A group of community volunteers known as "Friends of the Park," who came together to keep the Oakhurst Community Park family-friendly, have withdrawn and will no longer be in the park due to threats they have received.
"The volunteers and I now feel, after hearing various threats by this disorderly element, it is now time to withdraw from the park," stated Flit Tompkins in an Aug. 28 letter to Andrew Pence, Oakhurst Community Park Committee chairman. "So with regret, effectively immediately we will no longer serve in the park until a safer environment can be restored."
Over a one-week period, Tompkins said three homeless people warned him to "watch your back" and indicated harm could come his way.
"I've made a lot of friends here in the park, but apparently I've also made some enemies," Tompkins said.
Tompkins, a retired counselor and recovery pastor at Sierra Pines Church, said in his letter the nine volunteers, men and women, have faithfully been at the park 9:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. Monday through Friday the past 15 months, putting in more than 3,000 hours.
Tompkins said the group's purpose and vision was to "take back the park from drug dealers, the drunk and rowdy homeless element, and others who would intimidate and make the community members feel unsafe."
"I've been running a bluff for 15 months, knowing I had no real power of authority over these people," Tompkins said.
Pence said the Oakhurst Community Park Committee was disappointed to hear about the Friends of The Parks' decision to no longer have a daily presence in the park.
"They have been very helpful in making the park a place we can all enjoy," Pence said. "Safety in the park is the committee's No. 1 concern and we are looking into solutions that will not only allow the Friends in the Park to return, but also make the park a safe place to enjoy at all times. We understand that there are a handful of individuals that jeopardize the ultimate vision of a community park and we are planning to implement changes that restrict access to individuals who use the park irresponsibly."
When Tompkins first came to the park with his guitar and hope of making the park safer for mothers, their children, and seniors, he said thousands of dollars and thousands of hours were used to develop the park and he wanted to help make people comfortable about visiting the park.
According to Tompkins, some members of the negative element in the park realize the volunteers have no authority and do not respect the laws in the park.
"They drink alcohol, use foul language, deal and use drugs, and are involved in other activities that affect the family park atmosphere," Tompkins said. "The sheriffs department has been incredibly supportive, but because of manpower issues, and the current laws and restrictions of the park, their efforts have not been enough to change the patterns of the offenders."
Tompkins said when an offender is arrested for being drunk in public, the person is transported to Madera and is usually back the next day.
Tompkins feels the group made a very positive impact on the park while they were there.
"Families could once again use the park and all of its facilities," Tompkins said. "The average attendance is 40 to 60 people daily. We have come a long way. The volunteers used to meet and greet the attendees at the bridge entrance to welcome them and to deter those who would commit crimes or create a negative and unhealthy atmosphere. But due to the recent threats, we just can't do it anymore."
For the park to be safe, Tompkin's letter said two measures would have to be adopted.
1. The park would need to find some way to permanently evict chronic offenders of the no drinking law.
"The people causing problems in the park today are for the most part the same one causing problems when we started," Tompkins said.
2. The park would need security officers to enforce the rules and laws of the park. The park is surrounded by dense foliage which blocks the view into the park. The only way to enforce the rules is to have someone on the premises to make that happen.
"As it is now, the offenders stop the inappropriate behaviors while an enforcement officer is present and then continue the behavior when the officer leaves," Tompkins said. "We recognize that there is a cost to this recommendation and we do not take that lightly," Tompkins said. "But we also feel that with the committee, county assistance, and other interested community organizations, this problem can be worked out, not just dismissed because of budget concerns."
Pence wanted to remind the public that the park is funded, governed and operated solely by the park committee.
"The committee is requesting any community member that would like to be involved in the park committee to please contact me at Andrew.firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (559) 658-7611 extension 203," Pence said.
Copies of the letter were sent to Sheriff John Anderson, Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler, Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz and the Oakhurst Area Chamber of Commerce.