Kristi Ponozzo will enter the director’s chair Wednesday for the city of Helena’s parks and recreation department.
Ponozzo, who spent more than seven years with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and the last four as its public policy director, replaces Amy Teegarden, who retired in November after a decade on the job. Craig Marr has served as the city's interim director since last year.
“I have a really deep appreciation for community public lands and the community of Helena,” Ponozzo said. “I’ve lived here for a while now and think that we have amazing resources in our open lands and just generally in our recreation opportunities here — the parks, the pool, the golf course. And I thought it would be amazing to be a part of that.”
The search for a new director was an approximately month-long undertaking by the city, which arranged for four public stakeholders to meet with candidates: Tony Jewett of Helena Hikes, Tony Zammit of the Montana Bike Guild, Helena District Ranger Heather DeGeest and Prickly Pear Land Trust Executive Director Mary Hollow.
Jewett said they reached a consensus on Ponozzo.
“She brought a lot of skill sets to the position that were essential for what the city was looking for in terms of personnel management,” Jewett said. “She has a lot of supervisory experience and has been successful at that. She has a history of being able to coordinate with other agencies, she has a proven ability to work with budgets, oversight and fiscal management.
“More importantly, I think, from our perspective, is that she also has in her past work history done a really good job of being the public interface between her organization or her agency and the general public.”
Human resources director James Fehr said Ponozzo was selected from 28 applicants and 10 candidates who met the city’s minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree, seven years of experience with at least some time as a supervisor. Three ultimately met with stakeholders.
“Ultimately, what the city was looking for was leadership. High-level leadership,” Fehr said. “Not necessarily somebody who’s been wedged into their experience (of) a parks and rec director type position, because our position is unique with all the open lands aspects. So we’re looking for somebody with high-level policy experience as well as maybe some open lands experience rather than just a standard city’s park and rec.”
Policy experience will definitely be key as Ponozzo enters the position not long after contentious public debate over the Beattie Street Trailhead expansion and a directional bike trail on Mount Ascension called into question the process by which Helena trail projects are vetted.
In the latter case, the city placed a moratorium on new trails Oct. 10 after city commissioners Andres Haladay, Heather O'Loughlin and Ed Noonan called for the temporary halt while city staff developed new framework for vetting trail projects and updating the city open lands management plan. The moratorium allowed for ongoing projects to be considered on a case-by-case basis for exception by the commission.
Open lands manager Brad Langsather estimated in November that the Mount Ascension directional trail was 95% complete when construction was halted. Marr requested in a memo to the commission that an exception be made, prompting them to decide in a packed Nov. 27 meeting to allow construction to continue.
Zammit, who was also involved in November’s directional trail, said last year’s debates likely influenced the city to seek stakeholder feedback when filling Teegarden’s old role.
“Given what the city went through last year with Beattie Street Trailhead and with the directional trails that were put in last year, I think the city just kind of took a step back and used a bit of common sense and said for this person who's going to be replacing Amy... we should get some stakeholder input and go from there,” Zammit said.
Fehr said he wasn’t personally aware if the interview process related directly to last year’s incidents, but said public input was very important to City Manager Ana Cortez.
“Being HR, I don’t know much about some of those external discussions, I don’t know too much about Beattie Street,” Fehr said. “But I would say that absolutely we have an interest in being sensitive to being open to and involving the public in our processes.”
Ponozzo says that public engagement is critical for shaping a debate on how natural resources are managed.
“I think our decisions and processes are stronger when we have meaningful public involvement, and I think those processes are really important to get us to where we make decisions about shared public spaces," she said.