Chester fires parks commission

Volunteers upset over curt dismissal: Supervisor says town board control will improve recreational programs

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Village on board

CHESTER — The parks and recreation program was created in the 1960s and used to be run as part of the highway department. It's only in more recent years that it's been its own entity.
Phil Valastro, the mayor of the Village of Chester, said he found out through the grapevine that the commission had been disbanded. He asked Jamieson to confirm what he'd heard.
The commission was never a joint commission, he said. It was run by the town, with the village contributing to the town the small parks sum the village received from the county every year — about $900 or $1,000.
He said he was neutral about the decision to disband.
"We have to do what we have to do for various reasons," he said. "Whichever way they want to organize it is fine with me."

By Pamela Chergotis

— The Chester town board has abolished the parks and recreation commission, the second volunteer organization in town to be eliminated since Alex Jamieson took over as supervisor in January.

"I'll never volunteer in this town again because of him," said Tina Pelaez, a commission member who says she's upset at the way volunteers were summarily dismissed. "Why would anybody ever want to volunteer in Chester?"

Jamieson said he and the town board needed to wrest control over parks programs because they'd gotten "bogged down in bureaucracy."

The breakup was precipitated by a disagreement while looking for new director after the commission's previous director, Tom Kelly, left in April. The six-member commission has the authority to hire and fire directors, but Jamieson said he wanted the town board kept in the loop.

The two sides sharply disagree on what happened: Jamieson says commission members flatly refused to let the town board so much as peek at any of the applications. "We as elected officials were taken aback (by) the arrogance," he said.

Pelaez staunchly denies this. She said commission actually urged the town board to interview candidates with them, "but they didn't want to hear it." That's because, she said, Jamieson had already decided that Walter Popailo would be the new director and fired the volunteer commission to get his way.

"Alex totally shut us down," Pelaez said.

She said six people applied for the job. The commission, including its chair, Tracy Schuh, and member Spencer Effron wanted to hire a candidate from Blooming Grove with experience running a parks and recreation program in the Newburgh area. They argued he was better qualified than Popailo, who has never run such a program.

But Jamieson said he wanted someone already connected to the Chester community — its businesses, schools, and residents. Popailo lives in Chester and runs Jester's Comedy Club at the Castle. And Jamieson said he's "a real hands-on guy" with abundant experience planning events for the local Rotary, organizing fundraisers for senior citizens, running the comedy club, coaching Little League and working on soccer tournaments.

Jamieson said the 20-hour, $41,000-a year director's job is for 20 hours a week is for Popailo "his number one priority job."

Jamieson said he's not friends with Popailo, as Pelaez claims in a letter to the editor (see page 12), and that they know each other only as Chester residents. He argues that he had no problem with the recent hiring of Kaitlyn Moran to work on parks programs, even though she's not a friend, and even though her father ran against him. It was his idea to fill her position, which had been vacant for years, and so bolster the parks program.

Town board getting more involved

Besides planning programs, volunteers were tasked to make sure the director and his workers did their jobs, and they pitched in at events, parking cars, making popcorn, and the like. This work will now be done by the town board.

Jamieson praised the volunteers for their years of hard work. But he said he's gotten rid of a whole layer of bureaucracy, with Popailo, Moran, and a third parks employee now reporting directly to the town board. Because the commission met only once a month, Jamieson said, delays have caused missed opportunities, and near-misses, like a $6,000 discount for playground equipment that was almost lost because the commission waited too long. Now, instead of waiting 60 to 90 days for a result, he said, the town board can get things done right away with a phone call.

He said three parks employees have already given him a "punch list" of things to do, like fixing broken bleachers and replacing grills that are 20 years old. The commission "has never found reason" to spend the $180,000 allotted to them each year, he said.

Pelaez said this was a sad irony — that the commission had for years been bringing projects to the town board for its approval and not getting very far. Now that the town board has control, she says, maybe they'll want to do more.

"Now he can say yes to whatever he wants," she said of Jamieson.

The volunteers point to this as the bright side of the story. Schuh said in an email: "We can take away some good news out of all this, which is the town board is finally putting more interest and funding into improving parks and recreation which the parks commission and people in the community have been asking them to for so long. There were new programs and improvements the commission wanted to see done as well as updating their master plan and hopefully these will move forward with the new hired staff. The sad news is the way the town handled the situation and got rid of all their volunteers that wanted to help. For me, it is disheartening that it ended this way and not one town board member thanked the volunteer commissioners for all their years of service to the community on the night they made the surprising vote to dismiss them. These volunteers weren’t playing the game of politics but they are sure got a hard lesson in it."

Pelaez said she's "not mad, by any means, at the park and recreation commission being abolished. I am mad at the way (Jamieson) handled the situation and how unappreciative he has been for all the time we spent volunteering to keep things afloat. I think he is making it difficult for people to want to volunteer in this community if he can't say thank you, as well as the fact that he treats and talks about us like we've done nothing. One thing good coming out of all of this is the town board has finally shown some interest in the parks and recreation, which they have neglected for a very long time."

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