SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- Members of the Scotch Plains Township Council heard public comments from representatives of the local baseball, soccer and lacrosse leagues, who all spoke in support of keeping the all-volunteer Recreation Commission before voting 4-1 along party lines to disband it.
The move, supported by Mayor Kevin Glover and council members Colleen Gialanella, John Del Sordi and Rose Checchio, means that Recreation Director Ray Poerio will no longer report to the independent commission, but rather will answer to Township Manager Al Mirabella. Llewellyn Jones, the lone Republican on the Council, was the only "no" vote.
"Our organization wasn't consulted, and I don't think the volunteer organizations should be left out," said Neil Kaufman, president of the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Baseball League, who spoke first among the large turnout of sports league volunteers. "We think this should be looked into a bit more before making such a big change. The commission has been in place dating back to World War II."
"This seems to be moving very fast," Mike Kloepfer, president of Scotch Plains Fanwood Lacrosse Club. "I know there is more power with a commission than a committee. I need to know why Scotch Plains should be different from Westfield and Cranford." (Editor's note: Cranford does not have a commission structure. Locally, Westfield and Fanwood do.)
"Lacrosse did not exist eight years ago. We worked with Recreation and got everything we asked for," Kloepfer added. "There's not a lot of belief that only reporting structure will change. There's a lot that will change."
"We stand in line with baseball and lacrosse. It may not be as clear cut as we are being told," said Chris DeMaria, president of the Scotch Plains Fanwood Soccer Association. "This has worked very well for the kids. Think about the groups who came out tonight. They are all aligned."
Mayor Glover faced the heat and continued his insistence that "the only change is that the recreation director would now report to our municipal manager, just as all the other departments do.
"This is no different from the fire department, police department or the town CFO, who all report to the town manager," Glover said. "We hope that the commission members, who are all appointed by the town manager, will continue to serve as committee members. Their service is valued."
"It's not over, the fight had just begun," said Rich Duthie, who has been outspoken in his opposition against abolishing the Recreation Commission. "We have a voice we have resolve and there are options to defeat their decision at second reading."
"The council chose to ignore the 430 people who signed petitions in the past three days. The mayor and other council people dismissed it, but we have a plan and are 100 percent motivated to defeat their political agenda, which will permanently damage our recreation services in town," Duthie added.
Councilwoman Colleen Gialanella, who described herself as a big advocate for recreation and inclusive programs, told the council that she would like to see the department continue to grow and support the youth sports leagues.
"We will have direction and a Recreation Department that will operate under control of our township manager," Gialanella said. "I have concerns with the way the department has been run. There has not been filing of paperwork for allied associations. We have not had copies of taxes and 501(c)3 renewals. Last year, we had a widely reported incident of alleged mismanagement of funds. It is time we tightened the reigns. "
"Whether you use them or not these facilities are paid for with taxpayer dollars. Our fees are not increasing. I am not going to play games at the expense of our children," Gialanella continued. "I hope the leagues will find the change satisfactory. Mr. Mirabella has been a supporter of Recreation. He is the last person you should not have concerns about."
Councilman Llewellyn Jones encouraged Scotch Plains residents to read the entire ordinance, noting that contracts made by the Commission could now be voided and that Recreation has $250,000 in its coffers.
"This ordinance changes how Recreation is governed. There is a little text about reporting structure and a lot about other things," Councilman Jones said. "I don't think anything is broke. Why swing an axe at something that is not a big issue?"
"I will oppose this tonight. The commission has been in existence a long time and working well. It set the bar pretty high to make such a significant change," Jones added.
Although careful not to criticize Mirabella directly, Jones said the primary reason given by the mayor is changing the reporting structure but it is really about control.
"All CEOs like more control, it's understandable," Jones explained. "My question is why do we need to go down this road -- just to change one person's reporting structure? I can't think of any problems that disbanding the Recreation Commission would solve, but there is substantial risk. It removes checks and balances."
"It would be very easy for a politician to say, 'Support me politically, and I'll support you.' I am not saying that this is what will happen, but it opens up the door to political motives in making decisions regarding Recreation. This change will be in effect for a long time."
Councilman John Del Sordi, a long-time soccer and baseball coach in Scotch Plains, outlined his thoughts in his typical, plainspoken style.
"I've been a volunteer for years. I didn't know the difference between a Commission and a committee until I got elected," Councilman Del Sordi said. "All department heads have a boss. We are looking to streamline communications. It makes sense. All departments report to the Manager."
"We are not disbanding programs or getting rid of fields. In fact, I'd like to have more programs for kids and seniors," Del Sordi added.
During the meeting and afterward, Mayor Glover insisted the fierce resistance was itself politically motivated.
"The voices in opposition included the Republican chairman (Alexander Smith) and Llewellyn Jones. You're trying to tell me the opposition isn't politically driven? There are plenty of people who have told me that they are happy we are making this change."