YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Take Me Out to the Courthouse

There's no joy in Ladera Heights as lawyers for parents and Little League officials suit up.

April 01, 2006|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

The fight, by some accounts, started when one kid intentionally threw a baseball at another player's head.

Then came allegations of retaliation. And from that followed charges of election fraud, financial improprieties, even suggestions that off-duty Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies strong-armed a parent, according to court papers.

Now, with the first games in the Ladera Heights Little League season set for Sunday, the parents are still fighting over a children's game. The season got off to a late start after the parties went to court in a dispute over the election of the league's board of directors, and about the money the league collects.

Probe a little deeper among these parents, however, and it becomes clear that the dispute is also about tradition and community -- and the destiny of the 50-year-old league, in which some of the adults involved in the dispute played as kids.

"It's more like a family feud," said Reginald Brown, a coach and lawyer who is among those who sued the league.

Many parents say they hope that despite the dispute the 300 boys and girls in the league can have a good season.

"Look, my kids don't care who is running the snack bar; they want to play ball," Clarissa Gonzalez said as she dropped her two sons off at a recent practice. "Let the kids play."

Even so, a visit to the wind-scrubbed bluff in Kenneth Hahn State Park where the league plays its games -- overlooking the ocean -- makes it clear that the hard feelings have not been put to rest.

And in Los Angeles County Superior Court, meanwhile, the filings continue to pile up.

"This is a very united community that is passionate about their children and passionate about baseball," Erikk Aldridge said recently while the team he manages practiced. Some boys threw pitches, while others ran the bases. A few others begged their mothers for permission to keep playing with friends after practice.

Aldridge said the lawsuit was brought by a minority of parents and called it "very frustrating."

Nearby, some parents agreed. But one mother said she thought the league needed accountability. She declined to give her name, saying the dispute was too controversial.

Among the allegations in the lawsuit, filed in December, are that "a significant portion of the league's income is used for purposes that have nothing to do with running the league."

In the 2003-04 season, for example, the lawsuit charges that at least $40,000 from fees, fundraising and proceeds from the snack bar are unaccounted for.

The lawsuit sought to have the election voided, a new league constitution enacted, the financial records audited and information about the league's records given to the plaintiffs.

On Feb. 3, Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs invalidated the disputed election, dismissed the old board and appointed a referee. But the court said there was not enough evidence to rule on the financial allegations.

The plaintiffs have asked a judge to reconsider, and a hearing is set for May 3. The other side has appealed the decision to invalidate the election.

Ladera Heights is a small, close-knit community in the hills between Inglewood and Culver City. It is about two-thirds black, and historically has attracted many of the city's black lawyers, doctors and other professionals.

Some say the seeds of the Little League dispute go back years. But Larry Brown (no relation to Reginald Brown), who supports the lawsuit and who last year managed a team of 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds called the Dodgers, dates it to a game last May.

Brown said his Dodgers were short a player and that he borrowed one from another team, allowed under the league's rules.

The Angels, according to Brown, objected. And then the Angels pitcher threw a ball at the borrowed player's head but did not hit him, Brown said. The Dodgers won.

The following Monday, Brown was told his team would have to replay the contest because he had borrowed the player for a game that had playoff implications.

Brown wrote to regional headquarters to complain.

He says that Cynthia Pernell, the league's president since 1990 and a parent volunteer since 1977, retaliated against him for protesting.

Brown's players were not recognized at the annual awards banquet and his child was told he wasn't eligible for the all-star team, but later played.

Pernell's attorney, Lou Dorny, said the parents' lawsuit was full of "outrageous allegations."

"It's all outrageous," Dorny said.

He said the election followed the league corporate bylaws but acknowledged that the rules might be out of date.

Some of these parents have also protested the league's $185 registration fee, saying it is more than surrounding leagues charge.

At Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., spokesman Lance Van Aucken said that fee was well within the range charged by leagues around the country.

League officials also said lawsuits such as the one in Ladera Heights are rare. Another spokesman, Chris Downs, said he could not recall another one.\o7

Los Angeles Times Articles