Delaware County's next parks director brings a wealth of experience managing parks in a populous county in the shadow of a big city.
Preservation Parks of Delaware County announced last week that Thomas G. Curtin would replace current Executive Director Rita Au when she retires at the end of the month.
Curtin formerly served as executive director of the Geauga Park District, located 30 miles east of Cleveland in Geauga County.
Curtin steps in as Preservation Parks' second director after Au's 25-year tenure. He said Au's transformation of the system, which had no parks and no land when she arrived, made the job more attractive to him.
"It was the mission statement and, of course, I've known Rita over the years and admired the job she's done," he said.
The mission statement of Preservation Parks is: "to protect and conserve Delaware County's natural scenic, historic and archaeological features for the benefit of present and future generations and provide for enjoyable, safe, easily accessible and aesthetically pleasing outdoor education and passive recreational experiences for the citizens of Delaware County."
Dan Boysel, a member of Preservation Parks' board of commissioners, said one word summed up why Curtin was hired: "Experience."
"He had 14 years experience being an executive director in a successful park system," he said. "That really stood out."
Boysel said Delaware and Geauga counties share many similarities.
Curtin said Delaware County's park system doesn't have as many parks or as much land as Geauga County, but he likes the quality he's seen at Preservation Parks so far.
"I like the look of the parks ... (and) the facilities in general," he said. "They've done a very nice job of developing the parks."
Curtin oversaw 20 parks and 63 full- and part-time staff members in Geauga County.
Preservation Parks features eight preserves and one community trail and employs 28 workers.
Curtin said it's too early to discuss any potential changes or improvements he would like to implement.
"I'm anxious to sit down with the (staff) and go over their proposals and work with them about implementing their (strategic) plan," he said.
After 14 years as head of the Geauga Park District, Curtin left the system following what he called "philosophical differences" with two of three commissioners on the district's board.
In a letter to the editor printed in the Geauga Maple Leaf in December 2013, Geauga Parks Commissioner Nicholas Fischbach wrote that he voted not to renew Curtin's contract because of the way he handled an estate bequeathed to the park district by a local couple. He wrote that a car was buried improperly during a demolition of the couple's house and firearms owned by the estate were unaccounted for, among other improprieties.
Curtin said the decade-old claims were brought to the commissioners by "disgruntled employees."
While he denied that any firearms went missing and unaccounted for from the estate, Curtin said he made a mistake in ordering the car to be buried. He said the contractor handling the demolition asked him if the car could be buried under the house, and he agreed without giving it much thought.
"I admitted all along I made a mistake," he said. "I made a hasty decision and a wrong decision."
Boysel said the Preservation Parks board was fully aware of the circumstances of Curtin's departure from the Geauga Park District when it hired him. He said conversations with former Geauga Park board members and past coworkers convinced him Curtin had high ethical and professional standards.
"I see (Curtin) as a true leader of employees and someone who gets input before he makes decisions," Boysel said.
The commissioners also contacted the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Delaware County Probate-Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Spicer, who oversees Preservation Parks, before hiring Curtin to see if any legal issues existed.
Boysel said neither reported any red flags that would prevent the board from moving ahead with hiring Curtin.
Curtin will be paid an annual salary of $97,000 to lead the park system, according to Preservation Parks. The nationwide search to find Au's replacement cost the district $6,000.