Park Pro On The Go

Longtime County Bureaucrat Dan Felix Jumps Cityside.

By Chris Limberis

DAN FELIX IS a short-timer. Once tabbed as the next county administrator--a title that never materialized for him--Felix is leaving his job as director of Pima County Parks and Recreation to take the similarly titled, but much bigger, job at the City of Tucson. In the tiny group of bureaucrats--four--who've run parks and rec in the county and the city, Felix makes history as the only one to head both departments.

Appointed by the City Council late last month, Felix, 49, takes over at the city on Monday, April 12.

In a career marked by a reserved, subtle confidence, Felix was talking on his last few days not just about his new job, a clear promotion in terms of the profession, but of the quirks peculiar to the county parks system.

Currents There was the equipment from Ajo's long dormant roping arena that would finally be moved to other facilities in that western Pima County outpost, renovation and preservation of Robles Ranch west of Tucson, and of course, the line items in the record $82.5 million in bond projects county voters approved nearly two years ago.

"We have nothing but great things to be done over the next eight years that the public said it wants done. It will leave a legacy in the community for everyone who loves quality of life," Felix said of the optimism the bond vote leaves--even as the county's mounting debt threatens to forestall some of the projects because of dwindling operating and maintenance funds.

"We'll have to adjust," says Felix, who counts the budget crunch, and how to deal with it, as valuable lessons he takes to the city. "We learn in government to live within our means, which is what the taxpayers can afford. Pima County will not disappear."

Neither showy nor scared, Felix began his career not long after he graduated from Canyon del Oro High School in 1968. He served as a recreation aide at Harelson School, and after graduating from the University of Arizona, Felix started full time in the county parks department. He rose to the number three spot before trying--and failing--to get in at the city parks department as the recreation superintendent under the man he is succeeding, Jim Ronstadt.

He then moved to the County Manager's Office, where he worked on special projects and was an assistant to a succession of managers. In 1989, he waded through the county's oddly diffuse structure to succeed Gene Laos at Parks & Rec. Technically, and as a form of appeasement, Felix was hired by the appointed Parks & Rec Commission to work under then-County Manager Enrique Serna in a job funded by the Board of Supervisors.

Felix took over from Gene Laos, the only parks and recreation director the county had known. Critics called Laos one of the most entrenched, obdurate bureaucrats the county had. Laos's administration was marked by autocratic rule that benefitted his buddies and sometimes himself.

Indeed, Laos was defiant when he was exposed for being in the Three Amigos partnership that owned and operated a tourist-trap Mexican restaurant within Old Tucson, the county-owned western theme park. Old Tucson was then, and is now, under the Parks and Recreation Department, and all its leases must be approved by the parks director. Laos was eventually busted for that conflict of interest. He served a one-week suspension. The County Attorney's Office declined to prosecute him based on the obviously spurious legal rationale that the restaurant reportedly lost money.

"When I came in here as director, it was at a time when the employees wanted to be challenged and directed to get things done," Felix says.

Among his sources of pride at the county are the restyled and beefed up Natural Resource Parks Division. It's headed by longtime parks and recreation administrator Gale Bundrick, whose superior knowledge of the county's open spaces, such as Tucson Mountain Park, has been allowed to flourish.

Felix also is proud of the work of his key planners, Jim Mullady and Steve Anderson.

Felix has been credited with opening his department and its planning to community and neighborhoods, something that his city supporters say they're looking forward to.

The Department grew from an annual budget of $2.5 million in 1990 to $10 million this year.

His county tenure has been far from trouble-free. He was thrown into the breech on two monumental developments brought by land speculator Donald R. Diamond at Rocking K and Pima Canyon. Critics say he went too easy on Diamond at Pima Canyon and failed to get all the necessary perpetual agreements for parking, parks and trail access.

Old Tucson, with lackadaisical building and fire code inspections, burned to the ground in 1994. A Diamond offshoot held, and continues to hold, the amusement park's general operating lease. Also under Felix's watch, cost overruns have swamped the county's major league spring training complex at Kino Veterans Memorial Sports Park. Despite warnings, turf at the new ballpark was not right and had to be replaced.

"He didn't lay the turf," says Democratic Supervisor Raul Grijalva, in a typical defense of Felix, whose long hours, low-keyed approach and accessibility to supervisors and critics helped ward off any substantial hits.

The decade also tested Felix physically. He's overcome multiple hernias, two foot surgeries, and thyroid cancer--he had a baseball-sized tumor removed. He credits his wife, Madonna, for pulling him through those episodes, as well as setting him on a more healthful course of diet and exercise.

Felix says he'll use his tested approach at the much larger, more recreation-intensive city department.

"I'm not going to come in and order things and make unilateral changes," Felix says. "I'm going to sit down with people, talk, read and analyze. It's the same type of situation, where people are ready to be challenged."

He takes over a department that has 685 employees and a $52.6 million budget. He will be paid $95,000 a year, up from the $86,000 he got at the county.

The pick was not without surprise. The city rarely hires top administrators from the county, and Felix was up against John Jones, a dedicated soldier on some of the city's more troubling pursuits, including annexation.

Some are looking to Felix to change the culture ingrained by longtime Parks Director Jim Ronstadt.

City Councilman Steve Leal, a three term Democrat from southside Ward 5, says Felix "has a real good sense of the city and urban and social issues and the way parks and recreation fits in. He's predisposed to that. He's easy to deal with--not in the sense that you can push him around--and that's real welcome."

Democrat José Ibarra, now seeking a second term in westside Ward 1, was more blunt:

"It will be nice to have a department head that we won't have to fight so hard with just to do the right thing," Ibarra says. "You can talk to Felix. You may not always agree. But he won't hold it against you for 20 years. It got real old having to kiss the ring (of Ronstadt). I had to genuflect."

Ronstadt's son, Fred, is the lone Republican member of the Tucson City Council. He's not a Felix supporter.

"The former parks director," young Ronstadt says, "recommended (assistant parks director) Glenn Dixon. I believe we had the talent within the organization in Glenn Dixon or Peg Weber. I grew up with them and I think they would have continued to do an excellent job. And why do we want to import people from a system that is fiscally irresponsible?"

One of the issues confronting Felix is the deficit rung up by the city's golf courses.

Felix's move also is reviving discussion of consolidation of the city and county parks and recreations departments. He now is uniquely qualified although he realizes that he spoke and wrote against such plans previously.

Leal says Felix may give members of the Board of Supervisors the necessary trust to begin consolidation.

But Ibarra says he believes city-county consolidation should not be experimented via such large departments.

"It would be set up for failure," Ibarra says. "We should start with smaller departments such as procurement and MIS." TW

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