What's the story behind rec center's closure? Friends of the Rec Center: City's action ignored citizens, was not it pubic's best interest

FORCE'S Viewpoint

Posted: Friday, October 03, 2003

This is by the individual plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city of Kenai over the contract to turn the recreation center over to the Boys and Girls Club. Many years ago, two of us helped to found the Kenai Recreation Center and later helped to found the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Kenai Peninsula. For many years, another one of us was a member of the city of Kenai's Parks and Recreation Commission.

Even though we three have supported both the Boys and Girls Clubs and the rec center, we opposed the city's contract to turn over the rec center to the Boys and Girls Clubs for many reasons, one reason being that under that contract, adult recreation would lose out.

Like the public, we did not want the rec center to be closed, yet the city closed the rec center on July 11. It has now been closed 83 days and counting. We believe that this closure is proof of the failure of responsible, representative government in Kenai, under the current mayor, city council majority and city manager.

There was overwhelming public opposition to the city's plan to turn the rec center over to the Boys and Girls Clubs opposition that was evident very early in the process:

At five public meetings in April and May 2003, everyone testified against this plan (except club board members and club employees);

An April 11 online poll by the Peninsula Clarion asked the following question: "Do you think the Kenai City Council is doing the right thing in turning the Kenai Recreation Center over to the Boys and Girls Club?" with these results: Yes (24 percent) = 160; No (76 percent) = 501; Total = 661.

In one week, another 455 people Kenai voters, residents and rec center users from all over the peninsula signed a petition opposing this plan, which was turned in to the city before the vote.

The Kenai Parks and Recreation Commission voted 4-1 against this plan at their May 15 meeting.

The public presented numerous alternative plans and budgets to the city council, throughout the budget process, such as "partnering" with the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area to manage the rec center, competitive proposals from experienced, qualified vendors, cutting middle level managers like the Ketchikan Gateway Borough did this year, and so forth. The city manager presented an alternate budget for the rec center, if the council rejected the Boys and Girls Club contract.

Despite public opposition, despite other, more acceptable alternatives, the city council voted 4-2 to approve and 5-2 to fund this noncompetitive, sole source, "sweetheart" contract with the Boys and Girls Club (Jackman and Osborne voting "No").

Please don't believe that this contract would have saved money it wouldn't. Not only would the proposed contract not save tax dollars, but the contract was a direct subsidy to a private organization, with little or no public accountability. Under this contract, Kenai residents would no longer have any say in how the rec center was managed and operated, even though we would continue to pay all the bills (and let the Boys and Girls Club keep all the revenue).

At the Sept. 3 city council meeting, Mayor John Williams stated his opinion that, under the City Charter, once elected, the council can do what it wants and does not have to listen to the voters and has the right to open or close the rec center any time. From what we have seen (in attending every city council meeting for the last six months), the mayor's philosophy is shared by the current city council majority. We believe the mayor is dead wrong, and his view is the opposite of responsive, representative government.

Kenai taxpayers and voters have the right to hold the mayor, city council majority and city manager accountable for failing to represent their constituents, for violating the city's own code in doing business, for refusing to take responsibility for these failures, and for blaming others.

We formed Friends of the Rec Center to support the operation of public recreational facilities by the public, for the public, and to promote open and responsive, representative government in the city of Kenai, in the attempt to hold our public servants accountable to the public. After we watched representative government fail, we turned to the Alaska legal system and the voters.

Kenai residents have the legal right to overturn city council actions they do not agree with. On May 21, we filed a referendum petition with the city, for a vote on the city council's action to turn over rec center to the Boys and Girls Club. In just 30 days, we obtained 496 signatures (we needed 353), and, on June 23, we filed the referendum petition with the city. The city could have allowed a vote of the people, but instead, the city clerk rejected the petition on a technicality. This decision is being appealed.

In June, our attorney, former Alaska Attorney General John Havelock, warned Mayor Williams and the city manager that the Boys and Girls Club contract violated the city's purchasing code. He asked the mayor and council to hold off on letting the contract go into effect on July 1, to come into compliance with the code. At that point, the City could have delayed the contract, complied with the code by sending out a request for competitive proposals, and even could have awarded the contract to the Boys and Girls Club if the club had the best competitive proposal. The rec center could have been open the whole time.

Instead, the mayor and the city manager went ahead with the illegal contract, laid off the longtime city employees and brought in the new operator. Before the contract went into effect, many tax dollars were spent fixing up the rec center for the new operator. For example, the new sign on the building was paid for by you, the taxpayer.

In early July, we joined a lawsuit against the city to enforce the city's purchasing code. On July 10, Kenai Superior Court Judge Harold M. Brown ruled that the Boys and Girls Club contract was "likely void," and issued an injunction against that contract. Judge Brown did not order that the rec center be closed. In fact, in his order, Judge Brown noted that the plaintiffs did not want the rec center to be closed, and he encouraged the city to talk with us. The city refused to do so. Instead, on July 11, the city manager closed the rec center, blaming Judge Brown's decision, in this very newspaper.

The city posted a sign on the rec center and put a recording on the rec center answer phone, claiming the rec center was "closed by court order." This is quite simply, a lie. You can see for yourself. On our Web site, www.friendsoftherec.org, you can download and read Judge Brown's order for preliminary injunction and compare it to the sign and recording. What is this city coming to when its officials feel free to blatantly lie to the public?

After the city closed the rec center we joined our fellow citizens in lobbying the city to re-open the facility, to no avail. The chair of the Parks and Recreation Commission, requested a meeting in July 2003, so the commission could hear from the public and make recommendations to the city to keep the rec center open. Mayor Williams denied this request. On July 15, the former rec center employees submitted a proposal to the city to work as temporary employees in the interim, for wages only, no benefits.

However, when quoted in the paper about options for the rec center, the city manager never mentioned the former employees' proposal. This proposal never made it to the council for a vote. When it was brought up weeks later at a city council meeting, Mayor Williams claimed that it was unacceptable, but he did not explain why the city would not even bother to negotiate with the employees.

During these past three months, the city could have sent out a request for competitive proposals under the existing code, and could have hired temporary employees while action on the competitive proposals was pending. Instead of doing everything in its power to keep the rec center open, the city has delayed and avoided dealing with this issue, spending time trying to get around the lawsuit, by amending the city code to allow a sole source noncompetitive contract, just like the one with the Boys and Girls Club. The city claims that, now that the code is amended, it will put out a "Request for Qualifications" and let the city manager contract with the "best qualified" person. We believe this process is just a sham, with the end result a done deal.

The question we always come back to is this: Why have city manager, mayor and city council majority pushed the Boys and Girls Club contract so hard and fast, ignoring Kenai residents, ignoring the recommendations of their own Parks and Recreation Commission? There has to be a hidden agenda, because none of the reasons given by the city make sense.

First the mayor said that it was about the money, but then, when the public showed that the alleged savings were illusory and that there were numerous alternatives that would keep the rec center under city management, the mayor said that is was not about the money, it was about poor supervision in the Teen Center. If that was the reason, why didn't the city discipline the supervisors instead of giving the rec center away to a private contractor in a taxpayer-subsidized contract?

By ignoring the wishes of the people of our community, closing the recreation center and keeping it closed, the mayor, city manager and the city council majority are unfairly punishing Kenai residents and taxpayers and rec center users from all over the borough for their failures: to represent their constituents, to take responsibility for their actions and to keep the rec center open, even though they had all the resources to do so.

Mark Necessary is the president, Anita Necessary is the vice president and Cliff Massie is the secretary-treasurer of Friends of the Recreation Center, FORCE.



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