West Hollywood officials have approved a plan to house a Head Start program in a portable building in Plummer Park, despite protests from a citizens group that the plan violates an ordinance restricting development in the city's three parks.
The city's decision has rekindled an acrimonious debate with the Save Our Parks Committee, which claims a membership of about 150, over whether development should be permitted in parks--even for educational purposes--in a city strapped for open space.
The city of 36,000 has less than 17 acres of parkland. Under state guidelines on open space and development, a city of such size should have about 115 acres.
West Hollywood voters narrowly approved Proposition B in a November, 1989, special election, prohibiting the city, county and state from housing government offices in city parks. Only recreational and sports facilities were allowed.
The measure prevented the city from building a $23-million civic center in West Hollywood Park. Its passage was a victory for the committee and a defeat for the City Council majority, led by Councilman John Heilman, now the city's mayor, who lobbied for a competing measure that called for construction of the civic center in the park.
Save Our Parks Committee members now contend that the decision to put the 2,100-square-foot Head Start building in Plummer Park is an attempt by Proposition B opponents to challenge the law.
"We are not opposed to a Head Start program in any of our parks--that is where they should be," said Tom Larkin, the committee's chairman. "But we are opposed to the construction of a new building to house any program. We will not stand for the steady erosion of our open space."
The federally funded Head Start program, which will operate on a three-year, $325,000 budget, will serve 34 preschool students from low-income families in West Hollywood.
Although the program has been operating in another meeting hall in the park for about a month, plans call for moving it to the portable building at the beginning of June.
The three City Council members who voted to use the portable building--Heilman and Councilwomen Babette Lang and Abbe Land--insist that their decision had nothing to do with a legal challenge to Proposition B.
"There is no hidden agenda here," Heilman said. "We have a difficult time understanding how anyone can object to a Head Start program being run in a park. We're creating a facility that will be a resource for the entire community."
Still, city officials have long questioned whether the restrictions contained in the proposition are legally valid.
West Hollywood City Atty. Michael Jenkins has repeatedly argued that the measure violates state law, which grants local government complete jurisdiction over its public land.
"(In) 1989, I delivered an opinion to the City Council which concluded that Proposition B was not a proper subject for an initiative and would not be valid if adopted," Jenkins wrote in a recent brief. "My opinion has not changed. . . . The (Head Start) program may proceed without regard to the terms of Proposition B."
Legal opposition aside, Jenkins and others say the Head Start program falls within Proposition B's guidelines. The city sponsors a host of similar educational and recreational activities at Plummer Park, including English-as-a-Second-Language night classes, dance and acting classes, and art and swimming lessons.
Council members also insist that the portable building is the logical, and most cost-effective, choice for the program.
Many of the eligible children live on the east side of town close to the park. To house it at a site farther away would probably involve busing and added administrative costs, the council members say.
To remain in the current location also would require about $350,000 in renovations to install new plumbing and electrical systems, and to add more bathrooms and a new kitchen, they say.
In addition, those who favor the city's plan argue that the building will provide much-needed, albeit indoor, meeting space for the city's numerous community groups during evenings and on the weekends.
"This is a legitimate and valuable use of park space," said Lang. "The program makes sense here."