Staff Editorial: Cutting hours at community center points to misguided priorities

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The Chevy Chase Community Center is located at Connecticut Avenue and McKinley Street NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/January 2017)
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When many D.C. government agencies wish to make a change that affects the lives of District residents, there’s a clear process to follow. The community is notified of the proposal and given time to respond. Feedback is collected and evaluated, and the change either goes into effect or does not.

While some residents would argue that the public comment period is often a mere formality, we’ve seen many cases in which an agency was persuaded either by the merits of a community argument or by the unexpected fury that resulted from its plan.

Both of those reasons — merit and fury — apply to a D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation plan to close the Chevy Chase Community Center at 9 p.m. on weekdays instead of the current 10 p.m. The agency says it needs to standardize the hours of its community centers citywide, so the extra hour in Chevy Chase had to go. The change was announced last month just weeks before it was slated to go into effect.

We do appreciate the recreation department’s decision to retain longer hours until officials can meet with the community about its planned schedule. But it shouldn’t have required a chorus of objections for this basic step to occur. Furthermore, based on similar instances in the past, we’re not optimistic that the agency plans to listen — only to explain what it wants, and then do it.

Reducing hours at the community center will materially affect the programs there. Scrabble and bridge clubs would have to reschedule or stop early. So would meetings of Chevy Chase’s citizens association and advisory neighborhood commission.

The agency’s behavior unfortunately mirrors an unwelcome change at Glover Park’s Guy Mason Recreation Center last year, where popular programs were cut back to accommodate a common schedule citywide.

In Chevy Chase, eliminating hours would not only disrupt current uses, but it also represents a highly inappropriate push for one-size-fits-all citywide standardization. Different communities have different needs from their community centers — an idea rooted in the very name. Some need a few extra hours at night and on weekends, maximizing the recreation time available outside of business hours. Others have specifically benefited from overnight programs, such as the recreation department’s well-regarded midnight basketball league, which offered a safe outlet for youths in dangerous neighborhoods.

In our mind, the issue is twofold: The recreation department is betraying a lack of interest in residents’ desires, and it is not being held accountable for its actions. If inadequate funds were allocated to stay open an extra hour, that’s a discussion that should have occurred in public, and the D.C. Council should have the chance to identify extra funds.

But we suspect that funding isn’t the issue. Rather, the department’s actions suggest its leadership isn’t interested enough in individual recreation and community centers — and therefore makes decisions that don’t account for the specific services they provide to different neighborhoods. Streamlining personnel schedules ought not be a leading objective from our Department of Parks and Recreation. Rather, it should be working creatively to provide the best possible service in each of D.C.’s varied communities. We urge Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. Council to step in and establish a course correction.