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How can you boot a kids’ running club from practicing in a public park?

Members of the Northridge Pacers cross-country club warm up for a run at O'Melveny Park; in September, a city employee ordered the team to stop practicing in the park.

Members of the Northridge Pacers cross-country club warm up for a run at O’Melveny Park; in September, a city employee ordered the team to stop practicing in the park.

(Steve Lopez / Los Angeles Times)

In Granada Hills, there lies a rather scenic plot of land known as O’Melveny Park.

With 672 acres of rolling, rocky hills and mature vegetation, it is the second-largest park in Los Angeles after Griffith Park. The L.A. Recreation and Parks Department website notes O’Melveny’s main features: picnic tables, hiking trails and a jogging path.

There’s just one problem.

In a city with limited park space, and one of the highest childhood obesity rates in the nation, the recreation department has a message for the kids of the San Fernando Valley.

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Don’t run in O’Melveny Park.

It makes no sense, right? Of course not, but the Northridge Pacers, a nonprofit running club for children 5 to 14, has found that it’s not so easy to fight City Hall.

“It’s a giant park with jogging trails in it, and it’s not used very much,” said Jennifer Graves, director of the Pacers and one of the cross-country team’s several volunteer coaches. “We’re out there running, and there are other people hiking, jogging or walking their dogs. It’s not like we’re fighting for space.”

And it’s not as if they just showed up yesterday. The Pacers have used O’Melveny Park for 20 to 30 years, possibly longer. The season runs from August through October, and the program draws a few dozen Valley youngsters who work out for 90 minutes, twice a week, with adult supervision.

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There’s always one competitive meet per season too, and Graves said the Pacers pay for a permit to use the park on that day.

But trouble began in September when a Recreation and Parks employee, who lives in a city-owned house in O’Melveny Park, came upon the team and issued a warning.

“We were leaving the park at the end of practice,” Graves said, “and Jim Newsom drove up in a truck and said, ‘You can’t be here. You can’t practice here.’”

Graves said Newsom, a management analyst for the department, gave her the name of a colleague to call for an explanation, but she got no answer from him despite repeated attempts. So she went to the Granada Hills Recreation Center, where she was informed by another employee that the Pacers were going to be “banned from the park.”

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Try though she did, Graves couldn’t get a satisfactory explanation for why the Pacers were getting the boot from O’Melveny, other than vague references to the park being designated for passive rather than active events like organized sports. So she reached out to the staffs of Mayor Eric Garcetti and Councilman Mitch Englander, both of which looked into the matter, but neither produced the result Graves was hoping for.

She was informed by Englander’s staff that a deal had been worked out in which the Pacers could continue to practice at O’Melveny this season, but they’d have to start paying $25 an hour.

And they weren’t kidding.

The Pacers, who operate on a tight budget, have since shelled out $412.50. But those parents pay taxes to support the parks, and they don’t understand why they were forced to pay a fee on top of them.

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Englander’s office sent me a so-called statement from the councilman that was a foul gruel of indigestible bureaucratese — “the safety of our residents, while practicing, competing, or simply enjoying their public park is our number one priority.” Blah, blah, blah, and wake me up when you have something to say.

So what’s really behind the organized crackdown on exercising children?

Runners from L.A. Unified and other schools occasionally use O’Melveny Park, as do nonprofit clubs, and apparently some neighbors have complained of traffic, parking and litter issues. The Granada Hills Neighborhood Council was scheduled to meet Tuesday night and take up the matter of whether to allow athletic events in the park.

Ralph Kroy, a council member, told me O’Melveny should operate as a nature park, with no organized athletic events. But council member Michael Chibidakis said he can’t fathom how “anyone in their right mind” would tell kids they can’t run in a park.

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As a result of my queries, Recreation and Parks official Charles Singer called Graves on Tuesday and told her she should have reached out to him initially. She told him she tried anybody and everybody in the department, but couldn’t get anywhere.

Singer was sympathetic, saying the $25 fee won’t be charged again. In my opinion, he should give the Pacers back their $412.50. Although Singer agreed to let the Pacers continue practicing at O’Melveny, the issue is moot for now because the cross-country season has ended.

As for next year, Singer said the department will take a look at whether O’Melveny can host practices and meets or whether Hansen Dam or another site would be better. Department spokeswoman Rose Watson told me an engineer might have to look at O’Melveny’s trails, for safety reasons, before a decision is made.

People have been running up there for decades, and now they need an engineer to have a look? How about if instead of an engineer we send the mayor, the district councilman and the parks chief up there to run the course with the Pacers — if they can keep up — and try to make a decision on the spot?

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Look, it’s perfectly reasonable for the city to require permits for groups that want to reserve specific park locations for organized sporting events. But please, there’s no need to harass kids involved in a safe, supervised, healthy activity.

When I visited O’Melveny last week, two Christian schools were finishing up a cross-country meet when Newsom, the parks employee who lives at the park, pulled up in his truck. A parent, John Hawkins, asked Newsom to hold back because the runners were about to come through. He says Newsom told him they were blocking a fire road.

“What I see is an attitude from a public servant, especially when their job is to make things like this happen,” Hawkins angrily told Newsom after the race ended.

His primary job, Newsom responded, was safety.

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Well, yeah, but there was no fire in the park, and if there had been, I’m guessing people would have gotten out of the way.

Newsom, by the way, insisted that the Pacers never worked out at O’Melveny until recently, and that they were killing the grass. He pointed to a dry patch which — wild guess on my part — might have had more to do with the drought. I told him he had it wrong; the Pacers had been working out at O’Melveny for decades. He insisted otherwise.

So I wondered how a guy like him managed to get the keys to a city-owned house.

You have to apply, he told me.

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And how much does he pay?

He pays a “reduced rate,” Newsom said, which is a nice deal if you can get it. I’m waiting for answers from the recreation department as to how much he pays and how many other such deals there are in the city.

On a brighter note, I got to see the Pacers work out, and some of those kids can really fly. I asked one of them, 13-year-old Jeremy Vargas, what he thought about possibly being evicted, and he had more wisdom than most of the adults I talked to.

“It’s not right to not let kids run in a public park,” Vargas said.

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Amen, young man.

steve.lopez@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATstevelopez

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