Recipient Biography

Pat O'Brien


Pat O'Brien (1940 - ) received the Pugsley Medal in 2003 for "leadership in expanding the East Bay Regional Park District's park acreage from 66,000 acres to 97,000 acres and from 48 to 65 parks; initiating the District's substantial array of outdoor recreation programs which greatly strengthened its support base; and for his two decades of extraordinarily effective leadership in spearheading state-wide legislative initiatives in California."

O'Brien has always resided in the Bay area. He was born in San Francisco, moved when he was twelve to San Carlos, 25 miles south of the city and then returned to San Francisco to attend college. At an early age he had an affinity for the outdoors. He took advantage of the city's proximity to the ocean and hills, using public transport to access them, and went on frequent camping trips with the Boys Club.

When the family moved to San Carlos, his parents joined a club which had a swimming pool, and swimming became a passion. This pool was the source of his first job at the age of 13 when he was hired to help with maintenance there. Over the next few years, this role expanded to teaching swimming; being a member of the competitive swim team; qualifying as a life guard; and taking on supervisory responsibilities.

He attended junior college in San Mateo and was a member of the swim team. There, he took an introductory philosophy course and became enamored with that discipline: "I always loved conceptual thinking and had aspirations to be a philosophy professor at a community college." He transferred to San Francisco State College (now university) and received a B.A. degree jointly majoring in philosophy and recreation.  While at that institution, O'Brien competed in college level swimming and water polo.

His primary interest was in linguistic philosophy. This embraces symbolic logic which is the foundation upon which the field of computer science rests. He joined the military in 1963, selecting the U.S. Army Security Agency, which was an intelligence organization that enabled O'Brien to use and apply his logic training.

After leaving the Army in 1966, O'Brien returned to San Francisco State to earn a master's degree in linguistic philosophy. To become a philosophy professor it was apparent to O'Brien that he would have to invest another four years in obtaining a PhD degree. He was not prepared to do this and so he shifted his career aspirations back to the field of recreation. While doing his master's degree he worked as an aquatic supervisor at Belmont and subsequently at South San Francisco.

In 1971, he moved to Southgate Recreation and Parks District in the Sacramento area to take on a broader remit as sports and aquatics supervisor. Southgate had a new swimming complex and O'Brien relished the challenge of opening it and establishing all its programs. During his 16 years with that agency, O'Brien rose through the ranks to become recreation superintendent and finally general manager.

With a full-time staff of 20, Southgate was relatively small which enabled O'Brien to quickly establish an entrepreneurial culture. He recalled "There was minimal bureaucracy and a great deal of freedom to pursue innovative ideas. It was easy for us to move quickly from thought to action." This was a fertile arena for O'Brien to develop his entrepreneurial approach. The innovations he initiated at Southgate included:

  • Advertising the agency's programs on billboards and public buses.
  • The first parks and recreation agency in the country to accept credit cards so people could register and pay for classes over the phone.
  • An agency newspaper that was mailed to every home in the district.
  • Reconceptualizing how people signed up and paid for classes: "We kick our customers out after they have been with us for a six- or eight-week class session, and then chase after them to try and persuade them to re-sign again. What kind of way of doing business is that? It made no sense! The YMCAs and commercial gyms don't do that. This scenario applied to many classes such as the swim team, gymnastics, dance, karate, judo etc -- in which participants engage continuously year round. So we changed the philosophy and invoiced them monthly without them having to re-sign. Some people would go away on vacation for a couple of months in the summer, but still paid their bill because they didn't want to lose their slot."

These may not appear to be especially innovative today, but in the 1970s they were pioneering actions.

Perhaps O'Brien's most important innovative action at Southgate was to use assessment districts to facilitate capital development. At a municipal conference he heard a presentation which described how highway districts were authorized to create special districts to fund landscaping. O'Brien saw the potential of such legislation for parks. As chair of both, the California Park and Recreation Society and the California Special Districts Association legislative committees, he approached the California Building Industries Association and persuaded them to join him in amending the legislation so it could be used to develop parks. This legislation became the mechanism developers used to pay for parks and to pass the debt charges through to the purchasers of the homes in those developments.

In 1988, O'Brien was persuaded to leave Southgate to become general manager of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD). At EBRPD he oversees the largest regional park agency in the U.S. with over 97,000 acres, 65 regional parks, and 1,100 miles of trails serving residents of Alameda and Contra Costa counties. EBRPD has 550 permanent and 260 seasonal employees, and an additional 400 concession workers.

O'Brien perceived his primary mission at EBRPD to broaden the agency's constituency:

Politically, there had to be more legislators and taxpayers who perceived there to be a social as well as an environmental value in what EBRPD did in order to protect the agency's existing funding tax base and to win support for new tax resources for the system. We had to broaden beyond our traditional constituency of environmental/conservation folks.

His initiative for doing this was to aggressively move into creating an array of outdoor recreation programs. Thus, in the first year that day camps were offered, 20,000 children were enrolled.

As general manager of EBRPD, O'Brien has proven to be a strong leader in fiscal responsibility including resourceful financing, keen legislative advocacy and negotiation. He thrives on the intellectual challenge and the competitiveness which are inherent in the role of a senior manager. "I like to fight; I like combat; I like to be competitive. When I have a good cause, I like to fight for it. Parks tend to be low on the priority list, so it's satisfying when we succeed in bringing them to the forefront of the political agenda and securing resources for them." His accomplishments with the EBRPD include:

  • Secured $69 million dollars in matching funds and commitments from other public agencies and private donors which when used in combination with the Park District's voter approved Bond Act (Measure AA) funds, significantly enhanced the District's ability to acquire new parklands, at no additional cost to the taxpayers of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties.
  • Attracted more than $25.4 million in grant funding which when combined with the Regional Park District's voter approved Bond Act (Measure AA) funds, made possible significant park improvements, at no additional cost to the taxpayers.
  • Developed an effective local grant making process which has efficiently provided funding for 235 local projects worth $56 million with funding derived from the Regional Park District's voter approved Bond Act (Measure AA). Every city and park agency within Alameda and Contra Costa Counties has received at least one park recreation or community center project funded all, or in part, through the Regional Park District's Bond Act funds and matching grants.
  • Refinanced existing Park District bonds at a lower interest rate, saving taxpayers over $14 million over the life of the bonds or over $8.5 million in present value savings.
  • Enhanced the Regional Park District's revenue portfolio and provided leadership to establish a two-county regional trails assessment district (Landscaping and Lighting District), and Eastern Contra Costa County assessment district (Landscaping and Lighting District) and zones of benefit (currently there are six) within assessment districts to fund specialized maintenance needs within open space areas acquired through subdivision dedications. These two assessment districts raise approximately $4 million per year.
  • Led successful public information efforts that resulted in 79% voter approval for two ballot measures providing for continuation of both the regional trails assessment district and the Eastern Contra Costa County assessment district.
  • Teamed with other public agencies to establish the Hills Emergency Forum after the devastating 1991 Oakland Hills fire. The forum, comprising the public agencies responsible for firefighting in the East Bay hills, coordinates emergency planning, training and response to wildfires on the urban edge. This effort resulted in the entire state of California changing the incident command system and this, in turn, was used as a model across the U.S.
  • Passed an environmental maintenance measure with over a 67% majority vote to provide over $42 million for park maintenance projects.

O'Brien has been a champion of developing unique and successful partnerships and collaborations with non-profit organizations, prominent universities, community college districts and other public agencies to develop large-scale parkland capital projects such as the creation of Camp Arroyo Environmental Education Center and Youth Camp in Livermore, California. The 138-acre camp, complete with state-of-the-art "green" residential facilities, is a partnership with The Taylor Family Foundation. In the summer months it serves low income students, handicapped and terminally ill children offering them an exceptional nature and environmental learning experience. During the school year it is used by regular school groups and the district contracts with the YMCA to operate it. O'Brien cites Camp Arroyo as perhaps the accomplishment of which he is most proud noting "Camp Arroyo seems to sum up all the values that I have advocated during my career."

Perhaps O'Brien's greatest strength and passion is his legislative advocacy on behalf of parks and recreation at both the regional and state level. During the tremulous time-period of the 1960s and 1970s when city park and recreation departments and park districts in particular were being restructured, reorganized, and downsized, O'Brien recognized and focused on the industry's greatest strength -- the intrinsic value the public placed on parks and recreation: "This was a period when the park and recreation industry was extremely demoralized. They had simply lost their spirit. I took this as a personal challenge to re-energize the industry and get them excited about what they do," O'Brien reflected.

For ten years O'Brien headed the California Park and Recreation Society's Legislative Committee during the critical post-Proposition 13 period. This was a time at which the whole profession was suffering from low self-esteem, but those in California were especially demoralized.  O'Brien fought for the field in the state legislature at a time when there was little fight left in many of his peers. He built respect among the legislators by speaking up on behalf of a profession that didn't know how to present itself to them effectively. O'Brien explained his approach in these terms:

Just as we have a board of directors with whom we work closely with here at EBRPD, so we have another board with whom we work as closely in our legislative delegation at Sacramento. They are equally important to us and we keep close contact with both these groups. Our success is all built on these relationships.

Innovative programs such as legislative conferences mobilized the industry. Parks and recreation professionals formed valuable partnerships with state legislators and other policymakers. His leadership galvanized CPRS membership throughout California and created an organized, motivated and effective lobby and voice for parks and recreation issues in the state legislature.

He chaired the statewide CPRS efforts on behalf of successful state park bond elections in 1984 and 1986, and a Senior Center bond act in 1984. In 1999, he chaired the Northern California effort in support of Proposition 12, the $2.1 billion California State Park Bond Act, which was the largest of its type ever passed in the US. Subsequently, he led the successful advocacy of the Bay Area's multi-county special districts to thwart significant property tax revenue cuts during the 2002 State budget crisis, bringing relief to area residents who feared major service disruptions and program cuts. He was recognized by CPRS by the society renaming its annual legislative award as the "Pat O'Brien" award in honor of his significant contributions to legislative advocacy on behalf of the parks and recreation profession.

O'Brien's career has been guided by "the desire to make substantive contributions to society and to people's lives." He is a believer in Wilson's Biophelia Hypothesis:

I firmly believe that parks, recreation and open space are deep values in the human spirit. People have an intrinsic interest in the outdoors. It's part of being a human being. These values get derailed and suppressed. They need constant protection and advocacy against competing forces. There is a enormous amount of behavioral evidence to support this hypothesis. We construct an artificial world and live in it, but that is contrary to our natural, biological impulses. You cannot go to a park on a computer. You have to experience it. The public buys into parks; you just have to activate them. I want to capture that.

One of his peers in California observed:

O'Brien is a consummate professional who has made extraordinary contributions to parks and recreation in California, but he is so unassuming that you would not know he was in the room if the choice was left to him. Indeed, many of his contributions have been unnoticed even by fellow professionals, because he is not a self-promoter. His success emanates from:

His passion for the parks and recreation profession and his ability to energize others into action.

  • His professional conviction, which makes him unafraid to walk into the halls of power among the rich and famous to advocate for what he believes.
  • Leading by example and not by word.
  • Generously giving credit to others for their contributions.
  • His focus on the end game in everything he does.
  • This focus on results gives him an aura of being hard driving, but at the same time he has a soft and unassuming way of working with others to achieve those results.
  • His dislike of attention paid to him and apparent embarrassment when he receives personal recognitions acknowledging his contributions.