Monday, March 30, 2009 | When the city eliminated supervision at skate parks this year to save money, the parks filled with gleeful skaters who no longer had to pay $5 and be under the watchful eye of a supervisor.

Problems followed. The skate park at Robb Field at Ocean Beach was repeatedly tagged with graffiti, forcing city employees to make regular trips to clean it up. Reports surfaced of people drinking and smoking at the skate parks. Parks employees and police officers started checking in on the parks regularly.

All this was to save $282,571 a year. The move was approved in the fall to help close a $43 million midyear budget gap.

City officials say the problems have dropped off as the novelty of unattended skate parks has worn off, and some skateboarders at Robb Field recently said the mood at the park has mellowed.

However, the skateboarders are largely still going helmet-free. City officials are soon planning to make changes to the city code they hope will make the city less vulnerable to lawsuits. Opinions differ on whether the city has increased or reduced its liability by moving to unmanned parks.

In ending supervision of its skate parks, San Diego followed cities such as Chula Vista and Carlsbad, which also don’t hire employees to watch over skateboarders. Clay Bingham, a deputy director in the Parks and Recreation Department, said officials expected an initial surge in misbehavior.

The biggest problem was the graffiti at Robb Field, which Bingham said parks employees were cleaning up regularly for the first three weeks. He said it’s largely ended, thanks to a combination of peer pressure from fellow skaters who disliked having the parks closed while they were cleaned up and the fact that troublemakers probably got bored and moved on to something else.

“Over time, it no longer became the big thing and things have returned to normalcy,” Bingham said.

The biggest complaint, he said, is that kids still aren’t wearing safety gear. On some recent visits to Robb Field, few skaters were seen donning helmets.

One skater said police had been stopping by the park and kicking out the skaters without helmets. Another said senior volunteers who assist the police had been checking in regularly, though they didn’t kick out helmetless kids.

Does that mean the costs from cutting supervisors simply created expenses elsewhere? Mayoral spokeswoman Rachel Laing said the police presence doesn’t cost money, saying police just include the skate parks with their regular patrols.

“They’re in the neighborhood,” Laing said. “Part of their duty is patrolling the parks. It’s just kind of an extra step.”

Likewise, Bingham said the cost of painting over the graffiti is a “soft” one because it involves shifting around the schedules of existing employees, not hiring new ones. He estimated workers spent about 80 hours total, or the equivalent of $2,000, to rid Robb of graffiti.

Skateboarders at Robb said the unmanned parks made sense, saying they shouldn’t be treated any differently from those using unsupervised basketball courts. Some said they hadn’t noticed an increase in troublemaking.

“It’s the same, just free,” said 18-year-old Mitch, who declined to give his last name.

Of course, Mitch was helmetless and riding a BMX bike, which isn’t allowed in the park. However, even when there were supervisors, Mitch said they would sometimes let him ride his bike in the park when their bosses weren’t around.

There’s a possibility that San Diego’s skate parks will once again be supervised. A memo from the city’s chief operating officer, Jay Goldstone, said people have approached the city about offering supervised skate programs. One possibility is a nonprofit foundation that would keep the parks open for free, providing supervision and programs.

Goldstone’s memo also says the City Council will be asked to consider a raft of changes to the city code regarding skate parks.

Some of the changes are designed to allow the police to issue citations for behaviors that were formerly the responsibility of skate supervisors, such as keeping bikes and scooters out of the park. Bingham said others are meant to reduce the city’s liability, such as prohibiting children under 12 years old from using the park unless they’re supervised by an adult.

That’s due to a state law that provides governments with limited immunity from injuries suffered at public skate parks. The provision applies only if the skateboarder is doing “stunt, trick or luge skateboarding” and is at least 12 years old — hence the new age limit the city plans to put in its code.

There are also exceptions. For instance, cities can still be on the hook if public employees fail to guard or warn of a “known dangerous condition” or if the government doesn’t “properly construct or maintain in good repair” structures that led to an injury.

The conventional wisdom among many government officials is that there’s actually less liability involved in running an unmanned skate park than running a supervised one because the state law about skate park immunity only applies to unsupervised parks where cities don’t charge for admission — the situation that San Diego is in now.

Laing said talks with officials from other cities found that the city’s liability might decrease because there was less of an expectation that city employees would watch over skaters.

“Their experience was that it did not impact their liability,” she said. “It did not suddenly lead to a rash of lawsuits.”

However, that view isn’t universally accepted. Last year, an opinion issued under then-City Attorney Mike Aguirre advised city officials and council members that the city would expose itself to greater liability if it got rid of skate supervisors.

The opinion said even with the state’s legal protections, the city would “still have to rebut any allegations” that it failed to warn of a dangerous condition. Without supervisors, the opinion stated, it would be “more difficult to guard against or warn about dangerous conditions not assumed to be part of the normal skate park activity,” including violent games, extreme contests or fighting.

There’s an argument, the opinion noted, that supervision makes the city more liable if an injury is caused by negligent supervision.

“While this is a valid argument,” the opinion stated, “we believe the City is better protected from liability by operating skate parks that are as safe as possible.”

One of the few local cities that has stuck with supervised skate parks is Escondido, where the skate park is part of a sports center with arenas for soccer and roller hockey.

Recreation Supervisor Peter Ritchie said the facility staff can curb vandalism, make sure skaters are wearing helmets and prevent injuries.

“To me, the benefits of a supervised skate park outweigh the costs without it,” Ritchie said. “If an injury happens, we’ve got staff right here.”

He said the city has only been sued once in 12 years from a skating injury, and the case was dismissed. Those using the skate parks must sign waivers.

In San Diego, Bingham knew of no lawsuits filed either while the parks were supervised or when they went unmanned.

He also said there have been no injuries reported since supervision ended. In the previous two years, Bingham said there were fewer than 10 injuries reported, with no head injuries or similarly serious problems.

Craig McClellan, a local personal injury attorney, said there are valid arguments to be made on both sides: that getting rid of supervisors increases or reduces liability. But he thinks cities will run into fewer problems by retaining supervisors, though officials won’t admit that during a budget crisis.

“You sometimes start making cuts that in the long run are going to cost you more,” McClellan said.

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