On thin ice? Christmas Eve skate draws debate

MacKinnon says contractor erred in letting people skate before rink's opening

Posted: Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Juneau Assembly member Marc Wheeler and local attorney Joe Geldhof, who have been criticized for briefly skating at the soon-to-be-opened Treadwell Arena, said they were invited to do so by the project's superintendent.

The skate on Christmas Eve drew an editorial "thumbs down" from Juneau Empire Publisher Don Smith, liability questions and a volley of political charges.

After receiving a letter from Interim City Manager John MacKinnon about liability concerns, the project's contractor said his company erred in allowing the public to use the rink before it opened. Contractor Wayne Coogan said his company's insurance policies don't allow public access to the project.

"It appears Coogan is the only entity to make a mistake in this matter," he wrote. "We created the controversy, we accept the blame, and we ask for your forbearance and forgiveness."

The rink, which is expected to open in early February, hasn't been transferred to the city yet, MacKinnon said. In a letter to Coogan Construction on Dec. 30, MacKinnon said the city will not authorize anyone to use the rink until it is completed.

"If equipment was damaged or people, we could also be named in any legal action," he said in an interview. "We've got to try to cover ourselves everywhere we can and lawsuits are easy to file."

Geldhof, who represents the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association - a city employee union - is an avid skater who supported the Treadwell project. He said he has been following the rink's progress and had visited the facility in Douglas before. He made it a practice to meet project superintendent Robert Schenker for coffee, he said.

"I decided to go over there because I was invited. The interim city manager knew about it," he said. "I was really excited to see how CIMCO (the refrigeration subcontractor) did with the first shot of ice, and I'm pleased to report that it was great."

Wheeler, too, said he was invited by Schenker to stop by for a skate. He had visited the rink four or five times and updated local hockey players about the progress. Wheeler said he had campaign photos taken inside the rink this fall and no one said anything about liability.

"I squeezed in about five minutes on the ice and talked to the workers," he said. "It's going to be a great project for the community. ... I don't know who in their right mind would have turned that down. Maybe I was a little exuberant."

The ice was scratched before the two went skating, indicating they weren't the first people to try it out, Wheeler said.

Geldhof described MacKinnon's letter about liability issues as "cheesy," pointing out that dozens of community members were invited to watch workers install the concrete rink base this fall.

"I don't think there was any liability to the city and borough," he said. "Sure, the contractor probably had some limited liability, which is roughly the same if the people who were drinking coffee when they were watching the concrete being poured spilled coffee on themselves and decided to sue the contractor for their own negligence."

MacKinnon said watching a concrete pour is different from people "recreating on a sheet of ice." He was told about the skate beforehand, after running into the project superintendent at 3:30 p.m., he said.

"And I said, probably not in so many words, 'I don't want to hear anything to do with that, that's not authorized use,' " he said.

Geldhof said the skate was not a "christening" as characterized by Smith in an editorial on Sunday. He talked with Smith about the incident last week, he said.

"The clear implication I had was Mr. Smith had information he would use if I didn't follow his political agenda," he said. "I think he wanted support in two areas - assistance getting MacKinnon as the permanent city manager and he wanted help getting (former Assembly member) Don Etheridge on the Docks and Harbors Board."

Smith, in an interview today, described Geldhof's statement as "an outright lie." Geldhof called him last week about working together to put a pro-development candidate on the Docks and Harbors Board, Smith said. MacKinnon's name didn't come up at all, he said.

"I didn't ask for favors on this. He manufactured that comment," he said. "It wasn't a political issue at all."

Smith said he did mention to Geldhof and Wheeler that he thought it was "poor judgment" for public officials to use the rink before an official public opening. An e-mail from Smith to Wheeler on Jan. 8 mentions both the city charter in reference to MacKinnon's appointment and the ice rink issue. Smith said the two items were "totally independent" and there was no connection between them.

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