Some Mecklenburg County commissioners say they were surprised and upset health department employees gave operating permits this month to public swimming pools without reinspecting water quality and equipment to ensure last season’s safety violations were fixed.
“I’m pretty appalled, outraged and disturbed,” said Matthew Ridenhour, a member of the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners. “We need to ensure we have all pools inspected prior to issuing a permit ... Especially the pools that had to be closed last year.”
Another commissioner said she’s eager for more explanation from county employees about how failing pools slipped through the cracks and doesn’t want to rush judgment. But, it’s “common sense” that pools with past violations must be checked before getting a permit to re-open the following season, said Commissioner Pat Cotham.
“The citizens deserve for this to be inspected in a timely fashion,” Cotham said.
The commissioners’ comments come just days after a Charlotte Observer analysis of hundreds of county inspection and permit records revealed more than 350 public pools were pre-cleared to open over Memorial Day weekend without passing a new health and safety inspection. At least six of the pools with permits to re-open were shut down last summer for major safety violations.
It’s just ludicrous.
Mecklenburg Commissioner Jim Puckett
That practice is allowed under North Carolina state law. But, Mecklenburg County is the only county of the four largest in the state to grant permits without a mandatory inspection. It has nearly 1,400 public swimming pools.
“It doesn’t matter if we are following state law. We need to inspect all these pools ahead of time,” Ridenhour said.
Pool inspections performed in Mecklenburg County for the last several years can be found online by visiting the Charlotte-Mecklenburg environmental health website at CharMeck.org.
Upset with upper management
County officials say they’ve been following the practice of allowing pools to open early without inspections for years. It’s seasonal work, performed by a limited amount of staff, and the department tries to time inspections without delaying public pools from opening around Memorial Day.
Inspectors are supposed to check various indicators of pool safety, including water quality, pool maintenance equipment, restrooms and locker rooms, pool suction hazards and life-saving devices on site.
Most of the county’s seasonal pools open May to September and are run by apartment complexes, hotels and neighborhood associations.
In one case last week, the Observer’s reporting prompted the county’s health department to revoke a permit given to a swimming pool that was shut down last year after an inspector found an exposed underwater electrical wire in the pool and witnessed no chlorine used in the water. Health department officials initially acknowledged that permit should not have been approved without a new inspection. Then, when the Observer found other cases, a county spokesperson said county officials are not required to treat suspended pools any differently than others when they apply to re-open the next year.
Frankly, there are issues within the health department. We have to start looking at the upper level management.
Mecklenburg Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour
Ridenhour said he texted Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio Saturday morning with concerns about the swimming pool inspections and permits. Then, Diorio and health department Director Marcus Plescia sent the board of commissioners an email, in part blaming the county’s computer system.
“We generally don’t pre permit a pool if there were issues the year before, but it can be difficult to identify those pools in the permitting system. The current system frequently changes the classification to ‘closed for the season’ at year end,” the email from Plescia and Diorio stated.
A similar explanation was given Friday, when the Observer first reported on the issue. But, in an interview last Friday, Bill Hardister, the county’s environmental health director, refused to release the name of the business that provides the county with software used for tracking pool inspections and the pool’s suspended status.
If software or the health department’s tracking system converts pool statuses at the end of the year, county employees should be keeping a separate list of problem pools each season so that they can prioritize those inspections the following year, says Commissioner Jim Puckett.
“It’s just ludicrous ... That, to me, would be an extraordinary thing not to track,” Puckett said.
Commissioner Bill James said he’s expecting more answers and explanation from county employees about the inspections and renewed permits for pools that were shut down last summer. Whether state law allows the county’s current practice or not, James said, he wants the county to have a “watch list” of sorts every year to make sure potentially unsafe pools aren’t allowed to open without an inspection.
“I believe it is a completely reasonable and rational thing to do ... They ought to be a high priority to evaluate,” James said. “I was surprised that we weren’t already doing it.”
The swimming pool inspection problem has compounded negative perception of the health department and its leaders, say Puckett and Ridenhour.
Earlier this year, the Observer reported 185 women served by a Mecklenburg County health department-ran clinic weren’t told for months about abnormal test results from cervical cancer screenings. Plescia has apologized for the mishap and officials have said four people no longer work with the health department as a result of the oversight.
“I look at this and I look at the pap smears (notification problem) ... There seems to be a breakdown in the management of employee performance,” Puckett said.
Ridenhour said he and some other commissioners share those concerns.
“If this was the only blip on the radar – fine. ... But it’s time and time again there are issues. And, frankly, there are issues within the health department,” Ridenhour said. “We have to start looking at the upper level management at the health department.”
Plescia and Diorio did not respond to an email Thursday from the Observer. A county spokesperson said the county manager and the health department director could not be interviewed because they are out of town and unavailable.