On a late Friday afternoon at Little People's Park in Anaheim's heavily Latino central core, a group of residents gathered across the street from the park's urban mural, an aging brick facade emblazoned with cultural images to commemorate a 1978 Latino riot at the park triggered by anger at police mistreatment.
One of the residents, a young Latino man named Sergio, walked over to the park's small grass field, took a swig from his brown paper bag and gazed across the yellowing patches to where the children ran. Sergio wondered aloud when the park is going to get restrooms, which he says are part of the park's “blueprints.”
“Some of the kids piss in the bushes,” he said. “The blueprints say the park has restrooms. Well, where they at?”
Anaheim leaders said that they are aware of such issues and that next fiscal year's budget, scheduled for a public hearing at Tuesday's City Council meeting is sensitive to the Latino community's frustration over unfair distribution of city resources. A city news release and budget overview highlights scheduled construction plans for parks and community centers in Latino neighborhoods.
But not included in the news release or budget overview is Anaheim's largest planned parks and recreation expenditure for the 2013-2014 fiscal year: a $6.4-million renovation to the city-owned Anaheim Tennis Center and Wagner House, which is a few miles away from Little People's Park in a wealthier neighborhood.
According to its operator, the pay-to-play tennis club has a "multimillion-dollar look" and features several tennis courts, a lounge area with hardwood floors, large windows and a stone fireplace with an ornate mantle. The $6.4 million will go toward "additional lockers, showers and restrooms … and new historically-themed outdoor garden for social gatherings and weddings,” among other improvements, according to budget documents.
The plan for the tennis club have not only outraged members of the Latino community but also Mayor Tom Tait.
“Spending that much money on the [tennis center]? What about Little People's Park?” said activist Seferino Garcia. “They need help. They need a lot of help there.”
There is $1.5 million in the budget for various other park improvements, including "restroom improvements," across the city. But it is not clear whether Little People's Park is on that list.
'Incredibly Tone Deaf'
Tait agrees with Garcia on this issue, which is the reason he halted the renovation plans to the tennis center when he took office, arguing that it was a waste of public funds that could be used to buy more parkland or for multiple improvements across the city.
How the tennis center made it back into the budget is unclear. Tait was unaware of the plan until Voice of OC informed him. The mayor has made bridging the gap between what he calls the "two Anaheims" a goal of his first mayoral term. He was livid when he found out.
“Incredibly tone deaf," Tait said. "You would do that now after you have civil unrest in two Anaheims? Your biggest project is a tennis facility, with banquet facilities and catering and so you can have your finger food? Unbelievable.”
Members of the council majority who will be setting priorities for the budget, including council members Jordan Brandman, Lucille Kring and Gail Eastman, did not return phone calls seeking comment. Councilwoman Kris Murray could not be reached for comment.
City spokeswoman Ruth Ruiz pointed out that the budget hasn't been adopted yet and that the City Council will have the ultimate decision. She said funding for the tennis center improvements and those for Ponderosa Park come from the Platinum Triangle development and are to be specifically used for improvements that are geographically close to the Platinum Triangle.
"These funds cannot be shifted to projects outside the sphere of the Platinum Triangle development area,” Ruiz wrote in an email to Voice of OC. “As with a lot of projects in the CIP [capital improvements program] their inclusion in the CIP is not an automatic guarantee those projects will be built in a certain budget year.”
Ruiz's words won't placate Latino activists, who cited the budgeted renovations as proof that despite a downtown riot of mostly Latino youth last year and a contentious battle over Latino representation on the City Council, city officials are not sensitive to the needs of their communities.
“I don't know nobody that goes there and plays tennis,” said Garcia, who is also executive director of Solevar Community Development Corp. “And yet the downtown gymnasium is overcrowded.”
The tennis center is, however, important to one prominent Anaheim resident. Former Mayor Curt Pringle is a "tennis buff" whose children had played at the center while on high school tennis teams, according to Mike Nelson, the center's operator. Pringle was a strong supporter of the center's remodeling, which has been in the works for years, Nelson added.
The budget planning comes during one of the most sensitive times in city history. Latino activists have been pushing to change the city' at large council election system to election by districts, which they believe would yield not only more Latino representatives but also representatives who cater to their underserved neighborhoods.
“They've been excluding us for quite some time,” Garcia said of city leaders. “They have forgotten about us.”
Fair representation is also at the center of an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the city alleging a violation of the California Voting Rights Act, which requires adequate council representation for certain minorities. More than 50 percent of the city is Latino, but none sit on the council.
The five-member council voted 3-2 vote last week to reject a ballot measure that could have changed the city's at large election system to district elections. Latinos said the planned tennis center spending is a perfect example of why the electoral system needs to be changed.
“I don't know anybody that plays tennis,” said Marisol Ramirez, a 21-year-old resident of west Anaheim. “If they would have approved district elections, then we would have a better sense of our priorities in each of the districts.”
Some spending for improvements in Latino neighborhoods is in the budget documents presented so far. Among other expenditures, a half-acre park at Guinida Lane is projected to cost $375,935, and $470,000 is allocated for the Miraloma Park and Family Resource Center.
But for next fiscal year, the tennis center renovation will cost $1.1 million more than the rest of the park projects combined . A community center and gymnasium planned at Ponderosa Park is projected to cost $6.1 million, but according to budget documents, that project won't begin until fiscal year 2015-16.
Though a city-owned facility, the tennis center is a privately run business. Nelson said that the tennis center is a community asset because, while there's no free use of the courts or free rental of the reception area, membership at the club is substantially less expensive than at private clubs.
Nelson acknowledged that there are free tennis courts in the city but said they aren't safe courts. By providing a safe place to play tennis — at five dollars per session — and a cheaper location for wedding receptions than in swanky Newport Beach, Nelson said he is providing a valuable public service.
“It gives the city a place that's not out of reach for people,” Nelson said. “We're doing a great service for the city.”