The San Diego City Council elected to postpone its vote on amending the parks and recreation fee schedule amid concerns about a lack of public input and too many unanswered questions. At the Oct. 31 meeting, the council heard from 26 speakers in opposition, many of them longtime recreation council volunteers in communities from Adams Avenue to Ocean Beach and Carmel Valley, concerned about the elimination of their revenue source and loss of local control.
Rather than take the vote, the council instead referred the item to the Dec. 6 Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods committee meeting to allow more details to be vetted.
District 1 Councilmember Barbara Bry said like the recreation council volunteers, she felt “blindsided” by the proposed change and that more time was needed to resolve the many unanswered questions.
“I understand there may be a need for the city to control the money… but I want to make sure each rec council has the ability to choose their own programming, to set their own fees,” Bry said. “You all know your customers the best. We can never know that at City Hall, that’s why you’re so important.”
“We want to continue to work with rec councils, we want their input,” said Herman Parker, director of San Diego Parks and Recreation Department. “It’s imperative we have recreation councils’ input on programs and services.”
Currently, the Carmel Valley Recreation Council has about $417,000 in its account and is one of the top performing councils in the city. The council uses those funds to keep its recreation center open longer, enhance park maintenance, fund special events and activities, and provide quality programming tailored to the community’s needs.
Recreation councils across the city generate approximately $4 million in revenue from fee surcharges, permits and donations, managed in private accounts. A special use permit gives them the authority to collect those funds.
On Sept. 8, City Attorney Mara Elliott sent a memo stating that all funds collected by recreation councils are city funds and subject to charter and code requirements. To achieve compliance, City Council would be required to revise the fee schedule and all funds would be deposited into a special revenue fund, giving authority back to City Council and restricting the use of recreation council spending.
"The rec councils currently control these funds without city oversight," Elliott said. "There are no checks and balances to ensure public dollars are spent fairly, appropriately and in compliance with state and local laws."
Recreation councils would continue in their advisory roles, Elliott said, the only change is that they won't take physical possession of the funds.
"This is one of those issues that's bothered me since I first arrived at council," said Councilmember Scott Sherman. "Why do we have private citizens in charge of city money?"
Sherman said 90 percent of volunteers care deeply about the community and make sure money is accounted for in the right way but he believes having unelected people in charge of city funds violates the charter.
"As painful as it is, I think it's the right thing to do,” Sherman said.
Elliott said she would not sign an extension of the recreation councils’ special use permits which are set to expire on Dec. 31 this year, a concern to all that programs would be interrupted and communities would suffer.
The proposed change came about quickly after the September memo as Parker said: "It became apparent to us that we were violating city codes and charters and we felt it appropriate to change the flow of those funds as quickly as we could.”
Marilee Pacelli, chair of the Carmel Valley Recreation Council, said she is frustrated in the way the issue has been handled and that there was no collaboration with the city’s 52 local recreation councils.
"An opinion is not a directive but it is being treated as such by parks and rec," Pacelli said.
The feeling of being blindsided, and the urgency in which the change was being moved forward created suspicion and distrust, speakers said.
Those volunteer recreation council members speaking in opposition said the proposed changes were unfair and were like "a slap in the face to volunteers, saying 'We don't trust you'."
"I no longer feel like a partner," said Pat Warren, who considers herself the oldest living volunteer in Ocean Beach. “This is just adding another layer of mayonnaise to the bureaucracy.”
John Horst, of the Mira Mesa Recreation Council, said it was "objectively false" that there are no checks and balances. He said if the special use permit does not adequately comply with the law, the committee should work to figure out how to make those checks and balances lawful. He said that “confiscating” over $4 million from recreation councils initially looked to him like a “bureaucratic power grab” but now he is concerned there is an attempt to “shove aside community groups like rec councils and planning groups and to stick the politics of it on the city attorney.”
In response to Sherman’s comments, Councilmember David Alvarez noted that groups of private citizens do manage city funds, including maintenance assessment districts, business improvement districts and tourism marketing districts. He said he would not support the motion for the proposed change but instead wanted to find a legal way for the recreation councils to continue to work with the city in a partnership, with checks and balances and audit and transparency requirements.
City Council members said that they were in a very difficult position and up against a “very aggressive” timeline, with Elliott stating she would not sign off on any special use permits.
Councilmember Mark Kersey initially reluctantly supported the motion to approve the changes.
“I’m supporting this but not because I want to but because I don’t want programs at our rec centers to collapse when special use permits aren’t renewed,” Kersey said, after making an amendment to the motion to ensure that donations and fundraising stay local.
As the council prepared to vote, Kersey withdrew his second and instead urged for the continuance.
As for the timeline, Elliott said that this was not a new issue and that these same concerns had been raised by her predecessor. She said she has been working on this issue since she took office and delayed issuing an opinion because Parks and Recreation had assured her they were working to resolve all of the issues raised.
“We took them at their word and it’s very apparent that did not occur,” Elliott said. “I’m very disappointed and we all should not make that mistake of trusting our department to communicate again.”