A tense disagreement about the role of Athens Recreation Advisory Board gave way to discussion about the Athens West Side park as Board members met Thursday with Athens Mayor Steve Patterson.
The meeting with Patterson, which has been rescheduled several times, was to discuss the board's role in the hiring of the Arts, Parks and Recreation director. Patterson did not attend the previous meeting with the board, although members believed he would.
On Thursday, Patterson reasserted that he had sole authority to hire members of the city administration.
“I don’t need anybody’s approval — and I don’t need anyone’s advisement (sic) as to who I am hiring,” Patterson said. “That’s my cabinet. That’s this administration’s cabinet.”
At a meeting on Nov. 4, board members grilled new Director Katherine Ann Jordan about the city’s hiring process for the position and complained that the board was not being considered in decision making.
Jordan has been APR director for over a month and was previously appointed to the Advisory Board in January 2021. Athens City Council voted in early October to approve a 34% raise from the base salary after rejecting an attempt to expedite the process in September.
Board Chairman Alan Swank began the meeting by asking Patterson to explain why the board was not included in the hiring process.
“If you’re here to carry out a Monkey Trial or something, Alan, that’s far different that my being asked here to talk about roles and responsibilities of the Rec Advisory Board,” Patterson said.
(Patterson's reference is to the famed 1925 trial of John Scopes, a Tennessee teacher who was charged with violating the state's ban on teaching evolution. Scopes was found guilty and was depicted in the national press as a martyr for science. The term "monkey trial" comes from a comment by one of Scopes' students to the press: "I believe in part of evolution, but I don't believe in the monkey business.")
Swank defended his question. “No, we’re here to discuss what our roles are, as a courtesy to these individuals who volunteer their time and to represent the City of Athens the best they can,” Swank said
City law directly contradicts the mayor’s position, Swank said. City Code states the board should “advise the administration in matters relating to the job qualifications and employment of personnel in the Athens City Recreation Department.”
“So a simple question,” Swank said. “Why weren’t we included in the process?”
Patterson said the ordinance was riddled with inconsistencies.
“That whole piece of legislation in terms of powers has contradictions all throughout it, unfortunately,” Patterson said in a five-minute rebuttal to Swank. He concluded, however, that the bylaws “in terms of responsibilities, are clear.”
“I think we interpret this a little differently,” Swank said.
“Clearly we do — clearly we do,” Patterson said.
Patterson also told the board about planned renovations for the West Side Park on West State Street. The city recently allocated around $500,000 for improvements including bathroom replacements, dugout renovations and increasing parking space.
At a previous meeting, board member Travis Gatling and others expressed concern about their lack of involvement in the process.
Several critical problems required expedited processes, Patterson said, such as a dilapidated bathroom. The lack of parking leads people to park on the grass past the outfield during Athens Sandlot baseball games, which jeopardizes the wellhead that provides the city's drinking water. Swank said parking on the grass was more about convenience than lack of space and asked about spending money on the park without increasing enforcement. Patterson said parking enforcement would increase with the funding.
Patterson and the board also discussed at length negotiations with Athens Sandlot. Both that group and Patterson have suggested increased collaboration between the board and Athens Sandlot.
Swank also suggested the Rec Advisory Board be tasked with writing a plan for the Arts, Parks and Rec department.
“Would it be appropriate for this board in conjunction with the director to develop a one-, three or five-year plan?” Swank said. “So that some of the things mentioned today … can get slotted into that plan? So that we’re doing things in priority order.”
Patterson indicated he was in favor of that idea of a long-term plan, but emphasized the department's need for “flexibility” amid budget issues stemming from the pandemic.
Board member Brandon Thompson asked how the board can become part of the hiring process. He suggested that seeking the advice of the board could become just another way to seek a panel of experts before making important decisions in the department.
“Why wouldn’t we be consulted?” Thompson said. “You know, we have this breadth of knowledge. How do we become a part of that? Because we are a valuable asset.”
Noting that neither Patterson's nor Jordan's positions are permanent, Thompson advocated for clarity on how the board could be involved.
“When you move on to other stuff, who’s to say the next mayor or the next director wants to come back to this?” Thompson said. “They could just do whatever they want.”
Patterson said he understood Thompson’s concerns, and added long-term strategic planning suggested by Swank and Thompson could be useful in ensuring continuity of priorities.
"It's the issue of continuity across time," Patterson said. "It's resonated a lot with me, you know — things are going to be forgotten."
Patterson suggested to the group that members bring suggestions for appointments to the three vacancies on the board.
“It’d be fantastic,” Patterson said. “So that I can continue to make sure this board has the diversity we need to continue.”