Gary, oh! O'Connell finally agrees to halt dam
In the ongoing fight over the future water supply, the mayor seems to have finally won a victory over his top executive, City Manager Gary O'Connell, who has been steadfastly attempting to advance what a growing number of critics consider an environmentally and financially questionable 50-year water plan. A sentence adhered November 3 to the bottom of an O'Connell-submitted document [DOC, PDF] finally makes it abundantly clear that construction on the plan's centerpiece, a new dam, must halt until Council gets the information it seeks.
Ironically, given his steady pursuit of the mega-reservoir at Ragged Mountain, even announcing "full steam ahead" after organized opposition emerged, it was O'Connell himself who suggested adding the sentence.
"The new estimated costs on the dam have certainly raised new questions," O'Connell tells the Hook.
"I'm glad to see he's made that jump," says former City Councilor Kevin Lynch, who has been fighting the water plan, which would pump Rivanna River water 9.5 miles uphill to a new reservoir flanking Interstate 64. O'Connell, who been serving on the five-person Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority Board throughout the Board's reliance on Gannett Fleming, which first began dismissing dredging in 2003 [PDF], the year the company was hired by a prior leader to carry out a plan that included dredging.
"For years now," says Lynch, "it's seemed the Rivanna Board just shows up and does whatever Tom Frederick"–- the executive director–- "recommends. What this says to me is that Gary [O'Connell] and Council are finally judging the material on its merits rather than just following the plan because it's the plan."
Lynch remembers feeling shocked by a June 15 email in which O'Connell expresses ignorance [PDF] of the fact that the old Ragged Mountain dam (supposedly in need of total replacement, according to some plan backers), could meet all state standards with a $3.5-million fix.
"If these guys spent a quarter of the energy studying the material that they have [spent] on defending the plan," says Lynch, "then they'd realize that the plan isn't worth defending. And I'd like to think that that's what happened."
Lynch recalls what happened after questions arose over possibly inflated figures submitted by a Pennsylvania engineering firm called Gannett Fleming. Mayor Dave Norris sought a resolution seeking an independent dredging study, but what was handed to Norris and the other Councilors by O'Connell on the night of the May 19 public hearing was a point-by-point endorsement of the controversial plan.
Although a June 2 Council vote eventually forced O'Connell to include language calling for dredging and conservation [DOC, PDF], it was maneuvers like this that brought another former City Councilor into the fray. Three days later, Republican Rob Schilling declared on his WINA radio program that O'Connell was running a "fiefdom."
"There does seem to be some indication that Gary is coming around," says Lynch. "Hopefully, what we're seeing here is the political process at work. I take this as an encouraging sign."
"We made it very clear that the reservoir was created for water supply," Norris said at the November 3 Council meeting. "I hope that our County counterparts will concur."
–last updated 12:25pm, November10