In my last column I told you the sad tale of the basketball courts at Joslyn Park, where for many years one could shoot hoops both night and day, until an infamous moment, we think in 1999, when without warning an ominous sign was posted, proclaiming: basketball play will cease at sundown.
I tried for those 13 years since, as a longtime tax-paying citizen of Santa Monica, to get some explanation — with zero results. Nothing but the run-around.
Now as a reporter, a Fourth Estate representative of the people’s right to know — pretty much the same results.
But wait, there’s more. Two blocks away, on the grounds of what is now also the SMASH/John Muir Elementary Schools campus, AKA Los Amigos Park, the courts there have been often and consistently unavailable for public use in the evening, and sometimes during the day, for 15 years, for an unending array of reasons.
City Hall contributes millions a year to school shared-use programs — and we can’t even get past locked gates at Los Amigos that are supposed to be kept open by city employees?
As someone who lives almost across the street, I can tell you that things changed when the schools moved in. I remember on dedication day the words of the new principal: Not an inch of recreational space will be lost to the public because of these schools.
Technically true. No inches disappeared.
Of course you could no longer use the courts during school hours because the school kids often used them — understandable. No objection. I like school kids. I have one.
But then the lights started becoming unreliable for playing after dark, sometimes working, sometimes not. Then they wouldn’t come on at all after 8 p.m. or so. Then they got shut off altogether. Accident or policy?
Then there was the problem of the homeless camping out there at night, leaving broken bottles and other foul-smelling debris, so the gate got locked at night — understandable. But then the gate was sometimes kept locked for days at a time.
Then the after-school CREST program claimed use of the courts — semi-understandable.
But shouldn’t the gate be unlocked at least by 6:30 p.m.? Sometimes it has been. Other times never; sometimes locked for days at a time.
Community and Cultural Services Director Karen Ginsberg referred me to Devin Starnes, the guy in charge of the crews locking up all city facilities at night, and unlocking Los Amigos at 6:30. She told me she had already asked him if he couldn’t get his crews to unlock the Los Amigos gate closer to 6. “They have a route,” she pointed out, “they can’t be everywhere at 6 p.m. But he’s on notice, so… .”
So, what? If I was put on notice by a department head to try really hard to do one particular thing, I would do that. But even more, if I knew a newspaper columnist was doing a story, I think I would line up all my employees and very clearly tell them that I was not going to be publicly embarrassed by a column reporting that this one particular thing was not being done the way it was supposed to be done.
But it’s still not being done. The gate at Los Amigos, the only way for the public to get to the basketball and tennis courts, still is not unlocked by 6:30 on school days, at least 30 to 40 percent of the time, and that’s being generous. That’s not a number I picked out of the air. It’s based on me driving past the gate at least 50, maybe 80 times during the course of this investigation.
I like Starnes. He gave me open access and a lot of time, far different from his call-dodging, shift-blaming Parks & Rec predecessor. Through three interviews and numerous e-mails and phone calls we seemed always to be on the same page. Find the answers, correct the problems. “It is a priority of mine to get these things done. I am focused on this. Check in later to see how the system’s working.”
Did. Not working. Many promises, supposedly some new policies, but no discernible change.
I know Starnes is a very busy man with many responsibilities and projects. He told me he made the rounds with his crew chief, examined staffing and communication to see where improvement could be made, instituted a new check system at every stop with an electronic scan upgrade coming soon.
But he never ever got back to me when he said he would, promised signage at courts with hours and phone numbers by the end of last year, said the first time I met him he would find out what the story was with the lights at Joslyn, said he would definitely get me detailed answers about a particular incident of closure around Christmas, and more, and none of it happened, over three months.
His intentions may be good but his follow through stinks. These issues are clearly not a priority for him, so why make the promises that he did?
The situation at Los Amigos is so bad that people wanting to play during hours it’s supposed to be open regularly climb over the fence, risking serious injury for which the city might be responsible because of its failings. When I mentioned this to both Ginsberg and Starnes, they didn’t get my meaning but instead said they would report it to the police and perhaps look at making the fence harder to get over. No! Just do your job!
With that kind of thinking and lack of meaningful response to citizen concerns, I’d say you’re on your own, folks, and good luck. I think I’ll take up lawn bowling.
But there is hope now that common sense might prevail, and that the city might listen if you find the right ear. Recreation & Parks Commission Chairman Phil Brock read my last column and contacted me. We met at Joslyn in the evening, where he observed the well-lit court, commented on the issues there and at Los Amigos, and came up with some quick-fix suggestions. He told me he had already placed this issue on the agenda of the next commission meeting, Feb.16. Should be interesting. Stay tuned.
Correction: the sign at Joslyn prohibits basketball after “sundown,” not “dusk” as incorrectly stated in my previous column. “Sundown” is actually earlier than “dusk.”
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 27 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.