A recent discussion of potential upgrades to Kenwood Park in north Fayette County underscored an ongoing rift in county leadership that has commissioners Steve Brown and Randy Ognio frequently on one side of county issues opposing Pota Coston, David Barlow, and Chairman Charles Oddo.
Since he was replaced as chairman in January, Brown has questioned Oddo’s leadership and also sought to reign in the decision making latitude given to County Administrator Steve Rapson.
Two issues underpinning the discussion of Kenwood Park eventually came up during the lengthy back and forth discussion at the recent county commission retreat. Brown and Ognio both noted that Kenwood Park serves a large number of people from Clayton County, and suggested recreation funds might be better spent elsewhere to serve Fayette residents.
“We’ve got to look at this a little differently,” Ognio said. “We’ve got to make sure these things affect Fayette County citizens. A lot of people going there are Clayton County citizens, there’s no doubt about it.”
Coston, whose district includes Kenwood Park, has been working with residents there on the proposed upgrades that were presented at the retreat. She pushed back against Ognio’s sentiment.
“It’s a public park. It’s like us going down to Centennial Park or Grant Park or Piedmont Park. They don’t say we don’t want those people from Fayette County coming to downtown Atlanta. We can’t say the folks from neighboring counties can’t use our park,” Coston said, “but we do know there are Fayette County residents that use it.”
Brown then tied the issue to district voting, saying this project was tied to “interests” in the fifth district.
“You know we’re setting a dangerous precedent because if we are now going to start throwing projects up from the floor for every park in here, and this is part of the whole district voting thing that I think we’re creating this fiefdom mentality that we all have to protect, now, our interests in our districts and I’m getting really worried about this,” Brown said.
“I knocked on every door when I campaigned out there and went to meetings and this is the feedback I got. This is what I’m coming back and sharing with the board,” she said.
Brown argued that the plan had been conceived without board review and was outside the scope of the original plan for future phases at Kenwood. County Administrator Steve Rapson fundamentally disagreed with that line of reasoning, saying staff had developed a plan for capital improvements at the park on what was assumed to be direction from the commission.
“The problem is staff is getting mixed signals,” Rapson said. “When we put a capital budget together and you allocate $250,000 to Kenwood Park for improvements, that’s some direction. So we get together with the rec commission and determine what capital improvements for this park we should do.” Rapson said, adding that in these circumstances staff makes judgment calls.
As to the specific proposed improvements Kenwood, staff recommended a new pavilion or gazebo, expanded parking, a restroom facility, a “Tot Lot” area for young children, additional fitness stations, and added walking trails.
Brown said these projects represented a “radical change” from the original master plan and again said that a “dangerous precedent” was being set.
“We did spend quite a bit of money on a recreation plan, we’ve done a lot of work already. We’re going to throw that in the toilet and not look at it? You’ve got to look at the system as a whole and not cherry pick,” Brown said.
Rapson said he was unsure what direction to take from the board as he felt he and staff had acted as they normally do in developing capital projects.
“I guess we’re… frustrated is not the word, but when you allocate money for capital improvements to parks, I’m assuming you’re saying go work with the appropriate people and start implementing these capital projects. Otherwise we’re going to completely halt all improvements for parks,” Rapson said.
In addition to those capital improvements laid out, the plan calls for potentially adding a multipurpose field or indoor facility. Coston said residents there already have access to a multipurpose field at Kenwood and would much prefer to have an indoor facility. It was discussed that building an indoor facility would entail some substantial added costs as it would need to be maintained and staffed.
Rapson and Brown continued to go back and forth as to whether it was appropriate for staff to develop capital projects that had already been budgeted without seeking approval from the board. Brown said he felt all improvements should be put on an agenda for a vote if they had not already been part of an approved master plan. Rapson said this would be a departure from how the county had operated over the last two years, when Brown was chairman.
Rapson eventually appealed to the other four commissioners.
“I’m assuming he [Brown] is saying no to these, so I guess I’m asking the four of you, what is your pleasure,” Rapson said. “Staff needs direction. I feel like we already have direction because you said go spend this capital money and the staff worked with the recreation commission and department to get to where we are today.”
Rapson said the board would need to clarify how capital projects were handled going forward.
“My issue with an agenda request is not so much this, I understand this is politically sensitive, but how we’re conducting business with capital projects if you’re going to extend it to what your interpretation is,” Rapson said. “You’ve taken the capital plan and we may as well sweep all that back into the fund balance because what you’ve done is you’ve taken the authority of the county manager working with the heads of other authorities and you’ve basically said you all can’t make decisions anymore in regards to capital improvements.”
“On new projects that are not approved,” Brown replied, “I would say yes, you’re right.”
Rapson said the matter would be put on an agenda, but that he still would like to know how the board wants to proceed in the future.
“I think going forward, staff’s interpretation will be, on capital projects, that if we do something brand new, you all want to see those. I’m okay with that, just tell me what the rules are you want me to follow,” Rapson said.