PAHOKEE — Soccer players in Pahokee met with some success after they turned out en masse at the Aug. 27 City Commission meeting to protest their being barred from the newly renovated football field. The commission voted 5-0 to overrule the city manager; however, due to some confusion the subject will be discussed again this coming Tuesday night.
Several players carried in signs and stood silently in the back of the chamber during that Aug. 27 meeting. A frequent observer at the commission meetings, Mary Dobrow, posted a report on social media on Aug. 28 regarding the protest raised by the club. They have been playing on what some have called a not-so-safe field at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park on East Fifth Street, for some time now.
Patrick Xavier Bresnan — a part-time Pahokee resident and frequent visitor who is co-producer and director of the recent award-winning documentary film “Pahokee” — had posted a letter on his Facebook page addressed to Pahokee Mayor Keith W. Babb Jr., Palm Beach County District 6 Commissioner Melissa McKinlay and the commissioners (tagging only the former two):
“Dear Mayor Keith Babb, Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay and Pahokee City Commissioners,
“The Soccer Club of Pahokee is a very special organization. They have been barred from the use of the public field in Pahokee. The are asking politely for the city to provide a field for them to continue their organized soccer. I attended many games here and it is an essential place for the Hispanic and Haitian community to have a safe and recreational gathering. Many of these youth are honors students at PHS (Pahokee High School), and they deserve to have equal access to city facilities.”
Mr. Bresnan added this at the end of his Aug. 28 post, the morning after the meeting: “UPDATE: The City of Pahokee voted last night to let the Pahokee Soccer Club use the field. Thank you to the city and community members who advocated for this.”
The “public field” at the city recreation center recently was renovated and sodded with new, plastic artificial turf at a cost of some $600,000 that was borrowed by the city. Soccer players’ needs were not accommodated at the time, and their use of the field was banned by City Manager Chandler Williamson over concern about damage their cleats could do to the new artificial turf.
Commissioner Regina Bohlen, reached on Sept. 4, said she had not seen the letter. On Friday, Sept. 6, she said the City Commission would take up the whole soccer/football field issue again at its meeting Tuesday night, Sept. 10, “to make sure everybody is on the same page.”
This reporter did not attend the meeting Aug. 27. A public records request for the video or audio recording of the session, emailed to the city clerk Friday morning, Aug. 30, prompted this reply shortly after:
“Please be advised that the August 27, 2019, commission meeting video is being closed captioned and is not on file with the city. Once closed caption is complete, the video will be posted to the city’s static website and YouTube page.”
Links to those pages were supplied; however, the city’s website has been down for months, and the YouTube video still had not been posted as of Sept. 4.
These are some comments from City Manager Williamson, speaking about recent improvements at the recreation department field and regarding MLK Park, taken from a brief video recording of part of the Aug. 27 meeting made by Ms. Dobrow:
“We’re looking at additional things we need to do to this area to make it a full field that is comparable to soccer. There are some additional things that will be coming down, of course. Hopefully we get funded through the Legislature … and there are some things that we’re going to see from the surtax … they won’t be just on the soccer field … so what we’re doing to that field is one of the main things that’s ongoing.
“One is, it’s going to be getting another playing field for the soccer players. We understand that, you know, they need a different type of turf … so we’re continuing to make it acceptable to the playing of soccer. Right now, it’s a playing field. It’s certainly not artificial turf. The soccer field currently does not have that pristine-type turf and we know that, but the fact of the matter is that when we built that football field it wasn’t designed for a soccer field.
“It would take an additional $300,000 to $400,000 for a certain type of combination that we needed to sustain soccer and football. We didn’t do that with this particular field. But we feel what we provided and what we plan to do is going to be more than sufficient for the soccer players to practice, etc.”
At this point, there were audible remarks and chuckles among audience members, and conversations obscured some of the rest of the recording.
Mr. Williamson continued: “One thing I’ve noticed about MLK Park is, one, you’ve got severely a lot more parking there than you have over here. It doesn’t … close at a certain time. In addition to that, there’s some conversation about safety, and so I looked at that when I was out there today, and I sort of looked at the law enforcement mapping that we receive online … because I wanted to really understand why someone would say they’re not safe there.
“And I looked at the surrounding area at MLK Park. You’ve got a baseball field to your south, a daycare to your south, you have a church to your west … you have an open field where housing used to be. In addition to that, you have some apartments, a lot of seniors and older residents living in that part, of the east part of those apartments. And on the other side of the open field you have residential housing. PBSO (the county sheriff’s office, which handles law enforcement in Pahokee) advised me our crime statistics are not in that area.”
Mr. Williamson went on to say that those statistics are higher elsewhere in the city, for example, citing “on Bacom Point Road, East Main and where we’re sitting right now.”
The commission meets in the city recreation building, where its chamber is, a few yards away from the recreation department football-only field. Commissioners voted unanimously after Mr. Williamson’s remarks to let the soccer club use the field, according to observers.
Update: The commission meeting video from Aug. 17 was posted on its YouTube channel at approximately 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 4. The city’s website has not been updated as is still “currently offline.” According to Commissioner Bohlen, livestreaming of the city meetings has been suspended due to problems with the equipment and it’s unknown when it will be back in service.