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Naples Daily News (Florida)
Scott Clair Daily News Correspondent 239-435-3435

While one managing partner is not talking, the other managing partner in the Collier Officials Group hopes to put together a plan to compensate a group of unpaid officials.

After weeks abroad on business in the Middle East and Africa, Bill Walker returned to the United States during the Fourth of July weekend. The former Naples resident immediately found himself a central figure in the local high school officiating controversy where COG has failed to pay a multitude of its game officials for contests worked this past school year.

That failure could lead to the officiating group losing its Florida High School Athletic Association sanction and/or its contract with Collier County Public Schools to supply game officials for the next three years. Such an event could leave the school district, the FHSAA, and local athletic directors and coaches scrambling to cover football and volleyball seasons set to begin in the next few weeks.

"The answer is, yes, I'm trying to fix the problem," Walker said in a July 10 interview with the Daily News from his home in Arizona. "The answer is, yes, I think I have a viable solution. It's going to require the approval of all the officials. But I believe I have a viable solution.

"I don't mind putting money up. I don't mind making this thing right and being how it's supposed to be. Yes, there is a problem. I'm trying to fix the problem. It's not a real complicated issue."

Though he did not discuss the details of his plan, Walker acknowledged COG, a 3-year-old limited liability corporation which completed a three-year contract with the school district in May, owes a total of $30,700 to its game officials.

More than 30 COG officials, mostly from baseball and softball, met on June 17 to discuss the best course to getting their money, including through individual small claims court litigation. They also pondered continuing to work for the officiating group in the future.

Most of them simply want to be paid what they are owed, have reasonable changes to the local officiating arrangement made, and get back on the field of play.

"I'm not defending Bill in any way," said longtime area high school umpire Jerry Thigpen, who organized the June 17 meeting and has documentation showing he is owed $915 from COG. "He's not trying to avoid any punches. He moved away and thought he left (COG) in good hands. But now there is a problem.

"In the end, it's all about the kids and getting officials on the field in good circumstances. I don't want any hard feelings."

On July 3, the school district sent a letter to Walker, issuing a July 10 deadline to respond to the game officials' claims.

A week prior, the Florida High School Athletic Association issued a similar deadline to Randy Merrill, the other managing partner of the officiating group. It gave COG until July 15 to have a viable plan to rectify its failure to pay. That date is key. According to the Athletic Association's executive director, Dr. Roger Dearing, that is the day the FHSAA makes decisions about recertifying the 123 officiating groups throughout the state for another year.

"Randy knows that if everything isn't straightened out by July 15, they're in danger of losing their certificate with us," Dearing, who is on vacation, said in a July 3 interview. "I certainly don't like what I'm hearing."

If the athletic association withholds its certification, that could serve as a death penalty for the officiating group. The FHSAA sanction is required for an organization to have a contract with a school district to provide game officials.

Walker said he had spoken with FHSAA officials at some point, and felt good about the officiating group's standing.

"I think I'm all right there," Walker said.

On Thursday afternoon, Walker indicated he was preparing the officiating group's response to the school district's deadline. As of the close of business on Thursday, the school district's communications office said it had not received anything from Walker.

"(In late April), I was told by (the school district) that I would have until Aug. 1 to resolve the problem," Walker said. "All of a sudden, I get this letter from them dated July 3 saying I had to July 10 to fix the problem. How did it go from Aug. 1 to July 10? Not what I talked about with (them) in April. It puts me in a real hard spot."

If the officiating group were to lose its certification or its contract with the school district, what will happen in terms of officiating once prep sports begin next month?

"It's prudent to explore and consider different scenarios," district athletic director Joe Kemper said. "We've tried to do that. There's a number of possible outcomes here. Right now we're just waiting for response from Bill Walker to see where we're going with this. Until that happens, we're not sure."

In March, COG outbid two other officiating groups for the rights to provide game officials to school district athletic contests through May 2017. If the officiating group loses its sanction, or dissolves, the bidding process could be reopened.

"If we do that scenario it would be required to have a rebidding," said David Stump, the school district deputy superintendent. "(We would) put that out again. We've already discussed the timeline, and we will make it. It will be tight, but we'll make it. This is a major issue."

Walker said he hopes it doesn't come to that.

"I had one goal and one goal only - put officials out there on the fields and courts that benefit the kids of Collier County," he said. "That was my goal from the first day.

"My focus on this thing is to get the officials paid and get this thing resolved."

Reporter Adam Fisher contributed to this article.
 

July 13, 2014

 

 
 

 

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