LIGONIER — Tension was high at the special Ligonier Parks and Recreation Board meeting Wednesday night at the Ligonier Sports and Recreation Center, as residents voiced their concerns about a plan to dissolve the Ligonier Parks and Recreation Board.
The purpose of the meeting was to sign over the deeds to two properties that the park board owns to the city, but the meeting also served as a chance for community members to air issues with the plan that was announced for the first time Monday.
Most of the park properties currently are titled in the city’s name, but in the case the park board is abolished, the properties in the board’s name do need to belong to the city.
“Much of the park properties are owned by the city, they were never transferred to the Board of Park and Recreation,” city attorney Steve Clouse said. “There are sections out here in this park (Kenney Park) that are owned by the park and rec board.”
Clouse prepared the paperwork for those deeds for Wednesday’s meeting. If the Parks and Recreation Board is dissolved, it would not be able to sign the properties over to the city, that is why the special meeting was required.
The board approved the request with the contingency that the transfer would only happen if the board was abolished. City leaders have talked about creating a park authority in its place, with the city’s current board of works serving as the members of that new park authority.
The plan is being discussed because the city has been unable to find someone to hire as a new park superintendent — a job with specific qualifications defined in state law — so by reorganizing, the city could get a new park director under less stringent criteria.
If the reorganization ordinance were to be approved, the employees of the park and recreation department will now become an employee of the new executive department.
“Nothing changes in terms of the organization,” Clouse said. “The only thing that changes is this board. I guess we would bid you adieu, and thank you for your service in all seriousness. But the Board of Works would meet like every other department in the city, they would be in charge of the governments and management.”
Park board resident Brian Hite spoke about the issue.
“We all hate to see this happen,” Hite said. “We’ve had months of discussions and meetings that everyone was more than welcome to come to to hear about all of this and discuss it. We’ve had it out in the open. We’ve gone over it and had talks over state laws and so forth. We are between a rock and a hard spot.”
The park board has discussed the issues with finding a superintendent multiple times, but the plan to dissolve the park board had not been discussed at any public meeting prior to this week.
Hite read the resolution to those in the room, then proceeded to make the motion to approve the resolution. Park board member Kathy Hagan seconded the motion. Hite, Hagan, Rolando Banda, and Matt Kreager voted for the resolution. Vice President Gary Byers voted against it.
The resolution was passed with the contingencies.
During the citizens’ comments portion of the meeting. The first to speak was Emily Thomas. She has worked for the park department for 17 years. She thinks the city, including Mayor Patty Fisel who was also in attendance Wednesday night, does not understand the importance of the parks department.
“We’re an incredible resource here that you and your administration fail to recognize,” Thomas said. “We all manage workloads, we do daily intervention with the public and decision making that often needs addressed immediately rather than waiting weeks to have a board meeting.”
The next person, Chris Leslie, asked a few of the people in the audience who work for the park department how many years they worked there. The fewest amount of years listed was 17.
“You said you wanted someone local with experience, were any of you asked about this job?” Leslie asked the employees in the room.
Leslie asked why none of those people were considered for the job. Clouse and Fisel asked if they applied because the job was advertised. Leslie said they didn’t have a chance.
“One young man that wanted it and is pretty qualified for it but didn’t have the four years,” Leslie said. “That’s why he didn’t apply.”
She called out the park board asking why they aren’t fighting to keep to board alive. Hagen responded to that accusation
“First of all, I learned this being on the school board as well, I have a certain responsibility,” Hagen said. “It is not to tell everyone else how to do their job. I am there to support that person and believe that we have good, quality people in the leadership in those positions. I trust, just like I do with my superintendent, that they have done their due diligence in investigating and looking at the law and everything else to come up with a plan.
“It doesn’t mean that there still isn’t a voice for everyone, it just means you are going to a different board. That’s all that means. It doesn’t change anything. You still have a public voice. I fully support, if they have done their due diligence, and I believe they have, that they are doing the very best they can do for this park and our city.”
One question asked was if the city would open the application process again if the requirements change to allow of the people without the degree but with experience to apply. When asked Thursday morning, Fisel said she did not want to comment on that until the reorganization actually gets approved.
The meeting had approximately 25 minutes of resident comments. By the end of that section, people concluded that they were going to try to convince city council members to change their minds on the issue so the park board can be saved.
The Ligonier City Council will meet for a special meeting on Monday.