Recreation and Park director steps down

After months of criticism and rumors that his job was in jeopardy, the embattled head of The City's Recreation and Park Department, Yomi Agunbiade, is leaving the troubled department.

Mayor Gavin Newsom's office met privately with Agunbiade Tuesday night, according to Jim Lazarus, vice chair of the Recreation and Park Commission.

Agunbiade then reportedly told Recreation and Park staff Wednesday morning that he was stepping down from the job, according to Isabel Wade, executive director of the Neighborhood Parks Council, a city parks-advocacy group.

Commissioners were not informed of the decision or the reason behind it, Lazarus said.

Newsom has asked Agunbiade to remain in his position while a panel of key city staffers identifies a replacement, according to the statement released from the Mayor's Office Wednesday.

However, talk at City Hall suggests that Phil Ginsberg, Newsom's former chief of staff, could be tapped to replace Agunbiade, at least until a long-term director can be found, multiple sources confirmed.

Newsom appointed Agunbiade — a former sewer engineer who also worked in the capital divisions of The City's Department of Public Works and Recreation and Parks Department — to head the park department in 2004.

He has been an unpopular leader, taking heavy criticism from parks advocates for his lack of rapport with the public, as well as his handling of a number of bond-funded projects that were designed improperly, behind schedule or over budget.

And while Newsom put a complimentary spin on the news of Agunbiade's departure, saying that he had “seen many significant improvements to our park system,” it had long been rumored in City Hall that the Mayor was displeased with his performance.

In the wake of a closed-door performance review last month, a number of those advocates wrote to the Board of Supervisors this week asking for his removal.

“Mr. Agunbiade has not fulfilled the necessary role of accounting for the performance of this department, and cannot assure its future,” wrote resident Linda Harte, one of the letter writers.

The Recreation and Park Commission did make any recommendations regarding his employment, according to Lazarus.

Agunbiade has also been at the helm of the department through a number of high-profile crisises.

The department drew fire after a Siberian tiger escaped her enclosure at San Francisco Zoo and mauled a 17-year-old patron to death on Christmas Day, 2007.

Then, on April 18, a dog-walker was killed in Stern Grove by a limb that fell from a redwood tree arborists had tagged as a potential hazard.

In July, Recreation and Park spokeswoman Rose Marie Dennis filed a complaint against Agunbiade, charging that he harassed her regarding her appearance and religious beliefs in a series of notes over a multi-year period. </p>

“I think he finally saw the handwriting on the wall, or perhaps the mayor pushed him out,” Wade said.

As general manager, Agunbiade was responsible for overseeing the operation of the department, which includes roughly 900 personnel, according to the controller's office. He was earning $198,822 per year in the post – the top of the salary range for the general manager's job, according to the controller's office. He was an at-will employee, not under contract, according to the City's human-resources department.

Officials did not confirm whether Agunbiade would be offered another position within city operations.

“Yomi's a career civil servant — it wouldn't surprise me if the Mayor asked him to go back to the Department of Public Works,” Lazarus said. 

bwinegarner@sfexaminer.com

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