Inside look at Rolla ‘Parks and Rec’



Lauren Ulrich, Staff Writer

The hit TV show Parks and Recreation may be the closest many high schoolers have come to learning about local government. The show depicts the chronicles of Parks and Recreation Department employee Leslie Knope as she maneuvers her way through city government in Pawnee, Indiana. While shining an optimistic outlook on public service, the premise of the show can be found in Rolla’s very own local government.

Despite the show’s comical focus, it is still able to depict the intricacies of local government and gives the audience insights on issues from public health disparities to park access. Similarly to Pawnee’s government, Rolla has its own Parks and Recreation Department. City Administrator John Butz explained the similarities between the real and fictional departments.

“As far as the operations of the parks department, it’s kind of a pretty close reflection. It’s all about enthusiasm, trying to build a place with a lot of fun, a lot of community engagement. That’s what Leslie’s all about, trying to get people to be excited about parks and recreation,” said Butz.

Rolla’s Parks and Recreation department director Floyd Jernigan lacks the pessimistic and anti-government philosophy of Pawnee’s department director, Ron Swanson. Instead, he echos deputy director, and eventual governor, Leslie Knope’s cheerful and optimistic outlook on his role in government.

“Our responsibility is to provide leisure opportunities and environments for citizens to improve their quality of life, both mentally and physically. To that end, we have in the park system 34 parks and 226 acres that we maintain,” Jernigan said.

One of Rolla’s most cherished assets is its community parks, green space, and leisure activities available to citizens. The Parks Department attempts to keep Rolla healthy, unlike Pawnee who holds the title of the fourth most obese city in America.

“People are very busy these days. Most often for families, the husband and wife will both be working jobs and a lot of times the kids are working. So it’s really a lifestyle choice to take part in those things. What we try to do is make those things available to the citizens,” Jernigan said.

In order to make parks available to the community, the department must rely on support from Rolla’s citizens. Luckily, they have received the support they need to continue their work in the community through the work of recent legislation.

“Prop P is a special tax dedicated to improvement of existing parks. We’re very blessed here in Rolla to have the support of the citizens to be able to provide what we provide and I’m appreciative of that,” Jernigan said.

In 2015, Rolla passed Proposition P which granted a ¼ of a cent sales tax towards the Parks Department and allowed numerous improvements to begin taking place within city parks. Along with improvement to local parks, the city government has other projects in the works.

Butz shared some of Rolla’s future and existing plans saying,

“Our hope is to build a new animal shelter and replace the old one that is now over 40 years old. The highway 72 extension is a project that we’ve been hearing about for nearly 20 years and we finally got that to go,” said Butz.

According to Butz, the priorities of local government are public safety, then infrastructure, then everything else -from animal shelters to recycling programs- falls into place afterwards. These priorities are reflected in local governments across the country, as well as in Parks and Recreation. The difficult part comes with enacting progress. As shown in the show, government projects can oftentimes become bogged down in bureaucracy, lack of funding, and conflicting interests. Thankfully, local governments can stay committed to their citizens and avoid the disadvantages of political conflict found at a national level.

“In local government, all elected officials are non-partisan. We don’t get bogged down in the politics of the day that you’ll see at the state or federal level. It’s more based on personality styles and traits, and I think Parks and Rec plays that up very well by showing the different personalities in the workplace,” said Butz.
Just like any organization, city government has a wide variety of personalities which each meld together to form one cohesive government. In Parks and Recreation, the range of personality types is extreme, from the innocent foolishness of shoeshiner Andy Dwyer to the stern conservatism of Department Director Ron Swanson.

“You’ll see folks who have been around for a long time -and this is a generalization- and in some cases they have been beat up by the process of public engagement and working with elected officials and they can become a little cantankerous and defensive. Then you have the newer blood, the Leslie Knope’s and some of her staff who are just excited to be alive each day,” said Butz.

Although local government may not be quite as comical and eccentric as portrayed by TV comedy, they both hold in common compassion for their people and commitment to progress.

“People want to believe that local government has ethics and that they’re working hard to deliver services honestly. I wish people knew a bit more about how hard city employees work. I am just really impressed with the quality of people we have working for us, from the secretary to front line workers,” said Butz.