San Diego City Council voted 5-4 Dec. 13 to amend the recreation council fee schedule, taking away the recreation councils’ ability to collect funds and adding oversight to how those city funds are spent. All 52 San Diego recreation councils’ special use permits that give them the authority to collect those funds will expire on Dec. 31 and funds are required to be transferred to the city.
Councilmembers David Alvarez, Lorie Zapf, Georgette Gomez and Chris Cate opposed the change and all of the City Councilmembers who voted in favor did so with some reluctance, but Council President Myrtle Cole said, “It’s the only way to limit the impacts on the community and those that rely most on rec centers and the programs they provide,” and to ensure public dollars are spent fairly, appropriately and in compliance with state and local laws.
All City Councilmembers wanted assurances that classes and programs would continue to operate without interruption or delays. Park and Recreation Director Herman Parker said that there will be “no discernable difference” in the transition.
“We want to make sure we are following the law when it comes to the administration of city funds,” City Attorney Mara Elliott said.
Recreation councils used to be able to collect surcharges for activities, classes and permits as well as fundraising and donations. Councils used those funds to keep recreation centers open longer, enhance park maintenance, fund special events and activities and provide programming tailored to the community’s needs.
With the change, revenue from permit surcharges and independent contract classes will be deposited into special revenue funds at the city. Recreation councils that hold nonprofit status will be able to retain grants, donations and fundraising revenue.
Interim standard operating procedures for recreation councils were also adopted that state that councils will no longer “administer” programs, only plan, coordinate and promote them. Previously under the special use permit, recreation councils administered the contracts with independent contractors for programs but under the interim standard operating procedures, the review and approval of independent contract classes will be administered by Parks and Recreation.
Recreation councils across the city generate approximately $4 million in revenue from fee surcharges, permits and donations, managed in private accounts.
On Sept. 8, 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 proposed change came about quickly — it was before City Council for approval on Oct. 31 but the council elected to delay its decision and send it to the Dec. 6 Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee to allow for more public input.
“This has been a period of disruption with recreation councils, that has to be noted for sure,” said David Graham, deputy chief officer for the city of San Diego. “The input from rec council members and the community has been absolutely crucial in developing recommendations and policies moving forward.”
At the Dec. 6 meeting, recreation council volunteers said a lot of the frustration stemmed from not being given information in a timely manner and hearing different messages in different meetings — one presentation they heard included plans to have just one centralized Park and Recreation Council downtown with standardized programs throughout the city and four full-time staff members hired to control programming for all centers in the city.
Carmel Valley Recreation Council Chair Marilee Pacelli said at each meeting they would receive limited information but the timeline felt rushed, which is why she requested to slow the process down until many unanswered questions and issues were resolved.
“Many felt disenfranchised,” Pacelli said at the Dec. 6 committee meeting.
“This process has been handled poorly,” said longtime Carmel Valley resident Ginny Barnes, who founded the Carmel Valley Recreation Council back in 1988. “The recreation councils have been the city’s partners for decades and yet we were the last ones to be informed about anything.”
At the committee meeting, Councilmember Chris Ward agreed to move the item to the full City Council discussion the following week with a “heavy heart,” saying that he understood recreation council volunteers feeling blindsided by the changes. He, too, wanted to ensure that recreation councils would be able to operate unimpeded and not buried in layers of bureaucracy.
Councilmember Alvarez said staff was placed in a very difficult position to try and recreate a system that works for everybody and in the re-creation perhaps created more problems than solutions.
“I don’t see what problem this is solving. I think there will be consequences as a result of this,” said Alvarez, noting he would not support the changes. “Our rec councils need to operate to the best extent possible.”
District 1 City Councilmember Barbara Bry worked with the city attorney to draft a proposal to establish a working group that will meet over the next six months to make recommended changes to documents like the permanent recreation council standard operating procedures, special use permit and the council policy. Bry’s proposal also included that until the amendments to council policy are adopted, Park and Recreation Department should work closely with recreation councils to maintain programs and events consistent with the status quo, to establish fees charged by the city for programs, and adopt a budget for the expenditure of funds in each city account assigned to a recreation council.