GPW: Self-Tempered Anarchy since 2009

Your GPW Editor-on-Occasion is Petra Fried in the City.
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stories along The Way

Monday, May 10, 2010

Park Rangers mismanagement, and the loss of the public trust

On Sept 9, 2009, fifty parks users and community members from regional parks* all over Los Angeles drove into the heart of Los Feliz during rush hour to meet one-on-one with Councilman Tom LaBonge.

The meeting, called with little notice by Council District Four, was in response to the arbitrary, unwarranted removal of half of the City's highly-trained Park Rangers from active field work to be integrated into a new "Interpretive Unit".

No need for such a unit utilizing the full skills set of a Los Angeles City Park Ranger had been or has yet to be demonstrated, and the people who use the parks daily wanted an explanation. More importantly, they needed to be heard.

The Los Angeles City Park Rangers are currently full peace officers governed by California POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) requirements. In a major metropolitan area like Los Angeles, this is important. Training is better - the enforcement and psychological portions take place at the Police Academy, and more highly trained and highly dedicated Park Rangers are fielded on average by this qualification. The naturalist trainings take place through PRAC-certified courses.

The Rangers being pulled by Recreation and Parks from real field work were Rangers grandfathered under somewhat controversial conditions at a time before POST certification. Some of those grandfathered were already peace officers. One swears an oath to be a peace officer. A few chose to ignore that oath in the grandfather deal, although they readily accepted continuing to receive the same pay as the full peace officers.

The schism caused by how poorly this change was handled still taints the entire Division today, and certain individuals, the Department of Recreation and Parks itself, and the associated unions continue to take advantage of it as a destructive manipulation tool.

The non-peace officer Park Rangers are Public Officers as defined in the California Penal Code and are trained to do a number of vital park-specific services, including:
      • Security
      • Patron assistance
      • Firefighting
      • Search and rescue
      • Community policing
      • Wildlife and resource protection
      • Education and interpretive -  both formal and the all-important in the field interactions
Public officers can enforce City parks codes. Peace officer Park Rangers do all of these things, with the additional job of being able to enforce all State and City codes - not just park codes - and arrest.

All Park Rangers know their parks like the backs of their hands. Locations without addresses are their forte when an emergency call comes in. They are the de facto "facility managers" of the large open spaces in Los Angeles. Their visible presence can be the difference between civility and safety, and complete and utter anarchy on a busy day.

To do their jobs, they must be tactical in their response, working in the parks, on patrol, and with the public. Being a Park Ranger isn't just a job, but a vocation in the true sense.

During the two and a half hour meeting in September in Los Feliz, every single citizen, neighbor, and parks user who made it there in rush hour said almost the exact same thing to Tom LaBonge. It didn't matter which parks they came from across the City. They needed Park Rangers on patrol in their parks. Park Rangers doing the full scope of Park Ranger duties. Vital duties that were borne out of the very day-to-day need in the parks of Los Angeles as it has evolved over the century.

Why would you pull highly-trained and paid Rangers from the field?  The heavy lifting with respect to interpretive work, if there is such a thing as compared to the need for other services in parks, can easily be done by trained docents and volunteers in similar, but appropriately scaled down uniforms.

LaBonge listened, and appeared to sympathize. His office produced a patronizing say-nothing narrative to General Manager Jon Kirk Mukri and Recreation and Parks commission president Barry Sanders. It looked for a moment like the needs of the parks had indeed been properly heard, and that something positive might come of it.

But as is often the case with the City, this whole action wasn't about the public or what parks really need. The very next day after the meeting, Tom LaBonge met with Recreation and Parks Assistant General Manager Kevin Regan.  LaBonge told Regan that he wanted the Interpretive Unit created anyway, to just do it. To hell with the public and public safety. To hell with union work agreements. To hell with CA POST. And to hell with taxpayer dollars. Tom wanted people in Ranger hats available for show and tell at the drop of that very recognizable hat.

So it was written. So it was done.

Today, by AGM Kevin Regan's orders, these ten public officer Park Rangers do not respond to the required chain of command that California POST units are required to adhere to. They spend their days not in the Park Ranger Station, but allegedly watching television for the most part over at CSY, Recreation and Parks' central service yard on the Atwater Village side of Griffith Park. They are now Regan's -- and LaBonge's -- highly-trained, overpaid and underutilized 'Interpretive Unit', whether there is a real demand or not. Whether it fits their job descriptions or not. Whether it best serves the parks, or not.

Ten million visitors descend upon Griffith Park alone annually. Regan's and LaBonge's body-snatch has left just ten peace officer Park Rangers to handle almost all of the work load. Other regional parks have no Park Rangers.

Unless management-by-malice and draconian practices are considered Best Practices within the Department of Recreation and Parks, it is truly hard to fathom how Assistant General Manager Kevin Regan has come to wield such exclusive control over the Park Rangers.

Originally a tree trimmer within the Department and well-known among other employees for running his personal home business doing the same while using City equipment, rarely is something positive said about Regan as an administrator outside of the official record, such as it is.

Communities who've dealt with Regan on important issues over the years during tenures as a superintendent in their area for the most part simply despise him. The stated complaints? Abusive. Arbitrary. Insane. Threatens. Lies. Flakes. Misrepresents. ... and other not so proper words we won't publish.  It wasn't very hard to collect peoples' thoughts in this regard. The words flowed freely.

In fairness, with a little work we did find two community members who had been charmed by Mr. Regan at some point. Older women, both in their '70s who say lovely things about the man. But just two. And two in a City the size of Los Angeles isn't even worth mentioning statistically as an aberration.

With a pedigree like this, making Regan one of the faces of a major public service department is a choice someone somewhere should be questioning.

Since being handed carte blanch with the Park Ranger Division, Regan's not-terribly-positive behavior seems to have escalated to new levels. Perhaps it is the fact that the employees he is dealing with are both college-educated and either peace or public officers, therefore they are not easily intimidated. Whatever the reason, Regan has been on a mission that to any observer is clearly  diametrically opposed to the successful enabling of the Park Ranger Division. People he supervises in other divisions openly state that they are grateful Regan is so hyper-focused on controlling the Park Rangers... it keeps him off their backs.

Regan himself is a civilian, and as a civilian is 100% completely unqualified to lead or manage a California POST agency.   As a kluge, Regan hired Office of Public Safety lieutenant Rick Beutell to babysit him. Beutell cannot legally lead the LA City Park Rangers because he is not on their POST roll, either. A legal and liability nightmare across the board, but one that the Department of Recreation and Parks is apparently very comfortable with.

Beutell does and says whatever Regan tells him - he himself is under orders to do so.  A puppet peace officer to disguise the fact that a civilian is running a California POST agency.

Regan's Interpretive Unit is sub-commanded by Senior Park Ranger Sharie Abajian. Abajian, a non-peace officer,  was not a finalist for promotion to Senior Ranger until, likely needing a spy, Regan chose to intervene in the formal process and select her. By way of her comeuppance, Sr. Ranger Abajian is indeed loyal, shamelessly makings no secret about her activities in this regard.

What has Regan actually accomplished during his tenure as commander-in-chief?

A detailed, well thought out Strategic Five Year Plan for the Park Ranger Division, developed by both peace officer and public officer Park Rangers in May 2009 at the request of the General Manager, sits ignored. Reading this plan is a good way to understand the history of the Park Ranger Division, who these people are, and why their job has evolved into what it was at the time of writing.

Regan wants none of this - revisionist history is underway. His revisions. If he says it enough, it must be true.

It's all about control. In an employee complaint he and Abajian themselves initiated, Regan allegedly ordered an investigating peace officer to create or manufacture the necessary evidence that he could use to fire the individuals. The investigating officer refused to manufacture evidence, and the investigation did not warrant termination. In fact, it barely warranted investigation.

For more than two years, Regan sat as decision-maker on the 3-person personnel hearing committee that investigated personnel grievances directly involving himself and his subordinates, including Park Ranger senior staff.

Regan regularly discusses personnel issues with other employees, agencies, departments, and officials. He conducts personnel management and discipline via broad sweeping, dictatorial email which is sent to high-level Recreation and Parks management, other agencies, and City officials. He does this typically with few, if any of the facts actually in hand. The facts come later, and they are not rebroadcast to the original recipients.

A popular acting chief park ranger with 30 years experience is sitting in an office downtown, having been moved there by Recreation and Parks with no substantiated reason for having done so. The Ranger is the only Sr. II in the division, and as such has important administrative duties.  No real reason for the removal except "it's a personnel issue" will be forthcoming, because a real investigation has no hope of turning up anything real. Better to let the rumor mill be judge and jury.

Yet for the record, this Ranger was Acting Chief for at least five years which technically gives him job rights to the position in Civil Service rules. His removal had nothing to do with anything Civil Service. California POST approved him in the position. The real reason for his removal is likely that he remains in the way of Regan's 'Interpretive Unit'.

Regan put a non-peace officer supervisor in charge of peace officer Park Rangers in the mounted units and the Observatory security. This is against California POST policy.

Park Rangers work with a number of other agencies in the performance of their duties. They have Memoranda of Understandings and Agreements for things like booking suspects and mutual aid with the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Fire Department just to name two.  MOUs clarify roles and are directly related to officer safety and job performance.

Out of the blue, Regan outright canceled the MOU between the LAPD and the Park Rangers. He did not notify any Ranger Division administration. Attempts to re-establish the MOU by Senior staff were derailed by Regan. The last word was that Regan and Beutell would be writing a new MOU. Regan claimed that Park Rangers, even peace officers, do not need an MOU with the LAPD.

In summary, and trying to be positive for a moment, when he was first assigned the Division AGM Kevin Regan may have had more noble motives. That has evolved to today: Regan's major actions as the faux commander in chief of the Los Angeles City Park Rangers are now all about removing the support systems from every single part of the Park Ranger Division -  except Regan's 'Interpretive Unit', that is.

The hardworking men and women who are forced now to make up Regan's 'Interpretive Unit' were grandfathered into the Division in 2002. Their jobs and responsibilities were worked out in two Union meet-and-confer documents from the time, and their liability-protection as it applies to their specific work inside parks is clearly laid out in the California State Penal Code for Public Officers.

There is no question about what those job duties are, unless you listen to Kevin Regan who claims otherwise when convenient. That said, read for yourself. There is no issue in what these public employees are supposed to be doing. None of these documents have been revoked, only conveniently ignored.
Non PO Ranger Duties-RecandParks
Non-PO Ranger MOU-RecandParks

As we move into a number of holiday weekends this month, these public officer Park Rangers assigned to Regan's 'Interpretive Unit' will not be working as real Park Rangers. With few exceptions, they only work Monday-Friday now no matter when the busiest time in your average park occurs. Obviously this would be the weekends. Regan for his part is trying to now cut off peace officer Park Ranger services at 8pm, too. Parks close at 10:30pm.

Meanwhile back in the parks themselves, the patron calls come in and the services need to be provided. The remaining peace officer Park Rangers scramble to handle as they can, while Regan's 'Interpretive Unit' watches TV and hikes.... and contemplates interpreting things. They only do something if their commander says they can. Yet if calls are coming in and the Ranger Watch Commander sees five of them sitting there, if Sr. Ranger Abajian is not around to ask, they might as well be wall paper. Expensive, highly-trained wall paper who must properly follow someone else's orders.

There are no more Monthly Reports detailing unit activity to speak of, although a recent public records request by community members may see a hastily created one make an appearance. We'll be happy to publish that anticipated work of fiction when and if it makes an appearance. Comparison to Park Ranger Monthly reports before Regan's 'Interpretive Unit' came to be should be instructive.... like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

*Los Angeles City Regional Parks:  

Angel’s Gate/Cabrillo Beach; Augustus Hawkins Park; Debs Park; Elysian Park; Griffith Park; Hansen Dam; Harbor Regional Park; O’Melveny Park; Runyon Canyon; Sepulveda Basin; Venice Beach; Verdugo Mountains Park