for the course:  “So as far as revenue goes, revenue you have to assume if you want to see the revenue you can, but the fact is that revenue covers what is budgeted for expenses. Anything beyond budgeted expenses is beyond the revenue that we have, and that’s just cut and dried.” 

That “explanation” will go down in the annals of exceptional obfuscation, meaningless drivel, and complete avoidance of the question.  However, I must give credit where credit is due.  Michael Black really knows how to throw the bull.  He’s never at a loss for words, and can rationalize anything with a blizzard of baloney, as noted above.  He is a master of those essential political skills: distraction, deflection, and denial. It’s too bad for our city that his managerial skills are not as well developed.

Losing a Great Employee

Patrick Oropallo has been the golf course manager for about three and a half years.  His performance has been universally lauded, from Michael Black, to the public making comments, to essentially anyone who knows him and is aware of his work.  Virtually everyone agrees that he has done an outstanding job with what he has to work with, and has made tremendous improvements to the course under difficult circumstances.

And yet, unfortunately, he has chosen to leave for other employment, just when we need a competent, talented manager to see the course through hard times.

Brad DeForest asked Patrick directly why he chose to leave. (52:53)  Michael Black interjected, “Patrick, you can address that if you want to, but I don’t know if you want to. Obviously that’s your choice.”  The reason he said that becomes obvious with Patrick’s response:

“Sure, I don’t mind sharing…. I think my concern is for this summer and into next season. That being satisfied with just watering greens and tees will leave the course in a condition that people won’t want to support financially, and I just chose to not be a part of that if that’s the route the subcommittee chooses to go…. The course would be in really tough shape. So that was the sole reason I chose to leave. I just don’t see the course getting through this without being in really poor condition.”

Patrick could see the writing on the wall.  It would seem that he had no confidence in upper management being able to solve the problems with the course, and chose to find other employment that would not be a source of constant frustration. Everyone wishes him well.

The Bottom Line

How much more evidence do we need that the Ashland Parks and Recreation Department is being run into the ground?  How much more damage and neglect can we tolerate to our magnificent parks system?  How much more waste of resources, both human and natural, can we tolerate before we say enough? 

The Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission is charged with setting policy for the department, but it and it alone is responsible for supervising the director as well.  They hired him, and only they can fire him.  It is long past time for them to stop following the misguided policies of Michael Black and to realize that he is leading APR down “the garden path” to disaster.  It is long past time for them to give Michael Black his walking papers.  They need to hire a director who will focus on maintaining the properties and programs that we already have.  They need to stop focusing on grandiose new projects.  No wonder people accuse them of “empire building”

Michael Black spends an inordinate amount of his time chasing additional funding from the city budget, and scheming how to achieve a separate parks district.  He neglects the core requirement of his position: to maintain the current parks and recreation programs given the resources available.

The City is now entering a period of austerity due to the wasteful and profligate spending of the past decade, of the inability or unwillingness of our government to face fiscal realities.  The Parks Department and Commission need to get on board with the new city policies.  They need to stop trying to curry favor with special interest groups and consider what is best for the city as a whole.

We’ve had far too much failure in the Parks Department.  It’s time to focus on success.  That will require new leadership.  We have a new City Manager who realizes that things have got to change.  It’s time for a new Director of Parks and Recreation.

You can contact all of the Parks Commissioners and Michael Black with one email address:
parks_commissioners@ashland.or.us

You can contact all of the City Councilors and the Mayor with one email address:
council@ashland.or.us

You can contact City Manager Joe Lessard at: joe.lessard@ashland.or.us