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UNDER THE RADAR: Oak Hills Park Authority ‘Ad-Hoc Driving Range Committee’

Will a Norwalk driving range at Oak Hills feature palm trees? Go to the meeting Tuesday and find out. (Creative Commons flikr photo taken by Andrew Deacon in South Africa)

Will a Norwalk driving range at Oak Hills feature palm trees? Go to the meeting Tuesday and find out. (Creative Commons flikr photo taken by Andrew Deacon in South Africa.)

By Diane C2: Things Norwalkers Really Should Know

NORWALK, Conn. – How does an authority commissioner outmaneuver pesky residents/taxpayers in Norwalk? Lot’s of techniques, folks, but one that I especially abhor is to hold meetings at a time of day that all but guarantees working folks won’t attend.

And that’s apparently what we have happening on Tuesday, Jan. 15, as the Oak Hills Park Authority’s Ad-Hoc Driving Range Committee will hold a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. at City Hall – see agenda here. The meeting agenda reads “Discussion and approval of items to be included in the Driving Range RFP” followed by “Recommendation to the Authority for completion of the RFP.”

So residents/taxpayers, whether you’re in favor of a driving range or not, surely none of us want to have one pushed through, under the radar, without public input, and progressed to the point of an RFP (Request for Proposal) with zero presentations to the public. Why aren’t we all pounding our fists insisting on public information and input on this, which should happen long before RFQ’s (Request for Quotations) and RFP’s? For Pete’s sake, even the golfers who desperately want a driving range surely don’t want one that they have no input into! (Oh crap, don’t even say that meetings regarding driving ranges have been happening behind the scenes with the men’s and ladies’ golfers associations – seriously?)

If you care about open government, if you care about process and public participation, if you care about fair bidding packages that aren’t written to the specs of any one guy who has been designing a range for a year … please come to the meeting on Tuesday … that is, if you can get time off from work.

And email Mr. Virgulak and ask that the agenda be modified no later than Monday to include a new item: public comment. While you’re at it, ask him if and when other ad-hoc committee meetings have been held, and if and when they were properly noticed to the public. And ask him to identify the members of the ad-hoc committee. None have ever been mentioned in authority minutes.

OHPA Chairman Bob Virgulak email: [email protected]

11 comments

Suzanne January 12, 2013 at 9:31 am

Nancy,

Who does this guy report to? How was he appointed? Who must he be accountable to for his activities? Must he get approval to hold such meetings before they are held? Is the public allowed to see the RFPs? If not, why not? (It is our money and park after all.) Honestly, I thought we WERE pounding our fists by demanding a full assessment of this money-losing venture through a forensic audit of the books as well as management evaluations. Why wouldn’t the public have input on this phase of the process? I know that the Commissions and Boards are very good at keeping the public out of the room and out of the process of public development. Is this one of those times?

Oldtimer January 12, 2013 at 12:20 pm

This guy is a convicted felon, for his part in a fraud scheme at the 2nd taxing district where he was sentenced to a year and a day plus several years probation and required to return a large amount of stolen district money.
He doesn’t seem to answer to anybody and is appointed by either the mayor or the council. Mayor appoints 2, council appoints 7. His current 3yr term expires in June. He is a Republican.

Suzanne January 12, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Thank you, Diane C2. Do you think there should be some kind of strategy to the public response part (assuming there is one?) I can attend and would like to participate.

Diane C2 January 12, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Suzanne, good morning, Diane here. I’ll try to answer your questions best I can:

Who does this guy report to? To Oak Hills Board, Mayor and Common Council.

How was he appointed? Appointed by Mayor, confirmed by Council.

Who must he be accountable to for his activities? Oak Hills Board, Mayor, and Council (who have authority to remove him)
Must he get approval to hold such meetings before they are held?
No, but he must comply with Freedom of Information “notice” requirements.

Is the public allowed to see the RFPs? Yes, all RFP’s get posted on city web, but we generally don’t see them before they get released to the public for bids, so would be hard to change anything at that point.

If not, why not? (It is our money and park after all.) It’s kind of not our money and park in that we relegated those responsibilities at the time the Authority was created. They are supposed to operate through their own revenue, and not rely on city except for major maintenance capital expenditures related to park itself.

Honestly, I thought we WERE pounding our fists by demanding a full assessment of this money-losing venture through a forensic audit of the books as well as management evaluations. I’m not privy to how many people may have written or called city officials regarding these matters. Only one councilman has acknowledged receipt of my letter, as well as BET chair. As a side, some tech savvy person could create an online petition requesting the council launch an investigation.

Why wouldn’t the public have input on this phase of the process? I know that the Commissions and Boards are very good at keeping the public out of the room and out of the process of public development. Is this one of those times? IMHO, yes. A proposal of this magnitude would normally dictate lots of public engagement. If any is happening, it is behind the scenes and with limited stakeholders. Keep in mind that this driving range idea is not new, and perhaps thousands rallied against it the first time around. I don’t have a horse in the race, but do sympathize with Oak Hills neighbors regarding quality of life issues. My concerns are process-related. Folks who have nothing to hide, well, they have nothing to hide. The very fact that this process has not been transparent, that it includes secret ad hoc committee meetings without minutes, and that a major discussion on the components of the RFP are being discussed at 4:30pm when most folks work…that says it all.

Suzanne January 12, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Thank you, Diane C2, for addressing each one of my concerns so clearly. I, like you, do not have a “horse in the race”, only insofar as the process and constituency respect is concerned in managing a major City asset. Also, full disclosure, I am a golfer and landscape architect and very much concerned with the area this driving range is supposed to be located. In addition, I am categorically against adding this major asset when the Course itself is shrouded in financial mystery.

So, what next? I am ready to object. (Did he comply with FOIA notification requirements of this meeting?)

Diane C2 January 12, 2013 at 4:54 pm

@Suzanne: I think that even if he won’t allow the ad hoc committee to take public comment, it would be good for people to be seen and to observe. Their next Regular meeting should be Thursday (1/17) and people can hopefully comment there. It appears he has complied with notice (at least 24 hours prior, posted online for the Tuesday meeting).
Strategy not my strong point, but I suggest that demanding a public information forum, complete with all the preliminary details the gleaned from talking to prospective bidders, would be in order. That opens up the dialogue to encompass both the issue of the driving range itself (vis a vis land use, environment, neighbor issues, $ viability, etc) and also the issue of accusations of prior and current park mismanagement, some of which undoubtably is cause for their current financial woes.
Best advice I can give to folks is to call and write their councilmen and councilwomen and let your voice be heard.
Link to emailsand phone In District: http://norwalkct.org/index.aspx?NID=370
Link to emails and phone At-Large:
http://norwalkct.org/index.aspx?nid=286

Oldtimer January 13, 2013 at 8:52 am

The only time the council shows any interest in Oak Hills is when the Oak Hill Authority comes looking for big money for major capital expenses. It seems the policy is to let the Authority run the park and, like the police commission, the mayor takes the position the council has no business in looking at what the Oak Hills Authority is doing.
Remember how he objected that a resolution about eliminating the rank of captain in the police dept was police commission business the council should not even talk about ?

Diane C2 January 14, 2013 at 12:37 pm

@OldTimer: Remember how he objected that a resolution about eliminating the rank of captain in the police dept was police commission business the council should not even talk about ?

Not trying to rehash history, but if you recall many of us were in favor of an open dialogue on this matter, provided it came up through committee (health & public safety or personnel). No one ever provided evidence that a request (made in writing)was denied to include the item on either agenda. I think open discussions of tough issues are important, but not at the expense of process.

Diane C2 January 14, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Hmmm. Mr. Virgulak denies that ANY meetings to discuss a driving range among authority members have occurred outside of a regular meeting – a direct contradiction to former park superintendent Vorio’s allegations.
Sounds like some lawyers may want to work this little dilemma out to see who is telling truth.

Perhaps City Corporation Counsel Maslan and/or Oak Hills Park Attorney Avery would like to as some questions…..

Oldtimer January 14, 2013 at 7:42 pm

Why does the Oak Hills Authority have a seperate lawyer ? Can’t the City legal dept handle their business for a lot less money ?

Barry McLaughlin January 16, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Are there no Parks or Open Spaces for All?
To the Editor:
The City of Norwalk has variety of “Open Space” options for citizens to use at zero cost to them (other than their taxes of course). These include public parks throughout our City, plus “Open Space” areas like school fields (example Fox Run Elementary and Ponus Ridge Middle School) which offer great access other than when baseball, basketball, LAX or soccer leagues (paying customers to the City) occupy them. These local leagues populated with City children are charged a per player fee to use these City fields. These leagues help subsides, not completely cover the cost of maintaining these fields, which all can use.
The Park Maintenance Division also maintains 1,215 acres of grounds and property. In addition to city parks, and the grounds and fields at city schools, libraries, and cemeteries, the division also maintains and staffs the city’s boat launching ramps, comfort stations, and boat moorings at Veterans Park. Additional facilities at Calf Pasture and Shady Beaches are also maintained by the Park Maintenance Division. (From City of Norwalk website)
Oak Hills Parks is approximately 144 acres* which includes the 18 Hole Golf Course, Tennis Courts and Restaurant. The property also includes other structures on site dedicated to operations. (*Number quoted from a recent RFP from The City of Norwalk, project #3143.)
I believe when you look at the number of acres of “Open Space” available to those who are looking for outdoor recreation, they will find there are ample places to do so. I would suggest that The City of Norwalk does an excellent job providing “Open Space” options throughout our neighborhoods. Utilizing the small number of acres that make up Oak Hills Park for golf and tennis based on the large number of acres available for all other recreational needs seems reasonable and fair.
The challenge put forth that golf contributes to the quality of life of a small segment of our community is very curious. Because the golf course charges a fee per person the accountability of usage is clear. The course annually serves between 35,000 to 40,000 users. Others parks and “Open Space” options don’t offer that accountability.
Imagine if you could increase the ability to offer the golf experience to more citizens of Norwalk. I suggest increasing the opportunity to grow the game by providing year-round learning programs for citizens of all ages. The idea of a driving range and learning center at Oak Hills Park would be a great solution!!!
Public golf has been a part of Norwalk since 1967. Let’s continue to offer citizens of all ages the option to learn and play this great game at this beautiful park.
Barry McLaughlin, Resident and Golf

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