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Claremont, Optimist talking again

September 9, 2011

Sometimes it takes extreme measures to create change.
After a “harsh” letter and a heated public discussion, Claremont’s city council and Optimist Club are once again communicating.

It has been four years since Claremont officials have heard from the club they have invested more than $200,000 in, but a clear-cut letter from city leaders finally drew some public discourse that has “re-opened” the lines of communication between the two groups.

The Claremont Optimist Club leases land at Frances Sigmon Park on Keisler Dairy Road for recreational leagues and activities for children.

Prior to 2008, the club made loan payments on its land, and the city paid for infrastructure improvements on the property and made annual donations to the club. But the club started struggling and went into debt – monies owed that Claremont officials agreed to pay off.

“The city took the loan over for $56,000,” said Claremont City Manager Doug Barrick. “We said, ‘We will buy you out, and you guys should only have to pay for the fielding of a team and insurance.’ But that still wasn’t enough to overcome what was holding them back.”

The club continued to struggle financially. After Claremont took over the loan payment in 2008, Optimist did not respond to inquiries from the city for nearly three years.

And the $56,000 loan payment was not the only money Claremont invested in the club. Since 1996, the city has invested a total of nearly $200,000 in the Claremont Optimist Club, Barrick said.  

So, with no word from the club and thousands of dollars invested, Claremont sent optimist a letter.    

“We wanted to know who was in the organization, and who were the people we needed to contact?” Barrick said. “We asked them to tell us a little about your finances and your enrollment, because the impression from the outside seemed like nothing was happening.”    

Barrick said some of the letter’s wording was “harsh” and involved “restructuring the lease agreement” or “creating a new lease.”

“We wanted a response, and some of the wording was kind of harsh,” Barrick said. “We wanted to make sure that land was being used for recreational activities and fully used and developed, but we didn’t know what was going on because there was no communication between the club and the city.”

Barrick and the city council got their response – in an “unexpected” way.
During Claremont’s monthly city council meeting Tuesday, a line of 20-30 Optimist Club members marched into the council’s chambers just before the opening invocation. Boys wearing baseball uniforms and parents wearing ball caps stood along the back wall of the room.

There was an Optimist Club presentation scheduled on the agenda, but Barrick only expected one or two members to show up. After some meeting formalities and presentations, Claremont Mayor David Morrow invited the club to speak.

“I don’t think we need to ask if anyone from Optimist Club is here, but is there a representative that would like to come forward and tell us some of the things that have been going on with the club?” Morrow said.

The group of club members looked to each other at the back of the room.

A woman stepped forward.

“You want to do this here?” she said.
“Yes, please come forward,” Morrow answered.
“Are you sure?”

The council members again nodded.

The woman walked to the front of the room and approached the microphone. She raised a handful of documents and eyed the council.

“Could you show us where in our contract it says we have to give you the information you requested?” she said. “Could you show us where it says we have to have a certain number of teams?”

The council was silent for a moment.

The woman was Stephanie Turner, the secretary and treasurer of the Optimist Club. She went on to tell the council that the Optimist Club felt threatened by the letter and was concerned that it wanted to shut the club down. She said the current club administration inherited a “sinking ship” from previous officials and are having to deal with financial woes caused by a different group of people. In addition, she said the council has not contacted the club.

Morrow stepped in and interrupted Turner.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “Who said anything about shutting you guys down?”

Morrow informed Turner and the Optimist Club that the council wants to make sure its investments in the park and club are being used to the fullest. Claremont sent the letter because communication lines were closed, he said.  

For the next 15 minutes, the council, Turner and members of the club discussed three years of history. Those communication pathways once blocked were re-opened. The club agreed they would share information with the council and send a club member to Claremont’s recreation meetings. Claremont’s council reiterated it did not intend to shut the club down.

“We’re not a sinking ship, and we’re not dead,” Turner said. “We’re doing what we need to do for these kids. We have nothing to hide, and that’s why our families and kids are here. If you want to come to threats of closing down our Optimist, that is not fair and not fair to the kids and parents.”

“You guys were the captain of a sinking ship, but we want to help you navigate those waters,” Barrick said, “but we need to put our past behind us and move forward. If you guys succeed, then our children succeed because they use your facilities.”

Barrick told the club that some of the information requested was vital for a grant application that would benefit Optimist.

“I think there is a history of help between us,” Barrick said. “The council is willing to help if you are willing to help us. I think the harshness of that letter caused what happened tonight.”

Turner handed Barrick and the council the information requested. “Well, you got what you wanted,” she said. “Now let’s see where you go with it.”

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