By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A Chatham man, who organizes a sports league for local youth, has been flagged by the municipality.
Jason Reynolds, who keeps a portion of the grass at the city’s Lark Park cut for a flag football league, has been issued a no-trespassing order from Chatham-Kent’s legal department.
He’s forbidden to bring a lawnmower into the park and could face a $2,000 fine and possible arrest if he violates the order.
A quick search of the Internet reveals widespread support for Reynolds and the league, which he’s been operating for the past 30 years.
As a result, the #FREElarkPARK movement has started, complete with bright red T-shirts.
The slogan on the back of the shirt reads #KIDSoverPOLITICS.
The issue is expected to be brought forward at Monday’s council meeting and is the subject of a 21-page report from administration.
The report cites a number of issues relating to Reynolds and the league’s use of the park but it mainly centres on liability issues relating to the operation of a lawnmower on municipal property without proper insurance.
Chatham Coun. Michael Bondy said it’s unfortunate the issue has ballooned into a David and Goliath situation, but he’s certain the problem can be solved.
“Jason’s heart is in the right place,” Bondy noted, adding the municipality’s stance may be a little “heavy-handed.”
A new approach is needed, he added.
“Basically I think we should push the reset button,” Bondy said. “Everyone wants the league to move forward.”
Bondy said there are 104 leagues successfully operating on municipal property and there’s no reason the flag football league can’t work.
Reynolds said the issue has put him in a Catch-22. He’s part of the Under Armour sports apparel company’s Under the Lights football sponsorship, which offers $2-million in liability coverage.
However, the company won’t grant him insurance until he has a contract for the playing field, but Chatham-Kent won’t provide the space without proof of insurance.
Reynolds, who maintains an active social media presence, said the issue is personal. He blames an unnamed municipal employee for getting upset after he criticized the municipality.
The post sparked a feud that has culminated in the no-trespassing order, he explained.
Originally, Reynolds criticized the municipality about not keeping up with the grass cutting as often as needed.
According to Reynolds, Chatham-Kent workers have been cutting the grass twice a month, but he maintains it must be cut at least once a week to keep it safe for players.
The report said the park is eligible for 36 cuts a year.
Chatham Coun. Brock McGregor said he’s hopeful council can resolve the issue, saying it’s extremely important that community sports activities be maintained.
McGregor said the pandemic has heightened the significance of sports for youth.
“There’s always room for discussion,” McGregor said, adding there needs to be a balance.
Reynolds, who has been running a flag football league for about 30 years, said he can’t understand why there can’t be a dialogue between the two parties.
“It’s unfortunate,” Reynolds told The Voice. “There really is a disconnect between council and the public with regard how things need to be taken care of.”
The grass has to be cut because of safety concerns, he said. “There is no other reason.”
The municipality’s report also states the park has been damaged during flag football tournaments and games, creating problems with noise, parking and public urination.
A number of Chatham residents have condemned the no-trespassing order, many speaking out on Reynolds’ behalf.
Flag footballers have also been eager supporters of charities. Tournaments have raised funds for cancer patients and have even raised money for funeral expenses for a needy family.
Reynolds, who lives right beside Lark Park, said he does his best to keep the cost low for the two leagues he runs.
His youth league, which has between 80-100 youngsters, costs $150 per year, with the price including an Under Armour jersey.
The five-team adult league costs $40 per person but players pay for their own jerseys.
Reynolds is paid a $15 per person administration fee but he said he puts that money towards fees for upkeep of the field.
The Chatham native said he grew up poor in an underprivileged family and it’s a goal of his to keep the league open and affordable to all.
He wants to give youth something to do.
“I’ve seen a lot of people who have talent go down the wrong road because they have no opportunities,” Reynolds said. “I don’t want them to be excluded because of price.”
Although it hasn’t been acknowledged by the municipality, Reynolds said his team of 12 to 14 year olds was invited to play in a first-ever tournament called the Argos Cup hosted by the Toronto Argonauts Under the Lights team in 2019.
They won. The Chatham team, comprised of both boys and girls, was then invited to play in an international tournament in Miami, Fla. but plans had to be cancelled because of COVID-19.
He said the Toronto tournament was amazing, as many of the Argos were cheering the Chatham players on.
Reynolds said he’s saddened by the fact he can’t maintain the field and while he understands the liability issue, he doesn’t see why it’s any different from city residents who volunteer to cut municipally owned areas such as rights-of-way.
Reynolds said he doesn’t have an issue with paying fees, but he does want to know if the municipality will properly maintain the field.
“There’s a 21 page report, but there’s no mention of whether they are going to cut the grass,” Reynolds said.