Athletics or Environmental Preservation: Oakland’s Trust Fund Tug-of-War

In a specially convened meeting on Wednesday, the Oakland Borough Council passed the final adoption of a critical ordinance authorizing a binding municipal referendum on the recontinuation of an annual levy for the Open Space Trust Fund. The move stirred concern among local environmentalists and green team members over potential misappropriation of funds earmarked for preservation of open space.

The meeting, held via Zoom and YouTube, focused primarily on Ordinance 23 Code 920, which could dramatically impact the municipality’s ability to preserve open space and maintain its historic landmarks. The ordinance provides the council with a mandate to gather public opinion on whether to renew the annual levy that finances the Trust Fund.

Oakland Mayor Linda Schwager and council members Eric Kulmala, John McCann, Pat Pignatelli, Russell Talamini, and Kevin Slasinski were all present during the virtual session. The members, after some deliberation, unanimously voted in favor of the ordinance.

The key point of contention during the meeting was the potential use of the trust fund’s resources. Councilman McCann highlighted concerns raised by the Environmental Commission and the Green Team about the fund potentially being utilized for maintenance of borough fields and facilities, rather than for preservation of open space.

“I have never heard anybody say that this money would be used for anything other than preservation of open space,” McCann stated, emphasizing the importance of safeguarding Oakland’s green spaces. He mentioned the Sandy Beach area as a potential candidate for preservation, pointing out that such a move would satisfy multiple community goals, including open space preservation and historic preservation.

Council members Pignatelli and Talamini also weighed in on the issue, reading from the ordinance text to clarify its intentions. The ordinance mandates that the collected funds be used primarily for the purchase of open space to preserve such land in its natural state. However, it also allows for the use of these funds for other passive recreation, conservation, farmland preservation, or historic preservation purposes if no open space is available for purchase. Any alternative use, though, would require a public hearing first.

“Yes, it says passive recreation,” confirmed Talamini, further clarifying the difference between active recreation facilities like ball fields and community-focused open spaces.

Pignatelli echoed these sentiments, reiterating that the ordinance does not permit deviation from the intended use of the funds without first exhausting all options for open space preservation and conducting a public hearing.

The final vote saw unanimous agreement among the council members, approving the ordinance and thus setting the stage for a public referendum.

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