Ligonier is discussing overhauling how its park department is structured, but there are a lot of questions that should be answered first.
Since the retirement of longtime superintendent Alan Duncan, Ligonier has struggled to find a replacement with the appropriate credentials who is also willing to do the job for what Ligonier is offering to pay.
The city attorney says Ligonier is bound by state law, which states a park superintendent must “be qualified by training or experience in the field of parks and recreation; or have a certification or an advanced degree in the field of parks and recreation.”
Granted, it’s unusual that the state code distinguishes certain qualifications for this job — many positions don’t have any codified guidelines or education requirements to fill them.
In order to try to get around this, Ligonier is talking about dissolving its park board and instead reorganizing as a park authority, a part of the state law that is less defined than the section of code about park boards.
By doing so, city officials claim they can hire a “director” instead of a superintendent and hire someone with less experience or lower credentials.
We understand and sympathize with the particular pickle the city is in. Unlike smaller towns, Ligonier does need a full-time administrator to help run its many parks and recreation center. Hiring is difficult regardless, but especially so if you’re a small city and need to afford a worker with advanced certifications or education.
That being said, there are many questions and a few issues that need to be raised and addressed with the city:
• Why wasn’t this plan discussed in public before an ordinance was dropped onto the Ligonier City Council agenda? One citizen at Monday’s meeting noted the idea caught them by surprise. While the city attorney did correctly indicate our newspaper has written about the issue with the superintendent multiple times before, the news that the park board might be dissolved was as much of a surprise to us as everyone else.
• Why is this plan the only or best option? The state law does not specifically define what “training or experience” is required for the job, so can’t Ligonier determine what is relevant? Why can’t the city hire a “director” under the current structure and simply not have a superintendent in name? The park authority statute doesn’t mention a director or any qualifications, so under what authority does the city have to create and define that position?
• What is the difference between having a park board versus a park authority? Outside of the superintendent/director aspect, are their functional differences? Would the change alter how the parks operate? Are there things a park authority can or can’t do in comparison? These are things residents should know.
• Why would the board of works become the new park authority? Statute allows the city to create a “recreation board” very similar to the current park board. The park board is made up of not only appointees of the mayor and city council, but also the school district and library, giving the panel wider public input. If the park board is eliminated, the public would lose some of that diversity of experience and opinion.
Answering these questions and more may not ultimately sway public opinion substantially. Large change is often met with skepticism and negativity.
But quickly introducing a large change and giving only a bottom-line explanation of why the city wants to do it, that’s definitely not going to win support from the community and it doesn’t serve the public to be left wondering about the how and why.
Ultimately, we don’t expect the change will cause major functional differences in how Ligonier’s parks operate in the long term. But when the city talks about dissolving boards and disempowering members appointed solely to serve the parks, more explanation and clearer explanation is required.
We hope that before the Ligonier City Council picks up the issue again that the city slows the process down and provides more public explanation and discussion on the topic.
Doing so will create a more informed public, potentially build support and hopefully serve the city’s residents better.