By Doug Curlee | Editor at Large
The San Diego City Council finds itself in the middle of a fight between the City Attorney, the Parks and Recreation Department, and the 52 recreation councils that have been operating as separate fundraising and contracting entities for decades.
It wasn’t supposed to be that way, but that’s how it’s working out — or not working out.
On Sept. 8, City Attorney Mara Elliott released a legal opinion that will essentially put the recreation councils out of business effective Jan. 1, 2018. On that date, the recreation councils’ SUPs — special use permits that allow the current system — will expire, and they will not be renewed.
That means the recreation councils will no longer be able to operate as they have been — raising money, contracting for events and services, and paying for it out of recreation council bank accounts.
There are several million dollars currently in those recreational council accounts.
Terry Cords runs both the Allied Gardens and San Carlos recreation councils. He’s more than a little upset at what’s going on with this.
“We’ve been doing this for decades, and it’s worked pretty well,” he said. “We knew some time ago that something was under consideration to change things, but the Park and Rec people have not been very clear about what it would be, or how it would work. We’ve had meetings with them, but it never seemed to go anywhere. Now we’re hit with this at the last minute. The City Attorney thinks it’s a big problem.”
Elliott’s reasoning is hard to fault. She says the money gathered by the councils is actually city money and must be controlled by the city, not the councils. She says services contracted for must be run by the city, and all applicable laws regarding hiring, prevailing wages and contracts must be followed — something that hasn’t always happened.
The recreation councils have some valid points as well. They say the system has, by and large, worked well for decades, and they’re correct in that.
They wonder why there is a sudden rush to correct a problem that hasn’t really been one.
Cords thinks this should have been straightened out some time ago.
“We knew this might be coming, but Park and Rec was supposed to be working on this and they really haven’t done anything,” he said. “There have been meetings with Park and Rec staff, but it never seemed to go anywhere. Frankly, a lot of us don’t really see the problem here. It’s worked for a long time, and now all of a sudden, it’s a big problem.”
According to Elliott, it’s a problem now because unless it’s solved, the recreation centers will no longer be able to do business at all since the whole mess violates city laws, the city charter, and several state laws.
All of this came bubbling to the surface — “erupting” might be a better word here — at the City Council meeting Oct. 31.
(It’s worth noting here that this came before the council pretty much out of the blue. It was put on the agenda without going through the normal legislative process — a committee hearing and public testimony. No one seems able to explain why.)
At the Oct. 31 meeting, recreation council representatives — 26 of them — came to the podium to ask for more time to work things out.
“There’s no need for an abrupt and disruptive change like this,” said Jeff Stevens from the Mira Mesa Recreation Council.
Robin Kaufman of the Rancho Bernardo council said, “There are too many unknowns in all this and all we are asking for is time.”
A number of citizens also spoke out in favor of keeping the rec councils the way they are.
After comments, Councilmember Scott Sherman made the motion to approve the City Attorney’s plan.
“I’m not happy about unelected citizens controlling what are essentially city funds,” he said. “I think we have to do this.”
But City Councilmember David Alvarez said, “Wait a minute. People have been very clear about the lack of transparency to the proposed changes. This proposal has been rushed through.”
Councilmembers Lori Zapf and Barbara Bry agreed.
“I’m not seeing the need for this fire drill,” Zapf said. “There are so many unanswered questions.”
But it was Councilmember Georgette Gomez whose question blew the lid off the controversy.
She asked Herman Parker, the Parks and Rec director, “When did you know about this?”
Parker, whose staff is supposed to be setting up the new system, replied, “We were officially aware on Sept. 8, when the opinion came out. That’s when we were officially aware of it. We really didn’t know what this opinion would say, or when the opinion would come out, until it did, which was Sept. 8.”
That set off a wave of disbelief among all the council members, who quickly began changing their positions previously taken.
More importantly, it triggered an icy blast from Mara Elliott.
“We have been advising city staff on this since just about the time I was inaugurated,” she said. “This is not a new issue, and it was raised during my predecessor’s term. We delayed issuing our formal opinion on this for many, many months because the Park and Recreation Department assured us they were working to resolve all the issues that were raised by the public today. We took them at their word. And it’s apparent to me now that that did not occur. I’m very disappointed, and we will not make that mistake of trusting our department to communicate again.”
Cords said that the confusion illustrated “a clear divide between Park and Recreation senior management and the San Diego City Attorney.”
At the end of the day, the City Council voted 8-0 to do what they said should have been done in the first place — bring this matter before the Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee on Dec. 6.
“Presently, this is the best method to find a way for both sides to work together to find and develop a solution that is in the best interest of the citizens of our community and city,” Cords said.
However, time is running out. Any solution would then have to be placed back before the City Council for a final vote before they leave for their holiday recess on Dec. 16.
And, so far, the outcome looks bleak to make that deadline. During the past month, Recreation Council chairs and members have attended a number of meetings with the San Diego Park and Recreation senior management including Director Herman Parker.
“The picture constantly changes from meeting to meeting with it being clear that Park and Recreation management has no implementation plan or concept to accommodate the change they are proposing,” Cords said.
Another major hurdle is that it appears that City Attorney Elliott will not be changing her stance.
Asked if there was a chance she might, spokesman Gerry Braun was very clear.
— Doug Curlee is Editor at Large. Reach him at email@example.com.