The Pasco Police Athletic League has been in existence for more than 35 years, polishing young football players into respectable high school athletes. Recently, however, the league has come under fire from parents and teams over organizational policies, rule changes and management styles.
The Lutz Chiefs recently left the league, and the Dade City Pirates face an uncertain season without a director. Pasco PAL president Mark Gardiner, whose leadership style bred frustration among some team directors, has resigned — and it appears he won't be replaced.
"The sheriff has decided that we'll forgo the president position completely," said Pasco PAL executive director Tim Couet. "We'd like to develop a system where our directors and the Sheriff's Office have more of a direct relationship. That will allow us to support the league more properly."
With registrations already being held in some places for the 2010 season, league officials are working to mend relationships and resolve the rule changes that have sown controversy.
"We've been doing this with almost no budget and very little personnel," said sheriff's agency support division Capt. Christopher Nocco. "The directors and volunteers want to make sure that their voices are heard, and I think that's going to be the biggest change in how we do things. We haven't been utilizing the best practices, but we're going to let the directors have more say in what goes on."
Some of the controversy has centered on the "play-down" rule. Young players who were lighter for their age than the listed weight class were allowed to play in a younger age bracket, so they'd be competing against kids their own size.
But Couet said some teams abused the exception, stacking the roster with "play down" players. So the league halted the practice altogether.
The Lutz Chiefs decided to leave in part over that decision, director Lisa Penzer said.
The team was also unhappy about the elimination of flag football, she said, and wanted to move into the $3.8 million Oscar Cooler Park opening in April in Lutz, which is open only to teams in Hillsborough County leagues.
Most of all, she said, the team was unhappy about the behavior of some league leaders.
"Threatening people over the way they want things done is one of the things that drove us away," Penzer said. "They told us the Pasco sheriff didn't want us in their league and they made it seem like they were doing us a favor by allowing us to be in that league. I started on the board in Lutz seven years ago, and back then we were talking about leaving the league because of how poorly and unprofessionally it was run."
Many of the complaints centered on Gardiner, the league president who resigned recently after a job took him overseas. He could not be reached for comment on this story.
"You'd go to a meeting and vote on something, and three days later we'd get an e-mail saying that the president had changed his mind and that was that," Penzer said.
With Gardiner, she added, "It was always, 'I talk and you listen.' "
The Chiefs' departure leaves PAL with nine teams, but the league is in danger of losing more. Earl Fadling, the director of the Dade City Pirates, has resigned for personal reasons, and although registration is only a week away, no one has replaced him.
If the team can't get a replacement, the Dade City players will have to move to teams from Zephyrhills or Wesley Chapel.
But the Sheriff's Office is confident it can get a new Dade City director in place for the season, and that the issues straining the league will be addressed without any other teams leaving.
The play-down rule, for instance, is still up for debate. Team directors will meet with Couet and the executive board on Monday to seek a resolution. Couet hopes to adopt a more workable version of the rule.
"We've seen the success of the play-down rule in other leagues such as Pop Warner, and I think that ultimately we're going to head in a similar direction to what other leagues have done," Couet said. "I want for us to reach the best decision for the PAL and have it be something consistent so that we're not changing it all the time."
Carrie King has taken over as director of the Trinity Mustangs organization, which saw its directors leave to start a Tampa Bay Youth Football team. King is confident the upcoming board meeting will yield some positive things.
"We're going to vote on things like the play-down rule, and I'd say that there is a very strong chance that some things will change," King said. "With some of the changes that are going on, there are a lot of people that are very happy with the direction of the league."
Times correspondent David Rice can be reached at [email protected]