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.
One division manager, who had worked for the former recreation department for more than 10 years and asked not to be identified, said Ruth "turned us around for the better . . .. We got leadership and direction that we were lacking."
Other employees interviewed had similar views about the change in morale.
Improvement of Fields
Other goals call for the construction of a lighted softball diamond at Heartwell Park and the upgrading with brick dust of the infields at all other parks, refurbishing of restrooms, upgrading of all tennis courts, playgrounds and other recreational facilities as well as the recruiting and training of volunteers.
The city is also discussing with Cal State Long Beach officials the possible use of the university's athletic field for city activities.
And a project he is deeply interested in is the expansion of a park ranger program that would train personnel to patrol local parks. A ranger program is already in use at El Dorado Regional Park.
"I won't abandon our parks to the deviant elements in society," Ruth said.
Jim Ruth's desk does not have a sign that sums up his philosophy, but if it did, it probably would read: "Work Smarter."
"That's my No. 1 goal," he said."
Ruth is a bundle of energy in a 5-foot-7 frame. The division manager described Ruth's attitude as "refreshing. He's real up."
Another employee described him as "committed to deliver quality. He's not the usual type of bureaucrat."
Mayor Ernie Kell agreed.
"I have been very pleased with Mr. Ruth, his response to the city and to youth sports groups," Kell said. "He has won their confidence and they have his attention."
Ruth took on the responsibility of rebuilding the morale as well as the structure of a department when he came to Long Beach.
His first priority was to assure outside municipal organizations that parks and recreation had strong leadership and was interested in establishing itself as an active member. This included a stronger role in the Southern California Municipal Athletic Federation, which regulates seven youth sports and 20,000 recreational athletic teams in Southern California each year.
Ruth started a monthly department newsletter and acted on employee suggestions for making their jobs easier. Employees interviewed for this story said he listened to their problems and became involved with the staff.
"Boom. Like that. It was done in two days," was the way a manager described the speed with which Ruth accomplished a move to new headquarters for the manager's office and staff, a move that had been sought for years.
Those contributions, insisted Ruth, are all aimed at a fundamental goal.
"We must meet the needs of our own (residents) first," he said, by improved maintenance, more internal organization and improved communications with outside groups.
Ruth is a man in love with his work who feels it's his duty to define and preserve the quality of life. He also enjoys his role as a part-time college instructor and lecturer at seminars, and has been honored by organizations within his field. He is president-elect of the National Recreation and Park Assn.
But his greatest test may be self-imposed.
"I want to make one hell of a contribution to the life of the city of Long Beach," he said.