Maryland Department of Natural Resources leaders have undertaken sweeping reforms of the state’s park system in the wake of complaints about sexual harassment and a toxic work culture, as well as the highly publicized rape trial of a former park manager, the agency’s top official told lawmakers Wednesday.
“There were legitimate workplace culture, communication and transparency issues in the park service,” Natural Resources Secretary Josh Kurtz told a joint legislative committee. “In response, we have taken a variety of actions to understand these challenges and problems, and have worked to address these issues.”
Problems in the state park system were laid bare last autumn following the arrest of longtime Gunpowder Falls State Park Manager Michael Browning on charges that he had raped two park employees with whom he had been having consensual sexual relationships. Browning was later acquitted of all but one misdemeanor sexual offense, but testimony at his trial made clear that he was having sex with employees on park property and rewarding them with housing and other perks. Browning, who is retired, was required to register as a sex offender.
A Baltimore Banner investigation revealed that Gunpowder employees had raised concerns about Browning for nearly a decade, yet leaders in the park service failed to take action on the complaints, instead demoting or reassigning those who made them. Browning, who had managed Gunpowder, Maryland’s largest state park, since 1991, fostered a culture of bullying, harassment and retaliation, former employees said in interviews.
DNR officials launched an internal review, leading to the firing of Park Service Superintendent Nita Settina; Steve McCoy, the regional manager who oversaw Browning; and Dean Hughes, who was Browning’s deputy park manager. Two lawmakers called for an independent investigation of the park system; the former DNR chief asked officials with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General to assist with an internal investigation.
Gov. Wes Moore in January appointed Kurtz, the former Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, to lead the natural resources department. And Kurtz appointed Angela Crenshaw, who had managed several parks and was widely seen as a fair and thoughtful leader, to serve as acting superintendent of the park service. She is the first Black woman to hold the role.
Kurtz told lawmakers at a Joint Committee on Fair Practices and State Personnel Oversight hearing that he and Crenshaw have been working to listen to parks employees, identify concerns and address long-standing problems.
“Unhealthy dynamics in the Park Service ... caused some non-supervisory employees to feel disrespected, intimidated and unable to communicate their concerns,” he said.
Through a series of town hall meetings with park workers, the leaders “started the process of breaking down communication barriers and years of information siloing,” Kurtz said in a letter he read to lawmakers.
DNR leaders launched investigations into “specific instances of bullying, harassment and other violations” and “larger systemic challenges that created the culture that enabled unacceptable and inappropriate actions” he said. They also tapped 19 people for acting leadership roles who, Kurtz said, embody the “inclusive, equitable and accountable culture” they are working to foster in the department.
Kurtz told lawmakers that the department’s problems stemmed from “unhealthy dynamics” within the park system, including poor management practices, faulty communication and “a lack of consistency and cohesiveness” in the way that the state’s 54 parks are managed.
He stressed that the old system for assigning park housing granted “a tremendous amount of autonomy” to park managers who “had full say as to where employees worked and lived in a park” and could give free housing to favored workers. “This created opportunities for leaders to improperly provide preferential or discriminatory treatment to subordinates through housing and transfer decisions,” Kurtz said.
At Gunpowder, for example, Browning moved a young woman with whom he was having a sexual relationship to a house in a remote section of the park surrounded by water and a dump. The woman testified that Browning showed up at her house before dawn many days to demand sex.
Browning, a longtime ranger who carried a state-issued gun and badge, had worked for the park service since 1972 and served as manager of the 18,000-acre Gunpowder Falls State Park, located in Baltimore and Harford counties, since 1991.
Kurtz said that he and Crenshaw have reworked the housing program to ensure that housing is awarded in a fair and equitable manner. Now, a committee of staffers from the DNR and the attorney general’s office decide to whom housing is awarded, he said.
DNR leaders are also working to centralize management practices so they are consistent across parks, and bolstering the staffing of the Office of Fair Practices, which investigates workplace complaints, Kurtz said.