SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- In a 4-1 vote that fell along party lines, the Scotch Plains Township Council formally abolished the longstanding Recreation Commission.
Members of the Scotch Plains Township Council heard impassioned public comments from representatives of the local baseball, soccer and lacrosse leagues, as well as commissioners and former council members, who all spoke in support of keeping the all-volunteer Recreation Commission.
"I served as the Council's liaison. The commission is an institution and a tradition that has been in Scotch Plains for decades," said former Councilman Mickey Marcus of the group of citizen volunteers. "I believe it is a commission that functions well. Leave it as it is. I don't believe there is any reason to abolish and usurp their authority."
"There are two council members and a town manager who have been in place for two-and-a-half months. Why move so fast?" asked Andy Weber of Scotch Plains-Fanwood Lacrosse, a current member of the Commission.
"This change has never really been explained," said Weber, a lacrosse league board member. "Why should this commission be abolished? The town doesn't normally move this quickly. The sports programs had no direct communication."
"With issues of tax rates, roads, etc., to change a department that has done well, I request the council to vote no," said Frank Rossi, a former councilman who served as the commission's liaison. "It provides true checks and balances. I'm not sure why this is being done so quickly."
"From what I heard, the decision is a foregone conclusion. I am forgoing a birthday dinner with my son because I think this is important," said Robert Giordanella, the commission's former chair, who stepped down on Dec. 31 after serving nine years overall. "This is being done for personal reasons. Having a commission doesn't interfere with how you manage the town. It is one of the few bodies not served by politics, but rather by what they think is best for the community."
"The Allied groups (of youth sports leagues) are asking for a slowdown and tabling the issue before the commission gets blown up," said Neil Kaufman, president of the Scotch Plains Fanwood Baseball League.
"I've heard, 'There is nothing drastic about Mr. Poerio,' 'The current structure doesn't work and the council can't get done what it wants to get done,' and 'There's no accountability.' My question is why this council cannot do what every council has done for 50 years? You haven't met with any of our groups; only one member has reached out: Councilman Llewellyn Jones."
"We have concerns because of the rapid nature of this, and the fact that there has been no communication to us. We represent a large portion of taxpayers," said Chris DeMaria, president of the Scotch Plains Fanwood Soccer Association. "We feel left out."
Council members then responded before the vote was taken.
"I've seen recreation work; it can make a difference," said Deputy Mayor Colleen Gialanella. "All the opportunities for volunteerism will still exist. We ask that the commissioners will continue to serve as a Recreation Committee."
"All of the departments report to one person who serves as CEO. You will never find a better champion for recreation than Al Mirabella, who in the past has done nothing but facilitate dollars coming into this community," Gialanella explained. "I apologize that we did not meet with the leagues. Later, we will look at the continued relations with the Allied Associations."
"The way to give reassurance is to do a good job. Months and years from now, you will recognize that this is a good thing," Gialanella added. "Have a cup of coffee with Al Mirabella and talk to him. He has stood on the same fields with you."
Councilman Jones remained opposed to abolishing the commission.
"I haven't learned anything to support this change. I hear about direct reporting as the stated goal. This change removes a commission that has real teeth to set policy," Jones explained. "It is an independent autonomous body that has always had a unique communication in a way that we don't have with other departments. Is there a way to have a compromise on this issue? Clearly the commission and the sports authorities haven't been consulted."
Jones then made a motion to table the ordinance, but none of the other council members seconded the motion. He also expressed disappointment that the process is "awfully rushed."
"Checks and balances keep politics out of recreation. But they can't speak for the people who will be here three or six years from now. Another topic tied to this was the Allied Associations and the suggestion that there would be financial oversight. That's potentially a double-edged sword. There is a real concern that if you have to give up financials to the town, maybe someday they will have to pay for things themselves... I think you're making a mistake."
"People are appointed to the commission; it's always political. I volunteered to be a coach -- I did it for my children. I care about the children of this town," said Councilman John Del Sordi, a longtime soccer and baseball coach.
"We all care about the community. That's why we are here tonight. I'm not looking for some outside entity to take over the fields," Del Sordi added. "Sometimes you have to move on with change. It's worked for 50 years since WWII, but can we make it better? I hope this council moves fast on downtown, on Frazee house, and other issues. Moving fast? I hope we can get a lot of things done."
Mayor Kevin Glover said he was "troubled by Councilman Jones and his sentiment that this about personality and politics."
"This mayor and this council -- each has served and is concerned about recreation to this town," said Glover before the vote. "Is there someone in this room that we could not have a better person (than Al Mirabella) to made sure that recreation in Scotch Plains is well cared for? The best way to prove is through deed and through action. Time will tell."
The final vote to abolish the Recreation Commission went 4-1, with Councilman Jones as the lone voice of opposition.