Last Wednesday the Town Council held an open workshop to discuss our fields and the Town Manager’s proposed field fee increases with residents involved with our various sports leagues -- primarily youth sports. I arrived at the Council chamber prepared to follow a presentation given by Town Manager Jim Cunha about the expenses incurred to maintain our fields at the quality level of recent years, the related fees received by the town during that period, and the anticipated costs moving forward. I expected his presentation would make more clear the rationale behind the proposed increase that our Council will evaluate and vote on next month, and provide an opportunity for those who will ultimately pay the fees to weigh in.
I returned home later that evening without gaining further understanding, and without making progress toward a plan that will improve our fields and ensure Barrington youth and the community as a whole have consistent access to quality recreational and sports facilities.
Looking back over the evening, I now recognize several moments when in hindsight, I should have spoken up, whether to facilitate clarity for others, gain more understanding for myself, or simply get us back on the right track. I think the biggest disconnect of the entire night is that we started off without clearly establishing a really critical element… that we all agree field conditions are not adequate and the quality and access must be improved.
My fellow Council members and I spent the better part of two hours hearing our neighbors repeat how awful the “fields situation” is (to lump it all together) in Barrington, and how other towns are much better off. So much energy and effort went in to convincing us of something that we already believe. But, from there, we had nowhere to take the conversation, because the only call to action had been something we’re not able to do; authorize synthetic turf at the new Middle School.
I know there’s a petition out there, with several hundred signatures, calling for artificial turf -- maybe even specifically at the new Middle School site. Clearly it’s evident that there is a large contingent of residents who want it, and view the current construction as an opportunity that “we’d be foolish to ignore.” But it’s important that something be perfectly clear: if a petition signed by all 16,000+ residents of Barrington were to be hand-delivered to the Council at our next meeting by Coach Belichick himself, we still would not be able to authorize a turf field (nor forbid one). Only the School Committee can do that. This is not an ambiguity or a way of pushing off the calls for artificial turf. Decisions for all school fields are to be made by the school, not the municipality. It’s not open for interpretation or debate. That is what our Town Charter says, and it is what the law of Rhode Island requires.
President Carroll began the meeting alluding to an ad hoc committee that will work with the Parks and Rec Commission and the DPW to study the issue in depth, and that resurfaced at the end of the meeting. Councilor Boyajian also reminded people that we do already have a plan for improving field access, and it’s within the town’s Comprehensive Plan. It calls for two new multi-use fields and a new baseball field. We are currently pursuing locations for those. But we never got to a point where were discuss any tangible steps we can be making in the short term to improve anything. Councilor Boyajian even lamented that aloud, and we all still didn’t carry the conversation forward.
I wish I had asked more questions and taken topics a few steps further. My efficacy here failed, I think due to my lack of experience in that setting. I’m sorry, and I know better now. I wish I had asked specific questions about how the funds from the proposed field fee increases would be used. I don’t know the specific plans, but I do know the proposal ties to a significant increase in spending. That didn’t come up during his presentation, and it hurt the reception.
I wish I’d asked how league scheduling is currently handled, and whether the leagues have access to maintenance schedules and are all aware of the protocol for requesting things as needed throughout the year. I think with a little bit of information (minutes of talking about these things, not weeks or months) we can identify a few simple improvements that can be made so that as we’re working together toward a complete solution, we can at least all take comfort in knowing that 1) we agree on the problem; 2) we are working on fixing it; and 3) we’ll get there together.
To the parents of our young athletes… I’m sorry I didn’t do a good enough job identifying this during the meeting. I want to make clear that you don’t need to convince us there’s a problem we’re failing to see. We see it.
At our next Council meeting (March 4) when field fees are brought back up for public hearing and a vote, I will be sure to have taken this lesson to heart and will bring to the discussion the above thoughts, and some of the ideas listed below, if they have not been discussed by that point.
Things we can begin doing, or doing better, while an ad hoc committee evaluates options and puts together a specific, long-term plan:
Assign a single source of information for league schedules, maintenance plans and field conditions, for all municipal and school fields
Block out certain days or longer periods as needed to ensure each field used by leagues can receive additional care and periodic rest
Consider indoor practice facilities for rainy days, or wet days prior to game days, to mitigate wear on primary fields shortly before competition
If possible for the 2019 seasons, cap season lengths and ensure adequate time between seasons