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Tokay’s wonderful track — and a case of the jitters.

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Posted: Friday, June 22, 2012 11:45 am

It was time for public comments, and I took a deep breath.

As a journalist, I have reported on hundreds of public gatherings, from water boards to state legislative committees. 

This time, though, I wasn't in attendance as a journalist, but as a concerned citizen.

It was Tuesday night, the regular meeting of the Lodi Unified School District trustees.

I approached the microphone, clutching a page of sweat-stained notes.

My first-ever address to an elected public body was about to begin.

A bit of background. My wife Judy and I enjoy walking and jogging, and one of our favorite venues is the Tokay High school track. It's an all-weather track, set in a grassy area with a backdrop of mature, soaring evergreens. 

A great place for a work-out.

We aren't alone in our enjoyment of the track. Nights and weekends, it is is used by a striking cross-section of the community. Serious athletes run there. So do moms and dads strolling with their kids. Seniors take their daily walks there. Teens run the bleachers. Nearby, young men play handball on the courts.

But three weeks ago, Judy and I showed up to find the track padlocked. 

Why? We wondered.

Board member George Neely has been submitting guest columns for our editorial page. I was discussing his latest column with him earlier this week and couldn't resist asking him if he was aware the track has been closed.

He said he didn't and would check on it. He also mentioned that the board would be meeting Tuesday night.

He suggested I consider appearing.

Gulp. 

Journalists cover the news, they don't make it.

Still, this subject did not seem overtly political. Judy and I were genuinely curious about why such a unique and well-used location would be locked away.

I discussed the idea of speaking at the board meeting with my boss, publisher Marty Weybret. We weighed the pros and cons, and ultimately, he said he had no objection to my addressing the board. Sure, being both an involved citizen and an editor can mean walking a tightrope at times. 

"But being a journalist doesn't mean you give up your First Amendment rights," he said.

So I spoke to the board, with Judy sitting the the audience, offering moral support.

I talked about our affection for the track, the setting, the atmosphere. Mentioned how many people, probably several hundred each week, enjoy it. I added that the district has taken laudable steps to promoting health and reducing obesity. Offered to donate time and even money to keeping it up and open.

With all sincerity, I described the track  as a "community wellness center."

I said there were no doubt concerns about vandalism and liability, as there are with many public facilities.

"But I wonder if there can be a compromise?," I asked. "Is there a way we can limit the vandalism and liability and keep a unique resource open for the community?"

Neely said he felt a compromise was possible. Board vice-president Joe Nava, a former coach, recounted his days of presiding over an open gym where members of  the community could play and work out. President Ron Heberle, too, said he favored at least exploring whether the track could be open on a limited basis.

So the board agreed to put the item on a future agenda for discussion toward a possible compromise.

I realize the district officials who closed of the track did so because they are trying to be responsible stewards of public facilities. They are trying to maintain resources with dwindling staff.

I appreciate that. 

And I also appreciate the civility that was extended to me during my first, somewhat nerve-wracking appearance before a public body.

The staff and trustees could not have been more courteous.

But I'm hopeful that, before too long, at least to some extent, the padlocks can come off — and the Tokay wellness center reopened.

I'll keep you posted in this space.

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