Friends in the Park

awileman@sierrastar.comMarch 25, 2014 

It's been more than five months since Friends in the Park have provided their services at the Oakhurst Community Park. Since their disbursement in August the citizens of the community have eagerly voiced their concerns over the importance of keeping the park a community friendly place.

Now with the support of the community and the designation of a new park rules — provided by the Oakhurst Community Park Committee —the Friends have returned.

The Oakhurst Community Park was made available at $1 per year long-term lease by Harry Baker, president of Sierra Telephone, as a place where families and Mountain Area citizens could go to interact in a safe outdoor setting close to town.

In recent months and as recent as 2012 the park had become a place many of the community members no longer felt safe visiting due to the consistent drug usage, alcohol consumption a sheer lack of courtesy by community members.

This is why Friends in the Park, a volunteer organization started by local Mountain Area citizen Flint Tompkins and a few concerned citizens, decided to do something to revitalize the park and ensure the safety of those who visit during the day.

Friends of the Park volunteered their time for 15 months starting in May of 2012, to monitor and be present in the park after community members expressed a lack of desire to visit the park due to safety issues. Within weeks of their presence Tompkins noticed an immediate positive response from the community.

"Families could once again use the park and all of its facilities," Tompkins said. "The average attendance was near 40 to 60 people daily. The volunteers would 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 after months of volunteering his time Tompkins says he and fellow volunteers were threatened by community members who claimed Tompkins was stepping out of his jurisdiction and was targeting certain individuals. Tompkins claims after a few serious threats he and his volunteers were forced to vacate the park for their own safety.

In response Tompkins contacted Andrew Pence, head of the Oakhurst Community Park Committee — the committee in charge of monitoring and financing the park — and convinced the committee to host a discussion at the Yosemite Gateway Association of Realtors to communicate possible solutions and rule changes that could help deter anyone from causing a nuisance at the park.

Following the meeting Pence and others involved with the committee sat down and laid out a set of 14 rules in the hopes of creating a more reasonable and applicable set of rules designed to give authorities the ability to remove individuals not following those set rules.

Other ideas discussed at the meeting included fencing off the park, removing shrubs to make the park more visible, and even installing surveillance cameras to monitor the park.

The issue was such a topic of interest that it even found itself among other important topics discussed at last weeks District Attorney debates.

During the debate local attorney David Linn, of Linn Law Offices, even recommend a gang injunction be placed on the park in a effort to deter those who are causing problems in the park.

This suggestion was met with a rebuttal by the incumbent Michael Keitz and challenger Miranda Neal who both disagreed stating that getting a gang injunction would do little to deter the problem at the park.

"I agree that the gang injunctions, I've read, have become out of vogue and they are difficult to enforce. Even if we had a gang injunction we need law enforcement to go enforce it and we are low on people who can go running around looking for kids in the park and if we had that staff right now, we wouldn't need the injunction. We would just send them out there," Neal said.

Instead of fences and injunctions, the park committee decided to create a new set of rules that could act as a deterrent for those who plan to misbehave in the park. These rules give law enforcement a list of specific rules and the ability to remove individuals who are disobeying them.

Those rules are as follows: Park Rules:

No alcohol consumption or possession without a valid permit

No fires outside of barbecues

Barbecues to be used for food preparation only

Keep dogs on leash. Don't allow your dogs to deface park property

No smoking within 50 feet of the playground equipment

No possession or use of any illegal drug, including the smoking of "medicinal" marijuana

No fighting

No sleeping or camping without a valid permit

No littering

No violation of Penal Code 415 — disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace

No distribution of food, fuel, or personal items without a valid permit

No unlawful weapons

Any vandalism or destruction of park property will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law

Violation of these rules may result in a 12-month or permanent revocation of permission to pass or be present on the grounds of the Oakhurst Community Park, at the discretion of the Oakhurst Community Park Committee or their designated agent

Right to pass revocation may be appealed in writing to the Oakhurst Community Park Committee, 41729 Highway 41, Oakhurst, Calif. 93644. (Hours of operation are from dawn to dusk. Right to pass is revocable at any time. Right to pass subject to revocation upon violation of any law, ordinance or park rule within the Oakhurst Community Park).

According to Tompkins, there will be as many as four members from various volunteer groups to ensure the safety and well-being of those who visit the park, and violators are subject to expulsion and removal from the park if they refuse to obey the new park rules.

The Friends will have a direct line to the sheriff's office in the instance that someone is misbehaving or clearly breaking the designated rules set forth by the park committee.

Tompkins wanted to make it clear that the Friends are in no way an extension of the law but rather a group of volunteer citizens who will act as middle men, informing law enforcement when their presence is needed at the park. They have collaborated with the sheriff's office and hope to work together for the safety of community members while they are visiting the park.

Dennis Fairbanks, of Coarsegold, believes this is the best way to ensure the safety of those visiting the park and at the same time relieve some of the burden placed on the sheriff's office to patrol the park.

"The community has to come together, you can't expect the Sheriff's Department to come in and do that, they don't have the resources. I have always preached volunteerism," Fairbanks said.

In an effort to help their community, The Caring Veterans of America will also be joining Friends in the Park and will volunteer two members a day to help monitor the park and make sure those visiting the park are abiding by the new set of rules.

Joe Dowell, Chaplain for Caring Veterans of America, wanted to make it clear that the park is for the enjoyment of the entire community and wants everyone from all aspects of life to be able to enjoy the luxuries.

"It's not us against them or anything like that. If somebody is on the ropes, this should be a safe place for them to enjoy themselves. Senior citizens should be able to come over here and read a book," Dowell said. "We are looking out for everybody and we are just going to be the eyes of the community in the most humble way possible."

Friends and Caring Veterans plan to have at least two members from each organization there daily and will be on the premises from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Tompkins and Friends in the Park are always looking for volunteers. Anyone interested can contact Tompkins at (559) 760-0167 or visit their Facebook page.

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