Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 4, 2013

Schmidt tied to splash pad water 'pressure'

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — State Rep. Wayne Schmidt made the telephone call that a state regulator referred to as “political pressure” and paved the way for the city’s new splash pad at Clinch Park to operate without a construction permit or license, a city official said.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality officials gave the city permission without a full review of construction plans and failed to notice an unprotected link to the city’s sanitary sewer. The sewer backed up Sunday and spilled into a reservoir that feeds the pad’s sprinklers. A half-dozen children who were using the splash pad were sprayed with water contaminated with raw sewage.

Traverse City planner Russ Soyring said he “didn’t talk to anybody” when asked if he contacted the DEQ about the splash pad permit, but said “I did get a call from Wayne Schmidt, and he said he was going to call the DEQ.”

Soyring said he then received a call from a woman named Sara who said she was calling from the DEQ in response to Wayne Schmidt’s call. Schmidt is a Republican member of the state House who represents Grand Traverse County.

Schmidt did not return calls seeking comment and it remains unclear who, if anyone, asked him to intervene.

City officials discovered its contractors hadn’t obtained permits for the William G. Milliken Waterscape by the park’s June 25 grand reopening. DEQ officials subsequently told city officials they could open the waterscape on June 27.

Paul Sisson, an environmental engineering specialist with the DEQ, said the decision came after “political pressure” ... “from our front office” to do something to help Traverse City open the water feature in time for the National Cherry Festival.

Traverse City leaders said they had no prior knowledge of pressure on the DEQ.

“I did not talk to Wayne Schmidt about anything with the waterpark,” city Mayor Michael Estes said. “I did not contact anybody about anything involved about the issue of opening up. Absolutely not. I did not even talk to city officials, and I don’t know if somebody else did.”

Doug Luciani, president and CEO of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, said Schmidt may have taken it upon himself to make a call to the DEQ.

“He’s around and knows what’s going on in the community ... and your representatives are supposed to advocate for you,” Luciani said.

Luciani said chamber officials offered to make calls to the DEQ to help expedite the permit process, but city staff declined.

“They didn’t think it was necessary,” Luciani said.

DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel said Schmidt contacted that agency’s legislative office and asked if there was anything they could do to help the city. Such inquiries from elected officials are common and appropriate, Wurfel said.

“That is not the same as someone exerting political pressure. I’ve seen political pressure,” Wurfel said.

State Sen. Howard Walker of Peninsula Township said no one asked him to contact the DEQ, nor did he make any such calls.

“I don’t get too involved in local issues,” Walker said. “It seems to work out better that way.”