Liability issue could become sticking point

A District lawmaker, frustrated by periods of idleness at D.C. Public Schools properties throughout Washington, will on Tuesday introduce a plan to give the public access to those institutions' facilities for athletic use outside of school hours.

"Frequently, the fields of our public schools sit empty and unused," Ward 6 Councilman Tommy Wells, who announced a mayoral bid last month, will tell the D.C. Council on Tuesday. "A significant barrier to using these public facilities is that the District holds liability concerns for the city and government employees."

Under Wells' plan, the public would be permitted to use school grounds in exchange for agreeing not to hold the city responsible for accidents and injuries in most instances.

"The District of Columbia and District of Columbia employees are not liable for any loss or injury arising from the use of indoor or outdoor school property and facilities made available for public recreation or sport during non-school hours," the legislation says.

The proposal, however, would hold the city and its employees liable in select circumstances, including episodes of criminal conduct by workers or gross negligence.

The American Heart and Stroke Association, which helped Wells develop the proposal, said the measure could help curb obesity in the city by allowing for more recreational opportunities.

"This is a prevention strategy that has been proven to work," said Jennifer Witten, the association's senior government relations director for the District. "The legislation really addresses the policy issue."

Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for Mayor Vincent Gray, said the administration was receptive to easing the rules for use of the fields, but he said city lawyers would need to review Wells' proposal.

"Expanding access to government facilities that otherwise sit unused is always a good thing," said Ribeiro. "That said, we haven't seen the legislation. We have to review it, and because it specifically deals with issues of liability, the attorney general is going to have to take a very close look at it."

At least two lawmakers, Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Ward 5 Councilman Kenyan McDuffie, have indicated that they will join Wells in introducing the measure.