Members of the Houston Parks and Recreation Board and some citizens called Monday on the Houston City Council to change a city policy that recently eliminated 10-minute breaks for swimmers at the Houston Municipal Swimming Pool.
Members of the board said they were unaware until recently of a new city policy that eliminates the breaks. Some members complained this week that the board is infrequently advised on matters related to the operation of the pool, which last year underwent an extensive upgrade. A new bath house, concession stand and meeting space opened last month.
The discussion came after a near tragedy at the pool on Saturday that left an Oklahoma child in distress and prompted the administration of CPR by relatives at the King Street facility at West Side Park. The 7-year-old boy was later taken to Texas County Memorial Hospital and admitted overnight. The matter is under investigation by the City of Houston.
Lisa Jordan, a former pool manager, said she was alarmed that breaks were no longer instituted for children who often spend the entire afternoon at the pool. Jordan said they are important for rest and children to use the restroom, as well as lifeguards and managers to reassess their positioning and allows the adults to enjoy the pool.
Bob Elmore, a former board park member, agreed, saying the idea had earlier been discussed and rejected. “I thought it was bad idea then and a bad idea now,” he said.
Sheena Postlewait, a board member, said she was told City Administrator Scott Avery is in charge of day-to-day operations of the pool and she wondered why the policy change had been made. She said fallout from the public has been extensive, and she wanted it to know the park board was unaware of the changes.
Viki Narancich, a former council member, asked the council to reinstitute a rope that marked where the pool begins to descend deeper. Avery said it obstructs the handicap ramp, and it is being operated as designed. It has never been in place, he said Tuesday.
“These are safety issues for our children,” she said. “Someone almost got hurt this week and you know that because of these changes. That’s on you now. And that is going to be on the council now, too. You have to watch our kids and protect them.”
Shalena Purcell expressed concern for the wear on lifeguards. Her daughter is one of them. Jennifer Shelton, a board member and parent, learned about the change last Wednesday while at the pool with children and inquired. She said in a text Avery told her that the concerns did not fit into the board’s authorized duties.
“The community really seems to think we have a lot to do with this,” she told the council.
Mayor Willy Walker thanked those attending and offering their input, and expressed gratitude for them presenting the information.
Walker later asked the council’s parks and public grounds committee to quickly study the matter and said it is a top priority.
Following the meeting, Avery said lifeguards are receiving up to 30-minute breaks every 1 to 1.5 hours as they rotate through positions. The lifeguards, he said, have received those breaks since opening.
He said the earlier 10-minute breaks for children resulted into “lifeguards playing with pool toys and not focusing on that accountability that we heard about last night.” The change was sparked about he received a call from a citizen, he said.
The city pool will return to 10-minute breaks, and lifeguards will focus on their duties and not play, he said.
In other matters, members:
•Instituted paperwork to capture funds from the America Recovery Plan Act.
•Heard that progress is being made on obtaining new landing lights at the Houston Memorial Airport. Additional lighting also might be successful in a FAA-funded program.
•Split on hiring a firm to string additional wiring for the second phase of a fiber-to-the-home system (no – members Kevin Stilley, Sheila Walker and Angie Gettys. The mayor broke the tie to buy it). The cost is $27,310. The city’s electrical department will install required hardware on poles. A contractor also did the wiring for phase one.
•Heard a progress report on the city’s move to automatic utility meter reading. There are 253 electrical meters in place and another 132 water members and some additional transmission equipment in place. It authorized the final purchase of needed electrical meters totaling $150,479.
•Will continue to operate its own municipal court system under a statewide automation program, as recommended by city attorney Brad Eidson. One of the other options was moving it to the county associate circuit court system. Eidson urged maintaining control over its courts system and the collection of fines.
•On a 4-2 vote approved a job description for a community development and outreach director (Stilley and Ross Richardson voted no). The new lower pay scale for the new post — which had previously been an economic development position — will also allow the city to hire a laborer to assist in the parks department. The previous job was held by Rob Harrington who left recently for a similar position in Kansas.
•Revisited an issue related to an electrical rate study after learning there will be no charge through its association with its wholesale buying group.