SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- Members of a group led by local youth sports organizations have collected more than 1,300 signatures, surpassing the 1,130 required to put the abolishment of the Scotch Plains Recreation Commission as a referendum item on the ballot in November.
"The petitions have been submitted to the Clerk's office. Now the process of verifying the names and signatures will begin," said Scotch Plains Township Manager Al Mirabella.
The Scotch Plains Township Council voted, 4-1, along party lines on March 17 to disband the Recreation Commission, a group of volunteer established shortly after World War II to oversee recreation activities. The Recreation Commission is a group of volunteers appointed by the Township Manager to oversee and set policy for the parks, programs, and other activities. According to the Scotch Plains website, the Commission meets twice a month, unless otherwise posted, at a public meeting held at the Scotch Hills Country Club. The public is welcome to attend any of the meetings and is encouraged to do so.
Following the Council's vote on March 17, representatives of the local baseball, soccer, lacrosse and PAL football leagues swung into action to get registered voters in Scotch Plains to sign a petition that would put the Recreation Commission disbandment up for a referendum on Election Day.
"This is not something we came looking for, it just landed on us. When we spoke at the Council meeting in October, we were told abolishing the Recreation Commission was not on the agenda. Then, come January, it was the first thing on the agenda," said Neil Kaufman, president of Scotch Plains Fanwood Baseball League (SPFBL). "All of us (the major non-profit sports associations) felt ignored. Many folks spoke out vigorously against this move at the two Council meetings leading up to passage of the ordinance.
"The Council admitted that communications were handled very poorly, but ignored requests to table the issue and went forward anyway. The petition process is our only recourse, our attempt to give the people their only chance to have their opinions heard via referendum ballot in November," Kaufman added.
"Now that our efforts are now concluded in the securing of signatures to this crucial petition, I applaud the passion, concern and interest that our neighbors expressed when I approached them to explain the significance of this petition," said Bruce Moran, a football director for the Scotch Plains Fanwood PAL and a vice-president of the SPFBL, who was among five official petitioners who were responsible for gathering signatures. "I am proud of the reception that I received from township residents during this long but rewarding process."
Despite the support the petition received, Councilwoman Colleen Gialanella is convinced the Council's vote to disband the Recreation Commission is in the best interest of the township.
"I feel strongly that the move to a committee is right for Scotch Plains. The issue became falsely complicated when it was seen as an effort to hurt our leagues; something it never was," said Gialanella. "Through this process, I did try to provide the reassurances our leagues were looking for, but, quite frankly, it wasn't enough. In these next few months I am committed to working with Al Mirabella, and with Rose Checchio, the Council's Recreation Liaison, to build trust and improve communication. I won't spend a single minute campaigning against the public question. The time I have left on the Council is going to be about building relationships.
"Because we failed to articulate our concerns and our goals to the public, the opportunity for misinformation was there. Realistically, as a governing body, we have to accept that people don't have the time to listen to council discussions or to attend meetings until an issue has a direct significance to them," Gialanella added. "Scotch Plains is a township where mistrust exists for local politicians. Until we learn to speak often, and in multiple venues with all stakeholders, especially those who don't share our viewpoints, we just aren't going to bring people together."
"Partisan politics should be kept out of recreation. The best way to ensure that is to have recreation policy made by an independent Recreation Commission. That was the primary reason I voted against the ordinance," said Councilman Llewellyn Jones, the lone dissenting vote.
"I also cautioned that abolishing the Recreation Commission removes an important check and balance from our local government. Interestingly, our form of government has another check and balance: the petition process," Jones added. "Apparently enough people have spoken by signing their name to the petition, and they've succeeded in putting the brakes on this change. Never underestimate the power of the people."
"What we are proposing is designed to make things run better," said Mayor Kevin Glover. "As a result of the change, the Recreation Director will report directly to the Township Manager, as does our Chief of Police, Fire Chief, Chief Financial Officer, and every department head. This change does not remove any current member of the Recreation Commission. They will continue to serve, if they desire to, as members of the Township’s Recreation Committee."
Glover vehemently denied that he plans to impose user fees on Scotch Plains families for field usage, one of the main points of focus of the petition group.
"People are saying that I want to impose user fees and quoting a statement I made eight years ago regarding the South Side field. I wanted the borough of Fanwood to pay what I felt was their share of the approximately $2 million cost of building the field," Glover said. "I thought then -- and still believe -- that Fanwood should have paid one-third of the cost since about one-third of the players were from the Fanwood. I've never proposed user fees for the children of Scotch Plains."
"To say that I'm planning to implement user fees to Scotch Plains families is simply not true. There are no plans to micromanage, change, curtail, or eliminate any of our recreation programs, and there are no plans to impose fees. Period," Glover added.