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Final decision near: The naming of Albert-Oakland Park

Friday, October 3, 2008 | 5:00 p.m. CDT; updated 2:04 a.m. CDT, Saturday, October 4, 2008
Kurt Albert and his dog Sadie pose at an entrance sign reading C.M. Albert Memorial Park and Albert-Oakland Park. Albert is fighting to keep his family’s name on the park.

COLUMBIA — Kurt Albert walks quickly across the northeast Columbia park that used to be his family's farm. There's a forested section of a disc golf course in the former cattle pasture where he and his siblings used to play. The splintery timbers of an exercise circuit installed in the 1970s are rotting and broken.

Bear Creek, which cuts through the park, is about four times as wide as it was when he skipped across it as a child. Honey locusts armed with six-inch thorns remind Albert of all the days he and his brother spent chopping them down. There are some they missed and still more that have grown since his father, Paul Albert, donated the land to the city 44 years ago.

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This is C.M. Albert Memorial Park, a 20-acre parcel at the end of Parker Street and on the south side of the recreation area that for more than two decades was known as Albert-Oakland Park. In recent years, however, the Albert name has been gradually erased from the larger tract. The city's Web site now calls it Oakland Park. The park's swimming pool - once known as Albert-Oakland Pool - has since been renamed the Oakland Family Aquatic Center.

The behavior of the late Paul Albert, who died in December 2005, appears to be the reason. An avid watchdog over city government, particularly the City Council, Paul Albert pestered city officials for years by camping out in their offices and repeatedly criticizing them at public meetings. He could be overbearing and unforgiving. But he always was prepared, compiling reams of public documents to back up and hammer home his points. He was a gadfly, and a good one. He had his detractors, but he also had his admirers. The Boone County Commission recognized his influence when it declared Paul Albert Week on his 90th birthday, Jan. 7, 1999.

Third Ward Councilman Karl Skala, an onlooker in Albert's heyday, admired the man's passion.

"Frankly, Paul Albert was one of my heroes when I came to town," Skala said. "I think those people serve a very useful purpose in a democracy."

Others weren't as enamored. In the mid-1990s, City Manager Ray Beck began pushing for the removal of the Albert name from Albert-Oakland Park. At first, the directions were verbal. Then they came in writing. Finally, in January 2004, Beck issued an interoffice memo to city staff.

Kurt Albert is happy to show it.

"I have reservations for naming the entire area Albert-Oakland Park, based on the historical aspects of (Paul Albert's) actions taken against public officials including Mayors, Councils, etc.," Beck wrote.

Kurt Albert believes that's wrong, and he's on a quest to change it. He's spent weeks compiling documents, writing speeches, talking to anyone who will listen. It's a fight he won't give up, and one it looks as if he's going to win. But perhaps most rewarding from all this effort is the sense of appreciation Albert has gained for his father, a man he says he never truly understood.

"This process has probably made me more aware of what my father was trying to do," Albert said. "When you're younger and he says, ‘Hell, there's a flaw in the system, and I'm trying to fill the gap.'... I didn't understand a lot of that until I just got involved in this."

*       *       *

Kurt Albert, 57, is quite the character. A retired property owner and carpenter, he exudes intelligence from inquiring eyes framed by wild tufts of hair that protrude from behind his ears and extend into a long beard. He's a giant of a man who possesses steely determination.

Like his father, though, Albert can't quite contain himself. He's the first to admit it. His rambling conversations are mishmashes of metaphors and homespun parables that go on and on, and they often stray off point. He asks for a minute, then takes 20 or more. He's intense. He talks close to emphasize the importance of his words - just like his dad.

It might take a while to tell their story.

It was in 1964 that Paul Albert originally donated 20 acres to the city with the understanding it would be named C.M. Albert Memorial Park after Claire M. Albert, Paul's mother and Kurt's grandmother. Eight years later, in 1972, Paul Albert's ex-wife and Kurt's mother, Marjorie Simpson, sold the city another 20 acres adjoining the original donation. In negotiations for the land's sale, the property was referred to as an extension of Albert Park.

That same year, the city purchased another 30 acres adjoining the Albert property and entered a shared use agreement with Columbia Public Schools for another 11.5 acres. The Albert family name - whether officially or unofficially - carried over to the entire area. A large wooden sign on its eastern boundary proves the point: "Albert-Oakland Park," it reads.

Although the sign is still there, the omission of the Albert name in city records of the park - an omission that began in the mid-1990s - eventually caused confusion. The city is holding off on printing a park guide until the matter is resolved. And even Google Maps is perplexed. A search for "Albert-Oakland Park" will take you right to it. A search for "Oakland Park," though, suggests the Oakland Park Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses instead.

In July 2003, Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku inquired. Staff at the Parks and Recreation Department searched but found no resolutions or ordinances that officially named the park either way, department Director Mike Hood said in a December 2003 report to the council.

Nevertheless, Hood conceded in a recent interview, there is no question that from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, the park was referred to as Albert-Oakland Park. He considers Albert-Oakland to be the park's historical name.

So does Kurt Albert. In 2004 - after Janku's inquiry - he, four siblings and Simpson spoke to the council, asking that it put the debate to rest by restoring the Albert name to the entire area. The council took no action.

In December 2007, however, at the request of Kurt Albert, Skala resurrected the controversy by asking for another report on the matter. That report from the Parks and Recreation Department came on July 21. It recommended that the original 20-acre tract donated by Paul Albert be officially named C.M. Albert Memorial Park and that the rest of the property be known solely as Oakland Park. The council, after hearing no public comment, unanimously asked that a resolution to that effect be drafted.

The decision came quietly. Kurt Albert said he didn't know about the council's request until a Missourian reporter called for reaction. It caught him off guard. He knew he had little time to prove his case that there is adequate legal record to show the property's official name is Albert-Oakland Park.

So Albert took a page - or several - from his father's playbook. He spent hours in the offices of Parks and Recreation staff, digging through thousands of resolutions, ordinances, e-mails and other paperwork and amassing a stack of documents 10 inches thick. He combed the park and pool for supporting evidence. And he implored newspapers to tell his story.

Kurt Albert's motivation is clear.

"My father thought a lot of his mother, ... and I think quite a bit of mine," he said. "She's not going to be with us much longer, and I'm hoping to correct this while she still lives."

*       *       *

Kurt Albert's aversion to meetings made it easy for him to miss the City Council's request on July 21 for a resolution - subject to a later debate and vote - that would officially remove the Albert name from the larger park. The action on "Report F" occurred after midnight. Only Janku and Skala commented.

"I have purposely stayed away from council - the conflict stuff there," Albert said. "I don't usually go down there. It's not my cup of tea."

But Albert has since gotten his act together. Aside from amassing documents, he has twice addressed the council in formats that challenged him. Think of it as poetic justice; it was his father who inspired the three-minute limit on most council comments.

Albert got five minutes for scheduled public comment in August and another three toward the end of a meeting in September. He has carefully crafted his speeches to meet the time limits. He practiced each 30 or 40 times, shaving off seconds so he could finish before the buzzer.

"I have been before the council eight minutes, but it was a well-placed eight minutes," Albert said. "... My father did not write his speeches. He should have; I told him that. It didn't do any good."

If the length of Paul Albert's soliloquies didn't offend, the tone sometimes did. Hood said that he remembers Albert "appearing at virtually every City Council meeting" and that sometimes his comments - primarily targeted at high-level staff and the council - were inappropriate.

"Some of his language was very colorful," Hood said. But "as a whole, I got along with him reasonably well."

Hood recalled visiting Paul Albert's home to discuss concerns about development near the park. He found it stacked high with newspapers and documents, just like the powder-blue station wagon Paul Albert used to drive. Kurt Albert said his father kept piles of paper because he understood their importance. It's hard to argue with someone who can pull documents from a stack and read them.

"If he was just a fool, he could easily be dismissed - he was often dismissed that way anyhow."

Although Kurt Albert doesn't feel like a chip off the block - "that's a very broad brush to be painted with," he said - he's come to respect his father's civic involvement.

"Like a lot of sons, I don't think I had a very close relationship. It was strained, no doubt," he said. "He had a very strong ideology about what you should and shouldn't do. Some of that I totally agree with. His environmentalism predated the modern era entirely."

Paul Albert, who also donated land to the Audubon Society, was adamant that the park bearing his name be friendly to nature.

"He didn't believe in fencing out the wildlife," Kurt Albert said. That's one reason Parker Street ends in a cul-de-sac rather than punching through the park.

The land is a difficult place for Albert to visit. He likes going there, but it conjures up too many memories of his father, he said. Still, he's spent a lot of time at the park lately, searching for clues to what he thinks is a conspiracy.

On a recent outing to the park, Albert pointed to two holes in the ground near the Blue Ridge Road entrance, holes left by 4x4 posts that used to support a sign taken out in September. The sign detailed improvements to "Oakland Park;" there was no mention of the Albert name. It was removed in September, shortly after Albert's first speech to the council.

Albert also visited the park's swimming pool, which was built on the land the city originally purchased from Simpson. He was looking for the plaque that was mounted on the bathhouse when it was dedicated in 1975. It declared the facility "Albert-Oakland Municipal Pool." Hood thinks it was removed in 1998-99 when the city renovated and renamed the pool the "Oakland Family Aquatic Center."

Albert believes the deed was done quickly. He noted the scars that remain in the bathhouse brickwork.

"If I had torn the dedication plaque off a building," he said, "I would have patched the holes to hide the evidence."

It was no secret that Paul Albert had crossed the council, and Beck, with his public comments. Few were the public hearings that failed to attract his input. He alone could add an hour to an already long meeting. Patience for him often was palpably thin.

In the mid- to late '90s, Beck gave verbal directives to the head of the Parks and Recreation Department to refer to the park only as Oakland Park.

"Later, directions were in writing," Hood said. One came in an e-mail Beck sent to Hood and to then-Public Works Director Lowell Patterson on Sept. 2, 1999.

"There is NO record of the Council authorizing the entire park or swimming pool or anything else to be Albert-Oakland Park. I would appreciate you advising your staff to refer to all but the 20 acres as Oakland Park," Beck wrote, singling out the original Albert donation as the only land that would bear the family name.

Beck followed up five years later, after the December 2003 report to the council. He sent the interoffice memo on Jan. 14, 2004, expressing his reservations and offering that the council name only the original 20 acres after Claire M. Albert.

Kurt Albert calls Beck's actions questionable and an inappropriate personal use of his position. He thinks Beck would have been embarrassed "to name the park after somebody who had been so persistent in his criticism of powerful people."

Beck has since retired. This week, he elaborated on the reservations he wrote about in that e-mail.

"I had my reasons for doing what I did. I didn't want to be on the historical record as naming the park after Paul Albert," Beck said, adding that "it was not a political decision" and had little to do with Albert's criticism of city government.

"There's a lot of people that appeared before the council, but when you're in public office, you don't let that affect what you do the next day," Beck said. He added that he wouldn't have been in city government for 46 years if he had taken offense every time someone disagreed with the city.

The ambiguity of the park's name is rooted in the unusual nature of its establishment. Most parks are named either during the initial sale process or by a City Council action, Beck said. With this park, it was not the case.

Beck said he thinks the Albert-Oakland name came about as a generic label used by people preparing documents that referred to it. He thinks it would be good for the council to officially name the park - one way or the other - so that city staff know where the matter stands.

"I don't think the staff should be ahead of the council on naming things," Beck said.

Beck said he told the staff to refer to the park as Oakland Park after members of the community inquired about its official name when signs were being placed on the land in the late 1990s.

Fourth Ward Councilman Jerry Wade said Paul Albert's strained relationship with Beck "should not be a relevant issue in this."

Skala agreed, saying that would be "no justification for removing a donor's name from a park."

If recent events are evidence, a resolution is in the works. On Sept. 18, Kurt Albert and four residents persuaded the Parks and Recreation Commission to recommend the name Albert-Oakland for the entire park.

Hood was there, too. He told the commission that every document in the city's records dealing with the park referred to it as Albert-Oakland, until 1997.

"Beginning in the mid- to late 1990s, the city changed its policy to refer to (the park) as Oakland," Hood said at the meeting. "That specific action was taken at the specific direction of the city manager at that time."

Second Ward Parks Commissioner Bill Pauls said restoring the name is a matter of ethics and morals. He argued the larger park wouldn't exist if not for the Albert family's 1964 donation.

"There wouldn't have been ball fields for my kids to play on if it hadn't been for the original gift," Pauls said, adding that he believes Council Resolution 24-72, passed 36 years ago, was clearly intended to name the area "Albert-Oakland Park."

The lone dissenter on the commission was Third Ward Commissioner Gary Kespohl, who suggested striking "Oakland" from the name. He cited the initial agreement between the city and Paul Albert in arguing that the entire facility - which has grown to include the pool, shelters, trails, ball fields, playgrounds and two disc golf courses - should be named "C.M. Albert Memorial Park."

The commission's recommendation now goes to the City Council, which could debate and decide on the park name as soon as Monday night. Wade, who said he wasn't aware of the dissent until this year, acknowledged its importance to a few people, but he called it "a huge tempest in a teapot."

"In 10 or 15 years, no one will know the history on this at all."

Still, Wade doesn't know how it will shake out. "I don't think there is any congenial answer. I think however we end up, it's going to upset someone."

Skala and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe have said in public meetings that they've always attached the Albert name to the property. Skala said the outcome of the resolution won't change that.

"Regardless of how the vote comes out," Skala said, "I will always call it Albert-Oakland Park."

Kurt Albert has drafted a resolution that lays out how he thinks the issue should be resolved, and he presented it to city staff. However, he said any vote in his favor restoring the park's historic name would honor his family and put the issue to rest for good.

"I have confidence in the council, quite literally," he said. "I'm sure they will see this clear."

 


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