Funding from LA nonprofits for bocce ball at Grant Park faces residents' objections

Grant Park
Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier 
A city maintenance worker aerates the grass next to the basketball courts in Grant Park in late February. Bocce ball enthusiasts have proposed the area, which sits alongside the Newcastle Drive and Holt Avenue portion of the park, as a location for two courts.

The bocce ball will soon be in the Los Altos City Council’s court. 

But before the council decides whether or not to accept a $40,000 grant from two local philanthropic groups to build two bocce ball courts in Grant Park, the Parks and Recreation Commission will review the proposal next month. The possibility was discussed at the city’s Senior Commission meeting March 2 – and members recommended accepting the grant. 

The Parks and Recreation Commission is expected to vote on the proposal April 8, and then it moves to the city council, which has the final say on accepting or rejecting the grant.

The $40,000 – funded evenly by Los Altos Legacies and the Los Altos Rotary Endowment Fund – does not cover the entire cost of the courts, however, so the council’s approval would require drawing money from city reserves. Dave Brees, the city’s special projects manager, estimated that the project would cost approximately $56,925 in total.

That doesn’t include shade structures. The one being installed above the courts at the new Los Altos Community Center will cost the city $80,375. But there’s no reason to believe the two courts at Grant Park will need anything that extravagant, Los Altos Legacies member King Lear told the Town Crier. Lear, who is seeking appointment to the Senior Commission, said the bocce ball courts that were at the old Hillview Community Center were covered by a 20-year-old shade installed by the maintenance crew. One or two smaller structures at the end of the court would provide seniors with relief on sunny days, he added.

If you build it …

Lear, who is championing the project for Los Altos Legacies and the seniors who are temporarily playing bocce ball at Cuesta Park in Mountain View while the community center is under construction, is already answering questions from Los Altos residents who doubt it’s the best use of the city’s money or its green space. Still, as someone who prefers golf, Lear said the nonprofits’ $40,000 should be used to build the courts as an activity for residents of all ages.

“The gift amounts are unusually high for these two funds,” Lear told the Senior Commission at its Jan. 6 meeting. “We feel that locating permanent outdoor recreation facilities appropriate for seniors near the senior center in Grant Park deserves this level of commitment.”

Lear also argued that the bocce ball courts would provide equity between the two senior centers, one based at the new Los Altos Community Center and one based at Grant Park.

“South Los Altos residents want to be treated equally to north Los Altos,” Lear told the Senior Commission after it continued the discussion to its Feb. 3 meeting and then its March 2 meeting, at which the commission approved the proposal.

Palo Alto resident Gil Eakins, who has been a Cuesta Park visitor for the last few months despite what he called its “inadequacies,” echoed Lear’s sentiment. Eakins, who took up bocce ball six years ago, said the proposed courts would attract more people to join the group of Los Altos residents who already play in town.

“If you build it, they will come,” he said.

In letters to the Senior Commission, a few residents estimated that only 20 people play bocce ball citywide. However, a staff report prepared by Donna Legge, Recreation and Community Services director, suggested that an average of 56 people used the Hillview courts on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays on a drop-in basis.

A hiccup in communication

The Senior Commission has been discussing the idea of bocce ball at Grant Park since before Los Altos Legacies and the Los Altos Rotary Endowment Fund submitted their formal offer letters to the city council in December. According to Legge, seniors have asked city staff and commissioners for bocce ball facilities at Grant Park since the public outreach sessions the city conducted for the new community center.

Before the official offer, Los Altos Legacies planned to offer $10,000 for the project. When city staff expressed dismay at the shortfall between the actual cost and the donated funding, they suggested portable, blow-up courts as an alternative. Los Altos Legacies subsequently offered additional funds.

Over time, the discussion has become “contentious,” according to Legge.

Prior to the Feb. 3 Senior Commission meeting, city staff allegedly did not consult chairman Kevin O’Reilly about the agenda before it was posted. O’Reilly noted that the language introducing the item would not allow the commission to make a motion to recommend accepting the money and/or form a subcommittee to oversee the project. City staff then revised the agenda and released it more than 72 hours before the meeting – an effort to avoid violating the Brown Acts, the state’s open meetings law.

Legge and Councilwoman Anita Enander, the council’s liaison to the commission, expressed concerns following the Senior Commission’s original decision to approve accepting funding for the courts that Enander and other commissioners did not have the new agenda and were not aware a recommendation would be made. They worried the public would feel the same way.

Enander disagreed when Lear suggested that she did not act inappropriately when she advised the commission to proceed cautiously through the discussion. Bound by the city’s Council Norms, Enander said she did not express an outright stance.

“The commission needed to act in a way consistent with the (open government requirements), and they eventually did so,” she said.

Legge described her discourse with commissioners Feb. 3 as “more of an ethical recommendation than a technical one.”

Commissioners tabled both forming a subcommittee and conducting a survey for seniors about bocce ball so that they could address the specific funding proposal first. The proposal will be considered as an element of a greater master plan process for Grant Park and its community center.

“In my perspective, you have to look at the justification for it,” Legge said. “Aside from regular players, what do the neighbors want and what does the community at large want? … We don’t know that. The only way to find out is if you do some sort of survey.”

Take the money and run

Los Altos resident and Sons In Retirement member Carl Orta attended the Senior Commission’s February meeting when Legge gave her report. He said calling for a survey is a stalling tactic.

“I understand it was strategic, and she has to consider all the parks’ needs, but this is free money,” Orta said. “This is an offshoot from your main job, which is to satisfy as many requirements as you can around town.”

Orta said he’s tired of bocce ball only being considered a senior sport. He and many other players regularly teach children and their parents how to play, he said, and it’s a way for local residents to bond and help the city by maintaining the facilities they use.

“I’ve known (Lear) for years, and we cooperate and take care of the courts together,” he said. “They should take the money and run, I say.”

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