Tillsonburg hopes to resolve soccer dispute

Members of Tillsonburg FC play six-versus-six small-field soccer at Gyulveszi Park on Friday, August 7. (Chris Abbott/Norfolk and Tillsonburg News) jpg, TN

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Can the rift that has developed between Tillsonburg FC and Tillsonburg Minor Soccer Club be repaired?

Members of Tillsonburg Town Council, who received a delegation from Tillsonburg FC at Monday’s Council meeting, certainly hope so.

After an 18-minute presentation from John Twinem, Tillsonburg FC technical director and spokesperson, and 45 minutes of questions, discussion and comments, Council voted to create a liaison working group between the two clubs, utilizing two Town representatives as resources.

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“I will attempt to take you through the key matters,” said Twinem. “There is a lot so I can only hit the highlights.”

Twinem noted that youth soccer is no longer a united entity in Tillsonburg.

“(In 2018) Tillsonburg Minor Soccer Club, who were designed to represent all of the town’s soccer youth, voted to function as an unsanctioned entity outside of Ontario Soccer governance. This was done to avoid the $10 cost that Ontario Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association requires for registration and insurance. Those on the board also claimed that Ontario Soccer’s long term athletic development plan would cause barriers to the house league.”

That led to TMSC not being sanctioned, said Twinem, and removing the competitive wing from the club; and taking full control of the fields and the existing bank account (Twinem reported it was $145,000 in 2018).

Tension grew in recent weeks when Tillsonburg FC expressed interest in using the Soccer Park fields – when the Ministry of Health gave it the green light – that TMSC had closed after cancelling its 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Unfortunately we are viewed as subletting tenants with no partnership input. This is why it is hard for us to continue in such a relationship. And you (Council) can change that.”

After consulting Mike Papaioannou, fundraising chair for the Soccer Park that opened in 2000, Twinem said the original Town-TMSC agreement is not being upheld.

“The status quo is not fair or acceptable,” said Twinem, who on behalf of Tillsonburg FC offered Council four potential ‘solutions.’

First, merge the two soccer boards – with fair representation – and affiliate with Ontario Soccer.

“This would be in keeping with the spirit and the intent of the original agreement. This is probably the ideal solution – that we work together.”

Second, split the Soccer Park facilities in half.

Third, give Tillsonburg FC its own partnership with the Town.

The fourth, said Twinem, form an ad hoc committee with two representatives from each partner, as well as the Town of Tillsonburg, to oversee the park.

Tillsonburg FC had two short term ‘asks’ – give them access to the fields for the remainder of the summer/fall, with Tillsonburg FC doing maintenance; and a staff report from the Director of Recreation, Culture and Parks to assess the best options for all parties involved.

“We would like a new agreement that returns to the spirit and intent of the original agreement. We are asking that both youth clubs be treated equally so that all youth in the town can have equal opportunity and shared access to the (property) that the Town has provided for youth soccer,” said Twinem.

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“Is there a contract between Tillsonburg FC and Tillsonburg Minor Soccer?” asked Councillor Chris Parker. “If so, you’re asking for the Town to step in and break that contract, which I don’t think the Town has the ability to do.”

Twinem responded saying the contract was formed “under duress.”

“What they said to us was ‘you must sign this contract or you will have no field space at all for the players to use in the upcoming season.’”

“What happened at the Soccer Park on July 31st and Monday, August 3rd?” Parker asked.

Twinem said Tillsonburg FC used a method that has been utilized in the past (“sometimes by instruction from TMSC board members when they were not available to actually move the gate”), lifting the entrance gate to gain access.

“I would say that probably it was not the wisest choice, considering the fact that there is tension between the two groups…” said Twinem.

“I am disappointed that… this situation has unfolded between the two clubs,” said Parker. “I’ve worked hard over the last couple of weeks to try and get both groups to work together. I want to remind both groups that you used to be under the same umbrella. I understand that political red tape has kind of made that difficult for you in the past, or in the short term, but in the long run politics and money is now starting to affect the children of Tillsonburg and the surrounding area. I want to remind both groups that in the long run this facility is meant for the enjoyment of the youth in our community, where kids can be kids, learn teamwork and grow friendships that will last a lifetime. And right now, that’s not being done.”

“I agree with you,” said Twinem, “and I would love to see the two groups under the same banner. And I would love to see the two groups making a prime emphasis on getting the kids on the field.”

Deputy Mayor Dave Beres asked for clarification on the Town-TMSC contract, which Mayor Stephen Molnar stated the Town does own the soccer park land, was a 3rd party guarantee with the bank, does snow removal, and that TMSC owns the building and other assets, does field maintenance, and that TMSC has priority use (not exclusive use, Molnar added).

Councillor Deb Gilvesy asked Twinem why, if the club signed its contract with TMSC ‘under duress,’ is it coming to the forefront now?

“And did you seek a solicitor’s advice in that regard?” Gilvesy asked.

“The contract gets increasingly more onerous to deal with as time goes on,” said Twinem, noting they did not seek a solicitor’s advice when it was signed.

“This came to a head, really, because they determined that there would be no access to fields when Ontario Soccer and the Ministry of Health have provided us with a Return to Play plan.”

Gilvesy, thanking Councillor Parker for his efforts, also expressed disappointment the issue could not be worked out and had to come before Council.

“I do believe this is an internal problem, not necessarily one that needs to be in front of Council or in front of the public, and hope moving forward it can be rectified,” said Gilvesy, “because the bottom line is this is about kids. It’s not about adults, it’s not about what’s happened in the past. It is about kids and the kids are the ones that are missing out and it’s an unfortunate situation.”

Molnar noted he was asked by Parker to meet informally with representatives of Tillsonburg FC on Sunday, July 26, and that they had committed to a similar meeting with representatives of TMSC. But before that could happen, he learned of the July 31st incident at the Soccer Park.

“That hurt more than the advancement of a common cause here,” said Molnar. “That made me think, why was I in someone’s backyard on a Sunday afternoon trying to work with Councillor Parker to facilitate things? I don’t want that to be misconstrued, because we are at ground zero. You’ll get 100% of my efforts like everyone else in this community does… but I would be absolutely less than transparent not to share… how disappointed I was within days of extending that olive branch.”

Focusing on the positives, Molnar said “I think everyone has the same thing at heart.”

Molnar also asked, given words like ‘under duress,’ ‘disowned,’ ‘pushed out,’ and ‘ousted’ were used in Twinem’s presentation, why Council was not approached in 2018-19.

“What precipitated this tonight? I was not aware up until two weeks ago that there were operating issues. Where were we when the words duress, pushed out and ousted were being used?”

Mark Locker, Tillsonburg FC president, said a chain or lock was not cut on the 31st, that the park gate was lifted/removed.

“And we put it back on that day,” said Locker.

“That there was probably not our brightest moment, I agree with you 100%,” Locker added.

“To your question about duress, when we were kicked out, on that point, it was supposed to be amicable, where we were going to work together. So we would try, from the beginning, we would try to get along and try to have both clubs work together. But they didn’t give us options at the beginning, and our board’s decision at that point in time was to… ‘try it this way and see where this goes.’ They did give us a little bit of breaks here and there on some of the field rentals.

“We also had the option in following years to fundraise more. But it got more and more where we were paying three-four times more than everybody else – and we didn’t use the fields that much more than everybody else. Then it got to the point where they wouldn’t even get back to us.”

Locker noted the club’s obligations in December/January to order jerseys and learn field arrangements, and said they did not receive necessary information in a timely matter.

“Then they came back to us, before we got ahold of you, about how they wanted us to delay one more year back, to help us. That’s not helping us because… they’re telling us exactly how to run our club.”

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Councillor Parker introduced a resolution that Council support the creation of a liaison working group between TMSC and Tillsonburg FC, with each group having two representatives, and utilize Councillor Parker and the Interim Director of Recreation, Parks and Culture, Chris Baird, as resources. And that the working group report their progress to Council by the end of October 2020.

Beres noted the Town, since the Park was created, has never had anything to do with soccer programs or partnerships.

“This was something that was very clear in the original agreement – that they were looking after all of their own priority use.”

“Where does it stop?” Beres asked. “I believe what we should be looking at here is a memorandum of understanding. I feel our that our agreement with Minor Soccer is ‘stay out of what’s going on there’ because they have never involved us before. If we pass this resolution tonight, as printed, that we do send two people to help – and I believe they need help, trust me, I do believe that… That’s not the point, it’s for the youth of tomorrow and it’s for the ongoing use of the Soccer Club. I believe this has to be resolved but I don’t believe it’s up to Town of Tillsonburg representatives to do it because, again, where does it stop? We’re setting a very dangerous precedent… If it was under Parks, Recreation and Culture, then by all means, but no, I can’t support the resolution as printed. Sorry.”

Councillor Penny Esseltine, supporting the resolution, noted that both groups have indicated it’s not a good situation.

“When the Town invested in the Soccer Park,” said Esseltine, “after much work had been done by a group with a vision… it was never, I don’t think, the Town’s vision to think that we would be working with two opposing groups over one facility.”

Esseltine said Tillsonburg FC’s first ‘potential solution’ was the one they should be aiming for – merging the boards into one with fair representation; that the second suggestion, splitting the park, would be “absolutely out of the question;” the third suggestion, identifying Tillsonburg FC as a partner with the Town, does not resolve the situation; and the request to put together an ad hoc committee “is the right thing to do.”

“I think if it’s a necessary thing for them (Tillsonburg FC) to come before Council… I think it’s a necessary for us to be involved.”

“This is the opportunity to get the two soccer groups to work together,” said Parker, “because they were one group. They need to work together, that’s the only way for your house league development and your rep program to work. If you don’t have the two groups working together, you’re rep program is gone.”

“I don’t think that sitting in open Council… is going to solve anything here,” said Councillor Pete Luciani. “We’ve had Councillor Parker trying to insert himself, trying to get something resolved up to this point. We are a stakeholder, we are owners of the land. I don’t think that it would be untoward for us to be a part of it, basically as a resource to try to get the two groups to work together. And I agree wholeheartedly with Councillor Parker, they do need to work together.

“I think it’s important going forward that… there is two sides to every story,” said Luciani. “Somewhere in the middle, somebody’s got to meet and somebody’s got to come to some type of agreement in order to make this thing (move) forward. I think having a little bit of input from the Town… would definitely help.”

“This will only work if responsible adults work together,” said Molnar, “for what they have both indicated is for the benefit of the youth. And that’s all the youth. That’s in the mandate of TMSC, it’s in the update in the mandate, and on the website from Tillsonburg Football Club. Starting with any level of commonality should be starting with youth.”

“I am not opposed to bringing this together, this is for the youth and I’m certainly not taking sides,” said Beres. “I’m just worried about Council walking a slippery slope here of getting involved when we have an agreement with Minor Soccer that we stay out of it. So with that I will be introducing a Notice of Motion later in the evening that we do get together for a memorandum of understanding, after this issue is resolved, so this won’t happen another time.”

Parker’s resolution to form a liaison working group with the two soccer groups passed, with Beres’ vote being the only opposition.

cabbott@postmedia.com

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