By Elise Franco
Executive Director Clarke Johnson is leaving Mill Creek MetroParks, saying, “There’s nothing bad about this.”
Johnson said it was decided, after finishing the MetroParks’ master plan, that the board was ready to move in a new direction, and at that point he decided it was time to retire. He said the plan calls for changes at various levels, including the administration.
Johnson was hired in December 2010.
“I think they need to move into some other directions. ... The master plan is calling for some reorganizations and changes,” he said. “I know they’re going to be meeting Tuesday to figure out what kind of transition they want to make.”
The board plans to accept Johnson’s retirement Tuesday and appoint Dennis Miller, MetroParks golf director, as executive director, said Robert Durick, MetroParks board president.
Miller, who has worked at the park 15 years, said he’s ready for the job.
“We will be doing a levy campaign in the near future, likely 2014, and implementing the strategic master plan will be important,” he said. “I accept the challenge, and I hope to lead the park in the right direction.”
Miller said he’s not going to let the high turnover of directors — four since 2002 — affect his tenure. “I am expecting to be the permanent executive director,” he said. “I am committed to the park district, and this is where my family and I want to stay.”
Referring to the Metro-Parks strategic/master planning process in his letter, Johnson notes it’s just waiting for board approval. “I am going to take advantage of this evolution and these changes to “re-retire,” he wrote.
“As most of you are aware, I retired from the Wisconsin State Park Service and am collecting my pension. I am going to return to Wisconsin to be with my family, to go to football games, as my son is a high school coach, to hunt [pheasant season opens soon], to fish, to sail and to walk in the Wisconsin forests with my wife and enjoy the autumn colors.”
He said his last day in the office will be Sept. 27.
Durick said Johnson told him about nine months ago that he planned to retire after the master plan was completed.
“It was getting tough for him,” Durick said. “He was flying back and forth once a month to visit his family, and it was getting tougher and tougher.”
Johnson’s letter comes on the heels of a Freedom of Information Act request by The Vindicator last week seeking any complaints filed against Johnson and any formal reprimand of him. The Vindicator waited a week for a response.
The park board’s law firm, Manchester, Bennett, Powers & Ullman, denied the request, stating the park board has no such records and that any such records would be confidential between the MetroParks and its legal counsel.
Mahoning County Probate Judge Mark Belinky, who appoints the park board members, said he was aware Johnson planned to leave the park district and return to his family but was not aware of any alleged complaints against Johnson or The Vindicator’s records request.
Johnson said he couldn’t comment on The Vindicator’s records request or alleged complaints filed against him.
“I would refer you to [Atty.] Tim Jacob. I’m really not in a position to comment on that,” he said. “I will say it has nothing to do with me taking my retirement. It’s a pile of things. There’s nothing bad about this.”
Jacob, of Manchester Bennett, didn’t return calls for comment Friday afternoon.
Durick said, “We don’t comment on rumors,” in response to the records request and complaint allegations.
Johnson, a Columbus native, has more than 30 years of experience in park districts in Wisconsin, Illinois, California and Missouri.
Jay Macejko, park board president at the time of Johnson’s hiring, said Johnson’s annual salary would be $87,500 plus benefits and four weeks’ vacation time.
Johnson was hired to replace Dave Imbrogno, who was making $90,300 when he resigned from the MetroParks in mid-2009. Imbrogno received a $96,000 cash severance that was paid out over a one-year period.
Members of the board at the time never discussed the reasons behind his abrupt departure.
Kevin Smith, MetroParks treasurer, said the terms of Johnson’s retirement payout haven’t been worked out yet. He said the board likely will discuss the matter next week.
The board on Tuesday, after appointing Miller, will have an executive session to discuss personnel matters.