Janet R. Baker, a veteran Sacramento parks official who struggled with deep budget cuts that reduced services in the popular American River Parkway and at other recreation sites, died of cancer Feb. 19 in Oregon, her family said. She was 64.
Mrs. Baker went into government after a broadcasting career in Hawaii and Sacramento. She spent several years in the governor’s Office of Planning and Research before joining the city of Sacramento Parks and Recreation Department in 1986. She started in a junior recreation staff job and rose through the ranks to be operations manager, the No. 2 position in city parks.
“She was one of those staff members who always came to every groundbreaking, ribbon-cutting and weekend events, even though she was busy at home with her own family,” former mayor Heather Fargo said. “She was very committed, hardworking and passionate about parks.”
In 2008, Mrs. Baker left City Hall to be director of Sacramento County Regional Parks. She earned a reputation as a consensus builder who reached out to work with parks advocacy groups on policy issues, including funding and maintenance for the American River Parkway and other regional parks.
Behind the scenes, however, she battled with top county administrators who slashed park funding during the economic recession to fill budget deficits and spare deep cuts in law enforcement and other essential public services. Frustrated by repeated cutbacks – including layoffs of park rangers and maintenance workers – she announced her resignation in 2011.
“She did the best she could,” Sacramento County Board of Supervisors Chairman Jimmie Yee said. “Unfortunately, during those three years we were in tough times, and she didn’t have much money to do anything.”
A Sacramento native, Mrs. Baker was born Feb. 9, 1950, to Pacific Telephone workers Donna and Raymond Alpers. She grew up in Arden Park, graduated from Rio Americano High School in 1968 and moved to Hawaii at 19 to marry Fred Barbaria, son of a former Sacramento County supervisor. The couple later divorced.
She graduated from the University of Hawaii, worked at local radio stations and was traffic director at TV station KGMB in Honolulu. After returning to Sacramento in 1975, she handled traffic reports and public service announcements at radio station KFBK for a while before joining state government. She went to work for the city of Sacramento after earning a master’s degree in marketing from California State University, Sacramento.
An athletic woman, Mrs. Baker swam laps at 6 a.m. every day for many years at Arden Hills fitness club. She lived in Carmichael before retiring in Sunriver, Ore., with her husband of 32 years, John Baker.
Despite funding battles, working in parks and recreation “was really her calling,” her husband said. “We lived near the (American River) Parkway, and I was out on the bike trail every day. When I got home, she always said, ‘How does my parkway look today?’ ”
In addition to her husband, Mrs. Baker is survived by their daughter Natalie; stepdaughters Amber, Alice, Dana and Emily; and a brother, Jeff Alpers.
A memorial is set for noon April 5 at William Pond Recreation Area in Carmichael. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Save the American River Association and the American River Natural History Association.