Dear Editor:

Tonight the Scotch Plains Council prepares to vote on abolishing the Recreation Commission, which has served the town since WWII ended. If the Council believes this move is for the better, let them explain to us what the benefit will be and how they reached that conclusion. If it believes that this change will leave recreation services in Scotch Plains fundamentally unchanged, then let them explain why it’s necessary.

Otherwise there are three serious concerns about this ordinance that must be addressed:

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1. Reduced Public Input.

Besides transferring the power to hire and fire the Recreation Director from the Commission to the Manager, the Commission itself will be replaced with a Committee whose powers don’t extend beyond the advisory. Currently, the public can attend the Commission’s monthly meetings with concerns, suggestions, and proposals, with the understanding that the Commission has the ability to act on them in conjunction with the Director. Moving forward, any issues brought to the Committee will need to pass through an additional layer (or two) of bureaucracy, with both the Manager and the Council empowered to set policies (2-37.3). By transferring the decision-making powers from a Commission of volunteers whose only focus is Recreation to municipal entities with limited time and political considerations, the public’s voice in shaping Recreation policy is weakened. The negligible nature of the proposed Committee is underscored by the Council’s separate resolution tonight (RES 2015-063) that disbands the Business District Development Committee, none of whose suggestions it ever acted upon.

2. The Politicization of Recreation

Under the current structure the Manager is limited by the number of appointments he can make to the Commission per year, which promotes stability and the accruing of experience through minimal turnover, and which discourages an explicitly partisan makeup of the Commission. The new ordinance will intensify the partisan nature of Recreation in town by giving the Manager the ability to appoint the Committee at will, potentially allowing for the same appointment of party faithful, contributors, and family members currently rife on other boards. But more worrisome than the political nature of the Committee is the impact this will have on services. Because the Council and its appointed Manager are political entities, which fields get used and which programs get chosen will become political turf, no less than the law firms, contractors, and insurance brokers that they’ve chosen. Do we want the Council and Manager to pit coach against coach and special interest committee against committee in order to secure resources? The success of our teams and other rec services shouldn’t be dependent on who can best jockey for political favoritism.

3. Increased Fees and Costs

In the ordinance, 2-37.4 authorizes the Manager to levy “reasonable” fees.  Although the Commission already has some reasonable fees in place for certain activities, once field (and other) fees are seen as a potential revenue generator for the town, there’s nothing to stop them from being raised for other municipal uses. At the county level there is precedent for this, where budget shortfalls have been covered by monies taken from the Open Space Trust Fund and where golf fees experienced double digit increases this year while the county rejected the lowest bid for its golf operations management firm. Like a tax that’s supposed to expire but doesn’t, there’s nothing keeping local politicians from increasing fees to cover unrelated expenditures. With families already stretched thin by property taxes and sports considered a luxury in some households, the last thing we need to hear is, “We had a lot of roads to clear this snowy winter, so field fees are going up again.”

Six weeks into its administration, the new Council is proposing a drastic change to the way the town is run. It needs to be examined more closely.

Robert Fullerton
Scotch Plains, NJ