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[whitespace] Council Deadlocks On Vote To Eliminate Two Playfields

Saratoga--Months of tough negotiations, hours of long meetings and the sweat of neighborhood mobilization almost went down the drain as the Saratoga City Council nearly derailed the entire city playfields renovation process when it considered taking two of the proposals off the docket.

Instead, however, it simply decided to pause, take a breath and schedule a joint meeting for June with the city's Parks and Recreation Commission to get the process back on track.

The move to ditch the sites sent a shiver up the spines of the city's parks commissioners, some of whom have worked since 1995 to bring the issue to where it stands today. Somehow, the commission will still need to spend $2 million that's been earmarked for fields.

At its May 5 meeting, the council was supposed to have simply talked about the matter as an item to place for further discussion on a future agenda and to schedule a joint meeting with the Parks Commission.

Instead, the council arrived to a crowded auditorium of playfields supporters and neighborhood groups demanding to speak and who are pushing to take the Marshall Lane and Blue Hills sites out as options.

The discussion turned into a heated, emotion-filled public hearing which the council started as Vice Mayor Stan Bogosian read an impassioned, prepared statement about how badly the process has failed and that the Marshall Lane and Blue Hills school sites should be dropped from consideration as viable sites.

Bogosian said that he wouldn't endorse any project that would destroy the quality of life for the neighbors of the two schools. He then encouraged city staff to redefine the process and select other sites.

His remarks brought most of the crowd to its feet for one of two long, standing ovations. The other came after Evan Baker made a similar appeal.

The only hint of dissension was with Councilmember John Mehaffey, who said he disagreed with Bogosian on the Blue Hills site. He said that he'd still like to see the Azule Park property meshed with the school's and have two fields built.

When all councilmembers had offered their thoughts on the status of the process--Councilmember Nick Streit removed himself from discussions because of his home's proximity to Marshall Lane--it appeared certain that the matter was decided, and the city's Parks and Recreation Commission would be back at square one in determining how to spend the city's $2 million reserved for playfields.

That was until parks commissioners literally began running toward the podium to address the council as the impromptu public discussion caught city staff and the commissioners off guard.

Commissioner Sheila Ioannou had been watching on television at home and was able to get to the meeting just in time to respond. Three other parks commissioners were not in attendance, however.

An emotionally-charged Ioannou gave the audience a moment of comedic respite from the proceedings however, when she left the auditorium after her speech and forgot to take her daughter with her. She returned for her immediately.

Three hours later, and after about 25 people had given familiar testimony about their feelings on the playfields, Bogosian made two separate motions to take Blue Hills and Marshall Lane out of consideration.

Both motions split the council evenly at 2-2, with Mayor Jim Shaw and Councilmember John Mehaffey dissenting on both. Since Streit was not able to vote, the council's non-decision highlighted the growing rift that exists amongst Saratogans over the contentious issue.

"We're deadlocked," Bogosian said after the meeting. "As long as Nick [Streit] has to recluse himself, we're locked up. One of the four of us will have to move."

Before the night was over, Mehaffey made a third motion to schedule a joint meeting in June with the parks commissioners to figure out a way to keep the entire process moving. The motion was unanimously approved, in the hopes that all involved with the project can pause to take a breath before resuming further discussions.

The move comes just as the city was preparing to hire a mediator, who would meet with representatives from all sides of the issue for small meetings in the neighborhoods to be affected.

The proposal still is to build or repair the fields at Marshall Lane school, Blue Hills School/Azule Park, Congress Springs Park and Foothill Elementary School.

Residents in both the Blue Hills and Marshall Lane neighborhoods said they are still united in their opposition to the proposals, which they say will bring too much traffic and too many safety concerns to their neighborhoods.
Steve Enders

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