The Pine Bluff Parks & Recreation Commission reversed itself Monday and voted during its regular monthly meeting to give its blessing to the city council’s plan to appropriate $433,000 for the renovation of the Merrill Center.
Voting in favor of the measure were Commissioners Jeffrey Pulliam, Fabian Fontenot, Jonathan Frazier, Duke Fakouri, and Roy Tolson. Commissioner Christopher Blunt opposed the measure. Commissioners Kami Hunt, Carson Fields and Krandon Henry were absent.
Pulliam served as chair in Hunt’s absence.
The commission had voted 4-3 in a special “emergency” meeting on Aug. 13 not to request the city council’s approval of the funding. Pulliam and Tolson reversed their votes at Monday’s meeting. Fakouri and Henry were absent from the Aug. 13 meeting, where Hunt and Blunt both voted against requesting the funding.
Fontenot, chairman of the commission’s maintenance committee, addressed the Merrill Center situation to open his monthly report to the commission.
“The committee talked to architect Fred Reed to get some estimates on how much it would cost to build a new Merrill Center,” Fontenot said. “At $150 per square foot the project cost for everything except the boxing gym would come to $2.2 million with a total square footage of 15,689. Including the boxing gym would add an additional $720,000 to the project cost.”
Pine Bluff Mayor Debe Hollingsworth sat in on the meeting and offered comments pertaining to the commission’s role in regard to the Merrill Center.
“The Office of the Mayor had a legal opinion done on the scope of the commission’s duties,” Hollingsworth said. “It is the duty of the Parks and Recreation Commission to manage facilities. Stating whether you want to tear it down or remodel it is beyond your scope. You manage the facilities. This project has already been voted on by the City Council and they voted to remodel it. It is not your say-so what happens to it.”
Hollingsworth said the city could pull the Merrill Center out of the control of the commission and manage the center through City Hall.
“We don’t have $2.2 million to rebuild the Merrill Center,” Hollingsworth said. “But we do have the funds to remodel it. The City Council has voted to appropriate $500,000 for the remodelling.”
Fontenot said the maintenance committee had approved the remodel plan but the full commission voted down the measure.
“The Merrill Center has drainage problems and cracks in its foundation,” Pulliam said.
Hollingsworth again interjected.
“Fred [Reed] went over all of those issues and determined that the Merrill Center is structurally sound,” Hollingsworth said. “He found that any cracks are superficial.”
Commissioner Christ Blunt took issue with that assessment.
“I don’t believe anybody in their right mind considers that building [Merrill Center] fixable,” Blunt said. “We need a second opinion on it. I spoke to two contractors who told me that it was not repairable.”
Commissioner Jonathan Frazier took issue with Blunt’s comments.
“We are here trying to come up with a solution to this situation,” Frazier said. “So why are we throwing up problems to keep it from being solved? The mayor has explained what we can do and can’t do as commissioners and I believe that we should approve of the city council’s decision to appropriate money for the remodeling of the Merrill Center.”
Fourth Ward Alderman Steven Mays offered his perspective.
“I don’t want to lose those kids over there around the Merrill Center,” Mays said. “Personally I think this should be settled so that we can move on and look at the big picture. I prefer that it go back to the city council.”
Hollingsworth sought to allay any concerns that the renovation program planned for the Merrill Center would in any way mirror what took place at the Chester Hynes Community Center.
“Chester Hynes was a botched job when you get down to it,” Hollingsworth said. “The city will not be the subcontractor for the Merrill Center project. We will be using the subcontractor who remodeled our fire stations so it will be a quality job.”
Hollingsworth distributed copies of a legal opinion written by Assistant City Attorney Joe Childers concerning the topic of seniority on the parks commission.
“The question concerned whether tenure of service as a commissioner, or seniority, carried any legal weight,” Childers wrote in the opinion. “There is no reference in the Arkansas Code or the city ordinances about seniority or length of service on the commission having any legal consequence.”
Hollingsworth said this has the effect of putting all commissioners on an equal footing regardless of how long they have been on the commission.
“Every commissioner starts with the same seniority so you all are new commissioners,” Hollingsworth said. “It is not the case that seniority determines a chairperson.”
The commission approved an employee dress code developed by the personnel committee.
Among the provisions of the new dress code are a prohibition on unnecessarily revealing, provocative or distracting clothing including halter tops, mini-skirts that are shorter than three inches above the knee and leotards.
Body piercings other than the ear lobe must not be visible to the public while on duty and tattoos may not be offensive in nature.
The dress code also prohibits the use of strong perfume or cologne.
The commission agreed to keep the position of after-school program coordinator vacant in the wake of the firing of former community center director Laura Hildreth.
“We decided to keep that position open in order to save money,” Pulliam said. “We will continue to offer after-school programs.”
The commission agreed to speak with officials at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff about the possibility of hiring university students enrolled in the school’s education program to serve as tutors for the grade-school students participating in the after-school program.
Hollingsworth asked Parks and Recreation Director Angela Parker what is in place to conduct background checks on all potential employees — both paid and volunteer.
“Regardless of who is working in the department all job applicants must have extensive background checks performed,” Hollingsworth said. “The Pine Bluff Police Department can provide reports on Level I and II sex offenders. Who will be responsible for making sure that these checks are performed?”
Parker said she is the responsible party.
The commission approved a motion to create a personnel policy for volunteers that mirrors the policy in place for paid employees of the Parks and Recreation Department.
The commission agreed to hold an organizational meeting Sept. 3 in order to bring all commissioners onto the same page regarding commission policies and procedures as well as committee selection rules