Emotionally Charged Meeting Leaves Thunder Team In Limbo, Parks & Rec Hopes Rival Leagues Can Get Together
Two feuding girls' softball leagues came before the Parks & Recreation Commission September 14 with concerned parents hoping for the instatement of a new u10 Rec team and the commission hoping to bring the two leagues together.
Nearly a dozen parents of Newtown Thunder players aired concerns about their daughters having no place to play after a motion to create a new u10 Rec team failed at an August 26 meeting. That new team would have accommodated girls who did not make the Thunder's travel team.
A new motion introduced September 14 to allow the u10 team to play suffered the same fate, with a motion being made by Commission member Aaron Britton but failing to get a second. The failure to get any other commissioners' support in the form of a second killed the motion, and no other alternate motions were introduced.
The situation upset one parent to the extent that they left the room briefly. Many other parents who spoke during the public comment period earlier had already left, announcing they had to pick up children from out-of-town sports events.
"This group of parents are not interested in working with Babe Ruth," said Britton before making his motion. "The issue is if we'll have these kids leave town to play softball or not because of past animosity."
Britton made the motion to allow the u10 team to play this fall but then "revisit the future of two organizations as a contingency to that." However, commission member Warren Spencer said that the "issue has not changed" and that it was "greater than softball."
"If we allow a variant [recreation league], we open the door in every other sport," said Spencer.
If the request had been fulfilled, the Thunder would have had a total of seven teams and three fields. Thunder representative Michael Bonacci said the organization had a full team of girls “signed up and ready to go.”
Commission member David Payne said the commission had "hung its hat" on the premise that "to grant an additional team, it must serve a unique purpose."
"I have kids that play sports," said Payne. "I don't want to try and deny kids the opportunity to play."
Thunder Not Shut Down
The commission also faced confusion from some parents who thought the entire recreation portion of the Thunder had been shut down, but commission members clarified that only the motions to create a new u10 team — and to allow the u16 to waive the 80/20 requirements had failed. Since the commission took no other action, the other teams were unaffected and allowed to play.
"What we did is not give waivers for those two issues," said Chairman Clinton DePaolo. "Under no circumstances did we ask the Thunder not to operate."
At the August 26 meeting, a motion that would have waived requirements for a u16 team to be 80 percent Newtown residents to avoid higher field costs failed to receive a second.
Though all of the Thunder's recreation teams are 100 percent Newtown residents, they have some travel teams that are closer to the 80/20 threshold and had been seeking to get in-town field space for an older team of girls in a u16 group that did not meet that threshold. Bonacci said the league found an alternate, out-of-town place for the u16 team to play after the August 26 meeting.
Assistant Director of Parks Carl Samuelson said the Thunder was originally only approved for one team in July of 2015 due to its “unique purpose.” The minutes of the July 2015 Parks & Rec Commission meeting state that the group was formed when a travel team with Newtown Babe Ruth U11 departed the league so they could stay together as a team, which is “not part of the Babe Ruth policy.”
In the 2015 minutes, Jim Twitchell, president of the Newtown Thunder, explained that the team was made up entirely of Newtown players. The original plan was to not utilize Newtown fields; however, the fields they were using in the spring were under dispute, “which left [the team] in limbo.” A waiver for field use was approved by the commission.
Samuelson said that there has been much discussion over the years about whether the group is a rec team or a travel team as the organization has grown. He said at this point, both Newtown Thunder and Babe Ruth Softball are trying to field rec teams, but neither are unique in that use.
There have been no further waivers since the one in 2015.
Parents Angry At Denial
Parents aired their grievances concerning the commission's decision and concerning the Newtown Babe Ruth Softball league during public participation. Parent Jennifer Padilla said the a central tenet of the Newtown Thunder was fair play, team spirit and being responsible.
"This town is big enough for everyone to play," said Padilla. "We have to be responsible adults and let them."
Dan Grossman, a coach for the u8 Thunder team, said he always tries to promote fair play among the girls. He said he has four daughters in town and felt that athletic opportunities had been stripped from them.
"This is not how I expected Newtown to do business," said Grossman.
Christine Tisi leveled criticism against Newtown Babe Ruth Softball, asking if anyone was overseeing how the league was run, especially in the wake of what she described as a "mass exodus of a u12 team" as well as a second "exodus" of another team from the league.
"All those kids left seeking another program," said Tisi. "What is causing that? How do we make it better?"
She said that the Thunder had made an attempt to merge with the Babe Ruth league and filed paperwork with the national Babe Ruth organization but "it was dropped."
"We tried to bring everyone together," Tisi said.
She said she left Newtown Babe Ruth as a coach due to "lack of organization and other issues." She also questioned whether there were audits of the league's budgets, saying that she had never seen any documentation from the league even though she had seen budgets while part of Babe Ruth leagues in other towns.
Parent Jen Larkin said she had to tell her daughter she "would have no place to play softball" this fall, and asked if there were other options.
"I sought out the Thunder specifically due to the level of the coaching," said Larkin. "The Bonaccis [league organizers Michael Bonacci and Christine Bonacci] put 150% into the development of those girls. They go above and beyond."
She asked the commission to reinstate the u10 team.
"Options are a good thing," said Larkin. "It should not be different for softball for girls."
Parent David Stott, calling in from a game, said he believed that a program like the Thunder "came to exist due to the lack of oversight of programs like Babe Ruth by the Parks & Recreation Department."
"They are run as a monopoly with no oversight or control," said Stott.
He said his family was dissatisfied by the town's offering and has "extreme difference and concerns with the way Newtown Softball is run."
Newtown Babe Ruth Softball President Pat McCleary said there are reasons that towns have designated softball recreation leagues, as his league, which is the de facto Parks & Recreation program, has been struggling to find Newtown girls to play. He said that the Newtown Babe Ruth organization has existed for 40 years and its charter is done by geography, so there is only one Babe Ruth softball league in Newtown.
"What's happened to all of us is pop-up travel leagues have diluted opportunities for recreation teams," said McCleary.
He said the organization may be imperfect, and parents can wish it were better, but there is "one organization per town" and that Babe Ruth "takes anyone."
"The parallel path that the Thunder chose...is create a parallel organization and we raised an objection to that," McCleary said, stating that situations like this are not unique to Newtown.
He said that the league's bylaws and tax returns are "all public information."
McCleary told The Newtown Bee after the meeting that while the Babe Ruth organization may not meet the 80/20 threshold on a team-by-team basis, it does as a league. This spring, he said the league had 64 kids playing, and 60 of them are Newtown residents — 94 percent.
He did admit during the summer league, which is mostly older kids, there were 36 players, 22 of whom were Newtown residents, only 66 percent.
"It was either offer nothing or allow out-of-town kids to play," said McCleary. He said that everything about the league can be made available to anyone that requests it.
He also stated that if any parent feels their child does not have a place to play, the Babe Ruth league will accommodate them.
"If the kids want to play, there's still time to fold them in for this fall," McCleary said. "We're more than happy to have kids play. We have upheld our part of the bargain to be a community based league. The Thunder's mission is as a premier travel team, but it's expanded its mission to be a parallel organization."
Karl Murphy of the Babe Ruth organization stated that "two leagues in town is too divisive."
"We're stealing each other's kids and it doesn't work," said Murphy.
Twitchell stated that he and McCleary had agreed to sit down with Assistant Director of Parks Carl Samuelson to discuss "creating a new system."
"The fact that we're both willing to sit down together is a step in the right direction," said Twitchell. "My goal is kids playing softball."
Twitchell stated that "girls sports in general are struggling" and that the Thunder was created as "an option to keep kids in town."
"In an effort for Newtown as a whole to take a different approach, I'm willing to take a shot," he said.
For his part, Samuelson said he talked with Twitchell and McCleary "extensively" and that he hoped that by spring that something could be formed with "longevity and transparency."
Problem 'Not Unique'
"This problem is not unique to youth sports," said Samuelson, noting baseball and soccer both had similar parallel leagues form. He was hoping that the merger could bring Thunder's 30 recreation league girls to the town's program, creating a bigger pool of players to choose from.
DePaolo agreed, saying this was "the third time this has happened in the third different sport."
Samuelson said his department and the commission generally do not approve alternate recreation teams because "they do not serve a unique purpose" and "divide the pool of kids to draw from."
However, some representatives from the Thunder offered a pessimistic outlook on any merger between the leagues.
"Jim and Pat can sit down, but it's never going to work," said Bonacci, who said he doesn't "do politics." He said the Babe Ruth league is "playing on their fields" with less than 80 percent Newtown residents "and that's OK."
However, Director of Parks and Recreation Amy Mangold and DePaolo both chimed in to respond, "no one said that's OK."
DePaolo said this was the "second organization" that has come to the commission with such a concern, and asked McCleary if the leagues were combined, would the 80 percent threshold be met? McCleary answered "probably not" for all teams.
DePaolo said he wanted to make sure the lack of ability to meet the threshold was due to a "decrease in participation" rather than "cannibalization by another organization."
Groups that are for-profit or that do not meet the 80% threshold are required to pay for the fields on an hourly basis, while teams that do meet the threshold only pay a $30 surcharge for the season. The town set that policy because in youth sports, many independent teams form and kids often want to stay with their friends, even if a team is based out of town.
One way the department can encourage parents to keep their children in town is to make it more cost effective by charging more for out-of-town plyers. Fees are used for field maintenance.
DePaolo acknowledged that a lot of what was said by parents was "concerning," and that if members think there are "improprieties with an organization," then there are "things that should be done." He said everything should be public, "where we can clean things up" and try to get everyone to "play nice." He stated the importance of leagues noticing public elections of officers and meeting times so if large groups of parents have concerns they have mechanisms to replace those currently in charge of the league.
Payne asked as a commission, how much could they do if a league is not following the by-laws of its organization.
DePaolo replied that "an almost mirror situation" had come up with a town soccer league three years ago and that regulations outline certain guidelines to be a Parks & Recreation organization, such as being public and non-profit.
Mangold said with the soccer group, another group had formed due to disagreements with how the main organization was run,. But by sticking together with assistance from the commission, they were able to avoid splintering of their player base into a parallel league.
"I'm not saying that's what the Thunder is, it's mainly a travel league, different from Babe Ruth," said Mangold. "But it has formed recreation teams."
Mangold also said the issue of forming the new u10 team "came up late," just a month before the team was supposed to play — and that the commission felt it was being "shoved down [their] throats."
"If this had been brought forth earlier, even in July, this might have turned out differently," Mangold said. She also addressed criticism from parents earlier in the meeting who stated the commission and department "were not being adults."
"I see the friction in the room," said Mangold. "People don't want to play together. We have to try to get everyone together. We can't have two recreation leagues because people can't get along."
She said the goal Twitchell and McCleary have agreed to work toward with Spencer is to "have one solid program offering both recreation and travel opportunities and not two separate programs competing with one another offering both rec and travel." She also said the u10 Thunder team is being offered the use of Newtown Fields through Babe Ruth.
DePaolo stated that the meeting had "not been an easy one," and did not have "the best resolution" but he hoped that things could "continue to build toward a sustainable and positive resolution."
Reporter Jim Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.