Can recreation programs be returned to former glory?

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Revelation of the latest Parks and Recreation controversy (see related story, this page) has stakeholders in local recreation programs asking what can be done to salvage a once-vibrant culture of youth sports in the Indian Wells Valley.

While Ridgecrest Parks and Recreation Director Jim Ponek has pointed to diminishing budgets for the dismal state of local facilities and shrinking number of programs, others say Ponek’s unwillingness to partner with the community has put the department on its current trajectory of dilapidating facilities and diminishing programs.

Several members of the Ridgecrest City Council grilled Ponek during the intensive series of public workshops leading up to this year’s creation of a fiscal budget (passed at the last meeting of the council).

Among the concerns expressed by both the council and public were Ponek’s continued projection of revenues that never materialized, trend in overspending, reduction of revenue-generating programs, lack of consistent policies in dealing with the public and a refusal to allow volunteers to participate in the solution in order to save services.

Another often-voiced objection by the public is Ponek’s $130,000 salary (some $180,000 including benefits), which grows every year while much lower-paid workers are laid off.

While some have gone on record with their concerns, others have said that they do not want to go public with their grievances, since those who challenge Ponek are banned from participating in city programs.

“I have already been blacklisted by Ponek, but my concern is not with Ponek himself — my concern is keeping these programs available for the kids,” said Mike Tosti, who has been attempting to work with local businesses and volunteers to take over the administration and maintenance of fields in order to continue offering programs.

Tosti said that the soccer families are in flux now that Ponek has given the current soccer fields to a local football group.

“Football has spent thousands of dollars now to get set up their, so I don’t fault them for this.” But he said that before softball, baseball, soccer and football all had places play. Now all of those organizations are competing for the limited amount of usable space left. “It seems like the sports community is being pitted against each other right now. It’s pretty bad,” said Tosti.

“And even whoever ends up getting the fields is probably going to end up paying for everything.”

Tosti said that if the community knew what was at stake, they would come together — as many already have — to save the programs. “But it seems like Ponek is hiding things from the community and I don’t understand why.

“But if something doesn’t happen soon, it will be too late to stop it. And you have a council who is letting him get away with it, including a mayor who has publicly supported him 100 percent.”

Carol Porter said that the city has already lost recreation outlets that were in place for decades, including the gymnastics program she ran for the city. “In 2002 the council let Ponek destroy a center designed with much thought and at great cost so that recreation space could be cleared for administrative space for the convenience of the staff. Not a soul batted an eye,” she said.

“It seems like people are just not paying attention.”

She said the Halloween carnival — another partnership with the community — was cut because it was an inconvenience to the staff.

She said that under previous management the city used volunteers to build programs that “made people sit up and take notice.” She said while the previous culture used diminishing resources as an opportunity to find creative solutions, the current mentality seems to use it as a way to justify cutting services.

Porter said she was particularly saddened by the apparent dismantling of Armstrong Memorial Field (see related story).

“If it were not for the Armstrong family, I don’t know if we would even have a soccer program in Ridgecrest. Our community was dependant upon them and Randy Gambol, who got it started and kept it running for years.

“The Armstrong memorial is not just important because Matt died, but because of what that family helped start here. And now it looks like we are losing it.”

Story First Published: 2013-07-17