LONG BEACH — In the mid-1960s, when he was Lynwood's parks and recreation director, Jim Ruth had a goal. He was among a handful of people who saw that his hometown of Downey needed a new system of parks and recreation.
Then 29 and the father of three, Ruth quit his Lynwood job and went to work trying to convince Downey voters to authorize a city parks district. It was a risky proposition with no guarantees but led to his appointment as the first director of parks and recreation in Downey.
Today, as the director of Long Beach's Department of Parks and Recreation, Ruth, 49, speaks of that decision as the turning point in his career.
"It was probably the guttiest thing I ever did," Ruth said in a recent interview in his office. "I remember that my dad asked me, 'Do you really know what you are doing?' "
Now Ruth faces another difficult task: reorganizing and revitalizing one of the largest municipal parks and recreation departments in California, a department that has had a reputation for low staff morale, according to both outsiders and employees.
Ruth left the Downey parks system in 1974, moving first to a top county parks and recreation job, then to a similar position in Anaheim in 1976. There he eventually held the posts of deputy city manager and assistant city manager. He was hired by Long Beach in September.
Residents and employees have expressed satisfaction with his early successes in transforming the formerly separate recreation and parks departments into a single, operating agency.
The single-story El Dorado Park offices on Studebaker Road, which house a portion of Ruth's staff, stand as testimony to his commitment. Once a maintenance shelter, the building will soon be expanded to accommodate most of the department staff. Set amid green foliage and fruit trees, its clean, airy look parallels Ruth's fresh approach.
"We have good, skilled people here," Ruth said. "Provide them with training and let them do their job. Give them the tools to succeed. We've already seen dramatic quality improvement in our maintenance system."
Former co-workers say that kind of attitude separates Ruth from other department heads.
"He's very dynamic," said Harold Mattoon, Lynwood parks and recreation director who worked under Ruth in that city. "He got our department on the right track."
Ruth's approach in Long Beach has been compared to a textbook approach in organizational management.
"Long Beach needed a person like Jim with a strong leadership style and strong organizational ability," said Downey Community Services Director Jim Jarrett, also a former Ruth employee.
Setting goals is a way of life for Jim Ruth.
"Anybody can be mediocre," he said. "You've got to stretch yourself. You've got to set goals for your staff. Hopefully your own goals will filter down to all staff."
Ruth's arrival in Long Beach hinged on a goal. Before he would accept the job, he asked that the city's department of parks and its department of recreation be combined under his control. It was.
He quickly established 20 goals for the department, which operates 42 parks on 1,200 acres on a $20-million budget. The goals ranged from better maintenance standards and the reduction of employee absenteeism to conducting a survey of residents' needs.
Some goals have already been accomplished; to satisfy others the department set targets with specific deadlines.
Ruth described past absenteeism among the approximately 220-person parks and recreation staff as higher than any other city department and said it indicated low morale. He said he was confident the department would reach its initial goal of reducing annual absenteeism by 1,840 hours or one day per employee by the end of the year.
Among other things, the department established a recruitment policy for Latinos, conducted a park maintenance inventory and set standards that were implemented this month, created a nonprofit corporation called the Friends of Long Beach Parks and Recreation to raise money and support, distributed 15,000 surveys that received a 10% response and began computerization of the department.
"Long Beach is like a lot of older cities that have had to rethink their philosophy in parks and recreation," he said, discussing a change from the crisis budget-cutting of the late 1970s to a realization that resources must be put into parks and recreation. "There certainly is renewed interest in it (recreation) by the (city) council and the (city) manager . . . to re-invest in our facilities and reorganize our office."
Ruth first tried to solve internal departmental problems that surfaced during previous administrations strapped by the budget cuts that resulted from Proposition 13 in 1978. Among those, he and others said, were poor morale and communication.