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Friday, November 12, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Adults' bitter squabbles foil youth-soccer association

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

At the height of a vitriolic internal dispute, a prominent Eastside soccer association paid off-duty sheriff's deputies to provide armed protection at board meetings.

At one point, a trustee's divorce records were anonymously posted on the Internet. A soccer dad submitted photos of a suspended coach attending a practice to statewide soccer authorities. Some board members sued for control.

After months of bitter infighting that pitted passionate volunteers against one another, a statewide soccer organization on Wednesday expelled the Lake Washington Youth Soccer Association effective Dec. 7, leaving the future of 6,500 young players, ages 6 to 18, from Kirkland, Redmond and Sammamish in limbo.

Whether the Lake Washington group, which holds a county contract to operate 16 soccer fields, can figure some way to continue organizing games without the statewide affiliation is uncertain. Volunteers have set up a new, rival soccer group and hope to pick up the pieces.

The Washington State Youth Soccer Association sought yesterday to assure parents that "every one of our members will continue to play on their teams as we replace the previous association with a new one."

Leaders of the new group hope to be up and running in time for spring training, although many details — such as what fields they will use — are still to be figured out.

Lake Washington leaders said they are still analyzing the expulsion and their next move.

U.S. Soccer Federation officials offered little hope for the beleaguered local group. Yesterday, they upheld suspensions of the organization's officials.

Few could have predicted such an outcome for an organization that grew from humble roots into an enterprise with a $2.3 million budget that produces some of the most competitive teams in the state.

Unlike most youth soccer associations, which focus almost entirely on organizing games, Lake Washington tried for 20 years to become something bigger. It signed deals to develop county-owned fields, invested in land, operated bingo games and planned an ambitious soccer complex. Administrators were paid well to do work once done by volunteers.

But some investments and dreams soured, and finances stretched thin. The association now has $1 million in debt. Soccer fees paid by families rose to double those of neighboring organizations.

The old guard tried to push forward with more entrepreneurial ventures, but dissenters argued it was time to cut the losses and return to a simple mission: organizing games for kids.

In March, divisions spread from the boardroom to the fields when leaders banned the 15-year-old son of a dogged critic of the Lake Washington group's board from playing. The teen was eventually reinstated, but the ensuing turmoil sparked an open revolt by the organization's top volunteers. In trying to quell the uprising, Lake Washington leaders brought "ridicule and derision" on all youth soccer, the state association concluded this week.

Taking the field

In the late 1960s, Dorothy Dutton and her late husband, Bert — transplants from soccer-mad England — wanted to teach soccer skills and life lessons to youngsters. They knew that engaging volunteers would be key to the success of their fledgling club, and insisted that soccer dads help out: by mowing meadows into soccer fields, marking boundaries with bags full of chalk dust and learning the rules well enough to coach or referee.

Officially incorporated in 1971, the organization grew rapidly. The Duttons dropped out after about eight years, in part because they worried that leaders were becoming too ambitious.

"It took the fun out of it. But I'm old-fashioned, I guess," said Dutton, 85.

The dream of creating a soccer empire really took root in 1984 when Lake Washington leaders — keenly aware of the squeeze on Eastside open space — developed Sixty Acres Park near Redmond under a lease with the county. Those 16 turf fields have been the association's crown jewel.

Then came the idea to spur growth through bingo. An association poll of soccer parents in the late 1980s found almost two-thirds supported the idea of starting a bingo operation to raise money, despite some concern about linking youth sports and gambling. When hundreds of people began cramming the smoky Kenmore bingo hall after its 1989 launch, it fueled even bigger ambitions. At its 1994 peak, bingo brought in $721,000 after costs. Over a decade, it brought in $3.2 million.

Flush with money, the association discounted player fees, created new staff jobs and bought more equipment. It also started donating thousands of dollars to local causes, including food banks and the Redmond police guild.

In 1994, the organization put a down payment on the 112-acre Muller Farm in Redmond. Many in the organization said they thought it was a steal at $675,000 and a great place for dozens of new soccer fields. Land-use restrictions prevented the land from being used for anything but farming, but that was an obstacle Lake Washington leaders figured they could overcome. They were wrong; the restrictions remain in place.

Gambles stop paying off

It turned out the prosperous times were short-lived. With a relaxation of gaming restrictions in the mid-1990s, bingo players instead began turning to the state Lottery, cardrooms and tribal casino slot machines.

Amid this upheaval, two longtime volunteers took powerful positions they have held since: Former businessman Robert Young became executive director in 1996 and soccer dad Steve Webert became board secretary/treasurer about a year later.

By the late 1990s, the association's bingo hall was in the red.

In 2000, the state Gambling Commission suspended Lake Washington's bingo license after declaring the nonprofit had tried to hide the extent of its losses through improper bookkeeping.

Stuck with a multiyear lease for the bingo hall, in 2001 the association tried to parlay the business into a cardroom or mini-casino. The deal fell apart when Kenmore residents objected to increased gambling and the City Council extended a gambling moratorium.

Lake Washington had spent most of the gambling money and was left with a $900,000 bill to buy out the lease and walk away.

The Lake Washington board pledged not to use player fees to prop up its business ventures, although that increased pressure to come up with new ways to repay its debts, and player fees kept going up anyway because of high administrative and operating costs.

In 2002, Young began negotiating with King County for the association to build a soccer complex with seven new lighted artificial-turf fields and bleachers at Marymoor Park near Redmond. The estimated cost was $10 million — money the organization would need to raise or borrow.

Last year, knowing the organization was looking for ways to raise money, board member Jay Caldwell told others that his employer, Arena Sports, wanted to sell three indoor soccer arenas in Seattle and Redmond.

Caldwell manages the company's arenas. Another board member, Fred Diggs, works for Caldwell managing the Redmond arena. Both Caldwell and Diggs — who have since resigned from the board — stayed at arm's length by recusing themselves from meetings related to the deal. Board treasurer Webert led negotiations.

The association eventually struck a deal, paying a $300,000 deposit.

Around the same time, Jim Harnasch, then-president of the elite Crossfire soccer club, one of seven clubs that make up the Lake Washington association, was questioning finances in a tough manner that offended some staffers.

By March, Harnasch was becoming increasingly persistent in his questions about the salaries and benefits paid to Lake Washington's top two administrators: $93,600 to Young in 2003 and $86,000 that year to administrative director Catherine Oles, who recently quit. Administrator Valorie Ramaley later told state soccer authorities that she once found Harnasch so angry on the phone that she couldn't settle back to work easily and stopped taking calls that day.

Harnasch also questioned player fees: between $149 and $181 for recreational players for the two-month fall season — about double the $81 average fee at 28 surrounding clubs.

Board members said they tried to limit Harnasch's involvement. When that didn't work, they banned Harnasch's son Julian, then 15, from playing with his Crossfire team. Young now says he regrets punishing the child for the father's actions.

The Washington State Youth Soccer Association, which oversees 39 associations throughout the state, ordered Lake Washington to reinstate Julian Harnasch to his team by 4 p.m. Aug. 31.

Two hours before the deadline, a courier delivered reinstatement paperwork from Lake Washington to the state association. But state leaders said the local group sent in the wrong contract. Dick Mohrmann, who chairs the state association, said it appeared to be the latest in a string of bad-faith moves by Lake Washington against the Harnasch family. Lake Washington leaders said it was a paperwork misunderstanding.

On Sept. 2, the state organization took the unprecedented action of suspending all seven Lake Washington board members for one year from soccer activities for their "arbitrary and capricious" actions against the teen. Young, a nonvoting board member, also was suspended.

Union Hill club president Joel Hussey quickly met with presidents from the six other clubs to figure out how to fill the apparent leadership vacuum. Believing Young, Webert and the others were ordered gone by state soccer leaders, they devised a new leadership plan and moved into the association's Kirkland offices Sept. 3, changing the locks and setting up shop. Uncertain who was in charge, the Lake Washington association's bank froze all assets. Over the next few days, four of the suspended board members resigned.

But within a week, Young and the dwindling board sued Hussey and other volunteers. In an interim ruling, King County Superior Court Commissioner Kimberley Prochnau found Lake Washington was a stand-alone organization governed by its own by-laws, not by the state association. Young and Webert were back in power.

"It may be a good idea for all of you folks to either agree to work together or to find other people that will come in," Prochnau commented in her ruling. "Because I do see this is very harmful to the children."

By October, the county began pulling back from some of its dealings with the association. It had been negotiating to trade the south portion of Sixty Acres Park for some of the still-undeveloped Muller farm land, a move that would have meant more soccer fields.

County officials put the land swap on hold, citing the turmoil in the soccer association. The county also announced it planned to start the ambitious Marymoor project for a new soccer complex and fields without the association.

Meanwhile, negotiations between the old guard and the dissenting parent volunteers fell apart. At two highly charged meetings with sheriff's deputies watching, the three remaining board members appointed associates to join them on the board and ousted Hussey and six other top volunteers from their positions. Of the seven club presidents in place three months ago, all have been removed or have resigned.

Hussey, Bill Smith and other volunteers formed Lake Washington United, which has been drumming up support from dozens of parents at weekend soccer games. The group, which has applied for membership in the state association, promises lower fees.

In the end, it was the deal with Arena Sports for the indoor soccer arenas that proved most controversial. Opponents questioned whether it will ever make money, and charged it was developed in back rooms by a board with clear conflicts of interest. Young countered that the board carefully followed legal advice to avoid such conflicts. He has told association members that the deal could bring in $100,000 annually to pay down debt.

But Lake Washington did not secure any financing for the deal.

That left the association with no substantial entrepreneurial revenue and a compounding debt of about $1 million, which is secured against the farmland. The farm has an assessed value of $1.17 million, although Young believes it would fetch substantially more if sold.

But it's not the land, the arguments or the egos that are important, said soccer mom Vicky Lewis. The kids have always had the right idea, she said.

"They don't care. They just want to play soccer."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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