By Pam Wright
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Problems surrounding the use of Lark Park by a local flag football league appear to be on their way to being resolved.
At Monday’s meeting, Chatham-Kent council opted to open the lines of communication with league organizer Jason Reynolds after approving a two-part motion from Chatham Coun. Brock McGregor asking administration to examine the issue and report back to council.
A meeting between the municipality and Reynolds is expected to take place as soon as possible.
The topic caught fire recently and the Free Lark Park movement was born after Reynolds posted a picture on social media of a no trespassing notice he’d received from the municipality.
The notice warned the 47-year-old he could be prosecuted if he continued to enter the park to cut grass.
The post gathered steam, garnering support for Reynolds, highlighting a breakdown in his relationship with the municipality.
For the past five years, Reynolds has been cutting a section of Lark Park for games.
And while Chatham-Kent employs a contractor to maintain the grass at all parks, Reynolds said the grass at Lark Park wasn’t being cut short enough, or often enough, to keep it safe for young children.
So he cut it. And while all of Ontario’s parks are closed to organized sports because of the lockdown, Reynolds continued to cut the grass to prepare for the end of the stay-at-home order.
The long-time flag footballer has been involved with the sport for 30 years as he began playing and organizing at age 16.
Before relocating the league to Lark Park, games were played on the grounds of Darul Uloom Canada, the former home of Chatham Collegiate Institute.
Reynolds did not have to pay annual fees there and he was free to cut the playing field as he saw fit.
That changed when he moved near Lark Park and asked if he could use the park for football. The city agreed as long as he provided insurance and paid annual user fees.
Municipal CAO Don Shropshire and Thomas Kelly, General Manager of Infrastructure and Engineering, both spoke to the issue Monday, as did several councillors.
Both administrators referred to details outlined in a 21-page staff report, citing damage to the park, scheduling problems and potential liability issues.
Liability with respect to grass cutting was discussed at length. Shropshire said administration had reached out to Reynolds repeatedly to stop cutting the grass, no less than 90 times.
Even if Reynolds signed a waiver, the municipality’s liability couldn’t be covered off.
Chatham Coun. Michael Bondy, who spoke in favour of the motion, said it was time to put the “public relations disaster” to rest, quickly adding it’s become an embarrassment for the municipality.
He said Reynolds and the league’s success are an example of “positivity” in Chatham-Kent and should be commended.
“This is a guy taking his own time doing the right thing,” Bondy told council.
“I think we should back off the bad blood that’s been generated on both sides and come to a resolution,” he added.
Bondy, who volunteered to attend the meeting with Reynolds, said the organizer wasn’t “checking all the boxes,” adding all parties need to work together to make sure that happens.
When contacted by The Voice after the council meeting, Reynolds said he’s happy with the outcome, even though his grass cutting days are over.
“I think what happened in council was a great day for us,” Reynolds said.
“Up to this point, there was a disconnect between us and council,” he said. “Now we’ll be able to move forward.”
Although he received plenty of support on social media, Reynolds also drew criticism with detractors saying he didn’t follow the rules and that he was making money off the for-profit league.
Reynolds has an agreement with Under Armour Under the Lights to run the league. In Chatham, youth players are charged $150 apiece to play and adults $40.
The Chatham-Kent Kids Flag Football League runs in spring and summer and the adult league follows in September.
In most Ontario communities, Reynolds said flag football fees are $300; the amount UA wants him to charge.
Any extra money raised through fees is put back into the program, Reynolds noted, as he tries to keep the league costs low and accessible.
A total of 12 deputations – both for and against the Lark Park league – were presented to council for consideration.
One even came from baseball Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins in Oklahoma, who wrote a letter of support.
There were also some from other Chatham-Kent youth sports leagues praising the municipality’s dedication in maintaining parks and baseball diamonds.
In the end, all kids who play in organized sports in Chatham-Kent may benefit from the problems at Lark Park.
As part of the motion, administration will explore waiving participation fees for children’s sports leagues for two years to give youth a boost and allow teams to rebuild post pandemic.
“We need to see how expensive that will be and look more broadly on how we can help the safe return of sports,” McGregor said, adding the pandemic has highlighted the importance of extracurricular activities for youth.
He’s hopeful the problems with Lark Park can be resolved.
“I think it’s been a contentious issue,” McGregor said, adding its good to get everyone back to the table so we can “do what’s best for kids.”
By waiving the fees for youth, the municipality could stand to lose around $30,000 annually. The shortfall would need to be recouped elsewhere as the money is part of the 2021 budget.
Administration’s report on Lark Park and sports fees is expected to come back to council in June.
Other Lark Park user groups who use the park will be consulted, as well as residents who live in the surrounding neighbourhood.