When city officials gathered in Paw Park on April 4 to kickoff the renovation of the city’s second most popular park, they promised it would be done in about 4 months.
That was 9 months ago and still the park remains closed. The city swears there will be a ceremony Feb. 11 to reopen the park. It may very well happen, but I’m not holding my breath.
Why is the project taking so long?
The short answer comes down to three things: a city planner who failed to properly plan the project and then lied to the public about it; shockingly lax oversight by the city manager’s office; and elected officials who are blissfully distracted by shiny objects.
Now I know these are some pretty serious charges I’m making. I’m going to prove my case with facts and documents, but it’s not a short read. Find some place comfortable to sit.
“It couldn’t be helped”
At the September 12, 2016, Sanford City Commission work session meeting, Historic Preservation Officer Christine Dalton, the city staff member overseeing the planning for the park renovations, was asked to give a brief update about the lack of progress at Paw Park. The project was suppose to be finished in early August, yet little had been done. Rather than paraphrase her comments, I have transcribed her explanation:
“So at the onset of the project the goal was to have it done in about four months, and what’s happened in the time since they started and now is construction is booming all over the region, so the lead times that we originally got on products and materials in many cases have like tripled, and I think with one it’s kinda 4 or 5 times what the original lead time was, and so that’s delayed just basically the progress on the project, … and this is just, it couldn’t be helped,” Ms. Dalton said.
I’ve chosen not to clean up Ms. Dalton’s quote because that’s the way she said it – one giant run-on sentence. It was as if she was trying to string together enough words to prevent comprehension, yet still sound like she had thoroughly answered the question as to why Paw Park is still not open. You can listen to the audio here. The Paw Park stuff starts at about the 1 hour 38 minute mark.
Ms. Dalton went on to add:
“And I know people are frustrated but they should understand that this project was originally a $600,000 project, and by not taking a project manager, management company on and putting it out there like that and doing, managing it internally has brought it down to about a $300,000 project.”
Christine Dalton is lying. I’m not talking about little white lies. These are whopper lies, so let’s start there.
Lie #1 – There are delays, but the city is saving money
Ms. Dalton contends that the rehab work currently going on at Paw Park was originally a $600,000 project and because the city is managing the project in-house, that cost has reduced to $300,000.
Don’t believe me? Check out Page 25 of this document. It’s a budget Ms. Dalton submitted in November 2014 to the Seminole County Commission asking for $693,565 in 17-92 CRA funds to rehabilitate Paw Park Village (Paw Park Village is the designation given to both the Paw Park AND all of the properties immediately surrounding the park, including roads and privately owned parcels). That project included major renovation to the streets and utilities, parking improvements, a 1-block segment of pedestrian trail, and landscaping and parking improvements for Pet Rescue by Judy.
When you look at the document (next to last page) you see only about 10% of the money requested was to go for improvements to the actual park. The rest of the money was to be spent outside the park. That’s right, the original plan in 2014 called for $70,000 in renovations to Paw Park, not the $600,000 Ms. Dalton incessantly repeats like a yoga mantra. The County Commission only allocated $70,000 for the project.
Still don’t believe me? Here’s a press release the city issued on May 12, 2015 stating the renovations are $70,000 and denying the project is a $700,000 project, which is bizarre since city staff are now claiming it was once a $600,000 project.
Need even more proof? Almost one year ago, Ms. Dalton wrote a memo to City Commission and she clearly states “The total project cost is $226,735 …” Again, here’s the document. The memo was about 10 weeks before the ground-breaking ceremony, and the cost had tripled the original $70,000, but was still way less than $600,000.
Ms Dalton is playing a classic game of misdirection. She’s trying to get everyone focused on the “savings” so they won’t notice the second big lie she told commissioners.
Lie #2 – Booming construction is causing delays
So what about the claim that the delays at Paw Park are because of booming construction in the region and super long lead times for materials?
That’s bullshit, too.
Ms. Dalton is correct that construction in Central Florida has dramatically increased in the last year and some of the equipment the city needs is taking longer to be delivered than anticipated. But those are symptoms, not the root causes for the delays.
The renovations are 6 months behind schedule because Ms. Dalton – who told me in an email that she was “the staff person responsible” for overseeing the planning and design – failed to ensure the needed documents were provided to the purchasing department and public works in a timely manner.
At the April 4 groundbreaking ceremony, the city had no certified construction plans, bid documents or even a contractor to do the work.
Construction drawings were signed April 20, 2016, 16 days after Paw Park was closed. The plans were delivered to the city a week later according to John Jones of Littlejohn Engineering, the company that stamped and certified the drawings. That’s 3 weeks after the official ground breaking ceremony.
Without signed construction documents, the city’s purchasing department could not put the work out to bid for a portion of the project the city could not do in-house. The bid finally went out May 5, 2016, with a May 26, 2016 deadline.
The city commission approved the successful bid at its June 13, 2016, meeting, the commission’s first meeting after the bid openings.
More than two months after the groundbreaking, a contractor was finally approved to start work and order materials, the same materials that have the long lead times. Shouldn’t this have raised red flags for commissioners or City Manager Norton Bonaparte? Absolutely, but more on that in a minute.
Why were the plans so late in arriving? And wouldn’t that be the fault of Littlejohn, and not Ms. Dalton?
The original construction drawings were completed in May 2015, because there was a June 30, 2015 deadline to have the plans complete in order to receive a $25,000 state grant. So plans were available nearly a year before the April 4, 2016 groundbreaking.
Those plans, however, were completely abandoned and a new design was created. The landscape architect at Littlejohn Engineering, Eddie Browder, told me his original plans had to be “value-engineered” by city staffer Chris Smith because the city didn’t have the money for his original design.
Remember, the budget was $70,000. Why there was a delay of almost 12 months for the plans to be value engineered has not been explained.
Continue reading below …
But wait, what about lights?
More than 3 months into what was supposed to be a 4-month construction project, Ms. Dalton decided the layout of the existing lights did not work, so all of the lights had to be removed and new conduit, wiring, and light bases reinstalled.
In a July 12, 2016 email to Sonia Fonseca, the program manager for the 17-92 CRA, Ms. Dalton requested more money ($50,000) from the CRA, in part to pay for relocating the lighting. She explained the need this way:
“A dedicated area for small dogs has been created, which extends along the entire south end of the park. This area has new walkways were none previously existed. The configuration and number of the existing lights in the park are not adequate to light the new pathways, potentially posing a safety problem,” Ms. Dalton wrote.
Three months after the park is closed, it is determined that the lighting is “not adequate to light the new pathways?” Shouldn’t this have been put into the original plans? I asked Ms. Dalton for an explanation, but got almost the exact same response that she wrote the CRA director.
And what about those long lead times for equipment? A kiosk that is suppose to be one of the focal points in the park, finally arrived just before Christmas. It had a 16-week lead time. That means it was ordered in the middle of August, after the project was supposed to be finished.
All of these facts were known by Ms. Dalton at the time she was asked to brief City Commission about the reasons for the delay. She didn’t mention a single iota of the information I have provided here. Instead she blamed the booming construction economy. That qualifies as a lie, right?
Why close the park in April?
Given the fact that construction plans were not complete, a contractor had not been selected, material and equipment had not been ordered and the lighting had to be relocated, why did the city close the park on April 4?
Ms. Dalton says the date was chosen by Jeff Davis, the project manager from public works, because construction would occur “during the hottest months of the year. The park is least used in the summer months.”
Mr. Davis and his boss, Public Works Director Bilal Iftikhar, emphatically said they had zero input and that Ms. Dalton selected the date. The City’s Communications Officer, Lisa Holder, also told me the Ms. Dalton gave her the date.
I believe the public works guys for two reasons: First, Ms. Dalton has lied about the cost and the reasons for the delays; and second, with no construction drawings, no contractor, no materials and no equipment, why would public works want to shut the park down? There is no work for them to do without all that stuff.
So what happens now?
Ms. Dalton needs to face severe consequences. It’s one thing to mess up in your job. It happens to the best employees. But it is quite another thing to lie to your bosses, elected officials and the public. In her job as historic preservation officer, Ms. Dalton has unilateral authority to make certain decisions that affect property owners. After this, will the public trust her again?
However, the senior leadership at City Hall and City Manager Norton Bonaparte must be held accountable and face consequences, as well.
Why didn’t Russ Gibson, Director of Planning andDevelopment Services provide better oversight of Ms. Dalton’s work? Why didn’t Public Works director Bilal Iftikhar or Deputy City Manager Tom George speak up? They’ve both overseen dozens of projects that have been done on time and on budget. By July, they knew this project months behind schedule. Mr. Iftikhar told me in September this project was FUBAR from the get-go.
“It has been given to us piecemeal. This is not the normal process,” he said. “We’re just trying to do our best. It’s not about who’s at fault. We just want to get the job done.”
I understand the point he’s trying to make, but if something’s fouled up, a department director needs to take action. If one of those senior managers had provided better oversight or stepped in to alert Mr. Bonaparte that the project was going off the rails, the public would not have been fed lies for months.
Ultimately, I believe Gibson, Iftikhar and George did not speak up because City Manager Norton Bonaparte practices the Sgt. Schultz theory of management – He sees nothing! He knows nothing!
When alerted to issues, his approach is perplexing at best. Immediately after Ms. Dalton lied to commissioners at the Sept. 12 work session meeting, I met with Mr. Bonaparte to relay my concerns about Ms. Dalton’s comments based on what I had already uncovered. I specifically said, “She’s lying.” He promised he would follow up.
A week later, Mr. Bonaparte was still directing questions about Paw Park to Ms. Dalton, and had no follow-up to our earlier conversation.
On Jan. 10 – four months after I raised my original concerns – Mr. Bonaparte finally held a meeting with Mr. Gibson and Mr. Iftikhar regarding the issues I had raised. He admitted “the project was not properly managed.” But that meeting between the three managers only happened after I had some rather blunt words with the city manager the day before.
If a staff member is accused of giving improper information to elected officials and the public, why would the city manager not immediately search for answers? For months Mr. Bonaparte has allowed Ms. Dalton to perpetuate her lies.
City commissioners are just as much to blame for failing to adequately hold Mr Bonaparte’s feet to the fire on why it’s taking so long to complete Paw Park. They’ve been less than engaged on this issue. I realize commissioners are paid peanuts and have to deal with more than most of us would ever put up with. But dang it, man, someone needs to starting paying attention!
Why didn’t a single commissioner question why they were approving a contractor for the project two months after the project started? Mayor Jeff Triplett is a banker and Commissioner Art Woodruff is known for doing his homework, why didn’t they question why Ms. Dalton was asking for a budget amendment to transfer $100,000 from recreational impact fees on the same day staff submitted $775,000 in unmet parks and recreation needs? Paw Park got funding when other parks had greater needs. In essence, commissioners in this case gave up their policy-making authority on budget issues by allowing a staff member to determine what the priorities would be.
And Commissioner Patty Mahany was more focused on getting a chainsaw artist to carve a replica of her dead cat on a stump than questioning why no progress had been made. The commissioner was with Ms. Dalton in July when the Ms. Dalton mentioned the need for new lighting.
“I remember when she brought that up. We were standing in the middle of the park. It didn’t even register with me. We were just having such a hard time getting a chainsaw artist,” Commissioner Mahany told me in September.
If it sounds like I’m a little aggravated, I am. You see, to me there are issues deeper than just Paw Park. Let’s be honest, renovating and reopening a dog park is important, but it’s not the most pressing issue facing City Hall.
Allowing lies to be disseminated to the public, however, creates mistrust in our local government. If city leaders are o.k. with lying about park renovations, what will they lie about next? How will city leaders and staff have any credibility to counter some of the ridiculousness that gets spewed on social media?
And if Mr. Bonaparte is out of touch on a minor issue like Paw Park, how engaged will he be on really big issues like the catalyst site? I can tell you that deal is starting to smell sour, in part because the city manager has taken his usual hands-off approach. That’s story coming soon.
The way this gets fixed is for city commissioners to start reading their agenda packets and start asking critical questions. The commissioners also need to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with Mr. Bonaparte. That meeting should happen tonight when commissioners give Mr. Bonaparte his annual evaluation. I would suggest a written reprimand and withholding the 3% raise he is expecting.
I mean really, we require owners to pick up their dogs’ poop at Paw Park. Shouldn’t City Hall do the same thing when they make a mess?