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"What's important and what's not'

Published Oct. 1, 2005

No amount of finger-pointing will bring back 6-year-old Dontrale "Jug" Cooper, who drowned recently in a long-abandoned swimming pool. But his death might have been prevented if St. Petersburg had a tough, common-sense code regulating abandoned swimming pools.

As they had often done, Dontrale, a Walsingham Elementary kindergartener, and a group of friends rode their bicycles to the Hidden Cove Apartments on 34th Avenue to play at the abandoned pool. On this day, Dontrale fell into the putrid, trash-strewn water.

Long before this tragedy, neighbors and residents of the complex, along with city inspectors, had complained about the pool and its 4-foot fence that had been damaged in several places. After the boy's death, police and city inspectors found that the hinges of the gate had been removed.

This child died, in part, because of bureaucratic arrogance, inflexibility, short-sightedness, misplaced priorities and benign neglect. The city code regulating pools is loaded with minutiae, but it says nothing about water standing in abandoned pools.

Belatedly but to his credit, City Council member Larry Williams has introduced an ordinance that would regulate abandoned pools more strictly. Williams, in whose district Dontrale died, said St. Petersburg's code enforcement department is "forcing codes on things, like making 80-year-old grandmothers paint their houses, that seem less important. They don't seem to cipher what's important and what's not."

How, he asked, can inspectors fret about chipped paint and overgrown lawns while virtually ignoring an abandoned, filthy pool in an apartment complex where children constantly play? "That's asking for trouble," Williams said.

What needs to be done is clear: Abandoned pools either should be filled, drained or securely covered so that children cannot fall into them. Owners should be given sufficient notice _ and time _ to comply. But comply they must. No other child should drown in another abandoned pool.

We have enough blame to go around. Of course, Dontrale's parents and friends could have been more vigilant. And the boy could have obeyed warnings to stay away. Even so, abandoned pools filled with water should be inaccessible to young children.

All residents should welcome Williams' attempt to bring sanity to St. Petersburg's ordinance. But for Dontrale's family and friends, these efforts come too late.