MIKE DIBERARDINIS knows how to make a splash.
When the commissioner of the newly combined Parks and Recreation Department started work last year, the city was taking heat for opening only 46 outdoor pools due to budget cuts.
Not anymore. This year, 70 outdoor pools will be open thanks to an aggressive fundraising effort by DiBerardinis that collected $600,000 from community groups and private donors.
"I think about turning problems into possibilities," DiBerardinis said. "That's what organizing is about. How do we improve the neighborhood? You're always trying to build community, build leadership and listen to the people who have the problem."
That's classic DiBerardinis talk, informed by his Jesuit schooling and years as a community organizer in Kensington in the 1970s and '80s. He's a high-energy, no-bull official, who sees potential on the horizon at all times and deeply believes that improving park and recreation services will help children in Philadelphia succeed.
Running Parks and Recreation is a homecoming of sorts for DiBerardinis, 60, who served as recreation commissioner under then-Mayor Rendell from 1992 through 1999, winning accolades for enhancing programs and reviving battered rec centers and playgrounds.
But this time around, the job - which includes oversight of libraries - is more complicated.
"It's a tough job to merge two departments that have historically operated separately, all at a time when budgets are shrinking and demand for service is rising," said Mayor Nutter, who called DiBerardinis the obvious pick for the role.
On July 1, the Recreation and Parks departments officially merge into one unit with more than 600 workers and a roughly $50 million budget, as well as vast acres of parkland, rec centers, pools and playgrounds across the city. During the past year, DiBerardinis has been figuring out the organizational structure and in the coming months will be moving staff and resources around to fully blend the offices.
"We're not going to do this again, so we have to do this right," DiBerardinis said.
DiBerardinis thinks the new department will provide better services and programs for children.
This week, he drove out to Boathouse Row on Kelly Drive for a meeting that he said exemplified the new department - with organizers of a rowing program for city kids that relies on city land and seasonal staff, as well as and private dollars.
In the past, the city's boathouse was run by the Fairmount Park Commission, but, DiBerardinis explained, "they don't historically have a programming mentality [like the Recreation Department]" and the rowing program may not have happened.
In a sharp gray suit and white shirt, with dark glasses blocking the bright sunshine, DiBerardinis looked the part of clean-cut city administrator. But the professional exterior didn't dampen his obvious enthusiasm.
"This kind of partnership, these kinds of connections are essential," DiBerardinis told the two organizers of the rowing program, as they showed him the space where the boats will be stored. "Our interest is to connect kids to the river."
Born in Downingtown, DiBerardinis came to Philadelphia to study at Saint Joseph's University, where he became active in the antiwar movement. From peace activism, DiBerardinis moved on to grass-roots work in the neighborhoods, and in 1973, he moved to Kensington to work with fellow activist and organizer Joan Reilly, whom he later married.
"We spent a lot of time in meetings and doing work in the neighborhood together," said Reilly, senior director of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. "It sounds funny, compared to people that meet people in bars and talk about your hobbies . . . It was incredibly romantic."
During more than a decade of community organizing in Kensington, DiBerardinis led the successful fight to keep St. Christopher's Hospital for Children from leaving the neighborhood and to get Edison High School built.
Moving from grassroots organizing to political organizing seemed like the obvious next step to DiBerardinis, who worked for U.S. Rep. Thomas Foglietta before launching a failed bid for City Council in 1991. When the dust settled on the race, Mayor-elect Ed Rendell came calling. Asked what kind of job he'd like, DiBerardinis chose recreation.
"My No. 1 choice was to run the recreation department. I had been a coach. And our kids were massive users of the system growing up," said DiBerardinis, whose four children now range in age from 24 to 30.
Things started happening right away at the Recreation Department. DiBerardinis reopened pools, started new programs and brought hope to neighborhoods that felt neglected. Residents and activists called him the real deal.
"He wasn't the kind of guy that says, 'I'm going to help you,' and nothing comes about it. He wasn't like that. When he said, he's going to help, he helps," said Israel Williams, who led a community effort to reopen a playground in West Kensington in the 1990s and then worked for the Recreation Department.
Longtime friend David Kairys, a Temple Law professor, said of DiBerardinis: "He doesn't have the usual limits. People who have never talked [to one another] before may find themselves sitting in a meeting. When he has a staff, he gets them excited or re-excited."
When Rendell left the mayor's office, DiBerardinis went to work for the William Penn Foundation and later rejoined Rendell in Harrisburg as secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Last year, he came home.
DiBerardinis, who makes an Italian dinner for friends and family at his Fishtown home every Sunday, said he is glad to be back where he belongs. But he said he doesn't foresee another run for office.
In addition to merging the departments, DiBerardinis is working to advance several of the mayor's environmental goals, like planting 300,000 trees and adding 500 acres of green public space to the city by 2015.
How the green-space goal will work exactly - new parks, urban gardens or other kinds of development - is still being worked out.
"We're trying to break out of conventional thinking and ask: What are the possibilities?" DiBerardinis told a group of activists he met with this week who wanted to reduce the vacant land in North Philly between Girard Avenue and Diamond Street, from Front to 10th streets. "I have a sense we can satisfy a lot of neighborhood needs out there."
Nothing will happen until DiBerardinis has had more community meetings and talked with more interested residents.
He is a strong believer in collaborative work, which he has practiced since his grass-roots organizing days.
"I'm a bureaucrat. I'm a public administrator; I'm technically on the other side," said DiBerardinis, but he stressed the organizing principles he still uses. "People with the problem generally have the solution. All problems can be turned into successes and assets. And people care as much as you care. People really do care about things."
DiBerardinis has hit a few bumps since he rejoined city government. During his budget hearing before City Council in April, he had a spat with Councilman Bill Green over the administration's tree-planting goals, which Green called unrealistic. Green said the city couldn't plant more than 6,000 trees in the coming year.
"If we plant 6,000 trees with $2 1/2 million, fire me next year when I come in here because it's not enough," DiBerardinis shot back.
When Green said he wasn't going to take the offer, DiBerardinis wouldn't back down, saying with spirit: "How much do you want to put on that?"