TAMPA — Less than a month after a toddler drowned in the Hillsborough River, the City Council voted Thursday to explore the idea of installing fences at Tampa parks with lakes, beaches or access to the river.
"How we can balance the two things that happen at parks — the enjoyment of the natural beauty we're trying to preserve with the safety we're obligated to provide?" City Council member Mike Suarez asked.
The discussion followed the death of 2-year-old Armani Pierce, who slipped away and drowned the night of Aug. 13 after his family went to a youth football practice at Temple Crest Park, which is on the eastern bank of the river.
On Aug. 22, City Council member Frank Reddick asked for a report on the feasibility of installing a fence at Temple Crest Park, where the playground is next to the river, to prevent another child from wandering off and drowning.
In response, the parks department this week gave the council a report not about Temple Crest, but about putting up fences at all city parks with water features.
Tampa has 151 parks, 69 with some sort of water feature. Altogether, those parks include 38.5 miles of shoreline.
Fencing all that would be too expensive, officials said.
Beyond that, City Attorney Julia Mandell urged the council not to discuss something — the drowning last month — that could lead to a lawsuit against the city.
That wasn't acceptable to Reddick.
"If we can save one person, I don't think it's cost-prohibitive," he said.
Reddick noted that the council Thursday voted to pay $200,000 to settle a negligence lawsuit filed by the mother of a fifth-grader who drowned at the Cyrus Greene Park pool four years ago even though there were three lifeguards on duty at the pool.
Brittany Mills, 11, was a camper in a summer program and was swimming with dozens of other children when she slipped unnoticed below the surface and drowned in about 6 feet of water.
Although the two deaths differed in their circumstances, Reddick invoked Mills' drowning as he argued that the city needs to make parks safer.
"You're going to be back here another day asking the same council to approve another settlement," he said. "There's a safety issue here. There should be some way that we can protect the city from having to be in a position where we've got to pay out these settlements."
Reddick said he wanted the city to look at putting fences, buffers of shrubbery or other safety features at all 69 parks with water. The council voted to ask for a report on the idea on Oct. 3.
"I'm the last person who wants to wall off the river," council member Lisa Montelione said, but "there are strategies to prevent children from wandering off a playground into the river."
Montelione also noted that the city proposed to spend $760,000 on the second phase of a project to convert Zack Street into a pedestrian-friendly "Promenade of the Arts."
If the city can afford that, she said, it can study what it would cost to improve park safety. (Later in the meeting, the council postponed a vote on the Zack Street project until Sept. 26.)
Parks officials said they checked with a few other local governments to see if any had local standards for providing safety features for bodies of water inside parks other than swimming pools. None did.
So what, council members said.
"We're not the only parks department in Florida that has a lot of water features," Suarez said. "There has to be some standard somewhere. If not, I think we should set these standards."