OAKHURST – For 15 months in 2012-2013, Flint Tompkins and other volunteers operating as Friends of the Park (FOTP) set up shop regularly at the entrance to Oakhurst Community Park, welcoming visitors and helping to create a safe, friendly atmosphere.
When FOTP announced last summer they would no longer staff the park due to growing concerns over safety, community members began brainstorming solutions to the common problems of repeated rule and regulation violations. Now, with new rules in place, Tompkins has said FOTP will return to their park post beginning Monday, Mar. 2 at 9:30 a.m. Two FOTP volunteers will be in place every weekday morning until 2 p.m.
Additional security volunteers will be present during the same times. Tompkins has turned the safety plan over to Coarsegold resident and candidate for Madera County Sheriff, Dennis Fairbanks.
While Fairbanks is organizing groups to monitor safety, Tompkins is advising and is really excited to get back in the park. He looks forward to seeing some old “regulars,” like Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) and Mountain Home School students who come to with their teacher for Phys Ed.
“Mainly we’re just there to meet and greet,” Tompkins explains of FOTP efforts. “When we did it before, the response was incredible. I felt a real vacuum in my heart not being there the last four or five months, because it was such an exciting, uplifting activity to be a part of.”
Primary organizer of the faith-based group, Tompkins, says FOTP is a community activity and encourages anyone who is able to take part in the service to do so, saying systems should be up running smoothly soon, better than before.
“We were in a difficult position previously, in that we had a dual role last time. That role was to meet and greet and love and welcome. And the other role was security. They didn’t go well together. Now I’m just thrilled that we are able to divide these two roles.”
Security is at the crux of the park’s issues. Part of the FOTP’s willingness to return is due to tangible efforts of other volunteers who’ve recently drafted fresh park rules designed to foster a strong new security program.
“There’s a committee now, that’s in charge of the park, and they sat down and wrote some rules to address the issues with chronic offenders. Those new rules are now posted. We are saying to the volunteers and people who love the park: come on back.”
Oakhurst mortgage broker Andrew Pence is chair of the Park Committee. The revised regulations are said to have most impact on repeat rule-breakers, enabling authorities to keep people out of the park if they continually violate, to the point where law enforcement becomes involved.
While many are enthusiastic about proactive safety changes to the park, others are simultaneously concerned that these actions may unfairly target individuals who are homeless by necessity.
Tompkins says he’s aware of the distinction between people who are homeless but not necessarily disruptive, and people who are committing serious crimes. He believes some individuals who live in and around the park actually benefited from the presence of FOTP.
“When somebody busts up their camp or steals their stuff, they don’t go to the law,” Tompkins adds, talking about some homeless people. “They lead the lives of victims every day, because they don’t have access to many of the services that we do. So the fact that the park is safer and happier and healthier means a lot of them can kick back and be safe and happy.”
The return rate of FOTP volunteers is a testament to the programs, he continues. “I had eight volunteers that staff the park weekly and everybody is ready to come back. We’re off to a good start with volunteers and we can use more.”
Now, it’s up to Dennis Fairbanks to coordinate volunteers on the security end of the program. He wants to move forward with park plans immediately.
“I’m running for Sheriff and I don’t want to wait for the election to do something, because spring and summer is coming and we need our park,” says Fairbanks. “Our volunteer security team will work in concert with FOTP Monday through Friday. There will be two friends every day and at least one security.”
Security volunteers will have training and the program will run similarly to others that involve citizens helping to enforce the law.
“What these volunteers in the security department will do is basically walk the park and make sure people are obeying the rules. If people are not obeying the rules, they’ll say, ‘hey you can’t do that,’ or they will call the Sheriff who will hopefully respond and handle the incident to its conclusion.”
Fairbanks is aware of the value placed on FOTP members’ service and hopes this program can act as a pilot for similar safety patrols which he says he will work to put in place around the county, should he win the election.
“People felt safe to use the park and be in the park when the Friends of the Park were there. I talked to an elderly lady recently who likes to walk her dog in the park. She says she walked over the bridge to the park the other day, was frightened by what she saw, and turned away. That is totally unacceptable.”
With over 30 years experience in law enforcement, the retired officer has spoken to men’s groups, veterans, individuals and churches, opening the door to potential helpers.
“We look to anybody who would like to volunteer their service one or two days a month, or whatever they want. We just want a pool of volunteers. We have enough right now to get the program started, and we will have a meeting to set up policies and procedures. Ideally the Sheriff’s department will be present so they can guide us through what to do, when to call them and when not to. Hopefully this will correct the problem we’ve experienced in the park the last few months.”
He says it’s not their mission to “kick anyone out of the park,” and that “everyone has equal rights” under the law. No town is immune anymore to the problems of housing, homelessness, poverty, drugs and crime.
“It is a social issue,” Fairbanks says. “It’s an issue that every community has to deal with and it’s tough. In the meantime, it’s a law enforcement issue. When it comes to problems with security, safety, and health, then I say we take a zero tolerance approach to that. At the same time, people have constitutional rights, and we have to be very careful that we don’t violate those rights.”
Insofar as visitors to the park, Fairbanks’ request is simple.
“Follow the rules. That’s all. Make it comfortable for everybody. Stop the filthy language. Stop the drinking. The purpose is to get back in the park to make it friendly and safe for everybody.”
In order for that to happen, more people in the community need to step up to help out, he says.
“We want volunteers. This is a community park and the community needs to be involved.” Those interested in working with FOTP can call Flint Tompkins at (559) 760-0167 or visit the FOTP Facebook page. Anyone who wants to be part of the new park security team can call Dennis Fairbanks at (559) 642-7263.