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County officials remain conflicted over proposed pool

Grady County officials do not seem any closer to making a decision on what to do about constructing a proposed aquatic center at Barber Park than they were last month.
During Tuesday morning’s commission meeting, a wide ranging discussion, that could possibly be described as bizarre, took place.
Through the lengthy dialogue, that not only involved county officials, but members of the audience as well, privileged conversations between attorney and client were revealed, accusations of only a select few knowing the true meaning of aquatic center were leveled, and public records of the county with regard to the proposed aquatic center are alleged to be missing.
At one point, Grady County attorney Kevin S. Cauley advised the board that continued public discussions such as the one being held this week were only hurting the county’s defense in threatened legal action should the county reduce the scope of the aquatic center by eliminating the originally proposed competition size swimming pool.
An email correspondence discussed by Grady County administrator Carlos Tobar and made public Tuesday, shows the assistant general counsel for the Association County Commissioners of Georgia agreed with advice given to the board by Cauley.
G. Joseph Scheuer with ACCG wrote in an email last week, “I think it is an uphill battle to say that a splash pad equals an aquatic center.”
Scheuer also warned it is unlikely the aquatic center could be deemed infeasible. “Things that do not qualify for infeasibility are: higher costs, diminished revenues, lack of support by elected officials and technical problems that can be fixed,” Scheuer wrote.
The ACCG assistant general counsel also says modifying the project and reducing the original scope to include just a splash pad and eliminating the pool could be an issue because the county is bound by the annual audit reports, which identified an aquatic center, not a splash pad.
“I think going before a judge and attempting to prove by some manner of evidence that both mean the same thing is going to be, well, challenging. Especially since the county has already bid this out as something consisting of much more than a splash pad. That looks pretty conclusive as to original intent of what the county meant when they used the term. Also, the public discussions you noted also will be difficult to circumvent and show that what the county really meant was only a splash pad. Angry parents could quickly turn into ready plaintiffs so be sure the board understands they do not have a good hand to play,” Scheuer wrote.
Tobar told commissioners Tuesday morning that the Holder Park pool, owned by the city, is six lanes wide and 25-meters long.
“Talking with competitive swimmers here and elsewhere, it seems like an excellent practice facility for competitive swimmers,” Tobar said. The administrator admitted the pool was not sufficient to host meets, but would provide local youth a place to practice to compete elsewhere.
However, Tobar said that a pool described by Commission Chairman Charles Norton in recent conversations made more sense to him in light of the email from ACCG.
“A pool small and shallow where young children can learn how to swim. A couple of lanes and no more than four feet deep,” Tobar said. The administrator said he did not “see the need” for a larger pool if that looks good to ACCG.
He said that a much smaller pool would also minimize operating costs.
“ACCG is not going to approve or disapprove your actions,” Cauley noted.
Chairman Norton spoke up to clarify what he had told Tobar recently. “We didn’t discuss size. What I talked about was having a wading pool for kids. A pool like that was at Davis Park shallow at one end and the other end was eight feet deep. That’s what I’m talking about. This is taxpayer money and we’ve got 25,000 people. It’s got to fit everybody, little, big, and old, other than just swim team,” Norton said.
Tobar said the proposal he was suggesting did not accommodate competitive swim teams. “We’ve got a pool already that meets needs of competitive swimmers, but that’s just my opinion,” Tobar said.
Cauley urged the board not to forget the history in this process and noted that the Holder Park pool already existed before the aquatic center was approved on the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum.
Tobar asked county recreation director Becky Bracewell to share information from an Archway Partnership study done of Barber Park that researched the plan for a splash pad feature at the park.
Bracewell said the Archway study was done after the board “tabled” the pool in 2009.
Cauley again reminded the board that the Archway study was begun and completed after the vote on the aquatic center was taken. “We can’t redefine the ballot,” Cauley said.
“As noble as the community and Archway efforts were, what the attorney says is you can’t alter it to suit you now. It’s pretty well defined,” Commissioner T.D. David responded to Bracewell and Tobar.
Commissioner Ray Prince said his issue with the larger, competitive pool was his contention that the majority of residents will not use it, but all taxpayers would be required to maintain and operate it for a minority of users.
Commissioner David went on to question what legal authority the group of pool proponents have in the process and accused the proponents of being “pretty presumptive” what the definition of aquatic center would be.
Cauley again stated that his advice had been to discuss the matter privately. “It is what it is. It’s not helpful to continue to have this discussion,” he said.
Commissioner LaFaye Copeland said the ballot language bothered her. “How would 25,000 people know exactly what this group of people (the pool proponents) were thinking when it wasn’t on the ballot. You didn’t tell me you wanted pool. You didn’t state if pool or interactive fountain. You did not state if had to build or redo one that already existed. I’m learning a lot now. Only a small group of people knew what was going on and they had children that were part of the swim team,” Copeland said.
Research on public discussions and negotiations prior to Copeland being elected show that it was widely known that what was being considered was a competition pool and other features including, but not limited to, a kiddie pool, slide, whirlpool and bathhouse.
Chairman Norton said that the board had been “mislead” with regards to ballot flexibility. “The question on the splash pad was, can this be done and the language I heard at the time was that the referendum was written to give flexibility. I think that flexibility got off-center,” Norton said.
Cauley suggested until the board had all of the information possible including past bids and estimates for operating costs no decision could be reached.
Chairman Norton agreed and said the past records should be somewhere in the courthouse.
During the discussion Tuesday it was made public that the county has informally solicited estimates on the pool/splash pad. The Messenger requested copies of documents including specs that were distributed to potential vendors and a list of contractors, but Tobar refused to provide the information to the newspaper.
Cauley asked if the project had been put out to bid, and pool proponent John Brannon spoke out.
“You haven’t bid it out properly,” Brannon contended. The local businessman said he had requested a meeting with Tobar on four occasions to discuss specifications for the pool and share ideas and information that could be beneficial. Brannon said that Tobar had refused to meet with him and would only communicate through email. “I’ve offered to meet with you and guide you and you will not meet,” the pool proponent said.
“So we are soliciting bids?” Commissioner Copeland asked.
“Just prices,” Tobar said. The administrator asked the board if he was to solicit bids and he was told no.
Commissioner David said prices were being solicited informally to give the board a “ball park” figure what the final cost will be.
Cauley said that approach on a public works project of this scale was outside the legal process. “You’re bound by public constraints,” Cauley said. He warned the county may be undermining its ability to bid in the future.
The county attorney suggested the county do what it had done before and solicit design/build proposals from the contractors that bid previously and open it to any other interested contractors.
“The first step is to find the old records,” Cauley said.
Vice Chairman Elwyn Childs suggested the bidding contractors might have copies, but Commissioner Prince said that was doubtful since it was so long ago.
Chairman Norton said before the project could be put out to bid a decision had to be made on the specifications for the project.
Cauley said every effort should be made to find the bid specs that were used originally.
“What if those bids are not found, then what?” Chairman Norton asked.
“Then we need to look at our record retention process and correct it,” Cauley responded.
Commissioner Copeland said to county clerk Carrie Kines Croy, who is the county records retention officer, “If you have to go through boxes, I don’t mind coming and helping you.”
Chairman Norton said the matter would be left on the table and instructed Kines Croy to take whatever steps possible to find the missing records.
Veiled threats of possible litigation over the matter prompted Commissioner David to comment Tuesday, “I hope you will understand, John, the spirit of this comment. I hope you and your people although have legal authority here you also have a moral responsibility to ask yourselves what will do the county the most good? How can I help my community?” David said if a pool was what was best for the county the group should fight the board over this, but if a pool was not in the best interest of the community the group should work with the board to move forward.
Brannon, during the course of the meeting, said that if the pool had been built back in 2009 it would have been built for less money and saved the county money. He later commented the community had been waiting 10 years and it was time to do what was “right.”

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