The Westfield City Council on Monday eliminated Grand Park Sports Campus admission fees for city residents and imposed new council oversight of the park’s contracts.
The resolution on both issues was approved after a council member alleged the organization in charge of baseball operations at Grand Park had diverted almost a half-million dollars away from the city.
Troy Patton, an at-large member in his first year on the council, said during Monday’s meeting that Westfield-based Bullpen Tournaments LLC, which manages Grand Park’s ball diamonds, had failed to pay the city $470,000 it owed as of May 31.
Patton said Bullpen Tournaments has gone two years without fulfilling its contractual obligation to pay 30% of admission fees to the city. Instead, he said, the organization has taken that money and paid it to ProX Athlete Development, a training facility at Grand Park that was founded by former Major League Baseball player Joe Thatcher, the nephew of Westfield Mayor Andy Cook.
Patton did not elaborate on that claim.
“Frankly, Bullpen owes the city money,” said Patton, a CPA and fiscal conservative who was critical of Grand Park’s operations during his campaign. “I’m trying to ensure the taxpayers of Westfield are getting what they deserve.”
City officials, Grand Park Director William Knox and Bullpen Tournaments President Blake Hibler all expressed surprise at Patton’s claims and rejected the notion.
Knox said Bullpen Tournaments is performing services beyond its original agreement with the city. He said, a little over a year ago, the city decided Bullpen could keep 100% of the admissions fees it collected in exchange for taking over the estimated $500,000 to $600,000 in field maintenance work previously performed by the city.
“You’re springing a very complicated matter upon me and our people with absolutely no respect or notice of what your concerns are,” Westfield Mayor Andy Cook said to Patton during the meeting.
After the meeting, Westfield spokeswoman Vicki Gardner issued a written statement. She said the resolution came as a total surprise and that it was just one of several items added to the agenda a few hours before the meeting.
“The appearance of rushed decisions without meaningful input is at best short-sighted and at worst calculated to devalue the local and regional impact of Grand Park,” Gardner wrote.
Hibler also issued a written statement after the meeting to say Bullpen Tournaments always completely fulfills and exceeds its contractual obligations.
“We will continue to have an excellent relationship with our local little leagues and travel teams while fulfilling our responsibility of bringing in the top-level organizations, and players from across the country to play at the best amateur sports complex in the United States,” Hibler wrote.
As written, the resolution requires council approval for all current diamond and field contracts before they’re extended into next year. That oversight also applies to monthly agreements made after June 30, and requires those deals be memorialized in writing and that all previously agreed-upon amounts are paid before a contract is extended.
Additionally, the resolution sets a new standard for the city council to approve all Grand Park contracts starting next year.
“I don’t even think this resolution is that threatening. In fact, it’s pretty numb,” Patton said.
Though the resolution doesn’t name Bullpen Tournaments specifically, Cook and Council President Joe Edwards both suggested an investigation into the matter.
“If you believe funds are being misappropriated, I would suggest we need to have a full-blown audit and we need to figure out what is going on,” Cook said to Patton during the meeting.
The resolution’s second part also implements drastic changes to the way Grand Park does its business.
As written, Westfield residents will no longer have to pay admission fees to enter Grand Park outdoor sports activities for any event unless approved by the council. Westfield residents will be able to take advantage of those facilities for free unless they’ve been rented or they are actively being used.
Additionally, the resolution makes it so that no team made up of entirely Westfield residents will pay more for tournaments or field rental than any other team. Patton equated charging admission to residents who’ve already paid taxes toward the city-owned park was effectively “double-dipping.”
Council members approved the resolution 6-0-1, with council member Cindy Spoljaric abstaining.
Spoljaric suggested amending language in the resolution to relegate the impact eliminating fees might have on Grand Park’s operations, but her proposed amendment was not taken up by the council.
“We will take a deeper look at the Grand Park ordinance, in particular, tomorrow. We are not sure of the unintended operational consequences,” Gardner wrote.