CINCINNATI – As City Parks Director, Willie Carden oversaw the creation of Smale Riverfront Park and the renovation and expansion of Washington Park - two gems that have brightened the city core and raised the city's livability and reputation.
He also helped revive the struggling Cincinnati Parks Foundation.
But Carden, who has announced he is retiring next spring, has also been at the center of controversy in his 16 years on the job.
In 2014, the Ohio Ethics Commission found that Carden and Marijane Krug, Division of Financial Services Director, improperly took bonuses from the private Parks Foundation.
In 2015, Mayor John Cranley called for an external audit of the foundation after Carden and Krug came under scrutiny over management of foundation funds.
In 2010, an incomplete city audit raised concerns over the relationship between the public Park Board and the private Park Foundation, whose funds Carden controlled.
Carden, who withdrew as Cranley's candidate for city manager three days after he was censured by the Ethics Commission, announced his plan to retire next spring in a six-page letter to the Park Board.
"I wish to emphasize that this date of my retirement – on the 30-year milestone of my work with the City – was set many years ago," Carden wrote. "In large part, it was a promise to my wife, who has had to endure my many years of long hours and seemingly endless work tasks … Now, having raised our family and achieved our professional goals, it remains precisely the right time."
Carden said the 2007 Master Plan he forged not only resulted in the success of Smale and Washington parks, but also in rebuilding or renovating more than 20 other parks, expanding the street tree assessment, working with MSD on green infrastructure projects, expanding Sister City collaborations, increasing non-taxpayer revenues and developing partnerships with Cincinnati Public Schools, CDC and Hamilton County Parks to manage and improve parks.
On the down side, the Ethics Commission determined that Carden could have faced prosecution for improperly taking $61,000 in bonuses from the Parks Foundation. But the commission permitted Carden and Krug, who took $37,000 in bonuses, to return half of the payments and prevent the matter from being turned over to a prosecutor.
The commission said Carden and Krug rescued the Foundation's failing fundraising efforts and the Board rewarded them with annual bonuses they should not have taken. Both got a warning from the commission that "any future alleged violation of Ethics Law" would be "fully investigated and, if warranted by the facts, recommended to be prosecuted."
Cranley asked for an audit into the Park Board's spending of private Foundation money after WCPO raised questions about an expense report filed by Krug in April 2014. The request was for more than $27,000. WCPO asked Carden for more information, but he said he was unavailable to address it.
The audit found several major problems in how the public Park Board and Parks Department deal with the private Parks Foundation, including significant gaps in oversight, a widespread lack of checks and balances and, in some cases. The auditors also said park attorneys limited what data they could review.
Last March, the city's budget and finance committee investigated and found that the Park Board did nothing "illegal or unethical" in its use of master service agreements to build parts of Smale Park. City Manager Harry Black had sharply criticized their use, going so far as to say city law was violated in the process.
In his retirement letter, Carden warned that the Park Board "must continue to find ways to enhance revenues to offset our growing – and concerning budgetary challenges."
Over the past five years, Carden said, the Park Board returned an annual average of 80 cents in cash-leveraged funds and services for every taxpayer dollar it received.
But he added: "Innovation alone cannot carry the day in the face of $55+ million dollars in capital maintenance needs. This is an urgent need that must be addressed by the City if our aging infrastructure is to survive."
The search for Carden's replacement is on the agenda for Thursday's Park Board meeting.