Gary Bess isn’t the type of person destined to be sequestered in a corner office.
Bess spent nearly four decades in the St. Louis parks department – including 18 years as director. He developed a reputation as a personable manager who worked hand-in-hand with employees. (He’s also renowned within local politics for his colorful sport coats.)
“I like to drill down in the organization,” Bess said on Tuesday at his confirmation hearing. “I show up at a job and I climb in the truck with one of the guys and ride with them for a day. … It’s important that you know the people who are actually getting the work done.”
Now Bess is taking the helm of the St. Louis County Parks Department, which is among the largest in the state. While he was confirmed without opposition, he did face some questions at his confirmation hearing about an embezzlement scheme that sent two city employees to prison.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jason Rosenbaum spoke with Bess before Tuesday’s meeting of the St. Louis County Council. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and length.
What prompted you to make the switch from the city to the county?
Bess: After 40 years with the city, I was considering retirement. And when the new County Executive Steve Stenger was elected, I thought this might be a great opportunity. It seems like a strange point in my career after 40 years to get into a new job and go through new experiences. But I’m looking forward to the challenge.
What do you think are the biggest differences between the city and county parks?
Bess: One of the most obvious is the size of the parks system. The city park system is about 3,200 acres – all mowing lawns and all fairly and heavily maintained areas. There’s heavy active recreation. The county has over 12,000 acres of parks, over 8,000 of that are woodlands. The county, of course, has Lone Elk Park and Suson Park, which have both wild and domestic animals. So there’s a tremendous amount of difference in the systems.
What would be your top priorities as you enter this new job?
Bess: One of my major assets for the city has been my ability to enact capital improvement programs and to set up public-private partnerships like we’ve had with Forest Park Forever. The county has a parks system that has a lot of capital needs -- in fact, from what I understand, over $40 million of deferred capital needs. My top priority initially will be to look at those capital needs and figure out an effective way to deal with them.
In 2013, voters approved a sales tax increase to help fund improvements at city and county parks. How will that money help you with dealing with capital needs of the county parks?
Bess: There’s things we can do that will make that money go further. One is public-private partnerships. Forest Park Forever partnered (with Forest Park) over a 10-year period and raised equal portions of money to pay for $120 million in improvements there. I think we could look at foundations.
We need to look at bonding money -- not new taxes but looking at existing tax revenue and bonding that address some our most urgent capital needs.
The St. Louis County Council easily confirmed you. But Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, was one of the people who brought up an embezzlement controversy under your watch as city parks director. What did you learn from the experience and how would you want to prevent that happening the county department?
Bess: Needless to say, when something like that happens you take it personally. It’s not the way to do business.
Unfortunately, the two employees that were involved were probably some of our most trusted employees. And unfortunately, most of the time when something like this happens it’s the trusted employees who have knowledge of the system who take advantage of it and know how it works to take money.
What I’ve learned is you have to disperse the responsibility for purchasing and payment of bills. You need different people who receive supplies and equipment that’s ordered so there’s segregation among duties.
I’m not a fiscal manager. I’m a manager. And I depend heavily on our accounting teams. In the city, it was the comptroller’s office. In the county, it’s the office of administration. They help set up effective systems to prevent things like this from happening. So I’ll be meeting with them trying to make sure that the systems we have in place in the county parks department will take a close look at all our of purchases and our expenditures.
Final question: Will you wear brightly colored suits at your job?
Bess: Actually, one of the conditions that I had was as of March 15 my hot pink and wild purple would be out.