Sometimes The Municipality of Chatham-Kent Boggles the Mind
You can picture it, can’t you? Somewhere deep in the heart of the Chatham-Kent Civic Centre a young intern rushes down the carpeted aisle between rows and rows of cubicles. He wrenches open a closed door and bursts into a room filled with important people wearing suits. After a dramatic pause, he shouts, “Jason Reynolds, the guy who runs the flag football league? He’s cutting the grass in the park!”
“HE MUST BE STOPPED!” thunders the number one suit wearer.
The gears in the bureaucratic machinery begin to grind and eventually produce a cease and desist letter. It’s a good one, too. With possible penalties and even an admonition to “conduct yourself accordingly.”
The suits beam with pride as they carefully seal the letter in an envelope. It’s been a good day at the office. Today, they accomplished much.
It’s farcical, I know. But then so is actually sending a letter to Jason Reynolds, who is the guy who has organized and run the Flag Football league at Lark Park for the past decade. In a municipality with not enough stuff for kids to do, in a municipality that pretty much sucks in the “amount of physical activity people get” category, this is a hill the lawyers have decided to fight over. This is the hill that someone must die on.
To be fair, there is an added layer of complexity; the issue isn’t as simple as ‘Who is allowed to cut the grass?” Well, legally, I suppose it is, but the grass cutting is wrapped up in a very vocal movement that began last year when the Municipality was asked to allow the Flag Football league to play without having to pay fees.
Chatham-Kent ‘higher ups’ pointed out that the other local leagues all pay, so it wouldn’t be fair. The Municipality also pointed out that extra maintenance to cut the grass to keep the fields playable would cost more than the fees collected. This is an interesting argument, since they are supposed to be maintaining the park in the first place. How much more could it cost to cut just the flag football area three or four extra times between the end of June and the end of August?
The real issue is about how the Municipality deals with the average person, and its seemingly inherent ability to cut off its nose to spite its face. It’s another example of how Municipal administration, and Council to some extent, don’t seem to have a clue how to handle an issue before it blows up and everybody gets hit by the shrapnel. The scary legal letter sent to Jason was a ham-handed attempt to show the little guy “who is in charge.” It is tone-deaf and does nothing to actually solve the problem at hand.
First, here’s a little background on Jason Reynolds. Sports in general has been part of his life and he is amazed at the talent that has come out of Chatham-Kent. He got into flag football about thirty years ago and in that time he has organized and participated in an adult mens’ league. He says, “Ten years ago I started a kids’ league and it just kinda took off. A lot of my coaches from the kids’ league come from my mens’ league. [The kids] get good teaching in the game from experience.
“Two years ago I was approached by Under Armour who wanted to partner with me because they liked what I was doing. I held the Under Armour deal up for about four months. I come from a low income family. I come from a place where I wasn’t really able to afford extra-curricular sports. I made sure that I did not sign with UnderArmour until they could assure me we were the lowest cost UnderArmour Kids Flag Football League in all of Canada. I did not want any kid to not be able to play based on price.”
While the Under Armour affiliation provided the kids with branded shorts and shirts, it also opened up the opportunity to compete on both national and international levels. Chatham-Kent’s flag football team won the season-ending tournament last year in Toronto. Because of that win, they were scheduled to travel to Florida to compete at an even larger level until Covid ruined those plans. For a time, Chatham-Kent was a feel-good story in flag football circles, and spoke volumes to the level of athletes that our area can produce.
Last year the league had around 100 kids sign up. They play at Lark Park, which is located off Baldoon Road, almost directly behind Mercato Fresh. It’s a large open area with the remains of a soccer field taking up about a third of the park’s grounds. The ground itself is mostly flat, with trees along the borders and a small playground on one end. It could be a prime piece of real estate for hosting sporting events that need a field.
It’s obvious, as soon as you approach the park, that the Municipality of Chatham-Kent is doing minimal maintenance. The playground is in good condition, but the soccer field is lumpy and rough, and often unmowed. One year it got really bad. Jason says, “it was just below my knee. Until the long weekend [in May], they would just let it grow out. By that time, you have all the ticks and mosquitos. This park isn’t maintained how it should be. They cut it, knock it down, and then it’s kind of sporadic.”
Part of this, in the last year, is due to the Municipal decision to scale back maintenance in order to save money during the Covid Pandemic. However, we also know from the medical community that access to open spaces is safe, and good for your mental health. It’s likely, though, that knee high, tick-filled grass isn’t.
Last year was bad, but it is not like this park has a history of great maintenance, either. Jason says he has been cutting the grass for his flag football league for six years. He does it for one primary reason. “I want to prevent injury,” Jason says matter of factly. “My kids start at 5 years old. It’s hard enough for a kid to get coordinated at that age. They are just learning, it’s almost like we are teaching them how to run. To do that in grass that is not cut just doesn’t work.” He has even had people reach out and offer to bring over lawn rollers to smooth the areas of play to make the fields even better.
The legal issue is that only Municipal employees (or companies under contract) can cut lawns and do maintenance in the parks. It’s a liability thing. If something were to happen, the Municipality would be on the hook in a lawsuit. But Jason has been doing this for six years and the city knew it. Until last year, it wasn’t a problem. The Municipality even almost offered a reasonable solution. Jason said, “They told me, we need you to sign a waiver. I said, ‘No problem! You make up a waiver, and I’ll sign it. If you want me to make up a waiver, I’ll sign it.’ That was the last I heard from them.” So close.
If you drive by Lark Park you soon begin to see just how stupid this kerfuffle is. The park is grass. Not wildflowers, not protected prairie, not hidden wetland. It is just a huge dandelion- filled lawn. Jason cuts two bits of it lower than the Municipality does (when it bothers to do it at all). This is a crucial point: he only cuts it in the area where the kids are playing. That is one or two rectangles that are each 40 yards wide by 100 yards long. And they are not even located on the disused soccer field. Two rectangles. 40×100.
Yes, there are laws and rules that need to be followed. Covid mitigation measures are a prime example. Jason had an excellent plan to abide by Covid regulations last year. He states, “Being signed with UnderArmour, I have strict guidelines I have to follow for them, which I had to present to the city. They have a copy of all that.
“Last year, two or three times, I had the police come out, probably because somebody had complained. I went and talked to them, I explained everything–how I run things. They observed how I run things. Every time they came out they said I was totally good.”
It is obvious that he has been trying to work within the system even as he has many loud and vocal supporters in the #FreeLarkPark movement. This could have been a perfect opportunity for Ward 6 Councilors or the Mayor to reach out and cool things off, broker a compromise. “Mike Bondy has done leaps and bounds for me,” said Jason. “I have tried to reach out to the Mayor, I have tried to reach out to other people on Council. I’ve just gotten no response. Last year, I spent the whole year trying to go about things the right way. And it got me a letter.”
“And it got me a letter.” That simple statement signifies that our local government failed in this instance. Even if Jason is trying to land a better deal for his league, even if his persistence is annoying to administration, there does not seem to have been any concerted effort to make things right; to find a way to work together. Now the headlines will read “Chatham-Kent Bans Man From Mowing Football Field for Kids”. Or something like that.
Council and Administration need to do better, and be better, than this. The narrative never needed to be written this way. Although–with a propensity to circle the wagons, to be “right” at all costs, and to keep the average citizen at arm’s length, it’s not really surprising either.
Get the man a waiver and let him mow the grass, or find a way to make that fraction of area in Lark Park right for the league. The job of local government is supposed to be to serve the citizens. Do your job–get the grass cut (for heaven’s sake, I can’t believe this is what this is about) and make it so people in the community don’t feel like the only option they have is to maintain public spaces themselves.
“If it was kept how it should be,” said Jason, “I wouldn’t need to be out there.”
This is a photo from the season in 2020. Note the difference in height of the “maintained grass” vs the playing area. Which would you rather have your kids running in?
Interview Conducted April 30, 2021 / Long Grass and 2020 Field photos courtesy of Jason Reynolds
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