When Philadelphia voters went to the polls in November, they couldn't have known just how important it was that they ratify the plan to improve Fairmount Park by merging its oversight with that of the city Recreation Department.

The merger made good sense before the Nov. 4 ballot, but even more after the voting.

Within days of the overwhelming passage of a City Charter change to realign the two city agencies, Mayor Nutter spelled out the grim details of cutbacks in city funding due to the nationwide economic downturn. Park spending took a $3.1 million hit - zapping the historic increases Nutter had enacted only last spring.

So with a stroke of the mayor's pen, the park merger took on much larger significance. The challenge now and possibly for years to come could be how to do more with less.

That raises the stakes, as well, for Nutter and City Council as they take the first steps to implement the charter change.

The mayor's first order of business will be to set about finding the strongest possible leadership for the merged department, by recruiting an outstanding parks-and-recreation commissioner.

That leader must be able to implement the mayor's vision for a greener city, which means revitalizing and tapping parks-and-recreation resources with an eye toward helping the entire city thrive. But the assignment also comes with the enormous task of unifying two agencies with different outlooks, and coping with the legacy of years of underfunding.

With July 1 set as the date to merge the departments, the search for a top professional to oversee the effort cannot play out soon enough.

Council's role is equally important: In just a few weeks, it's due to put out a call for candidates for appointment to the new Commission on Parks and Recreation. The nine-member panel to be named by the mayor will replace the Fairmount Park Commission, which phases out in June. Six city officials will hold ex-officio seats on the new commission.

Nominating commission members who are dedicated, public-spirited and well-suited to the task of guiding the merger should be the sole focus of Council's search. In other words, these nominations cannot be used as bargaining chips or handed out as political favors.

As it happens, the language of the charter change, written by Council members Darrell L. Clarke and Blondell Reynolds Brown, makes clear that commission members' qualifications matter most. The panel should have members with a range of skills in parks-and-recreation issues, finance and fund-raising, community activism, and preservation.

The plan is for Council to propose a list of 20 candidates or so, from which Nutter will make his nine appointments. With Council's review and the mayor's picks, the whole process should be as public as possible so that parks-and-recreation advocates and other stakeholders get to provide their input.

Nothing less than a stellar commission will do, given the task ahead. That, in turn, should position city parks-and-recreation needs for any federal bailout aid to urban causes that are sound investments.