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Hingham rec board seeking a bigger role

Members of Hingham’s Recreation Commission want to do more than just manage town fields.

“[Selectmen] said they shouldn’t be in the [recreation] business,” said Frank Jones, chairman of the Recreation Commission, “I guess they shouldn’t be.”

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A couple of weeks ago, Town Meeting appeared likely to consider two articles that would have increased the commission’s influence. One of them will be considered at the April 22 meeting, and would give the recreation staff a larger say in spending Community Preservation Committee money.

But the larger, more controversial question of who owns Hingham’s recreation fields was pulled off the warrant by selectmen on March 14, after officials felt they needed to do more research before taking a vote.

The control of Hingham’s fields has been a contentious issue for several years, and is expected to rage on in the coming months. But that will be settled after the question of who decides how to use community preservation money.

At Town Meeting, voters will decide whether to give a member of the Recreation Commission, which oversees the Recreation Department, a seat on the Community Preservation Committee.

The CPC currently consists of nine members, including one member from the Housing Authority, one from the Conservation Commission, one from the Historic Commission, and one from the Planning Board. Selectmen and the town moderator make two appointments each, and the final seat is saved for the parks commissioner. But because Hingham has no such position, the seat has gone to one of the selectmen.

The CPC is charged with divvying up Community Preservation Act funding, which comes from a 1.5 percent surcharge on property taxes and originally was set aside for preservation of historical assets, purchase of open space, or construction of affordable housing. Last year, the allowable uses were broadened to include recreational properties.

Jones currently sits on the committee as an appointment, but recognizes the seat could be given away. “They do have someone representing themselves from other agencies. You don’t have anyone [permanently] there for recreation,” Jones said.

Since the state law allows for only nine people on the board, Jones is asking for a permanent seat to replace the one designated for a parks commissioner.

Although selectmen would still make two appointments, the change would essentially knock a selectman off the board.

“Why do I have to give up my seat?” said Selectman Bruce Rabuffo. “Why don’t you ask the moderator? And they didn’t. And the moderator already appoints, in my opinion, too many seats.

“There is no requirement to give recreation a seat on CPC,” he said. “Yes, you can spend money on them, but it’s like the Affordable Housing Trust. They don’t have a seat, but we do spend money on affordable trust articles. . . not everybody who can get money from us has a seat on the table.”

According to selectmen chairwoman Laura Burns, Rabuffo’s opinion is in the minority on the three-member Board of Selectmen. “My point of view is it would be very valuable to have someone from the Recreation Commission on CPC,” Burns said.

Selectwoman Irma Lauter agreed, noting that 60 communities with the CPA surcharge have a permanent seat for a recreation representative.

“The citizens of the town elect the members of the [Recreation] Commission. The commission should have the right to elect a member of their own to represent them on the CPC,” she said.

Burns said she purposely left the decision of which seat the new appointment would take up to the Advisory Committee.

The Advisory Committee subsequently voted to replace one of the selectmen’s appointments.

“I think we were persuaded by the presentation made by the folks from the Recreation Commission,” said Karen Johnson, chairwoman of the Advisory Committee. “That with the change in the allowance of CPC for recreational purposes, that it made sense. . . it would be helpful to have that designated expertise as part of the committee.”

Further in the future is the question of who owns town fields.

The proposal that nearly made next month’s Town Meeting warrant would have given the commission ownership of properties that are currently owned by the town and managed by the Recreation Department.

The controversy started when the town asked the Recreation Department, and subsequently the Recreation Commission, to manage the lands on its behalf several years ago. “They asked us at the time [to manage them]. One of the selectmen made a statement that they shouldn’t be in the recreation business,” Jones said. He added that the department has been managing the fields with the expectation that they would come to own them.

Though the ownership of the lands may just seem bureaucratic, it has a big influence on how the land can be used.

Under town control, the land could be used for fields, for town buildings, or as a bargaining chip in town dealings. Under the control of the Recreation department and commission, the land would be set aside solely for recreational use and would receive an open space designation. The town then would have to undertake a lengthy process through the state Legislature to change the status of the land.

That protection is exactly what the Recreation Commission wants.

“Why put any long-term investments in a field we don’t own?” Jones said. “Yesterday I sat in a meeting and said, ‘If we sign a 25- to 30-year lease, which is what they are proposing, what is to prevent you from turning around and saying, We want to do a land swap and we’re going to take the field away from you?’ ”

Lauter sides with Jones, saying that transferring control “to the Recreation Commission would put them under proper and committed management” and allow a comprehensive plan for maintaining each field.

According to Rabuffo, however, giving away ownership would be giving up too much.

“I talked to some longtime people in the town, and they agree with me. Don’t give it away; it’s something you might need,” Rabuffo said.

Burns is more torn on the issue.

“At this point, some of the lands selectmen have may already be under [an open space] protection . . . in which case I wouldn’t have a problem handing them over to the Recreation Department, because we wouldn’t lose any flexibility,” she said.

Burns said the town needs to study the history of all the parcels to make a more informed decision. Though it was taken off next month’s warrant, Burns said the issue is likely to arise again next year.

Jessica May Bartlett can be reached at jessica.may.bartlett@gmail.com.
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