Pool's future still unclear as agencies disagree

Update: In its meeting Tuesday evening, the Vashon Park District board determined the pool will open this summer, possibly as early as Saturday, June 7. More information will be forthcoming.

At the Vashon Pool, everything is set for the summer season — the water’s pH is perfect; the boiler is running well, and the staff is ready to start work. Just weeks away from opening day, however, it is still not clear when and if the pool will open this summer, as officials at the school and park districts are continuing to work toward an agreement that will address the pool’s drainage needs.

“There has been a lot of energy spent getting this ready,” Scott Bonney, the pool’s manager, said last week. “We are very hopeful there will be an agreement.”

Over the course of the spring, the two districts have disagreed on who is legally responsible for drainage problems created at the pool during construction of the new high school last fall, and so far they have not been able to agree on a financial plan to pay for a fix.

Last week the school board approved a proposal that would require the park district to pay half of the expected $40,000 for a potential solution approved by the Department of Ecology. The school’s plan also calls for the park district to assume all the financial responsibility for testing and other measures that are part of the fix and for the expenses related to hauling waste water from the pool — a process park district officials say was necessary to prepare the pool for the swimming season.

Members of the park board were expected to meet Tuesday — after The Beachcomber’s press deadline —  to discuss the issue. Scheduled for that day were a conversation with its insurance company on legal matters, an executive session and the board’s regularly scheduled public meeting. Additional meetings for both boards are possible later in the week, depending on Tuesday’s outcome. Some of those close to the situation say they hope that by the end of the week, a proposal will emerge that the two agencies will be to agree on and that will allow work to move ahead so the pool can open as scheduled.

“The June 15 deadline will be hard to hit if we don’t get going soon,” said Superintendent Michael Soltman on Monday, referencing the date the park district has been planning to open the pool.

It is unclear, however, what the process will be if an agreement is not reached quickly, and it is not clear if there is room for compromise. The school board made its position on the pool known last week, school board member Laura Wishik said. Should the park district make an offer that differs from that, she said she could not predict how the school board would vote.

“If they are willing to do something that costs us more money, I really don’t know,” she said.

In the days since the school district’s vote, Lu-Ann Branch, who is the chair of the park board, said she has been continuing conversations with the park district’s insurance company about legal responsibilities in the matter. She has also been furthering her understanding of what the proposed fix would require and keeping her fellow commissioners apprised of developments.

“We are trying to operate in good faith to move things forward,” she said.

Since the drainage problem was discovered earlier this spring, school district officials have urged the park district to forego insurance companies and lawyers and work together directly to find a solution.

Most members of the park board, however, have not been willing to do so, and two weeks ago, the district turned the matter over to its insurance company.

Branch, who is both the chair of the park board, and, with Bill Ameling, one of the two commissioners appointed to address the pool problem, said the approach the school district asked for was not acceptable because the park district wants to be careful to not pay expenses that the school district legally should cover.

“I would hope that we could come up with a solution that won’t be second guessed later on about why did you cave on your fiduciary responsibility,” she said.

Currently, there are opposing views on who is legally responsible to pay for a fix at the pool. Previously, school district superintendent Michael Soltman said he believes a definitive answer could only be arrived at through litigation.

A letter from the school district’s attorney indicates that he believes all costs associated with the drainage issues are the responsibility of the park district based on the 30-year contract the two parties signed in 2010.

“The clear intent of the Agreement is that all operational costs are the sole responsibility of VPD, which is required to indemnify and hold VISD harmless against any such costs,” attorney Jeffrey Ganson, of the Seattle law firm Porter Foster Rorick, wrote.

On the park district’s side, however, Branch said the park board has been given similar assurances from its insurance team.

“They are saying legally we do not have any culpability in this at all,” she said.

Branch said she hoped Tuesday’s conversation with the insurance company would help bring clarity to some of the legal issues. Despite the seemingly polarized positions of both parties, Branch said she expected the park district’s insurance team to present unbiased information.

“If the park district is responsible in some way, I want to know,” she said.

Had park district Executive Director Elaine Ott not been away on a previously scheduled vacation last week, Branch added, the call with the insurance company and a park board meeting to address the issues would have happened more quickly.

“We want to move forward on this as soon as possible,” she said.

Branch noted that she understands that legal issues are one matter, but that there is also the court of public opinion.

“It is the insurance company’s job to tell the park board the hard legalities, and it then it is our job as commissioners to decide what the right thing to do is and what is possible,” she said.

Apart from the legal issues, Branch said the park district has additional concerns, including that the proposed drainage pipe solution requires considerable water testing and maintenance beyond what the park district has ever provided and that the board needed to fully understand the issues involved and their related costs. She also wondered if another fix might be more expensive in the short-term but less expensive and labor-intensive in the long term, an issue she wanted the park board to explore.

However, Bob Hennessey, at the school district, said that he believes any other solution that involves construction would mean the pool would not be ready in time to open for the summer.

While the park and school board members grapple with both legal and practical issues at the pool, Bonney made clear that the stakes are very high.

As the largest summer employer on Vashon, the pool has already hired staff, some of whom gave up college internships to work there, he sad. He is signing kids up for swimming lessons and has taken full payment from swim teams that practice there in the summer. He also plans to offer an aqua aerobics class for seniors sponsored by the Arthritis Foundation. And, of course, there are the countless kids who head to the pool on summer afternoons.

Looking ahead, he said he is still planning for opening day on June 14, which is a Saturday and the day before the park district’s target date. In years past, he said, opening day has drawn 300 kids for free swimming, music, games and more. Despite the turmoil surrounding the pool, he has scheduled all those festivities for this year as well and is looking forward to seeing the pool come to life on its first day of the season.

“We like to kick it off with that type of positive experience for everyone in the community,” he said.

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