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Suit Over Playing Fields Puts Issue in Spotlight

Sports: League charges discrimination against girls. City officials say efforts are underway to resolve controversy.

April 23, 1998|JOCELYN Y. STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even before it has been settled or heard, a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the city has focused renewed attention on a reality at city parks.

Filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of the West Valley Girls Softball League, the lawsuit accuses the city of discriminating against girls by relegating the league's teams to shabby fields while reserving premier diamonds for boys.

But city officials say the problem is not discrimination, but the increased demand for limited park facilities. They say efforts are underway to resolve the controversy--and the conditions that sparked the lawsuit.

"The lawsuit has raised questions that I think are worthy of answering," Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer said Wednesday, speaking at a meeting of the Arts, Health and Humanities Committee, which oversees city parks.

In a separate action, Steven L. Soboroff, president of the Board of Recreation and Park Commissioners and senior advisor to Mayor Richard Riordan, is examining a series of measures designed to increase the availability of playing fields. Soboroff has also invited the public to participate in a hearing on the issue May 20 at the Tarzana Recreation Center.

"I just don't think it takes the courts or the council or judges and attorneys to deal with this," Soboroff said.

Although city officials have not discussed their efforts with the ACLU, attorneys said they were pleased to hear the dialogue the lawsuit has sparked.

"We're encouraged that there will be a commitment to getting girls equal treatment in sports where girls predominately participate," Mark Rosenbaum, legal director of the ACLU of Southern California, said after attending the City Council committee meeting.

City officials say the problem is similar to the situation faced by public schools, where large waves of children have swelled enrollment. About 30,000 youngsters are enrolled in city-sponsored baseball programs alone. Thousands more play in private leagues, many of which use city fields.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg citywide," said Councilwoman Laura Chick, who had attempted to find fields for the girls before the lawsuit was filed. "The city population has grown, the number of youths in our city has grown, and the number of playing fields has not grown proportionately."

At Wednesday's meeting, Feuer questioned Jackie Tatum about the participation of girls in sports and the city's permit process for youth leagues. Feuer expressed concern that the process is fair to all groups competing for use of park space.

City-sponsored leagues, which are open to boys and girls, are guaranteed playing fields each season. Some leagues are private operations that lease space from the city for $1 a year.

In exchange for the use of the land, leagues are responsible for maintenance of the fields. Over the years, some have created fields that are immaculate, with electronic scoreboards, snack bars and other amenities. All money earned on a field belongs to the league, Soboroff said, and the leagues can even lease the field to others.

The West Valley Girls Softball League, a 29-year-old group with more than 400 players, has been forced to scramble to find diamonds for its teams, which often end up playing on inferior fields at public schools, Rosenbaum said. Although the parents may improve the fields, there is no guarantee that the youths will be allowed to play at the same field the next year.

Soboroff said the private leagues "deserve medals" for their work in maintaining and improving the fields, but with increased demand new measures must be taken to ensure access. He has asked private leagues to share the fields.

Other measures being considered include: developing new fields on land owned by the Department of Water and Power and the Army Corps of Engineers; entering into joint-use agreements with public schools; fostering public/private partnerships that might help absorb the costs associated with maintaining fields; shortening games and practices, and improving the worst fields.

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