Johnson City emails give insight about Parks and Rec safety concerns

JOHNSON CITY, TN (WJHL)  – A Community Watchdog investigation into safety concerns within the Johnson City Parks and Recreation Department sparked concerns from two city commissioners and prompted the city to address one of the issues internally.

Public emails reveal the city manager sent an email to commissioners addressing our findings the morning after our story aired.

Despite Johnson City City Manager Pete Peterson saying in that email that we sensationalized the facts in our story, he admitted the city did make a mistake in regards to one of the safety issues we highlighted regarding the Winged Deer Park concession stand fryer hood fire suppression system.

Fire code requires someone to inspect and clean that system every six months, but our investigation back in July revealed that major safety device meant to save the building from a grease fire went almost three years without a documented inspection or cleaning.

“The issue raised was that it hadn’t been inspected,” Peterson said in his email. “There are no excuses…That too was immediately corrected once we were made aware of the need for an inspection.”

Peterson addressed that failure with us earlier this week.

“Every now and then something’s going to fall through the cracks, but we always work real hard to learn from our mistakes and we’ve debriefed on that particular situation and we will continue to debrief after all of our safety inspections to insure that we’re operating as quickly and as effectively as we can,” Peterson said.

Click here to see copies of the public emails referencing our community watchdog report. (.PDF)

Our finding prompted concern from the city’s assistant fire marshal and a completely different reaction from the parks and recreation director.

As a result, emails reveal Commissioner David Tomita responded to the city manager’s email with a concern of his own.

“What disturbed me the most was one City department basically calling out another City department publicly,” Tomita said. “There was clearly a breakdown of communication somewhere along the line and I’d be interested in how that is reconciled.”

Peterson says a miscommunication was to blame.

“We’ve talked about it and I think it was more a matter of miscommunication and not all the parties that needed to be talking to each other had been,” he said. “There were respective members of each department that had talked about it, but we have addressed that and I feel very comfortable that we have a good process in place.”

When an inspector finally took a look at that exhaust hood he recommended upgrades. As we previously reported, those upgrades took some time. In fact, the city didn’t move forward with an official quote to make the overdue upgrades until the day after we started asking questions. The city completed the upgrades a week later.

“Contrary to what Nate was trying to portray, we had all of the safety issues either already corrected, or in process of correcting BEFORE his ‘investigation,’ Peterson wrote in his email to commissioners. “This all started with a former employee that in my opinion wants to ‘get back’ at the City for his termination. The termination was based solely on unsatisfactory job performance, and insubordination.”

The city manager reiterated that point earlier this week, saying the same thing the parks and recreation director told us back in July.

“The correction of that problem actually was in place prior to your story or your conversation with the former employee, so I feel very sure that the proper action was being taken,” Peterson said. “The proper methods of correction had been identified.”

Peterson says the city’s risk management team and insurance carrier routinely perform safety inspections in its park system. He says the city is proactively working to keep all facilities safe.

“We can’t immediately correct everything that we come across the very time or the very day that we find it, but we do keep a list of that and we work them off,” Peterson said.

In an email to Peterson Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin thanked the city manager for alerting commissioners about our story, but asked for more advance notice next time this type of issue comes up.

“Next time get this to us before the issue ends up on TV,” the mayor wrote in his email.

Copyright WJHL 2015. All rights reserved.

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