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After Congress and the White House last week agreed to strip Mayor Marion Barry’s authority over nine so-called “critical” D.C. agencies, analysts everywhere bellowed post-mortems for a mayor with nothing to do. The consensus was that Barry’s role would become even more ceremonial if he could no longer practice his old tricks, like tinkering with the Department of Human Services (DHS)’s billion-plus budget, dishing out contracts from the Department of Employment Services, or spouting off about citywide procurement reform.

Perhaps. But all the armchair commentary and media coverage glossed over the gem that remains in the mayor’s portfolio: the Department of Recreation and Parks.

“Recreation is vital to the health of this community,” says Recreation spokesperson Larry Brown. “It provides opportunities for self-expression, for wholesome pursuits of activities.”

Sure, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs may stiff hundreds of doctors on their licenses to practice in D.C., DHS may have let senior citizens rot in nursing-home beds, and corrections officials may be more proficient at counting their drug-dealing revenues than guarding inmates. The real crisis, though, is spreading slowly across the city’s 76 playgrounds.

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“[Our] basketball court needs to be cleaned up. It’s real weeded, real bad,” reports James Battle, a Rec aide at Benning-Stoddert Recreation Center. “We need a paint job. There’s a trail that leads through a path in the woods that needs to be upgraded. There’s some playground equipment that needs to be fixed. We got some broken swings.”

Across town at the Chevy Chase Community Center, which has been slated for a $1.5-million renovation, the roof leaks and the air conditioners need work. The city plans to install an elevator to improve access for people with disabilities. But it’s the little things, the oft-forgotten nuances of park and playground enhancement, that would benefit from a little more mayoral oversight.

“I could use a new fence around the sandbox here at Chevy Chase,” says Roy Fagin, who supervises 18 city playgrounds and recreation centers. “You know how dogs like to dig.”

At another playground several blocks away, Rec employee Alvin Brown presides over a management conundrum worthy of a look from 1 Judiciary Square: “We’ve asked for new hoops to be put up [on the basketball court], but we haven’t gotten any reply.”

After holding a few cabinet meetings on these problems, Barry will be free to focus on another part of Rec’s vast dominion: the putt-putt golf course at the D.C. Therapeutic Recreation Service Branch on G Street SE. There, according to site manager Sheila Armstrong, Rec employees struggle every day to keep the Astroturf “free of debris and leaves.” But there are some infrastructural problems as well: “[There’s] a brick wall out front that one of the seniors ran into that we could use repaired,” Armstrong said. “Some bricks came off.”

And the Rec brass apparently doesn’t share the view of most District residents, who give the mayor poor marks for management of city agencies. “We still have our strongest supporter, who is the mayor, with us,” Brown says. “He has always been a proponent of quality recreational opportunities.”

And now he’ll have plenty of time to enjoy them.CP