ORLEANS – As chair of the town's recreation advisory committee, Tracy Murphy sees what the town has the potential to offer residents and visitors in terms of programming. But speaking before the select board last week, she couldn't ignore what is currently lacking.
As the summer draws to a close, Murphy said the recreation department has fallen behind in its offerings compared to neighboring towns. While Brewster, Truro and Wellfleet each offered more than 55 hours of programming during the weeks of Aug. 8 and 15, Orleans offered just 8.5 hours, she said.
What's more, Murphy said, is that the lack of advertised programming came after Alan Harrison, the town's recreation director, told the committee during its July meeting that programming would be "planned out and organized" ahead of those weeks.
Murphy said the scheduling issues are just the latest example of the lack of communication and responsiveness that has become a problem for the department. Without changes, she said the town could be at risk of falling behind on programming for next summer.
"Orleans residents deserve better from their rec department," she told the select board during the board's public comment period. "They deserve responsive, thoughtful programming that meets their needs. They deserve early and clear communication. They deserve to know that when expectations aren't met, there's accountability and a plan to do better in the future. That's not happening now, and it needs to change."
Last week marked the second time in recent months that Murphy addressed the select board with concerns about the recreation department's operations. In April, she addressed a proposal that was set to go before voters at the annual town meeting that, if approved, would have raised the fees for adult recreation programming from $15 to $30. The advisory committee had no input on the proposed increase, which Harrison had recommended to Town Administrator John Kelly for inclusion in the town meeting warrant. The fee change was ultimately dropped from the warrant.
The recreation department, which is under the direction of the town's department of public works, has been plagued by a lack of staff in recent years. An organizational study spearheaded by the Edward J. Collins, Jr. Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston is set to get underway this month to analyze the department's staffing and other needs moving forward.
"I think the committee is pretty united in wanting to see programming that is really responsive to the needs of different age groups in town, especially younger families, because there's often not a lot for families with younger kids," Murphy said when reached by phone after last week's select board meeting.
Murphy said the study could also open up other questions about how the recreation department is situated operationally, and how the committee should function in the future.
Recreation used to be guided by a regulatory commission that Murphy said disbanded more than a decade ago. In 2019, town meeting voted to create the existing recreation advisory committee, of which Murphy has been a member since the start.
But as an advisory committee, the committee can only make recommendations to the select board, who serve as the town's park commissioners. It does not have the power to vote on and enact changes on its own.
"When we're advising, where does that advice go? We advise the select board, but they're not putting together summer programming."
In an effort to better define its role, the advisory committee has opened up discussion about whether it should be reconstituted as a commission, Murphy said. But the idea was opposed by Harrison, who told the charter review committee in May 2021 that such a move would take authority away from Kelly and Tom Daley, the town's public works director. Harrison said both officials preferred that the body continue functioning as an advisory committee, and even went so far as to say it's possible the committee is not needed, according to minutes from the charter review committee's May 3, 2021 meeting.
Harrison did not return calls seeking comment for this story.
Select Board Chair Andrea Reed said Aug. 10 that the status of the advisory committee is part of the overall discussion in town regarding the direction of recreation.
"We're not there yet," she said.
The study could also shed light on whether recreation should continue to be part of the public works department, which it has been since 2009, or if it should be situated elsewhere in the town's organizational structure, Murphy said. While she said the DPW has been very supportive of recreation, there's been an evolution in thought over the years as to what recreation is and how it should be managed.
Murphy also said she hopes the study can offer insight as to how the recreation department and the advisory committee can better collaborate with other town entities, namely schools and the council on aging, to help boost programming. Other towns have advanced their recreation offerings through such collaboration, she said.
"It does look like other towns are drawing on all resources and collaborating to address their needs, and we're not seeing that yet in Orleans," she said. "Whether that's structural or philosophical or a matter of planning is what we're trying to tease out."
Meanwhile, the charter review committee is recommending that the makeup of the community preservation committee be changed to allow representation from the advisory committee. The appointed committee seat would take the place of one of the three at-large seats on the CPC currently appointed by the select board.
"We did that because with the addition of recreation as an avenue of the CPC, which has been in the last couple of years, it would be appropriate to do," Jon Fuller, who chairs the charter review committee, told the select board Aug. 10.
"This kind of cements the feeling that CPC hasn't formally had a recreation person present, even though CPC allows recreation to be funded," Reed said. "We're catching up with that new category."
Murphy said recreation has been well supported in recent years by the CPC, which supported funding for seven recreation projects in 2020. Those included a feasibility study looking at a lighted basketball court at Nauset Regional Middle School, new picnic tables and bike racks around town and the conversion of a tennis court at Eldredge Park into a pickleball court.
Fuller said Town Counsel Michael Ford has advised against the charter change because the advisory committee is an "ad hoc" body. Kevin Galligan, who serves as the park commission's representative to the CPC, added that the CPC still needs to discuss the proposal itself.
"Going from three ad hoc members to two may change some of the dynamic," he said.
But Murphy said having advisory committee representation on the CPC would only allow the town to better advocate for recreation.
"This opportunity to possibly have a seat at the table could grow not just the department, but recreational opportunities in Orleans," she said.
The Collins Center's work is expected to conclude in December, Murphy said. Based on its report, articles in support of staffing and other recreation needs could be put in place for town meeting next spring.
However, changes to things such as the recreation department's fee structure could come sooner. Murphy said the advisory committee has asked that the fee structure be changed to allow recreation staff the financial flexibility to outsource some summer programming to outside organizations. That would require town meeting approval in October, she said.
Murphy said the current struggles facing recreation in part come with the territory of a newer committee trying to find its footing. But she said she hopes the study will produce results that will allow the committee and the recreation department to be "more nimble and responsive."
"It could be really cool, and I think that's what draws people to the rec committee," she said of recreation in town. "I would love to see more energy, more vision and a path forward."
Email Ryan Bray at firstname.lastname@example.org