The Insider

No Diving, No Swimming No Pool
The Bob and Elyse Lanier Aquatic Center at Moody Park was opened amid great fanfare last week, with the two namesakes of the new facility joining board members and high-ranking bureaucrats from the Parks and Recreation Department for the festivities.

The $1.2 million swimming pool project, funded by private donations, is designed to make Moody Park safe for the surrounding community and discourage drug use and drinking in the area, at least according to the city's promotional material. Apparently, by this reasoning, drug dealers and alkies are afraid of water and will try to avoid the smell of chlorine at all costs. The pool complex was also located on the far side of the park from the low-income Irvington Village housing project, on the theory, according to one supporter, that if the project residents can't see the pool, they will be less likely to crowd out users from nearby neighborhoods.

The private party ended before sundown, allowing the dignitaries plenty of time to pat themselves on the back and still clear out of the northside neighborhood before dark. Not a big topic at the gathering was the fact that although Moody Park now is home to a deluxe city swimming hole for aspiring little aquanauts, more than a quarter of the city's public pools are closed this summer, as the mayor's Parks to Standard juggernaut rolls forward. Considering that the pools are only open three months out of the year, you'd think someone could have designed a construction schedule that allowed for parks improvements without closing 12 pools in the process.

The dry holes include the pools at Memorial, MacGregor, Emancipation, Sharpstown, Sunnyside and Denver Harbor. The reasons behind the simultaneous closings vary according to the city official doing the talking.

Assistant parks director Susan Christian says that the top priorities on the Parks to Standard construction program were to minimize cost and construction time. Christian claims that renovating the pools separately from other parks improvements -- and thus keeping them functional in the summer -- would have cost more than bidding each park as a unit. Then several of the construction companies defaulted on their parks assignments, causing scheduled July pool openings to be delayed into next winter.

"You have to look at the projects as a whole, because that's how the contracts were let," says Christian, who adds that an advisory team concluded that the unit method "was the most efficient and cost-effective way to manage this $54 million renovation."

And, of course, the parks department wasn't responsible for coordinating the construction schedule. That honor, Christian says, goes to the public works department. "Public Works and Engineering manages all of our contracts and all of our work. We sat on the team, we've been working jointly with them, but they manage the program."

Public works spokesman Dan Jones doesn't quite see it that way. According to Jones, the pool drains to parks director Bill Smith's door. "That's basically his baby," says Jones.

As it turns out, when The Insider called Mayor Bob Lanier, he seemed more than willing to make the pool problem his own personal baby while conveniently deflecting the blame for the large number of summer closures.

To hear Lanier tell it, the pools had to be closed because they were dangerous -- a legacy of his predecessors, including that source of all bad things that have befallen the city, ex-mayor Kathy Whitmire, who allegedly failed to maintain the parks system during the city's economic downturn in the eighties.

"These 12 were shut down because they were felt to be unsafe," explains the mayor, who says city inspectors found faulty chlorine controls and filtration and circulation problems. Lanier says that until the Moody opening, it had been more than 20 years since the city had built a new pool.

Lanier admits that with so many pools out of service, more than 100,000 youngsters have been left hot and dry for the summer, a situation that requires an immediate remedy. So he began making inquiries into the situation last week, and discovered that an earlier city proposal to operate HISD pools to compensate for the city pool closings had gotten no response from district officials.

Lanier was flabbergasted. "I said, well, Jesus, why didn't somebody give me a call? I could call [Superintendent Rod] Paige, we're good friends, I think he'd do that in a shot." So the mayor phoned Paige, who immediately agreed to allow the city to use the district's pools.

"So we'll go ahead and see if we can do a matchup with them on pools to use," says Lanier, after spending an afternoon working on the problem. "We'll open 'em, operate 'em, pay for 'em, take responsibility for 'em." Lanier has scheduled a meeting this week to work out the details of the arrangement with HISD. In fact, for some unexplained reason, the mayor invited The Insider to sit in on the confab. We'll let you know if he asks HISD to temporarily rename any of its pools.

Now He's Working on the Railroad
When we last heard from him a few months ago, former congressman Steve Stockman was exhorting supporters gathered at the Houstonian complex to register Republican-minded voters for a challenge he planned to mount next year against Democratic incumbent Ken Bentsen in the 25th Congressional District.

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