Volunteer right to point out mowing issue

We can understand liability concerns that Niles officials raised over residents cutting grass on city-owned property. But what we don’t understand is why the city is raising that issue now — after three years — and even more important, why the grass isn’t being cut by the city workers paid to do it.

Resident Nick Gutierrez said he began voluntarily mowing the overgrown soccer fields on Hartzell Avenue at the old Washington School property three years ago, all so the kids could play. But only now that he recently began doing the same thing in Niles Stevens Park did he receive a letter from the city’s law department ordering him to stop because the job belongs to city workers, not volunteers.

“With regard to the City Park properties, the employees of the City of Niles are governed by a collective bargaining agreement which requires them to perform the services of the City of Niles,” Niles Law Director Terry Swauger wrote in a recent letter to Gutierrez. “A citizen cannot do the work of a union member and doing so is in violation of the union contract.”

Swauger’s letter also said the Washington School property is held to a license agreement with Niles City Schools, which requires the fields and premises to be maintained by the city and workers covered by workers’ compensation and unemployment compensation.

The letter was written at the request of Parks and Recreation Director Robert Burke because he said it is a liability issue and a job meant for union employees.

But if the union employees had been doing the job, Gutierrez wouldn’t have to.

And what if he doesn’t quit the volunteer work?

According to the letter, he’ll face “appropriate legal action.”

But here’s the thing, Gutierrez says the city’s former parks director never had a problem with it, and neither did the city employees who are supposed to cut grass. In fact, he said, they even sharpened the blades on the grass cutter for him.

“I was only cutting the soccer fields, not the parks themselves,” Gutierrez said. “The city wasn’t doing anything or mowing anything. I don’t feel I was doing someone else’s job when they weren’t doing anything.”

And if union employees really want to do union work then, Gutierrez says, the city’s union painter needs to show up more often to paint lines on the soccer fields. And Burke should also do a better job of making sure employees are staying on top of work that needs to be done at parks, he said.

Well said!

For years Gutierrez quietly accomplished what needed to be done — at no cost to the taxpayers. But now that he’s been ordered to stop, he is correct to shine a public light on the issue. Let’s hope this new attention keeps city workers mowing and sharpening the blades on the city’s lawn mowers, allowing the kids to play, so Gutierrez doesn’t have to.