The Imperial Beach Sports Park privatization controversy has taken a peaceable turn.
As outlined at the city-council meeting of February 19, the previously warring factions of the council and public seem to have largely agreed on solutions for the future. “We have a real opportunity to see some healing in our community,” city manager Andy Hall said during the meeting.
During the upbeat council meeting, Hall said that the consensus solution from meetings between Imperial Beach citizens and two members of the council was for the management of the park to be split into two different areas, with the Little League/Imperial Beach Girls Softball League managing the baseball fields and the Boys & Girls Club of Imperial Beach operating the rest of the park.
Hall became city manager late last year. The sports-park dispute started in mid-2013 over the city’s plans to privatize park management in order to save money.
A public effort against the privatization of the park, which includes the baseball fields, a recreational center, a skate park, and a large green area, started when the council appeared ready to turn management over to the YMCA with little public input.
The YMCA was seen as an outside agency that threatened to impose user fees on previously free activities such as the skate park and raise the fees already in place on the baseball fields used by the Little League and Girls Softball League. Compounding the issue was a San Diego County Grand Jury decision in May of 2013 that concluded the city had seriously mismanaged its budget for years, a conclusion the council rejected.
After the protest by the public in several council meetings, the city set up a task force of citizens to meet with councilmembers Brian Bilbray and Robert Patton in order to negotiate a solution. At the peak of the controversy, vocal sports-park supporter Tim O'Neill declined to participate in the task force, accusing the city council of "lies, mistruths, deception, and biased information to neuter the task force." O'Neill said that the city had been proceeding based on figures in past staff reports that contained intentional falsehoods, making negotiations impossible.
Tensions eased when the YMCA publicly withdrew its interest in managing the park late last year, leaving the Boys & Girls Club as the only bidder in the process.
During the city-council meeting of February 19, Hall detailed the current agreement for the management of the park to be split by the Little League/Girls Softball League, which Hall said “have agreed to work together as one” in maintaining the ballfields, and the Boy & Girls Club for the rest of the park, including the recreational center.
Several councilmembers seemed relieved by the amicable council meeting.
Robert Patton said “everyone wanted this to succeed,” that “we’re behind them one hundred percent,” and “this has to be a win-win-win-win situation.” (Patton had made an emotional speech during a council meeting in July 2013, saying, "I have ethics...I would not volunteer to be on a meeting if I wanted to do something backhanded, if I wanted to bury you. I'm here for the good of you. No conspiracy.”)
Councilmember Lorie Bragg said, “We have come a long way on this issue. Our recreational needs were community-driven, I hope they are community-proven…. I just hope this is a smashing success.”
Jesus Pelayo, a resident who was at the skate park with his son Maximus recently, also welcomed the news. “It would be awesome if they can keep it free. It gives the kids something to do instead of just hanging around doing no good.”
Part of the agreement is for the city’s contribution of $50,000 to go toward electricity and water bills for the entire park, with any leftover money going to maintenance of the ballfield. Hall pointed out that the Little League wanted the whole park to be the first priority without the ballfields receiving any preferential treatment.
Hall said there was still a chance that the city might develop professional staff in order to enhance the recreational program, but for the time being this agreement should be in place for the next 14 months in accordance with the remaining two-year budget cycle.