By Elaine Van Develde
It’s a sign of baseball times in Fair Haven and something that officials think is a foul ball thrown onto the borough’s fields.
Officials discussed at Monday night’s Borough Council meeting what amounted to the latest microcosm in a longstanding quandary over donations to the baseball program in the borough with corporate sponsorship strings attached — most recently, a donated scoreboard that comes with a large corporate sponsorship plaque.
“We were told about it when it was en route,” Mayor Ben Lucarelli said. “Now it’s at the DPW (Department of Public Works). The kids want the scoreboard. It’s a nice donation. But it should be just that — a donation. It’s not proper to have what amounts to a commercial ad sitting on public fields. There should be no strings attached. They should be coming to us on things like this and asking our permission. I don’t vote, but, I move that we allow the sign to be erected without the sponsorship plaque.”
Council members agreed. But the agreement didn’t end without a recount of what they called an uncooperative history of Fair Haven Baseball, a separate non-profit (501c3) entity, taking corporate sponsorships and advertising on banners in the public fields without any communication with borough officials.
The fact that “Fair Haven Baseball just threw up sponsorship signs against our will is just bad behavior,” Councilman Rowland Wilhelm said. “These fields rely on borough resources to maintain.”
It’s a matter of public versus private interests, Council President Jonathan Peters said.
“It’s been a bone of contention,” the mayor said. “Back in the day, things were simple. There were no sponsorships, no separate organization, just volunteers.”
The teams organized and played ball wherever they could. Then came a non-profit baseball organization and Fair Haven Fields. The fields are maintained and improved by the borough — to the tune of about $.5 million most recently.
They are public property, by virtue of not only the fact that the fields are owned and maintained by the borough, but that they were purchased with NJ Department of Environmental Protection Green Acres funds. As such, in accordance with Green Acres parameters, they must be kept open to the public and preserved as recreational open space.
Herein lies the dilemma. Since the old days, Fair Haven has decentralized its Recreation Department. So, Fair Haven Baseball has become the separate organization that it now is — a non-profit.
Commercial sponsorship donations are garnered to support the organization via various advertising methods like the banners. A large chunk of the funds that that they do receive, officials noted, do go toward Fair Haven Fields’ maintenance.
But, there is a conflict of interest when commercial entities advertise on a public property. Yes, officials said, you see it all the time on major league baseball fields. But the ownership of those fields is a different story. There’s a corporate investment from the onset.
“In the end, the goal is to have a good season and get the kids to Cooperstown,” Lucarelli said. “These are good volunteers. But, they forget that they’re in Fair Haven and the ballfields are owned by the borough.”
And, the Fair Haven Baseball gets exclusive use of the fields. No one else can play when they are scheduled.
“At the end of the day, the scoreboard is here,” Lucarelli said.
Council voted to erect it without the sponsorship plaque.
As for the future, “Can we give them a scathing letter that says, ‘If you do this again, the answer will be no?’ ” Councilwoman Susan Sorensen, liaison to the Recreation Department said. “Enough is enough.”
The board will take about three days to install, officials estimated. When, exactly, it will be erected has not yet been determined.