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Why Willard Pool Was Filled

By Steven Finacom (News Analysis)
Wednesday January 12, 2011 - 10:10:00 AM
Steven Finacom
Willard Pool as it actually looked this week.  Last week's picture was a conceptual rendering.
Steven Finacom
Willard Pool as it actually looked this week. Last week's picture was a conceptual rendering.

The filling in of Willard Pool on Telegraph Avenue was justified by City staff as a public safety and cost-savings measure, according to a mid-December memo sent to City Councilmembers.

But there appears to have been no City announcement that the pool was to be filled—around New Year’s Day, when City offices were officially closed—an event that caught neighbors by surprise. 

The Planet was the first news source to report the filling in the January 5 issue, posting the information from a neighbor early on the morning of that day. Other news outlets picked up the story later in the day. 

In the days since, both the official reasons for the pool filling and neighborhood reactions have become better defined. The pool had been closed in June 2010, but community interest in finding funds to renovate and operate it remained high. The pool was one of three operated by the City and the only one in south or east Berkeley. 

According to a memo sent by City Manager Phil Kamlarz to the City Council, dated December 17, 2010, “In order to ensure the safety of children, local residents and any one who might access the facility, the City is filling Willard pool with soil. The Berkeley Unified School District has been consulted about this process and is supportive of it as well, especially due to the safety issues.”

“Filling the pool with soil does not preclude its future repair and renovation”, Kamlarz continued. “The current pool shell is not usable and would have to be replaced in any event. The soil can be removed in the future when and if there are funds available to renovate the pool to appropriate safety standards. In the meantime, this approach allows the City to stop incurring the costs associated with filtering and chlorinating the pool. Additionally, and most importantly, it is the safest way to protect children and others from drowning or hurting themselves.” 

The memo then goes on to detail the reasons for closing the pool in July. It concludes, “After reviewing multiple options, City staff, in consultation with BUSD, determined that the safest option, both from a community safety and a City liability standpoint, is to fill the pool with soil.” 

The memo is cc’d to the Deputy City Manager, City Clerk, City Auditor, William Rogers (Parks, Recreation & Waterfront Director), and Mary Kay Clunies-Ross (Public Information Officer from the City). 

It’s unclear if this memo was sent only to Councilmembers and certain City staff, or if it had a more public distribution. I searched the City’s website to no avail looking for a posted, publicly accessible, copy.  

“It’s a sad but not an unsurmountable obstacle that the City filled Willard Pool with dirt,” says Councilmember Kriss Worthington who represents District 7 where Willard Pool is located. 

“It is unfortunate that the City rushed and filled the pool on or around New Years Eve. This is not an auspicious way to begin the new year.”  

“It would have been better if the City waited for the budget process to see whether the City Council had five votes to fund the pool”, Worthington added. “But in spite of this fact, the pool has been filled. We will see whether we can rehabilitate or reinstate the pool. It would have been more respectful to the community if we were given notice of the filling and the City to wait for the budget vote.” 

(Worthington and other Councilmembers did receive notice through the December 17 memo but there was no City announcement to the community of the impending fill project. Wozniack’s District 8 “issues and updates” page on his City website contains no postings I could find since March 2010. The most recent on-line district newsletter on Worthington’s website is “Summer 2010”; his website also includes the Council items from last summer on Willard Pool temporary funding.) 

Neighborhood reaction to the pool filling seemed generally discouraged; “sad” was the most commonly used term. I asked readers of the Le Conte neighborhood chat group (which also has readers in Willard) if they had views they’d like to share. Here’s a selection. 

George Beier, President of the Willard Neighborhood Association (and 2010 candidate for City Council) told me January 4, “I didn’t get any formal notice about it—but some people were curious about it and (District 8 Councilmember) Gordon W(ozniak) sent an e-mail to a friend that I saw describing this as a safety measure.” The Willard neighborhood is divided, north to south, between District 7 and District 8. 

“Apparently this is being done as a ‘safety measure’. To keep it full was a hazard, and to keep it drained was a hazard, so it was filled in with dirt,” Beier paraphrased Wozniak’s message.  

“This was a sad surprise,” says Linda Rosen, who lives a few blocks from the pool. “Who paid for them to do this?” 

“Pathetic and sad” writes Todd Darling, who lives in Le Conte. “The dirt filling a public swimming pool is a pretty sharp indictment of our current level of stewardship. We had to bury the pool in order to save it.” 

“I remember when the pool was built, it was a great addition to programming at Willard as they were able to offer swimming to students,” wrote Thomas Ratcliff. “As students, we had swimming lessons, which in addition to being great physical exercise had a public health consequence as more people became swimmers and thus were less likely to drown in their lifetimes as a consequence.” 

“In its present state, I do not "blame" anyone”, Ratcliff added. “The pool had huge repair and update issues that were unsurmountable in the current economic times. It is a sad day to lose this community amenity. I, however, am not hopeful about re-opening this pool anytime soon as the city budget is headed for the ditch and other higher priority items will have to be attended to.” 

“I swam at Willard and more recently did Senior Water Aerobics there”, writes Le Conte resident Donna Mickleson. “I want to believe that the filling with dirt is a cost-saving measure (due to water leakage and the expense of keeping the aging pumps working) for a year or two until we can pass a bond measure that will rebuild the pools. As far as the liability/safety arguments are concerned, my question is this: Why haven't they been raised during the many years we've had two out of three City pools closed for at least six months a year? The only difference with Willard is that it is in worse physical condition, and when Measure C failed last June, the City closed it. But we were told that it could be re-opened if and when money is found--which very likely means a bond measure.” 

“I really hope that those who like myself are saddened to see what's behind that fence now, also voted and worked for Measure C. This wouldn't be happening if it had passed, and if we're to see clear blue water where there's dirt now, we'll have to work to make it happen.” 

Suzy Cortes, another Le Conte resident, had this to say. “I started swimming at Willard when I first moved to the neighborhood, in 1965. I have always loved swimming but because I don't drive I'm limited in where I can go. Willard is walking distance from my home. I took both my sons there and they took swimming lessons for years. Several times we rented the pool for neighborhood parties. My sons have grown up and so my grandsons began to come to Willard to swim and take lessons. I was devastated when the pool closed. I am 71 now and need to swim more than ever. I know there are other pools, farther away, harder to get to. Sometimes I get to one of them. But Willard was MY POOL. I seldom swim now.” 

(That comment reminded me of one of the Council discussions on the Willard pool operational funding last summer. Mayor Bates, who also lives in Le Conte, wondered out loud from the podium why people couldn’t just walk to West Berkeley from the Willard area and use the West Campus pool. He walks to West Berkeley all the time, he said; it’s no big deal.) 

It “just bothers me that low income kids may not have access to this pool. This was a summer favorite for so many kids in Oakland. Sad”, wrote Julie Ann Bacceilli. 

"The pool closing is a tragic loss for the community” wrote Larry Bensky, describing himself as a 32-year Le Conte homeowner. “My daughter, now 14, learned to swim there, and continued classes through Junior Lifeguard. Dozens of school and community groups used the pool regularly. For them, getting to King or West Campus is difficult if not impossible. An entire section of the city has been hurt by this politically manipulated action. Shame on Mayor Bates, Councilmember Maio and others who refused to keep the pool open in order to try to deprive Kriss Worthington of the victory he won anyway." 

The last sentence refers to the controversy that arose during the District 7 City Council campaign last year when George Beier, one of two candidates running against incumbent Kriss Worthington, was quoted by the Daily Californian as telling the Cal Young Democrats organization in September that two unnamed Councilmembers told him they supported keeping Willard Pool open but voted against temporary operational funding last summer because they wanted to deny Worthington a pre-election victory in his district. 

Beier refused during the campaign to say which Councilmembers had talked to him, telling the Daily Cal that his mention of the phone calls was “indiscreet.” He also organized in June 2010, an unsuccessful effort to persuade the City Council to fund summer operation of Willard, suggesting as a funding source part of the subsidy the City gives to municipal employees to use the Downtown Berkeley YMCA for free. 

While arguing for retention of the pool, Worthington opposed Beier’s specific proposal, arguing that taking funds that had been negotiated in contracts with City workers was both illegal and unfair to employees. Worthington and District 8 Councilmember Gordon Wozniak alternatively proposed that some street paving in their districts should be deferred in order to keep the pool from closing during the summer. 

Both the Beier and Worthington proposals were rejected by the Council and the end of June closure went ahead. 

“We will see whether we can rehabilitate or re-instate the pool”, Worthington said in a recent email to the Bateman Neighborhood Association. “There has been some suggestion that two City Council members wanted to support and vote to keep Willard pool open, but not during the elections. If this is in fact true, we will try hard to get the four previous ‘Yes’ votes and the other two votes as well.” 

A third former candidate in the District 7 election, Ces Rosales—whose spouse is Berkeley City Parks Superintendant Sue Ferrara—e-mailed the Le Conte group during the discussion about the pool filling, saying that she had talked to a City staffer who told her the pool “will probably be temporarily converted into a garden.” 

An e-mail inquiry I sent to Phil Harper-Cotton, the staff member she identified as her source, had not been returned by press time for this article.