Committee to Look at Recreation Department

The city’s next steps regarding the Recreation Department will be among the first orders of business after the next fiscal year begins in September, following a unanimous City Council decision last Wednesday, June 13, to undergo an expedited scrub-down of the beleaguered department.
The City Council appointed Mayor Steve Talt and Councilman Ken Ude as an ad hoc committee that will work with a blue-ribbon panel of five residents to assemble a long-term plan for the Recreation Department that will ostensibly include community use and cost recovery parameters, establish a funding maximum for each fiscal year and identify programs to expand or eliminate.
In the meantime, Talt made one thing explicitly clear: He has every intention of advocating for the department’s continued existence, a declaration he made after residents spent nearly two hours emotionally pleading against what was a recommendation to temporarily shutter the department and essentially reboot it.
“There’s no reason why we as a City Council cannot find a way to fix this program as quickly as possible while we continue to operate it,” he said, drawing applause from the residents across all age groups who supported the department. “We’re better than that.”
Talt, straying from convention, made the motion to keep the department running as usual and appoint this ad hoc committee. The motion earned a unanimous vote despite earlier skepticism on the department’s viability by some council members.
“I believe in the Recreation Department,” he said. “I believe that it serves a very important part of the community and the development of the community. I do not consider the expenditure of taxpayer money on a service that directly benefits the residents to be a waste of money.
“I don’t believe spending 1-to-2% of our budget on a program that affects so many of these residents to be a bad investment,” Talt added. “It’s not like we’re spending money on a study for left-handed turtles. Having said that, I do believe there is waste within the department. I believe that we can do more to reduce our costs and increase our revenues.”
The direction contrasted with the recommendations from City Manager Marcella Marlowe, which would have stopped all Recreation Department activities at the end of August, retain a specialized consultant to work with the community to develop a plan to revamp the department and to restart the department by August or September 2019.
Marlowe, herself a new parent, emphasized that she was pro-Recreation Department and specifically appreciated childcare offerings they tend to have, but the reality of San Marino’s situation was that the department’s state of flux this year has resulted in a plummeting staff morale that will likely lead to staff attrition if programming continued for another year before ending. The department already recently had an administrative assistant accept a job elsewhere.
Closing programming after August served as an amenable middle ground, Marlowe argued, because parents already using the program will be able to finish the summer session and will have at least a few months to make arrangements for the fall. If the program continued through the 2018-19 fiscal year, Marlowe feared the staff attrition would result in having to prematurely shut down preschool and afterschool classes, leaving parents scrambling to find an alternative option mid-year.
“As mentioned earlier, the impact of these discussions has taken its toll on the department and its staff,” Marlowe’s report read. “Morale is low and staff departures have begun — all during summer, which is any recreation department’s busiest time. Because we do not have clear direction in one direction or another, we are, naturally, not filling vacant positions. In the end, the department simply cannot continue to function in this climate and under these circumstances.”
Marlowe’s proposal initially appeared to have some support on the City Council. Ude said his concerns included the potential capital expenses for the Stoneman Building and the San Marino Center when weighed against the city’s upcoming public safety tax measure and the looming pension liabilities. He indicated support for programs with no real private sector equivalent and that resonated better with local residents.
“I believe the city’s role is public safety and infrastructure,” Ude said. “I am not convinced the city’s role should be preschool and childcare. I’m also really concerned about the liabilities for the city with regard to transporting children or improper behavior on the part of staff members.
“Let’s rip the Band-Aid off and figure out what we’re going to do,” he added.
Councilwoman Gretchen Shepherd Romey, while supportive of the department, said the current operation is nevertheless “not successful,” and Vice Mayor Dr. Steven Huang added that his past calls for reform, which included increasing nonresident fees, weren’t taken seriously when it could have mattered.
Residents turned out at this meeting to show that, although numbers indicate local resident participation to hover at around 20%, the department’s offerings greatly improved the quality of their lives in San Marino.
“Our family relies on the Recreation Department for before-school care, afterschool care and Camp Lacy in the summers,” said Toby Cho, who teaches at a private Pasadena school and said local teachers, police officers and firefighters especially benefit from childcare services. “Many in the parent community at Carver [Elementary School] have been shocked in the direction the City Council has taken in possibly eliminating the Recreation Department. In fact, many of us would like to see the Recreation Department expanded.”
Hannah McKinley, also a parent, said her family ultimately chose San Marino for its community-centric atmosphere that included childcare programming and pointed out that preschool services remain in high demand, as evidenced by their waiting lists.
“These attributes and programs suggested to us a sense of community within the congested expanse of L.A. County,” she said. “Clearly, the demand for preschool exists.”
David Wang, who as a member of the Chinese Club of San Marino, helps coordinate the annual Fourth of July event, said that organization often involves making reservations and arrangements more than a year ahead of time and that creating a “dark period” for the department would derail the popular event.
“Cut the cord, even for a few months, and it deals a blow to the event that would be impossible to recover from,” he said. “An affirmative vote for this initiative effectively ends the Recreation Department as we know it as well as all of its programs.”
Still, some residents spoke favorably about the proposed rebooting plan and felt the level of work needed to be done required more drastic action than usual.
“I think, very clearly, that trying to chip away and reorder it one penny at a time isn’t going to cut it,” said David Haserot. “You have to do something very extreme and very severe to get this thing started.”
Dale Pederson said the city needed to firmly evaluate the department and its offerings on a “needs versus wants” basis and agreed with stepping back and taking a broader look at the issue.
“You have to reach a point where you have to stop things and start over,” he said. “I think this is the time that you have to do that.”
The City Council set a timetable of presenting the committee’s recommendations at its Sept. 12 meeting and allocated $30,000 for the committee to contract the use of outside consultants throughout the process.

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