County addresses recreation-related questions, concerns

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The County Service Area 36 Advisory Committee meeting originally scheduled at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, was cancelled because proper notice had not been posted in time to allow the meeting to go forward as an official meeting. According to the Ralph M. Brown Act, the agenda must be posted at least 72 hours prior to a regular meeting. Committee members could not vote on any issues but a meeting was held to answer community questions.

County representatives Opel Hellweg, legislative assistant to 3rd District Supervisor Chuck Washington; Michael Franklin, CSA project manager; and David Alvarez, county Economic Development Agency specialist, met informally with the public, including with some members of the committee who sat within the audience and were not attending in their appointed capacity.

The stated purpose of the meeting was to address community questions regarding CSA 36 recreation since transfer to a new recreation contractor, the San Jacinto Mountain Community Center, took place on Tuesday, Jan. 3.

Local resident Sue Nash, who has applied to sit on the committee, spoke first. For much of the meeting she questioned the propriety of using public money (a $1.2 million federal Community Development Block Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) to build a facility (Idyllwild Community Center) that would be privately owned. “I question $1.2 million in public money being used for a building that when completed would not be public,” said Nash. “I’m concerned that public money stays for public use.”

She asked how the CSA 36 or the EDA could have approved investment of public money in a privately owned facility. Franklin explained that this was a federal grant and not part of CSA 36 parcel tax or county money. “This is federal grant money and CSA 36 has no [legal] standing in that grant,” said Franklin. “If at any point, the community center is not available for public use, [ICC] would have to repay the grant.”

ICC is being built with public contributions and is partially funded by the CBDG federal grant. Nash’s questions center on a misperception that when completed, the ICC will belong to or be owned by the community. It may be intended for, open to and dedicated for public use, but it will be owned and managed by a private organization, SJMCC. Janice Lyle, president of SJMCC, explained that ICC would operate much as Town Hall currently does — as a center for community recreation, hosting CSA 36 recreation events and providing other recreational options, as well.

She explained that SJMCC was originally set up to build and provide recreational activities in the mountains. With county approval of the Conditional Use Permit to begin Phase I of the ICC, and the recent award of the CSA 36 recreation management contract, Lyle explained that SJMCC now has a dual focus: to build the center and to transition into its new position as CSA 36 recreation manager. “We’re getting our feet wet for managing recreation in the new center and in other locations,” she said. “We’ll be holding a public meeting at 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 4, at Town Hall to discuss progress on the building process and managing CSA 36 recreation. In the next five months, we’ll be holding more public meetings to find out community needs and desires for recreation. We have a core of volunteers that will help us manage recreation perhaps more economically than what the county would have been able to do. This was a county operation and is now operated by a non-profit.

“I believe site development and amphitheater construction will begin on May 7. You’ll see shovels in the ground. The CBDG grant is in the pipeline, although not finalized with still many steps left but Phase I is completely funded.”

Lyle explained that Bob Lewis is now a SJMCC employee. “He works for us,” she said. “Bob is the recreation director. We’re not telling him what to do. All current recreation goes forward while we are exploring what else the community might want.”

Nash said she was still unclear about the role of the CSA 36 Advisory Committee. “I have a problem with the [CSA 36 recreation] management,” she said. “To whom do I go to get information?”

Franklin explained that SJMCC representatives would have to attend CSA 36 Advisory Committee meetings to give budget and recreation reports and to receive public questions. “My job and that of EDA is to see that CSA 36 money is being spent conforming to all legal requirements,” said Franklin. “And the ICC is answerable to the county.” Said Lyle, “We will be at this [CSA 36 Advisory Council] meeting and will separately solicit suggestions from the community as to their needs.”

“County EDA makes policy,” said Hellweg. “The advisory committee reviews performance of the contracted recreation provider, oversees the budget and gets the pulse of the community on the provision of recreation. It has no policy-making function.”

“My core issue,” said Nash, “is the conflict of interest regarding the $1.2 million grant. Does the supervisor want advice on anything?  I will make a public records request.” Nash indicated she would continue to pursue her concerns over public money being used to build a privately owned facility and would obtain public-record documentation.

In answer to questions from other audience members, Lyle explained that beginning with construction in May, the playground would be closed and the Idyllwild Summer Concert Series would not be held at the site. She said she expects the building to be completed within two years but the amphitheater is expected to be ready for next summer’s ISCS. She also noted that CSA 36 funds are not being used to build the ICC.

Franklin explained that two vehicles previously available for CSA 36 use would be transferred back to county use. Vehicles could be driven only by county employees and now that CSA 36 is managed by a private organization with no county employees, the vehicles would be returned to the county.

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