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The saying in Pella goes, "If you ain't Dutch, you ain't much." But in this instance that couldn't be father from the truth.

This past Wednesday, July 14, 2010 two young boys from Kansas City, Missouri were attending a summer camp in Pella put on by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. The group went to the Pella Aquatic Center at night where the two boys drowned in the deep end of this "public swimming pool". The news story in the Register isn't entirely clear but what is clear is that neither of the boys could swim and their parents designated them as non-swimmers on the waivers they signed and sent to the camp with the boys.  But this story isn't about boys drowning or parents' dealing with a lifetime of sorrow; this story is about a city administration that made a lousy decision.

Whether the parents sue is for another day but the issue for today is about an ongoing lawsuit between the City of Pella and a construction subcontractor. The lawsuit in the news is about the electrical lighting work performed when the pool was first constructed in 2004. First let's not become distracted with irrelevant issues, like whether the boys not being able to swim was communicated to the pool staff or counselors who supervised the outing. That's what lawyers call a red herring because it has nothing to do with the real issues in the case and everything to do with distracting the jury's attention from what they should think is important.  The real bone of contention has to do with the pool lights; were the light fixtures the correct fixtures and were they installed the right way.  The staff along with the 14 and 15 year-old boys had nothing to do with that decision so let's not confuse the issue with whether or not they could swim.

According to Iowa law a public pool that is used at night must have lights to make the drain and bottom visible to those using the pool. Below I've given you the administrative rules that add meat on the bones of Iowa Code 135I.2. These regulations are all about safety and make complete sense.  So why weren't they being followed in Pella? It's not rocket science to see that once the pool's lights don't work that the pool shouldn't be opened at night.  So who made the decision to keep the pool open at night?

 The City's trouble started long before the night the boys drowned. It started when the pool was constructed in 2004 and then was compounded with poor administrative decisions following the discovery of a night light problem at the pool. According to the City of Pella's lawsuit when the contractor built the pool they used the wrong electrical covering (conduit) to protect the electrical wiring and the length of the wire connecting the bulbs to the light fixture was cut so short that burnt out light bulbs were not able to be changed with new bulbs until the pool water was emptied for the season. That's probably a legal problem for the electrical contractor but that doesn't let the city of Pella off the hook. No sir-ee, the City's had 6 seasons to correct the problem, but chose not to.

Contractor Factual Argument

It seems the wire used isn't long enough to allow burned out bulbs to be replaced unless the pool is empty. Think about changing a light bulb underwater as opposed to being able to unscrew it, pull the wires above the water line and then change the bulb.  Like I said, this isn't rocket science.

Everyone knows light bulbs all burn out with the exception of DuroTest Light bulbs. Rather than change the fixtures and add wire during the fall months so the burnt-out bulbs could be changed the City chose to do nothing except hire lawyers to fight in court. They would have been better off hiring the lawyers to change the light bulbs in one of those six- off-season.

So what's been going on? Outside of court the City of Pella tried to settle but Central Electric Co. didn't budge or at least not enough and this lawsuit was filed. That lawsuit was filed on October 16, 2006; almost 4 years ago. But this is 2010 so add two more off-seasons.  In the meantime what went on to change the light bulbs? They've had several seasons to just do the work in the off-season and then fight over who is going to pay for the work that had been done. Did they do the work in the offseason before the boy's drowned? If not, why not. Who knows? Who in city government cared enough to think past 5:00 pm?  Well who answered for that administrative decision?

Turn back the hands of time:
As a city official entrusted with the public's safety you have to set priorities. When it was discovered the light bulbs couldn't be changed, the decision should have been to enforce the law and close the pool at night until such time as the repair work could be done in the next off-season. Instead they tried to please night swimmers while saving a few bucks and keeping their fingers crossed while they litigated with the electrical contractor, hoping in the meantime that no-one drowned.  Wrong!

What do we have here? We have the City of Pella and a corporate citizen of Iowa locked in a legal battle over what should have amounted to a few thousand of dollars of work and neither willing to budge or compromise or put the safety of people ahead of their own "ain't- much-Dutch pride". There was a better option that would have been a far wiser course of action for the City and its contractor.

  • 1. Either the City of Pella or Central Electric, Co., makes the necessary changes during one of the off-seasons since 2004 when the pool opened (that's 6 off seasons) and then sue each other. From the standpoint of proving damages that's a far easier case to try and places safety at the top of the list.

It seems that the problem with what the City of Pella chose to do was it did not make the safety of its citizens the top priority. Somehow safety of the citizens using the pool was relegated to a place behind suing the electrical contractor and paying its own attorneys to litigate. Why wasn't the pool closed at night when the lights didn't meet State Code? After all the pool didn't meet State of Iowa swimming pool lighting standards; so why was it allowed to remain open at night? Whose job was it to make that decision?

And what about the electrical contractor; I don't' think they are a business having a tough time making a profit on governmental contract work? What was their position?  You installed lighting fixtures with wire too short to change during a season knowing this is a public pool with night swimming? You can't claim ignorance to night swimming at the pool with a straight face when you installed lights in the pool. Lights in a pool have nothing to do with day safety. Face facts without working lights the pool isn't supposed to be open at night. My guess is the contractor knows the law concerning public pools and the light requirements having to do with safety.  Assuming you made a mistake why not in the first offseason simply add length to the wires and argue later about the conduit specs.

What we see in this situation is a poorly made decision that did nothing to promote public safety and the city's image with visitors. We have two boys' dead, two family's devastated and thousands of dollars in taxpayer monies being spent to argue over what amounts to the length of wire. We had a public pool being left open at night when it did not meet state code safety requirements and City officials asleep at the switch.  We have an electrical contractor not being very aware of its public image and letting pride get in the way of what should have been a clear path to the right decision. Maybe if you had more lawyers running Pella's government you'd have fewer lawsuits.

Like I said, in this instance the Dutch slogan isn't reliable.


THE LAWSUIT: City of Pella vs Central Electric Company, docket number 05631- LACV091426 (10/16/2006) - Jury trial in Marion County, Iowa. Plaintiff represented by Matthew Benton, defendant by Fred Krykes and Judge Brad McCall for the court.

Boys who drowned in Pella pool were ‘non-swimmers'
, Register, July 16, 2010

Two Teens Drown In Pella Pool, KCCI, July 15, 2010

Lawsuit centers on lights in Pella pool, Des Moines Register reporters, July 17, 2010

NOON UPDATE: New Information In Pella Pool Deaths , KCCI Video footage on this link. Keri Gavin reporting.

Iowa Camp Tragedy, FCA Network, July 16, 2010

Pathologist says boys' drowning deaths appear accidental, Kansas City Star

Iowa law on public pool lighting requirements:

Iowa Administrative Code, 641 - 15.4(4) Safety. m(2) Lighting (135I)

641-15.4 (135I) Swimming pool operations. Swimming pools shall be operated in a safe, sanitary manner and shall meet the following operational standards.

15.4(4) Safety. M. Electrical

(2) Lighting.

1. Artificial lighting shall be provided at a swimming pool which is to be used at night or which does not have adequate natural lighting so that all portions of the swimming pool, including the bottom and main drain, may be clearly seen.

2. Underwater lights and fixtures shall be designed for their intended use. When the underwater lights operate at more than 15 volts, the underwater light circuit shall be equipped with a GFCI. When an underwater light needs to be repaired, the electricity shall be shut off until repairs are completed.

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