Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 10, 2013

Editorial: Taxpayers deserve truth about splash pad

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — So where to start?

Traverse City’s splash pad project was so thoroughly botched that it is hard to know where an analysis should begin. A city report about what went wrong is filled with enough failures, errors of judgment and red flags to derail a dozen such projects, yet it wasn’t until raw sewage rained down on unsuspecting children on June 30 that the extent of the disaster began to dawn on city officials —and the public.

That report showed contractors failed to obtain a host of required permits, including an electrical permit for the entire $2.9 million park project, prior to its June 25 grand opening. When the splash pad reopened Aug. 31 after the raw sewage incident, several more problems were discovered.

A few steps seem obvious:

n While the initial city report is good as far as it goes, city residents deserve a detailed, no-holds-barred examination by a respected third party of what went wrong, who made key decisions, and why.

City taxpayers have every right to expect accountability from their government and the people they pay (and pay pretty well) to run it, as well as from firms hired by the city to do its work. That is a minimum.

A third-party report must detail why the design and construction firms hired to build the splash pad and do other Clinch Park work didn’t obtain needed permits. We also need to know which city employees were supposed to monitor that process and why, if they knew permits hadn’t been granted, they allowed work to go forward. If they didn’t know, the public needs that information, too.

n There must be accountability.

Assigning blame and looking for scapegoats after the fact won’t help anyone. But if the city is to rebuild its shattered credibility, residents must believe city employees are working on the city’s behalf; those who aren’t, or those who made decisions that jeopardized this project and the city’s reputation, can’t be part of the next big thing.

The same thing, obviously, goes for outside firms hired to do the actual work. The report must detail who decided to skip the permits process and why and the city must seek compensation for bad decisions and bad work.

There are dozens of questions that must be answered, and the answers must be the unvarnished truth. How much of this falls to retired City Manage Ben Bifoss? Did state Rep. Wayne Schmidt’s intervention help circumvent necessary permits? Who pushed to hire a design firm that had never done this kind of work before (reminiscent of Grand Traverse County’s bungling of the septage treatment plant) and why?

n The city must go back to square one with the splash pad and, if necessary— and it appears to be the case— literally dig it out of the ground and start over. The splash pad should have been, and still must be, the centerpiece of the revitalized Clinch Park and a place of delight that children growing up here will remember for a very long time to come.

That’s certainly not the case now, and it will take a lot for the city to convince parents that Clinch is a great place for kids and the splash pad is a big reason why. If that means starting afresh, that’s what must be done.

Rebuilding Clinch Park and completing the other waterfront work the city has envisioned is too important to be scuttled like this. City leaders, elected and hired professionals alike, must work overtime to find out what happened, ensure it can never happen again, and make it right.

The city’s reputation —at home and elsewhere —has taken a big hit and it’s going to take a lot of work to regain what has been lost. It will be uncomfortable to name names and assign blame but taxpayers must have the truth before the city can move on.

This can’t be Traverse City’s legacy; the hard work to undo what has happened must begin now.