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New Rec Association feels growing pains

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By Mike Forster

    For all of the benefits expected to arrive with the reversion of Bedford into a town, some negative aspects have come to fruition, as well.
    As part of the reversion agreement, what was formerly the City Parks and Recreation Department was to have fallen under the auspices of the Bedford County Parks and Recreation Department.
    Concern and confusion about the resultant organization and its functions were on display Saturday morning, when the town of Bedford’s recreation association hosted a Q&A session for interested citizens of the town.
    In a highly-charged meeting, attended by about 80 citizens, many lashed out at board members during a question-and-answer period which ran for nearly the entire 90 minutes of the meeting.  There were questions involving typical recreation association issues, such as the levying of fees, drafting of teams and recruiting of sponsors.
    The vast majority of the session’s time and discussion, however,  centered around two issues:  the recent firing of the association’s supervisor, and the makeup and functioning of the board itself.

Association supervisor
    The first topic broached was the recent dismissal of Harry “HT” Thompson.  Voted in as association supervisor by a unanimous vote of the board in November, Thompson’s dismissal in February was similarly approved by a unanimous vote of board members present at the board’s February meeting.
    Thompson, who was the first at the dais, requested clarification and interpretation of the bylaws which permitted his removal from the supervisor position.  “You, as a board, have the right to call someone in and dismiss him?” asked Thompson.
    Replied board president Brian Bennett, “We have that power.”
    “That’s a lot of power,” said Thompson, as many in the crowd muttered, “That’s too much power.”

Coaching issues
    Bennett asserted that Thompson was dismissed because he “allowed several felons to coach (Bedford rec teams).”
    While it is unclear as to how many felons coached rec teams, it is true that at least one did.
    Thompson admitted that he allowed this individual to coach despite his felon status (a drug charge from seven years ago) showing up as a red flag in a background check.  The individual has coached for at least four years, starting out when parks  and recreation was a part of the city of Bedford.
    Following the town’s recreation function being subsumed by the county, a subsequent background check was done.  When it was revealed that a felon was coaching a county team, the board reacted by voting to fire Thompson, on Feb. 28.
    The individual in question, however, continued to coach his basketball team through the completion of its season, in early March. 
    “I have advocated for looking at the felony rule on a case-by-case basis,” said Bennett, referring to the county’s rule of automatically excluding felons.  “If you can get your voting right and gun rights in seven years, I believe you should get your coaching rights in less than 10 years.”

The coach
    Thompson was fired for retaining a coach with a felony record, while the coach, himself, was allowed to continue coaching.
    Bennett claims that the board has no authority over the just-completed basketball season, and that any firing decisions rested with the county.
    Wyatt Woody, director of parks and recreation for Bedford County, stated that he instructed at least one member of the board that the coach needed to be let go, and that the hiring and firing of coaches was a duty and responsibility of association.
    Thompson further stated that his clearing of red-flagged individuals to coach in city rec programs (prior to reversion) was done with the knowledge and assent of his supervisor at the time.
    Bart Warner, assistant town manager and Thompson’s prior boss, confirmed that the city rec department did not have a direct policy in this area. He said the department would have preferred to not have coaches who had criminal records, but that coach was allowed to remain because he was in place already.
    Warner said he was surprised Thompson was let go.
The Association takes over, roles defined
    The town officially gave up its responsibility for the rec department at the end of last year, but council is proposing to support the Association financially with a $5,000 contribution in the budget. The town does retain the responsibility of keeping the fields in proper shape.
    But there was confusion of where the Association’s responsibilities end and where the county rec department’s responsibilities begin.
    That confusion created frustration for several attendees at Saturday’s meeting.

Frustrations are voiced
    Krissy Alphin, who has coached rec ball and has a daughter who plays, said to the board members, “You claim county guidelines when it benefits you and say you’re private when it suits you.”
    The board is, in fact, a private entity, as noted by Bennett in his opening comments.  He subsequently noted that he had been informed by personnel from County Parks and Recreation that if the board failed to follow county guidelines, the organization would forfeit the use of recreation equipment and the ability to play other county teams in games.
    Jerald Lowry was vociferous in his opposition to the board.  “This board has a lot of conflicts of interest,” Lowry thundered.  He noted that several of the board members are coaches and that the woman selected to replace Thompson as interim association supervisor, April Robey, is currently a member of the board.
    “This group should be restructured and reorganized,” he added.
    “This (board) is voluntary,” noted board member Walter King.  “We have to follow the county model  There’s no agenda for myself:  This wasn’t some street deal.”
    “(After reversion) the town said, ‘we’re done’ with parks and recreation,” said Bennett.
    That assertion drew the ire of Robert Carson, who is a member of the Bedford Town Council.  “We did not say we are done with recreation,” Carson said.  “It is the single most important entity in this town.
    “We thought we were going down the right path (with the association),” he said.  “But it looks like we made a bad decision.
    “You got rid of someone who you could count on.  You let someone responsive go.  You need to fix that.”
    Board member Bob Clark was the soothing balm in the room.  “We’re in trouble if we can’t sit down and talk these things out with reasonableness and thoughtfulness,” said Clark.  “We can survive this by coming together.”
    Bennett added, “Our goal is to make people’s lives as easy as possible.  “We’re working on that.  Communication has been abysmal, and I apologize for that.”