Barras: Playing games with city playing fields

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Local,DC,Jonetta Rose Barras

D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation Director Jesus Aguirre should be praised. He has attempted to bring equity to a system of doling out permits for the use of city fields that previously satisfied the needs of large and influential sports leagues over those of neighborhood residents.

Instead, he has been lambasted by D.C. Council members and Stoddert Soccer Board of Directors Chairman Nick Keenan, whose organization serves more than 5,000 children -- many from Wards 2, 3 and 4. Each child pays $70 per season -- although scholarships and family packages are available.

Stoddert had sought 100 percent use of 12 fields during after-school hours. Historically, its requests have been satisfied, with the city receiving a meager $26 per season, per field.

This year, however, DPR weighed the needs of sports leagues against those of other users, including neighborhood residents and public schools -- traditional and charter.

"It is simply not possible -- nor appropriate -- for a single private group to monopolize so much public field space, no matter how worthy the program or activity," Aguirre wrote Keenan, after Keenan accused DPR of systematically "shutting out" his organization and providing permits based on "political considerations."

"It was like a bomb going off when we learned we weren't getting our usual allocation," Keenan told me the day before he aired his grievances at the D.C. Council's Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning public hearing on DPR's permitting process.

"It felt like they had gone about this in such a way to inconvenience us as much as they could," continued Keenan, noting DPR wasn't "collaborative" and provided the list of approved fields only days before Stoddert's season began.

"I am frustrated with the [DPR] administration," committee Chairman Tommy Wells told me, arguing the process was neither "transparent" nor "rational." He said DPR created "expectations that Stoddert would get the fields."

Please.

Given the increased demand -- 500 requests from 150 groups -- for a finite number of fields, Aguirre's approach makes sense. He said DPR worked collaboratively with Stoddert staff, meeting with them and subsequently exchanging more than 15 emails. Still, he admitted improvements are needed.

Stoddert is a good organization; it hasn't been harmed. It received permission for 100 percent use of Hardy, Rudolph and Brentwood Hamilton; majority use of Carter Barron, Palisades, Fort Stevens, Francis, Hearst, Jelleff and Shepherd; and nearly half-time use at two other fields.

Truth be told, the brouhaha isn't simply about fields. It's about money.

When Stoddert doesn't get use of a public field, it has to rent more private ones. That's not cheap. Keenan told me the organization has paid as much as $10,000 per season for a private field. With those kind of costs, it's understandable Stoddert would want to use more public space, at $26 a season.

But instead of kicking Aguirre around, Wells and others should consider changing the dynamics between the government and private, fee-generating enterprises like Stoddert. The District should increase the cost for use of its public fields by such groups or negotiate a profit-sharing arrangement.

I prefer the latter.

Jonetta Rose Barras' column appears on Tuesday and Friday. She can be reached at jonetta@jonettarosebarras.com.

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