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Home News Local News Management of county-owned sports complex stirs debate

Management of county-owned sports complex stirs debate

The rift pits Scott County Commission against Scott High School over usage rights at John John Yancey Memorial Park

HUNTSVILLE — By a wide margin on Monday night, Scott County Commission passed a resolution affirming the county government’s sole authority to say who can use the sports fields at John John Yancey Memorial Park, and when. But discussion leading up to and during Monday’s meeting indicated plenty of confusion over the exact intent of the resolution, and what it means going forward.

With Commissioner Sam Lyles absent and Commissioner Patti Brown passing on a vote, the county legislative body voted 10-2 to approve a resolution presented by the county’s Parks & Recreation Committee setting forth the intent of the committee to regulate use of the athletics complex.

Casting the only dissenting votes were 5th District Commissioner Paul Strunk and 7th District Commissioner Mike Slaven.

The contentious nature of the issue was revealed by the room full of observers that it drew: half of them on behalf of the Storm, the county’s youth football league, and the other half on behalf of Scott High soccer. In fact, the entirety of the Lady Highlander soccer team was on hand for the meeting, with one of them, senior Abby Bridges, designated to speak for the group.

The only other speakers from the general public were Sonni Sexton, who is actually a member of the Parks & Recreation Committee in addition to being the director of the Storm league, and Bill Hall, the county’s director of schools.

At the forefront of the minds of many in attendance was usage of the soccer field at the complex. It is one of four athletics field contained within the facility, along with a baseball field, a softball field and a multipurpose field inside the track.

First District Commissioner David Jeffers, who chairs the Parks & Recreation Committee, sometime back suggested the soccer field as a possible practice field for Storm football. That was apparently what spurred most of the contention, though most of those intricately involved with the issue said that usage of the soccer field was a moot point.

Storm has long practiced at the multipurpose field inside the track, which is also used as a practice field by the Scott High football team. But state authorities recently told county officials to leave gates at the entrances locked to prevent vehicles inside the sports complex for safety purposes. Mayor Jeff Tibbals said during Monday’s meeting that was where the debate began, adding that a lot of older Storm parents or guardians like to pull up to the field to watch the kids practice.

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“Parents said, ‘Let’s see if there’s anything we can do,'” Tibbals said. “Commissioner Jeffers came back and said, ‘What about the soccer field?’ Someone from another organization heard that discussion and interpreted it as Storm was going to use the soccer field. That’s when all hades broke loose from administration, board members, all sorts of places.”

Storm has since moved its practices to the athletics field at the Boys & Girls Club of the Cumberland Plateau.

The resolution itself made no mention of the soccer field. However, it dictated that the county can control who uses the field, and when. In part, it reads: “the Parks & Recreation Committee shall be charged with the regulation and governance of the property buildings and other facilities … including the establishment of permitted uses, scheduling of uses and maintenance responsibilities.”

The resolution goes on to add that Scott High and middle school sports teams will be given priority of field use for practices and games “during their respective seasons.”

Speaking on behalf of both Storm and the Parks & Recreation Committee, Reagan said the issue was never intended to become an us vs. them debate.

“It’s not to take anything from anybody,” she said. “It’s not to eliminate anybody from using any of the facilities. It’s to open it up for anybody in the community to use any of the facilities.”

Fourth District Commissioner Kenny Chadwell, who spearheaded the resolution, was adament that it wasn’t about Storm’s use of the soccer field, even going so far as to say that someone — he didn’t name names but made it clear that he was referring to someone within the school system’s administration — was intentionally lying to soccer players about their field being taken from them.

Speaking on behalf of the soccer team, Bridges took the podium to say that soccer fields should be reserved for soccer use only.

“Our surfaces have to be at a different level than football,” Bridges said. “They have to be flat for the ball to roll like it should be able to. We take extremely good care of our field. When it’s storming or pouring the rain, we don’t practice on it. We cannot play good on a field in that condition. Our coach, Eric Henry, I can’t even tell you how many man-hours he puts into that field. I drive by and he’s mowing it on his own time, putting seed down. It comes out of the soccer budget.”

Hall revealed that the soccer field, which was built in 1997, was constructed using school system funds and labor.

“We know it’s county property. We’ve never argued that,” Hall said. “We’re grateful to have what we have.”

But, Hall added, the school system’s request is that the field be reserved for soccer only.

“I love seeing kids play football,” Hall said. “We’ve never denied access and never will. As long as I’m sitting where I am, we will not turn them away. They will always have a place to play. (But) one thing we’d like is to leave that a soccer facility. It’s a soccer facility, just like baseball is baseball and softball is softball.”

Storm plays its home games at Fairview School’s Clois Strunk Memorial Field.

Chadwell indicated during discussion that the Storm will not be using the soccer field, saying that it will be left for soccer only — while the baseball and softball fields will also be used for their respective sports only.

Before casting a dissenting vote, Slaven asked what would prevent the county from turning over ownership of the soccer field to the school system. Tibbals and County Attorney John Beaty indicated that research is ongoing with answers being sought from the state as to whether that can be done.

It’s not the first time that point has been raised; in fact, Tibbals broached the subject during his first term in office and again last year. The last time it came up, Chadwell was adament that grant agreements signed in the 1980s and 1990s to do work to part of the complex stipulated that the property must remain in the county’s ownership and open to public use.

However, Tibbals pointed out that the land the Scott High football field and even the school itself sits on were once part of the same parcel of property that includes the sports complex. Ownership of those lands was transferred to the school system just last year — and “we’ve not had any repercussion,” he said.

Meanwhile, Strunk — who cast the other dissenting vote — inquired about the exact authority of the Parks & Recreation Committee. Each of the committee’s decisions is subject to final approval from County Commission, leaving some dubious that the committee can actually schedule usage times and purposes for the sports complex within its limited authority.

As for their part, Reagan said, Storm supporters were on hand to let commissioners know they feel unwelcome; they actually stopped practicing at the multipurpose field after being told that their presence was a problem.

“We’re the only youth sports program in the county that does not have a place to call their own,” she said. “It is discouraging when you put everything you can into a program to not feel wanted. When you go to these football games on Thursday nights and Friday nights, a majority of the kids you see out there on that field grew to love this game through that program.”

Tibbals said he feared that if County Commission decides to play hardball with the school system over usage of the sports complex, the school system — which currently performs all maintenance on the fields — will simply refuse to take care of those tasks. Making maintenance the county’s responsibility would come with a price tag of up to $150,000 a year, the mayor said.

“The school has taken on so many financial responsibilities on that property and has relieved us of that obligation,” Tibbals said. “If we take it back on, I fear our budget will not cover that situation and we’ll have complaints. If this goes through, the school will not put another penny back into it. That’s a huge fear of mine.”

Chadwell was dismissive of that concern, saying coaches would be “spiteful” towards their players if they stopped maintaining the fields.

“The coaches are going to continue to mow their fields,” he said.

That answer did not sit well with Scott High soccer coach Eric Henry, who did not mince words after the meeting.

“Three things I learned from tonight’s meeting,” he said. “One, Abby Bridges is an outstanding young woman. There was nothing I could say to add to what she had said. I’m extremely proud of her and how she represented the team and Scott High.

“Two, some of the commissioners — all who voted yes — have no interest in facts, the truth, or common sense. It was a simple power grab to ‘fix’ something that wasn’t broken. It was obvious by the following: County Attorney Beaty wanted nothing to do with writing the resolution. If the lawyer wasn’t interested in it that’s probably all you need to know.

“Lastly, Chadwell and David Jeffers lied. There’s no way to whitewash that. They said no one ever said or wanted to take the soccer field away from the teams at Scott High. Yet the mayor plainly stated it was brought up as an option — mainly so that Storm parents and grandparents wouldn’t have to walk to the track. David Jeffers is the one who brought the idea to the Parks & Rec Committee back in the summer. The word misinformation was thrown out a few times. There’s misinformation — usually from misunderstanding — and there’s lies.”

Slaven attempted to persuade his fellow commissioners to table the resolution until Beaty could obtain more information from the state, saying there was no need to rush it. But when the resolution was formally introduced, Chadwell immediately made a motion to approve it upon reading the text, and 6th District Commissioner Donnie Bowlin seconded it. Slaven made a motion that the issue be tabled, but rules of order require the initial motion to be voted on before a follow-up motion can be considered.

“Commissioner Slaven wanted to find out the details and facts of the property as it pertained to grants, and I commend him for that,” Henry said. “It seemed he was our student-athletes’ only advocate. Chadwell just wanted to rush his resolution through. Plain and simple.”

Still not finished, Henry commended his players — who had just finished practice a day ahead of facing arch-rival Kingston for a regular season district championship — for showing up and taking part in the government process.

“As a coach you try and teach your players the sport, all the details that go into getting better, how to work to achieve goals, and how to win and lose with class,” Henry said. “Along the way, life lessons get thrown in as well. I’m glad that my players saw that tonight. From one of our own, Abby Bridges. She showed grace and respect and intelligence and honesty. There are a few local ‘politicians’ that could learn a lot from the ladies of SHS soccer.”

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Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett is Independent Herald editor. Contact him at bgarrett@ihoneida.com. Follow him on Twitter, @benwgarrett.
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