On October 21, the Park Advisory Commission (PAC) met for the second time at the Government Plaza building. In attendance were six of the seven commissioners and about 10 members of the public who spoke freely throughout the meeting.
In August, Tulare County Supervisors appointed one member from each district to the commission: Chairman Mike Chrisman, Carol Finney, Karol Aure-Flynn, Aaron Gomes, and Vice-chair Nancy Hawkins. In addition to the five appointees, the supervisors appointed the president of the Tulare County Historical Society and the Tulare County Parks manager for a total of seven members. PAC’s first meeting was September 15, when it established the by-laws and reviewed the purpose of the committee.
According to the minutes from the first meeting, “The primary objective for the committee is to provide a public forum for input and to provide recommendations on new projects, programs and activities at county parks.” In addition, the board of supervisors had just approved a one-time amount of $1 million given to the parks division. The committee will play a large role in determining how this money is spent.
Whereas the PAC was formed to help improve all 10 of Tulare County’s parks, Mooney Grove drew the most interest.
John Rodgers, a Visalia resident who has been very vocal about the deterioration of Mooney Grove, started public comment off by pointing out that the chain link fence on the northern corner of Mooney Grove was destroyed Labor Day weekend. He said the fact that the fence has sat broken for six weeks is emblematic of how everything at Mooney Grove is handled and illustrative, in general, of the disrepair of the park.
Two other members of the public vocalized their discontent over the condition of the park. George Golosky, born and raised in Visalia, said that it has been torture watching the park go downhill. He said the koi pond was the centerpiece of the park and that the kids sat for hours and watched the fish. He finished with, “It’s just so sad.”
Committee Chair Chrisman told the public, “that’s why we are here.” He expressed throughout the meeting that his goals were the same as the public’s, to get the park back to what it used to be. His goal is to be in direct communication with the Board of Supervisors on how to do it. He added, “what we need now, is to do a lot of listening.”
John Hess, a senior administrative analyst, explained at the first meeting that the Mooney Grove 20-Year Conceptual Plan is to be the guiding document for the commissioners to use when making decisions. The county paid Kleinfelder, a consulting firm, to make a plan for future development of the park. Rodgers suggested to the committee that they tell the supervisors that “they are not turning one page in that 20-year plan until they get the park brought back to a respectable level.”
The exquisitely illustrated plan improves traffic circulation, changes the location of the park entrance, builds walking and bike paths and suggests a water-play feature. It also suggests recreating a turn-of-the -century Main Street with authentic buildings from that era. Rodgers’ objections over the PAC using the 20-year plan as their guide is that nothing in the plan can be accomplished if the maintenance crew cannot clean goose poop or fix a picnic table.
Throughout the meeting Rodgers pointed out chronic problems with the park to an attentive PAC. The Chair at one point voiced his frustration with Rodgers because his goal is to move forward. Chrisman said he is more interested in hearing solutions rather than just the problems. One PAC member asked Rodgers why he hadn’t said anything before, such as during public comment at a supervisors meeting. Rodgers, though a bit agitated, managed to politely reply that he had been going to the Board of Supervisors meetings for years.
Several members of the PAC are unaware of the history behind fighting for the restoration of Mooney Grove. Starting before the drought, and many years before the recession, the public has been speaking before the BOS of the disrepair and neglect, and beseeched those in charge to do their job. Despite the public’s efforts, the condition of the park actually got worse while other parks in Visalia, Tulare and Fresno, facing the same drought and lack of funds, remain well maintained.
It’s Not the Drought
A few of the committee members commented that the condition of Mooney Grove is due to the drought, a lack of funds, or both. Though both are contributing factors, seemingly neither are the root causes. While enquiring the City of Tulare Park Manager on how the City of Tulare keeps Del Lago clean and full of fish, he stated, “Neil Pilegard understands water issues, the problem is not the drought.”
Two wells broke down in Mooney Grove a few years ago, before there was a drought, and the issue is just now being addressed. In addition, even though the state mandated an overall 25% cutback in water use for unincorporated areas, Pilegard made the unilateral decision to cut watering in Mooney Grove by 90%–a decision that was supported by the supervisors.
At the January 28, 2014 Tulare County Supervisor meeting, Supervisor Phil Cox said:
“I talked to Neil Pilegard, who is the director of our parks, yesterday and Neil is already working on water savings measures….. He, without having been directed, has already made immediate plans to cut back our water consumption as a county. So starting immediately lawns and planters will receive minimal water and trees will receive the watering they need especially young trees to make sure we maintain them and don’t lose them……… We are going to do our part as a county to free up as much water as we can to help out our farmers.”
Whereas wells in North Visalia have to go as far down as 1,100 feet, in Mooney Grove water is found at 150 feet as it sits on one of the strongest aquifers in Tulare County. Being a farmer himself, Rodgers observed that, on three sides of Mooney Grove, are well watered, lush, green corn fields. He lamented the fact that the supervisors would be so willing to hardly water a public park used by thousands of Valley residents, many of them low income, for the benefit of private enterprise. Pilegard said during the PAC meeting that 40 trees have had to be cut down and 20 of them were oaks. A final count of all the dead and dying trees will not be known until next spring.
It’s Not the Recession
In 2008, during a public workshop concerning the Tulare County History of Farm Labor and Agriculture Museum, RMA said that the county was poised to receive a huge state grant and they did not want to lose it. The grant for the new museum was to provide $1.7 million, and Rodgers was told that the county would have to contribute an additional $1.3 million. Later, Rogers was told those numbers were not correct, but after repeated requests he was not provided with the updated numbers.
The Valley Voice was recently informed by a Tulare County spokesperson that the new museum cost a total of $3,608,920. Of that amount, the county paid $2,157,050, $1 million more than what Rodgers was told in 2009. The remaining cost of construction, $1,451,870, was paid for through a combination of funds received by the Tulare County Historical Society from the State of California.
Rogers felt the county ram-rodded the grant through the system without being completely honest about how much it would cost the taxpayers. He testified during the public hearing for the farm labor and agriculture museum in 2008 that Mooney Grove had been suffering from years of deferred maintenance and neglect. He predicted that the museum would siphon off resources from the park and make the situation worse. His predictions were correct.
In addition to the cost of the museum, the county paid Kleinfelder $196,910 for the preparation and completion of the 20-Year Master Plan. The maintenance costs for both the new museum and the older historical museum was $20,446 for Fiscal Year 2014/15.
Whether or not the new museum siphoned off money from the park, $2.3 million dollars would have gone a long way toward maintaining Mooney Grove.
The meeting lasted two hours and covered a lot of territory such as the condition of the wells, dealing with the geese, and an explanation of the pond’s role in irrigation. At every juncture public input or questions were encouraged and constructive discussions ensued. The committee told Rodgers that he was preaching to the choir and that they wanted the same things he did, which was a restored park.
The next Park Advisory Meeting will be Tuesday, November 10 at 3pm at the Government Plaza Building. The commissioners agreed to continue discussion on the maintenance of the park including the lake, koi pond, wells, and geese. Hess agreed to do some research on the other Valley parks that are in better shape, such as Del Lago, and present his findings at the next meeting.