August 8, 2002
When the Fairfax County Park Authority held its public hearing last year on the construction of a skateboarding area at Wakefield Park in Burke, a rumor arose that the trails behind the park were going to be closed to mountain bikes. Almost 500 people packed the Wakefield Rec Center to urge the Park Authority to keep the trails open to mountain bikers.
To Paul Baldino, the Park Authority director who is retiring in September to become human resources director for Arlington County, that anecdote illustrates the growing trend in public involvement in the county's park system.
"It actually really was a good thing," he recalled, "because we were able to hook up with the mountain bike group."
Bikers and park staffers managed to work together to find ways to reduce the environmental impact of mountain biking.
AFTER FIVE and a half years, four at the helm of the agency, Baldino will be leaving the Park Authority. Prior to that, Baldino spent 24 years with the county's human resources department.
His years with the parks coincided with public emphasis on land conservation as a crucial role of government as the last land in the county faces development.
"Unfortunately that was driven by the fact that there was precious little land to be saved," he said. But he also had to deal with neighbors concerned about a park development in their backyards.
"As the county's approaching build-out, everything you do is next to somebody's home," he said.
Baldino credits the Board of Supervisors, the Park Authority Board, staff and citizens for all pulling together to ensure that some of the county's open space was preserved for posterity.
Under his watch, the park system added 5,000 acres. The Park Authority acquired an additional 1,270 acres with the transfer of the Lorton Prison site.
"What we had is everybody coming together," he said, citing a $75 million park bond in 1988, another $75 million bond in 1998 and a $20 million bond this fall as examples of the high level of interest in land preservation. The Park Authority has also proposed a $75-$100 million bond in 2004.
"In effect everything I took credit for as chairman he did," said Frank de la Fe, now a planning commissioner from the Hunter Mill District who was chairman of the Park Authority Board when Baldino joined the authority.
"He worked very well with the community and with county staff," he added. "There had been sort of a distance between the Park Authority and the county and that has disappeared."
De la Fe also credited him with involving the immigrant community in planning for the future of county parks.
"He did a tremendous job in bringing in members of the community that had been overlooked before," he said. "A lot of the immigrant groups, they just were not vocal, organized enough."
When developing the authority's strategic plan which outlines the park system's goal for the next five years, Baldino asked the human services agencies to set up meetings with interested community members. That way, the Park Authority was able to hear from many new immigrant groups who tend to be in touch with human services agencies but not with many other agencies.
"You typically meet with your constituent group," Baldino noted, "but we wanted to reach out to people we don't usually hear from."
Those meetings, which wrapped up last year, encouraged the Park Authority to move towards developing more soccer fields, popular with the Hispanic community and more fields suitable for cricket, which is popular with South Asian immigrants.
The Park Authority also took over the maintenance of all 501 elementary and middle school athletic fields under Baldino's watch.
"Everyone had always complained that the school fields were not as good as the county fields," De La Fe said.
BALDINO MADE the shift to deputy director of the Park Authority from the Human Resources Department beating out other candidates in the authority's nationwide search to fill the position. Nine months later, the director of the Park Authority, Jim Heberlein, left the Park Authority and Baldino took over.
His annual salary as deputy director was $89,648 in 1997 dollars. His current annual salary as director is $126,632.06.
"I approached the Park Authority Board because I felt he could add something to the management," said County Executive Anthony Griffin. "I wanted to provide the Park Authority to get the benefit of his management skills."
"I didn't quite anticipate the Park Authority would pick Paul to be the next director," he added. "It was an unusual request."
De la Fe said Baldino arrived at the Park Authority just after the authority had resisted an effort from former County Executive Bob O'Neill to merge with the Recreation and Community Services Department. According to de la Fe, Baldino was instrumental in healing the wounds that were left from that battle. Although the two agencies have essentially merged in the last few years, "it was done the right way," said de la Fe.
BALDINO SAID he was looking forward to going back to working for a Human Resources department. He also said he was glad his new post in Arlington County would let him remain involved in local government.
"I think there are few places where you can get the range of action that government provides," he said. Public service, he added, "is work with meaning and you really can make a difference in people's lives."
On a more prosaic note, Baldino said he will enjoy being able to take the Metro to work from his Falls Church home. The station is close by.
"It's a good walk through a park," he said.