Wednesday, July 27, 2016

[Kings County] City to review Freedom Park playground issue

Blog note: this article references a recent grand jury report.
HANFORD – So what, if anything, went wrong in the events leading up to a public outcry earlier this year over what should cover the ground at Freedom Park’s disabled-accessible playground?
Ultimately, after public input from concerned citizens, the City Council in April scrapped plans to put wood chips in place of the original rubberized, padded matting that had worn out.
Residents insisted that the smooth rubber matting was the only way to make the surface usable for people with wheelchairs, walkers and braces.
The wood chips would have been significantly cheaper to install. City workers had begun ripping up the matting in March when calls started pouring into the city from playground advocates concerned about what was going on.
After the council’s decision in April, the grand jury decided to revisit the issue and examine the two-year-long decision-making saga leading up to the reversal.
The grand jury’s report on the subject gave mixed reviews to city officials’ handling of the matter.
What the city’s official response to the report should be was the lone agenda item for Tuesday’s scheduled special meeting of the Hanford Parks and Recreation Commission.
The commission is required by law to respond.
The meeting never took place, because only two commissioners – Leah Forte and Jack Schwartz – showed up, according to Parks Superintendent Alvin Dias.
The commission needed three for a quorum. The meeting has been rescheduled for 4 p.m. Monday.
The city’s draft response, which was posted online and was to be circulated at Tuesday’s meeting, refutes many of the grand jury’s findings.
The grand jury report stated that “there is a strong disconnect in communication between the Hanford City Departments and the Commissions to which they report.”
The grand jury said that “more information should have been presented to the Parks and Recreation Commission” when parks and recreation staff first presented the wood chip plan at a commission meeting in May 2014.
“City staff, including Parks and Recreation Department staff, did not withhold any information from the Hanford Parks and Recreation Commission,” the city’s draft response states. “[Staff members] always provide the city’s decision-making and advisory bodies, including the City Council and the Parks and Recreation Commission, with all relevant information pertaining to matters that are considered by such bodies.”
Dias said in an interview that the wood chips item was presented as part of a capital improvement plan in the city’s two-year budget.
He said the item may have gotten lost in the shuffle because of public preoccupation at the time over what to do with the large chunk of undeveloped land at Hidden Valley Park.
In any case, the commission approved the wood chips plan in May 2014.
Dias said he was at the meeting and doesn’t remember any public comment or protest.
Actual construction work on ripping up the rubber matting in preparation for putting in the wood chips didn’t start until March 2016.
Dias thinks the long time lag helped the issue slip under the radar.
Dias also said he wasn’t aware of the plans and the fundraising efforts surrounding the creation of the playground, which opened in 2007 thanks to $100,000 in private donations.
Dias said he wasn’t aware that the original intention was to put in new rubber matting when the old surface wore out.
Dias said most of the commissioners and staff members around in 2006 were gone when the subject of resurfacing came up in 2014.
Dias was a maintenance worker with the city in 2007. He said he had no knowledge at the time of the Freedom Park project and how the playground was supposed to work.
“I wasn’t aware of anything like that,” he said. “The turnover, that kind of contributed to [the problem].”
Reached by phone Wednesday, Parks and Recreation Commissioners Leah Forte and Catherine Willis declined to comment.
Chris Soares, who was active in the effort to create the playground in 2007, said in an interview that she wished staff members and commissioners had “stopped and reconsidered” the special nature of the playground before moving ahead with the wood chip plan.
She said she wished staff and commissioners had tried to find out more about the playground’s origins, maybe tried to contact some of the people who made it happen.
“I think they were just looking at bottom-line dollars,” Soares said. “I really hope that a lot of people learned their lesson.”
Dias said that, in retrospect, it would have been a “good idea” for him to have notified the commission months ahead of time that the wood chip replacement was coming.
Soares said there should have been more public input, both at the commission meeting in May 2014 and at the subsequent approval of the wood chips plan by the City Council in July 2014.
“If people want to know what’s going on with our city, we need to be at the meetings more and be aware of what’s happening,” she said.
The grand jury report commended city officials for how they handled the issue once public outcry erupted in March 2016.
So did Soares.
“I have to say, I do give [City Manager] Darrel Pyle a good pat on the back for that,” she said. “The City Council definitely gave direction. That was huge.”
July 14, 2016
The Hanford Sentinel
By Seth Nidever

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