Los Angeles officials said Tuesday that they are investigating whether private operators are reserving the city's limited public fields for youth groups and then renting them for profit to adults.
"The kids are being pushed off because the adults are making money off it," Councilwoman Jan Perry said. "I want it stopped."
Jon Kirk Mukri, head of the city's Recreation and Parks Department, said he had launched an investigation because of community complaints shortly after assuming the post. He said he also wanted city permits rewritten to make it clear that the practice was illegal and would be punished.
Mukri said unscrupulous operators could be exploiting the parks to run a lucrative business. "They are now charging a couple of hundred [dollars]," he said. "We don't support this. It's immoral."
On Tuesday, Councilman Ed Reyes, who represents many poor neighborhoods around downtown, said that in addition to Mukri's investigation, he wanted City Controller Laura Chick to perform a comprehensive audit of the city's park permitting process.
"There's a whole cottage industry that's doing this," Reyes said. "Now, the kids have nowhere to play."
Los Angeles has 387 public parks with 128 lighted baseball fields, 76 multipurpose fields and 62 soccer fields.
Every inch of that space is in high demand. Officials have long complained that Los Angeles has fewer parks per capita than many other cities, and this is especially true in poor neighborhoods, where housing density is high and empty space sparse. A recent study by the Trust for Public Land found that two-thirds of Los Angeles children do not live within walking distance of a public park.
Many parents and youth sports organizers believe that the city's children are losing out.
"Everything is out of control," said Raul Macias, who operates a nonprofit youth soccer program for poor children in northeast Los Angeles and says that many fields seem perpetually occupied by adults. "Our communities have gang activities because they don't have something to distract their energy.... Why? Because the fields are busy."
Youth sports organizers in other parts of the city say they face the same problem.
"I have big concerns that the kids cannot play on soccer fields," said Randy Cho, who operates the nonprofit Red Star Soccer Club in Koreatown. Cho said his players travel to Griffith Park because they can't find fields close to home.
In South Los Angeles, Mark Williams, who runs soccer programs, said that part of the problem is that the officials who hand out permits are not always present to ensure that the users fulfill their commitments.
This leads not only to a lack of space for children to play, he said, but to reprehensible behavior on the part of some adults on the fields.
"I'm talking about rioting, fighting, drinking, smoking marijuana," he said. "You know, it can be a dangerous situation."
City officials said permits to use city fields are issued either by the local park or the city's sports section. Youth groups are charged about $5 per hour for soccer fields, less if they do their own maintenance. Adults pay $26 per hour.
Mukri said he could cite no examples of wrongdoing because he had not completed his investigation. But he said that officials would make spot inspections of parks to ensure that adults were not playing on children's permits and that the organization holding the permit was using the field.
He also said he would ensure that city employees were not colluding in any inappropriate use of fields.
"We have a moral obligation to police this," he said. "We can talk about not having enough parks, but if our parks are being used inappropriately, that makes a bad situation worse."
Reyes' proposal for an audit will be reviewed by a council committee.
The councilman also called for a review of fees that residents of other cities pay to use Los Angeles' parks and to enroll in the city's sports programs and classes.
Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who co-signed Reyes' motion with Perry, said she had heard rumors that some neighboring cities had curtailed their own classes because so many of their children were taking advantage of Los Angeles' subsidized programs.
"We're in tough budget times," she said. "They're not sharing in our pain, so why should they share in our benefits?"