Joplin council narrowly advances park ranger jobs

Oct. 18—Some members of the Joplin City Council expressed concerns Monday night about authorizing the hiring of unarmed park rangers, which resulted in a split vote to go forward.

City administrators proposed a measure that created two park ranger positions as discussed with voters as one of the purposes of use tax funding. The measure also authorized a job description for the positions and placement in the city's salary plan.

The positions were proposed by city administrators in response to comments made to the city manager's listening tour that they did not always feel safe in city parks. In response to comments and surveys that were produced, the council adopted six goals to address numerous concerns. City staff then compiled a set of action plans for those goals. One of the goals is to reduce crime and improve public safety.

The parks director, Paul Bloomberg, researched those positions in other cities, and he worked with police Chief Sloan Rowland to create a job description and work plan for the positions, said the city finance director, Leslie Haase, at Monday night's council meeting.

The job description lists 19 duties, including patrolling parks to prevent and discover vandalism, unruly conduct and other violations of municipal ordinances; calling police if arrest or detention is needed; locking gates and restrooms at closing time; and sweeping pavilion floors.

During discussion of the proposal, council member Kate Spencer said she thinks the aim of the park ranger is a bit convoluted by the various duties listed.

"It's a vast array of a lot of different assignments," and it "convolutes what the position is for," she said. She also thinks it could cause more work for police. But more than that, she said, she feels it jeopardizes the safety of the rangers to have them ask people to leave the grounds if they have stayed beyond posted hours or are involved in activities that aren't permitted.

She said there would be only a short training period for the posts and that they would carry only pepper spray for self-defense.

"God forbid if anything happened with this," she said. "I think it's a dangerous situation to put them in."

City Manager Nick Edwards said he knows the council wants to talk about issues and be included in these issues.

"I'll say on the job description it's common practice to have a variety of job duties" for all city positions, he said. "In regards to the safety of park rangers, I think it is something everyone shares. It's going to have to be a very planned process on how the park rangers and police officers interact."

There are other communities that have park rangers, and in many of those, they serve as a kind of a security guard to find issues and report them to police, he said.

The jobs are primarily considered as ambassadors to those who use the parks as intended, he said.

The police chief said there is a concern about the security of it. "I think it needs to be made clear the police department is not going to back off" the enforcement side of the work, especially in parks where there are people there late in the evening or after hours, he said.

"The program is modeled after ranger programs in other cities, and that's why it was geared more to an ambassador's position rather than an enforcement position. We really don't want them to make confrontations if they see somebody drinking in the park or need to ask someone to leave," the chief said.

Councilman Phil Stinnett said he shared some of the concerns expressed by Spencer.

Rather than ambassadors, "I really think the perception in the community is that we were going to be beefing up security in the park," Stinnett said. He also disagreed with assigning the rangers to maintenance duties. He said he would rather hire more maintenance workers instead.

There was a suggestion that the ranger positions should be fully trained police officers assigned to the police department rather than the parks department.

The police chief said that meant that the department would pull them away from parks duties in emergencies or when more police staffing is needed.

Councilman Gary Shaw said he was initially in favor of the rangers being police officers but yielded to the chief's expertise on the subject.

"We did talk about the rangers being security and to make people feel more comfortable," he said. "As far as ambassador things, I see our police as ambassadors. My feeling was we were doing this to make our parks more secure so people weren't stealing and vandalizing our bathrooms," but he added that he could support adding the positions as proposed.

Mayor Pro Tem Keenan Cortez said the council could reserve the right to reconsider how the positions are handled if the assigned duties do not work as intended.

Councilman Mark Farnham said he did not see a difference in the role of the rangers as ambassadors whether armed or unarmed. He said he has been impressed with the sworn officers acting as ambassadors of the city.

Stinnett is willing to support the term ambassadors without being armed but would not vote for it if it requires them to do maintenance work.

Mayor Doug Lawson said he prefers they do not carry weapons because that could cause issues.

The city manager said some duties fall as operational items and asked the council for flexibility.

"I can assure you the ambassadors won't get bogged down with maintenance work," Edwards said.

Councilman Josh DeTar made a motion to approve the job descriptions and placing them in the salary plan so that the rangers can be hired after the city's new budget year goes into effect Nov. 1. That was seconded by Cortez. There were five votes in favor and three against with Stinnett, Spencer and Farnham voting "no." One council member, Chuck Copple, was absent, so the vote was 5-3-1.

Assistant City Attorney Jordan Paul said the motion did not carry a large enough majority of at least six affirmative votes to pass as proposed as an emergency measure. However, five votes were enough to carry it on first reading; there will have to be a second reading at the next meeting for it to go into effect.