A few days ago I suggested some issues the Salem Statesman Journal should unleash some investigative reporting on. Among them was numero uno:
(1) The role of the three current Republican county commissioners in letting construction defects at Courthouse Square go unattended to for so long, until the building was declared unusable. Cracks, settling, and such were evident early on. Whenever this has been noted in stories about Courthouse Square, the questioning of commissioners on this subject isn't pursued by the reporter. Why not?
I appreciate how Michael Rose, the SJ reporter who has done some fine work on uncovering how the Courthouse Square debacle resulted in an unusable newly built building/transit mall in the heart of downtown Salem (Oregon), responded via some Twitter messages.
But Rose failed to point out any of his reporting that was focused on what I said above: why didn't county commissioners Sam Brentano, Patti Milne, and Janet Carlson immediately deal with the construction problems that became obvious even before Courthouse Square opened in 2000, and which were even more obvious throughout 2002?
In one of his stories,"Courthouse Square's Red Flags," Rose led off with:
When cracks appeared at the tops of columns during construction of Courthouse Square in 2000, the defects were taken seriously by Melvin Mark Development Co., a Portland firm hired as a project manager.
The cracks were in critical locations beneath the bus mall at Courthouse Square. Melvin Mark wanted to be "absolutely certain the structural integrity of the bus mall has not been, and will not be, compromised," the company stated in a Feb. 18, 2000, letter to the project's architect.
Melvin Mark recommended getting a second engineering opinion about the cracks. Marion County and transit district officials agreed, according to a February letter from Melvin Mark to Arbuckle Costic Architects.
That second opinion was never received. In fact, it was never even sought.
Instead, Mike Hayford, the structural engineer who designed Courthouse Square, was summoned by county and transit officials. He proclaimed in a July 11, 2000, letter that the cracks were "cosmetic in nature and need only be patched and or epoxy-injected."
Ten years after Hayford's assurances, city building and safety officials ordered the evacuation of the Courthouse Square office building and the closure of the adjoining bus mall. Engineers now say the cracks were a symptom of structural problems that a shot of epoxy didn't cure.
In 2000, current Marion County commissioner Patti Milne was in office. Yet to my knowledge the Statesman Journal has never reported why she and other county officials ignored the warnings of the Courthouse Square project manager, instead trusting the guy who was reponsible for designing the building.
The Statesman Journal has tirelessly dug into records of the Willamette Educational Service District and demanded that the state make public personal information of every PERS retiree.
So I'd like to see the newspaper be equally committed to laying bare every bit of written and email correspondence to and from Marion County officials, elected and otherwise, regarding construction defects apparent in Courthouse Square from February 2000 onward (cracked walls and concrete pillars, settling paving stones, leaking windows, etc.).
Also, to interview those officials. What did they know? When did they know it? Who decided to ignore the problems?
This isn't the first time I've asked these sorts of questions in a blog post. Here's some excerpts from my 2010 "Lessons of Salem's Courthouse Square debacle."
Who says nothing interesting ever happens in Salem (Oregon)? Well, I do, a lot.
But ever since it was reported that recently constructed Courthouse Square -- a building that houses most county offices, along with the downtown transit mall -- is in serious danger of falling down, things have been popping in the local newspaper.
Today the Statesman Journal ran a bunch of stories and opinion pieces about this debacle. The $34 million building, which takes up an entire block, is being vacated as quickly as possible. It might not be repairable.
Yet it opened just ten years ago, in 2000, when one of the three current Republican county commissioners, Patti Milne, was in office. The other commissioners came along a bit later, Janet Carlson in 2002 and Sam Brentano in 2003.
All of them are open to the eminently justifiable criticism that they fiddled around while Courthouse Square came ever closer to falling to the ground.
Somehow I suspect that if three Democratic commissioners had overseen this massive waste of taxpayer money (structural problems became apparent in 2002, but were never effectively addressed), the Chamber of Commerce-dominated Statesman Journal would be a lot harder on the politicians in charge.
Now, I'm not saying that news coverage decisions at the Statesman Journal are related to editorial positiions. However, many readers of the newspaper believe this is the case. So I'm not saying, but other people do.
It's a fact that the Statesman Journal editorial board endorsed Patti Milne for re-election in 2010 over her Democratic opponent, Jason Freilinger, who made Milne's "fiddling while Rome burns" attitude toward Courthouse Square part of his campaign.
And it's a fact that the Statesman Journal editorial board opposed a citizen initiative to add two commissioners to the Marion County Board, and make the commissioner positions non-partisan. This was intended to improve decision-making on the currently over-cozy board, where two people control important county policies.
My main point, though, is that the public deserves to know why construction defects at Courthouse Square were brushed off as unimportant for so long by county officials when they first became apparent.
Heck, whenever my wife and I have work done on our home (like new windows being installed), we always check out the quality of what we paid for. If there's a problem, we contact whoever did the work and make sure it is fixed.
The Marion County commissioners, all of whom are still in office, didn't do that when Courthouse Square started to fall apart as soon as it was constructed. Since it now looks like it could cost more to repair the project than it cost to build it, and some $20 million is still owed on Courthouse Square, the public deserves all the facts about what went wrong.