Traverse City Record-Eagle

June 29, 2013

New safety plans raise liability questions

BY MICHAEL WALTON mwalton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Officials are rolling out efforts to make Twin Lakes Park safer, but some worry that placing lifeguards at the lake exposes Grand Traverse County to additional liability.

The county’s Parks & Recreation Commission last week approved a host of new safety measures for Twin Lakes Park following the May drowning of Traverse City West Senior High School junior Owen Williamson. Williamson’s death marked the third drowning at the county park since 2010.

Parks department Director Jason Jones installed a temporary, roped-off swimming area and two life rings with 50 feet of rope at the North Long Lake Road park. He’s also researching the cost of an emergency phone, preparing new signage specifically about beach safety, and getting ready to staff open-water-certified lifeguards at the beach.

Jones explained the measures to Grand Traverse County commissioners during a board meeting this week.

Commissioner Larry Inman questioned the decision to staff lifeguards at the county-owned park.

“Is one lifeguard going to be able to watch everyone?” Inman said after the meeting. “If someone slips off the edge, are they going to be able to see that person?”

Inman also worried a lifeguard would expose the county to serious liability if another accident occurs at Twin Lakes.

County Administrator Dave Benda said there’s a reason many government agencies do not staff public beaches with lifeguards.

“It transfers a lot of the liability from the individual to the government,” he said.

Benda supported other safety changes already initiated by parks department officials, but said the lifeguard question is a matter for the parks commission to address.

“To me the lifeguard is another issue,” Benda said. “It’s something they are going to have to think about.”

Parks & Recreation Commissioner Alisa Kroupa said the lifeguard decision involves other implications, including whether to close Twin Lakes Park when a lifeguard isn’t present, and whether other county parks with swimming areas need lifeguards, too.

“There are just so many what-ifs,” she said.

Kroupa said commissioners will discuss the issue at their next meeting. She added community members who attended the June commission meeting seemed to support placing a lifeguard at the Twin Lakes Park beach.

The parks & recreation commission is scheduled to meet July 18.