Please, will someone investigate Washington County's bridge debacle?
Washington County Justice of the Peace Eva Madison is the latest county official to request a formal investigation. On Thursday, she asked state Attorney General Leslie Rutledge to look into the county Road Department and what appears to be insufficient construction on two $400,000 bridges the county funded.
What’s the point?
Even amid uncertainty about who should investigate, it’s clear questions about Washington County’s discovery of construction problems on two bridges need to be answered.
Just a few days earlier, County Judge Marilyn Edwards, who supervises the Road Department, asked Prosecuting Attorney Matt Durrett to investigate the botched construction and whether any crimes were committed in the process.
These are highly unusual requests, especially from leaders of the government involved. But if there were ever a case in which questions need to be answered, it's the case of the Stonewall Bridge just west of Prairie Grove and the Harvey Dowell Bridge southwest of Fayetteville.
A couple of weeks ago, Edwards put a three-ton weight limit on Harvey Dowell, which was completed in 2013, and ordered the demolition and rebuilding of what had been completed at the Stonewall Bridge site. Both decisions came after weeks of defending the work of the Road Department from claims in a federal lawsuit that the Road Department's work on the bridges was deficient.
The lawsuit came from George Braswell, a heavy equipment operator for the Road Department, who sued over claims he was punished and harassed because he pointed out the bridges were not built with enough steel rebar reinforcement. Then came the video from Jeff Williams, former county assessor and Edwards' GOP challenger in last November's election, that showed the improperly installed rebar. He took the video about a month before Election Day after hearing from Braswell, but did not reveal it during the campaign. He has said the Road Department assured him the construction methods were appropriate so he didn't want to sensationalize it.
Of course Washington County taxpayers and other county leaders deserve answers, and it's good to see these calls for investigations. As of yet, however, nobody is investigating.
Durrett is reviewing Edwards' request to determine whether his is the appropriate office to conduct a review. No immediate word came about whether Rutledge's office would launch an investigation sought by Madison.
Perhaps its natural for there to be some hesitance to get caught up in what is, so far, a political matter. Nobody has publicly revealed any criminal behavior, but the lack of information about how this happened certainly makes one wonder why it did. Is that enough for a prosecutor or attorney general to launch an investigation? We hope so.
Clearly, Washington County needs answers. It would be helpful if the county judge's office could get to the bottom of the matter and provide answers, but so far, that office seems as clueless as anyone. Madison even went so far as questioning the quick demolition of the poorly built piers at the Stonewall Bridge without documenting how they were built.
One final note about how this matter is playing out. New County Attorney Steve Zega this week defended Edwards, saying she got the same assurances Williams got from the Road Department, yet she's unfairly "bashed over the head" for accepting it. That's bound to happen to any county judge who accepts the responsibility for overseeing the Road Department and its work. County judges don't mind taking credit for well-maintained roads and bridges; if something goes wrong, that's where some responsibility rests as well.
Zega's job doesn't include shielding the county judge from bad publicity. His role is not to determine whether anyone is unfairly criticizing a politician. It's to represent the legal interests of the county -- not just the county judge.
It's crucial the Quorum Court get answers about what went wrong with these two bridges. Without them, it's difficult to fund and move forward with future projects with confidence. The primary goal now isn't just to rebuild a bridge, but to do the same with trust.
Commentary on 04/04/2015