You know who says you can’t fight city hall? Someone who’s tried.
I’m a basketball fanatic. I’m not very good, and I don’t care that much whether I win, but it’s great outdoor exercise, and it’s a kick when I occasionally do something right. I do have a mean hook shot.
When we moved into Ocean Park 27 years ago, I was delighted to find four courts within eight blocks of our home. How was I to know then how often I would be locked out from using them?
There were access issues, and I tried to get some straight answers from City Hall off and on for almost 20 years. What I got were public employees highly skilled at ducking and buck passing.
But now, maybe the power of the press would succeed where a lone citizen’s voice crying in the wilderness had not. Maybe I could apply journalistic rigor and investigative principles — research, interviews, taking the initiative — and get somewhere.
If there’s some policy about the use of our public facilities that you take issue with, how would you go about addressing that? How do you find out why, when and how that policy was created, and who can you talk to about changing it?
After more than three months (this time around), I can tell you: good luck.
Although the daunting process and frustrating non-results of this investigation could apply to any issue, mine focused on the basketball courts in two parks.
Let’s start with Joslyn, a nice place to work up a sweat on balmy summer evenings. For the first 12 or 13 years I played there days and nights.
But then around 1999 a sign appeared, the only notice I ever saw of a new, dastardly policy: no basketball after dusk. Dusk! That’s 5 p.m. or even earlier during the winter, and sure enough, those long, evil orange pole locks started appearing on the hoops literally minutes after sundown.
Who decided this? What was the basis, the process? Who could I talk to about this drastic change of policy?
Also, I wanted some answers as to why the courts at Los Amigos remained locked so many times during hours they’re supposed to be open, or why the lights there shut off early or didn’t work at all, problems that persist to this day.
I started at the top by interviewing Karen Ginsberg, director of Community and Cultural Services, in her City Hall office on Oct. 4. (I waited this long to put pen to paper because I wanted to give City Hall ample time to answer my questions.)
Regarding the ridiculously early shutdown of the courts at Joslyn, she said that since she was new in her position (less than a year, but she was assistant director for 12 years, and has been with the city for 18) she had no idea how or exactly when that policy came about, but surmised that it probably had to do with having the “proper” lighting, for safety’s sake.
“We have to consider issues of lighting, neighborhood concerns and usage patterns,” she said. “I can’t speak to what happened more than 12 years ago, but my staff has explained to me that for at least the past dozen years those courts have shut down at sunset.”
Her theme was consistent during the interview and in subsequent e-mails: “The challenge there is that those walkway lights (at Joslyn) are not basketball court lights, and I think from our risk management standpoint we would want court lights installed,” at a cost of probably $8,000 to $10,000, subject to approval by the City Council and a long process of community input that was not going to happen anytime soon. Not on their agenda, she said.
She suggested anyone interested in seeing that policy change might initiate some sort of “grass roots effort.” It sounded like something that would take months or years and the devotion of a part-time job; Without any guarantee of the desired results.
I understand that governments have to follow certain procedures that seem arcane and too lengthy to the rest of us. But here’s my question, asked over and over of several city officials without any direct answer: Was that process followed when the rules were changed around 1999? I doubt it.
I can’t help thinking, if there is enough light to play (there is), what is preventing those courts from being used after dusk? Did some resident with pull complain about the noise?
I went with a pro photographer friend of mine and his trusty light meter to compare the lighting at Joslyn and Los Amigos. The results were hard to match up, but certainly didn’t show a marked difference. Overall, Joslyn is slightly more illuminated, because there are lights on both sides. Everyone I’ve asked for an opinion on this, an eyeball judgment, including maintenance manager Devin Starnes, has agreed that there is plenty of light for playing basketball at night at Joslyn.
It worked fine for decades. Why the unexplained change in 1999? I request that someone in the city bureaucracy, in particular Ginsberg, provide us with documentation that shows this process was followed in 1999.
If they do, I’ll shut up. But if it was rammed through it needs to be undone now because there is no good reason to deny use of those courts. We residents pay a lot in taxes to have public facilities like our parks.
I keep hearing about “the proper lighting” for a basketball court. Ginsberg alluded to the involvement of the risk management department, and the engineering department. But I interviewed Larry Sacco, 23 years in risk, and he said he knows of no city, federal or industry standards for “the proper lighting,” and also that his department, mostly concerned with employee safety, would not get involved in that unless specifically asked by another department. City engineering head Lee Swain likewise knows of no standards, nor does Public Landscaping Superintendent Darryl Baker. He referred me to a private company, Musco Lighting, and they said they make up their own standards and that most groups go by that.
So where’s the legal imperative?
I think it’s just so much easier in a bureaucracy to do things the way they’ve always been done, and that people will go to great lengths to maintain the status quo. Even if it doesn’t make sense, even if it’s not supported by law, regulation or practice, and even if it denies rights to the majority.
We’re waiting to see evidence that the procedure now being required to change the policy of the Joslyn courts being closed at dusk was followed in ’99. Thirteen years is a long time to wait for answers.
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 email@example.com.