Sunday, September 25, 2005

Making a Mess

First Solid Food, VIII
Originally uploaded by Occasus Pars Clamo.

In a welcome break from "Potty-gate," my son has started on rice cereal.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Nowhere to Go, Part VI

Closed for Season II

Well, things certainly hit the fan here. The delay in posting has been due to having two tennis matches in three days, on top of the sudden and unexpected publicity of a front page, above the fold headline article in the Grand Rapids Press. Full disclosure: I did not call the Press - they contacted me originally. I did not request the Press publish their article on the front page - to be honest, I expected it would run on the second or third page of the Region section.

Press reporter Jim Harger's headline article instead ran above the fold in both Tuesday's morning Metro edition and the afternoon Final edition. (Online version unavailable.) He accurately summarized the points I have made on this site and in emails to the City Commission. The Commission debated reopening the restrooms at that afternoon's City Commission meeting.

I was hopeful that the tremendous publicity involved here would inspire the City to reopen the restrooms, but their final decison was that the expense involved was too great and they instead instructed the Parks department to furnish Aberdeen with a Port-A-Potty. A followup article in Wednesday's Press states that the Commission balked at spending an estimated $200 per month plus the cost of an employee to reopen the restrooms.

From my understanding of Parks Superintendent Zelinski's figures, this estimate has been wildly overinflated. His email, quoted in a previous post below, states that the water readiness fee, charged by the city Water Department, is $84 per month. Since I would not be opening the restroom for anyone but athletes who requested access, I find it hard to believe that we would then use $116 in water in the last two weeks of our season. (Put aside the fact that $200 should be pocket change to a city that can afford a $5,000,000 tax break for billionaires to build hotels downtown. Or the $2.5 million in tax breaks for three brownfield redevelopment projects the Commission approved Tuesday - see page B4 in the Press' Wednesday Final edition.) That being said, we will obviously make some use of the Port-A-Potty, but I think anyone who knows teenage girls can guess that they will do everything they can to avoid using it. The girls who need to change into their uniforms at the park will continue to have to do so in the back seat of each other's cars. We will still have no drinking water except that which we bring in with us (generally personal water bottles and 5-7 gallons in an insulated 10 gallon "Gatorade" jug.)

Since this is likely my last post on this issue for the time being, I would like to use this space to publicly thank Commissioner Tormala for urging the rest of the Commission to reopen the Aberdeen Park restrooms. I would like to thank Steve Pastuer of Egypt Valley Country Club for offering use of their four tennis courts. I'm afraid that Egypt Valley CC is simply too far from Creston and four courts are too few for our purposes. I also have been surprised by the support I have received from fellow coaches, school administration, family members and parents of my tennis players. I plan to continue to press the Commissioners to budget enough money to keep our public park restrooms open well into the fall next year. Ideally, they should be open from mid-April through mid-October. I urge anyone else who feels the same to contact their commissioners and tell them so.

The biggest lesson in this, in the end, is we as citizens of Grand Rapids have a duty to vote for qualified candidates (remember, we have an election this year with new faces on the ballot in several Wards) as well as to make our views known to our commissioners. They face a daunting task, trying to balance the City's budget, and without our input they will not know what we need and what we can do without. I think we need public restrooms at all our parks. Tuesday evening I was reminded again that this is not an issue effecting only the Creston tennis teams. At 6pm, as I was leaving practice, a young father with four children in tow approached the restrooms. After they tried the doors and discovered they were indeed locked, they turned and headed for their car. I introduced myself and explained the situation. The father told me that he would have to take the kids home to use the bathroom - which I'm sure meant that their evening at the park had come to a premature end. With the beautiful weather we're having as we enter fall, it's a crying shame that the City cannot find the funds that allows kids to play in the parks in comfort.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Nowhere to Go, Part V

Closed for Season II

We learned in Commissioner Tormala's email I posted this morning that the City has spent $30,000 on a PR firm to go along with the new $44,000 Information Desk employee. Perhaps the City should have saved some of that PR money: I was interviewed this afternoon by a Grand Rapids Press reporter and a Press photographer came to today's match against West Catholic to get a photo of us in front of the closed restrooms. In fact, as we were walking to the restrooms with the Press guys, West Catholic's coach came over to ask if I had access to the restrooms because one of his athletes needed to use them! The timing couldn't have been better if I had planned it. (Which I did not. In fact, City League coaches are required to touch base with each other before each match to verify the number of tennis players available, but both teams forgot over the weekend.) Apparently the reporter was directed to this blog by Commissioner Tormala. If the story runs, it will be in Tuesday or Wednesday's Press.
Nowhere to Go, Part IV

Closed for Season II

My last email appears to have stirred at least Commissioner Tormala into action. Here is his email to the Commission, followed by an email he received from a parent of a Creston tennis player.

To: Robert Harrison, Kathy Speer
Date: Sep 16, 2005 12:20 PM
Subject: RE: Aberdeen Par

This is unacceptable. There is all this talk about the city helping the schools. We can't give them money for their budget, but we should be able to find funds to let our kids have some dignity and use bathroom facilities. This is an embarassment and black eye for all to see. Let's quit talking about things we can't do for GRPS and do the things we can. If we can spend a total of $74,000 (30,000 to a PR firm and 44,000 for a NEW employee) $25,000 for questionable citizen surveys, $29,000 for lunches alone this year, $50,000 for consultants,etc. we should be able to find funds to open the restrooms. Below is the first of probably many contacts from outraged parents and supporters. The City Commission must act to resolve this or we will look like hypocrites who talk about helping schools but when push comes to shove wring our hands and do nothing. We can blame the state rightfully so for cutting revenue sharing but we are the ones who prioritize the way we spend the money we have and there is more than enough in our budget savings to resove this, I also could point to many other areas, but Colleagues I'm sure you get the point. Let's act!

>>I am the parent of one of the Creston High School Girls Tennis team. It has been brought to the attention of all the parents that the restroom facilities at Aberdeen Park will no longer be opened for use when the team has home games there. Creston has been using the tennis courts at Aberdeen for practice and home meets for many years now and the restrooms have always been opened for use during their matches with other schools. It is embarrassing to GRPS and to the city to have to tell parents and other schools teams that they have to go 3 blocks to use the Burger King restroom when there are adequate facilities on site. Coach Robert Harrison has been trying to work with the athletic director and the city parks and rec as well as the commissioners to work out an acceptable arrangement. His suggestion was that a key be signed out to him and he will be responsible for opening, cleaning up and locking the bathroom. I understand that there have been problems in the past with other coaches but our coach was not one of them and he should be given the chance to prove himself responsible. I know that tennis is not money making sport but our girls need your help! Please look into this matter with the other commissioners. Thank you for your time.

Kathy Speer

Of course, being politicians, they can't really help themselves:
To: Robert Harrison
Date: Sep 16, 2005 6:47 PM
Subject: RE: Aberdeen Park

Coach, I understand your frustration, that is why I hope you will support my re-election. I voted against the tax subsidy for the Hotel and against this year’s budget. My Opponent Dave Shaffer has received over $3,500 dollars in campaign contributions from the DeVos and VanAndels.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Thank You, Local Area Watch

I'd like to thank Bill Tingley at Local Area Watch, first for letting me link to his informative and hard hitting articles, second for publishing an article on my fight for restroom access for my tennis team and third for making me Local Area Watch's staff photographer. I'm honored and my wife's jealous (she's the real artist in the family!). I've created a photoset at my Flickr account that will feature all my photos L.A.W. uses.

Nowhere to Go, Part III

Closed for Season II

So readers, if you've been following closely and taking notes, we've learned from various City Commissioners that the City has the cash to pay a consulting firm $50,000 to teach bureaucrats how to make do with less (but don't worry, they've pledged not to lean themselves out of a job) and also $74,000 to fund an information desk. (Where is this desk? Is this money going towards a salary and benefits? If so, why? Last time I looked, Google was free to anyone with internet access. Send Dell $500 for a desktop computer and pay SBC $15/month for DSL internet. There, I just saved the City $73,320 per year.)

Now, I'm no math major but I can add. That's $124,000 the City can ill afford to waste on boondoggles when children are being forced to urinate behind bushes due to lack of restroom facilities. That's no typo folks, that's what the mother of one of my athlete's told me at Thursday's match. She brought some children to the park to play, not realizing the restrooms were locked for the rest of the year. One boy couldn't hold it, so behind the bushes he went.

Now couple those items with the fact that the City has given Rich DeVos a $5,000,000,000 tax break on his newest hotel downtown, and you'll know why I sent this email to the Commissioners tonight:

From: Robert Harrison
Date: Sep 16, 2005 12:23 AM
Subject: Re: Aberdeen Park


I updated the parents of my athletes on the Aberdeen Park restroom status at today's match, and quite a few were upset. One mother runs a daycare from her home and brought the children to the park recently. She told me she was forced to let a child urinate in the bushes across the roadway from the tennis courts because she had not realized before arriving that the restrooms had been shut down. Frankly, that is disgusting.

I fully realize the impact the budget woes are causing, but I wonder if the Commission and administration grasp just how bad this makes the City look to outsiders. Today's match was against Cedar Springs, so the entire Cedar Spring tennis team, their coaching staff and the parents (about 8-10) that came to watch their daughters play now know that our town cannot afford to flush some toilets. This embarrassing spectacle has been or will be repeated with visitors from Wyoming Rogers HS, Wyoming Park HS, Byron Center, West Catholic HS, Catholic Central HS, GR Central, Union HS and Ottawa Hills.

Don't you folks realize that debacles like this only encourage people to flee the Grand Rapids Public Schools - currently at the rate of 800 students per year? I will be honest with you - I don't have any friends my age (I'm 29), married or single, who are contemplating putting their kids into GRPS past elementary age. If GRPS goes under, the city will follow. What stable family would buy a home in the GRPS district if they had options elsewhere? How will my elderly grandparents afford retirement? I'm sure they are counting on eventually selling their home in the North Park area and downsizing to an apartment/condo. Who would spend $160,000+ for GRPS when Northview is only a half-mile away?

Events like this apparent lack of fiscal foresight just add to the growing impression that Grand Rapids is falling behind and apart. How is it the City can afford to give Rich DeVos, a BILLIONAIRE, a $5 million tax break to build yet another hotel downtown but our children are being forced to pee in the underbrush at our public parks?

I (and a ton of other voters) would love to see some real courage downtown. Tell DeVos that if he wants to build a hotel, he can just take a bit more of his $2,000,000,000,000 fortune and do it himself - we need that money for the police, firefighters, roads and yes, the public park restrooms.

That, I dare say, would really make Grand Rapids a "Cool City."

in anger, frustration and disgust,

Coach Robert Harrison
Creston Girls Tennis

Nowhere to Go, Part II

Closed for Season II

Below is the second email I sent to the City Commissioners, repeating my request for a key to the restrooms at Aberdeen Park.

From: Robert Harrison
To:,,,,,,,,,,,, "Thompson, Arnetta"
Date: Sep 15, 2005 12:54 PM
Subject: Re: Aberdeen Park

Dear Commissioners:

I have not had a response - in two weeks - from either the Parks Department or the Commission on whether or not the Creston Girls Tennis team will be given access to the Aberdeen restroom facilities. For those of you unfamiliar with our request, I would like to sign out a key to open the restrooms only when an athlete requests it and I am willing to be responsible for cleaning the restrooms. I currently have no option but to send people to the Burger King at Plainfield and Eleanor.

Signs have now appeared on the restroom doors stating they have been closed for the season. A port-a-john was briefly on site but appears to have been relocated or removed. (Please do not waste money returning it - my team has made it clear that they will not make use of it.) We are beginning to run out of time since our season will conclude Oct. 6. As of Thursday, Sept. 15 we have only 15 more days where we will either be practicing or playing matches at Aberdeen.

I find it hard to believe that a city that can afford a $50,000 consultant fee to teach bureaucrats lean administrative practices is unable to afford to open one restroom and have it's toilet flushed forty or fifty more times. In addition, I cannot understand how Mr. Zelinski concludes just having the water activated costs the City $84 a month, with water usage costing more on top of that. I don't even pay $100 for my quarterly water bills - presumably the City isn't charging itself retail costs here. (Perhaps this is the combined cost of the restrooms and sprinkler park?) Does Mr. Zelinski know that the outdoor drinking fountain was still operating at Aberdeen as of last week? I see this as evidence that the water to the facility had not, in fact, been turned off. (However, Mr. Zelinski is correct that I am not one of the Creston coaches who has abused key-privileges at Aberdeen. I apologize on behalf of Creston HS and am embarrassed to admit that abuses have occurred in the past.)

Finally, the fact that other teams or groups may want restroom access as well dodges the real issue. Restroom facilities at all our parks should be open while the weather is nice enough to use the parks - from mid-April through at least early October. Our city has not been a wise steward of taxpayers' money if it is unable to keep bathrooms open so children and families have somewhere to answer nature's call. How many millions of tax dollars have been poured into the Van Andel Arena and De Vos Place? How much profit for the City are these facilities making? Does anyone profit besides the vendors, the teams and outside managing firms?

Please look again at our City's multi-million dollar budget and see if you can find the few pennies it would take to keep the Aberdeen Park restroom available for my team's use.

Thank you,

Coach Robert Harrison
Creston Girls Tennis

Parks Superintendent Tom Zelinski's reply:
Date: Sep 15, 2005 2:32 PM
Subject: RE: Aberdeen Park


I thought my reply of August 31 indicated that it would not be feasible to open the Aberdeen restrooms for your team's desired use this fall. Upon review of my note perhaps it was too subtle. The following address the issues you raise in your last communication.

  1. No the restroom will not be available for use this Fall by any group.
  2. The porta jon that appeared was likely for last Saturday's youth soccer games that had been relocated to Aberdeen for one week because of the Indian Pow-Wow at Riverside Park. This one day rental was paid for by the soccer program (the porta jon may actually have been there for more than one day - depending upon when the vendor could deliver/ pick up, but the billable period was one day).
  3. The choices our department - and ultimately the City Commission - made relative to where costs could be cut were difficult ones and I am sure any number of them could be second guessed, depending upon one's perspective. Relative to restroom closings and the use of porta jons, this is an area our staff will discuss and review as we approach the next fiscal year's budget preparations.
  4. The "readiness to serve" charges are the actual amounts billed to us by the Water Department. They are based upon the size of the water service coming into the facility, and Aberdeen would have a considerably larger than typical service (park or residential) to accomodate the water playground and building. (The Water Department is prohibited from charging us a lesser rate than other customers - as much as I would like to see a discount).
  5. The drinking fountain may have been operable for a short period after the water playground program ended August 6. Our staff begins the shut down process for buildings, pools and irrigation systems as soon as they are no longer needed for our programs. This can result in a lag time of a couple of weeks depending upon the site. I confirmed with staff that Aberdeen has been shut off.
  6. The City - and our department - have been ardent supporters of the Grand Rapids Public Schools and there many programs. When it is feasible we make every effort to accomodate requests (as do the Schools with our programs). Please be assured this is not a "Creston" issue or a "Bob Harrison" issue but more simply a fiscal issue. I appreciate your expressed concerns and if it is feasible to alter the situation next year I would hope to do so.

If you would like to discuss this directly please contact me at 456-4233.

Tom Zelinski

Parks Superintendent

This was followed shortly by an email from Commissioner Tormala:

Date: Sep 15, 2005 2:51 PM
Subject: RE: Aberdeen Park

I have made my views clear on this before when I supported opening the restrooms and I agree with Commissioner Jendrasiak. Because of the impact on services I joined him in opposing the current budget which was approved by the rest of the Commission. If we can lay out $74,000 for an information desk we should be able to find money for our kids. However the blame for this does not rest with Mr. Zelinski and our Parks Department, but with the City Commission that approved the policy. Our kids deserve better.

Nowhere to Go

Closed for Season II

I've posted some of my email correspondence with Grand Rapids City Commissioners and bureaucrats regarding the lack of restroom access at Aberdeen Park. Enjoy.

My original email:

From: Robert Harrison
Cc: "Thompson, Arnetta"
Tue, Aug 30, 2005 at 11:00 AM

Dear Commissioners and City Staff:

I'm the girls tennis coach at Creston HS and we need your help. The GR Parks Dept. has closed the restrooms at Aberdeen Park for the season and we no longer have restroom access. Our tennis season runs until Oct. 6 however. As it stands now, I have to tell my players and our opponents to go to the Burger King on Plainfield if they need to use the restroom.

My athletic director (Arnetta Thompson) and I asked Tom Zelinski in the GR Parks maintanence department if we could have a key to open the restrooms just for practice and on games days but he says he doesn't have the budget even for that little use. Looking at our schedule, we only have 21 more days of practice or games at Aberdeen and I estimate only one or two girls would use the facilities on each day. Is there anything you can do to help? I am willing to keep the restrooms cleaned if that will help with the budget.

Sincerely yours,
Coach Robert Harrison

Parks Dept. Director of Maintanence Tom Zelinski's response:

Wed, Aug 31, 2005 at 8:51 AM

Jay, et al:

In response to this note, and several inquiries from City Commissioners, I can offer the following information. I have spoken with Mr. Harrison - Tennis Coach and Athletic Director Arnetta Thompson about this request. In fact, just prior to receiving the note I had spoken with Arnetta and she was going to arrange for a porta jon to be placed at Aberdeen for the team's use.

The restroom building at Aberdeen (and a number of other locations) was budgeted to be open only during the RRR playground program, which ended August 7. Following the end of the program the facility was shutdown. It costs our department $84 /month simply to have the water activated for the site - plus any water usage that might occur. A typical month that does not include water for the water playground, would see charges in the neighborhood of $200 - which does not include staff to clean and supplies. A porta jon can be rented for $60/month.

There are quite a number of sites where the public schools, and other user groups, have sports activities but do not have restroom building availability - Highland soccer, Richmond softball, Hillcrest baseball, etc. Additionally in the past I have had problems with Creston coaches having keys to the restroom building at Aberdeen and either using the facility before/after the water was activated or not locking doors and the restrooms being trashed. (Note: I am not aware of Mr. Harrison being among these individuals).

While it is unfortunate that we cannot afford to operate and maintain as many public restrooms as we have in the past, we have tried to work with user groups to find reasonable solutions within the confines of our budget. Should there be further questions please contact me.

Victor Vasquez, Asst. City Manager - Planning & Community Development gives his input:

Wed, Aug 31, 2005 at 3:06 PM

As we can all see, the number of complaints and requests for continued services that were eliminated in the FY 2006 budget is increasing as the lack of services cause inconveniences and worse. Parks staff is being challenged just to do the services that remained in the budget. Attempting to somehow add some of these requests onto the workload will ultimately result in complaints when we fail to provide the services that the City committed to continuing.