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FITNESS CENTER CHIEF UNDER FIRE

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Four years after passing a $5.5 million bond issuance to expand Oquirrh Park Fitness Center and without any visible signs of construction progress, area residents say its time for the center's executive director to go.

As many as 30 angry Kearns residents attending the regular monthly meeting of the board of trustees for the special service district that oversees Oquirrh Park said Wednesday they want the board to fire Dave Howick, who has been the center's director for about 20 years.Among other allegations, residents charged that Howick has stonewalled them in public information requests and misled them about reasons for delays in center expansion. Many were upset about the flat $350 per month fee Howick is paid for travel expenses and the numerous trips the board has financed for him to attend functions in places like Budapest and Florida.

"Why does Dave Howick have to travel at the rate of $475 or $350?" asked Scott Drury, a Kearns area resident. "The man runs a swimming pool and a tennis center. What has he benefited our service district through this $5,000 or $6,000 a year travel budget - excluding his pay."

Howick said he was sick and did not attend Wednesday's meeting. Area residents took their frustrations out on board members, raking them over the coals and then pulling them back again through the fire on various issues.

They got few clear answers from the board.

Board member Janice Snider said it is possible the board would reconsider changing its public information access policy at some unspecified point in the future. She blamed the center's antiquated record-keeping system for some of the delays in the procuring public information.

Some area residents have charged that they have had to wait six weeks to get routine documents from the center and then have been charged outrageous fees averaging $10 per hour for research and $1 per copy for documents.

Board members and Howick have assured area residents for months that construction was imminent at the facility. Most recently, Howick told the Deseret News he expected construction to begin Oct. 15. Area resident Linda Hansen told the board she had confirmed from Salt Lake County that no building permits have yet been issued for the expansion.

With rising building costs, she said she wondered if the service area would still be able to build the new facilities it envisions. In 1992, residents of Salt Lake County Regional Service Area No. 1 approve a $5.5 million bond issuance to expand Oquirrh Park. Those funds have now increased in value to about $8 million.

"(The) $5.5 million dollars went a long way four years ago, but now even if it's at $8 million, can we build what we thought we were going to build four years ago - because construction costs have doubled and tripled since then?" Hansen asked.

Snider said the board has been moving along as quickly as possible, though she admitted that construction thus far has mostly consisted of the building of a retention basin and relocation of utility lines and waterlines. She said the facility would soon begin putting in a main fire line and a waterline with three fire hydrants.

"Once that's completed, I think you'll be seeing construction," she said.

Hansen said the board should expand its membership to include areas recently annexed by the service area. Kearns resident Chuck Newton blasted the board for giving out misinformation, lacking specific knowledge of the expansion project and the facility, and putting off issues with vague promises of future discussions. He said the board should do more to be forthright with the public.

"Everything I hear here tonight, it just boggles my mind - absolutely boggles my mind," he said. "I've never seen anything like this before. It's just incredible."

Newton warned the board that if it didn't respond to some citizens' concerns, that they would be removed from office in the next election - if not sooner.

"You all are driving like drunken drivers," he told the board.

Newton was especially critical of the board's decision to award Howick five years of back vacation pay at the tune of about $25,000. He called the transaction "highly questionable and not necessary."

"In business and in government there are cut off periods - two years is reasonable, five years is not," he said.

Board member Eugene Pearson said many problems at the facility stem from a lack of personnel. Snider added that she has been working at the facility without pay doing work related to the Olympic speed skating oval located next to Oquirrh Park. She also said she has been helping with payroll and has been preparing some board minutes - although she said she saw no conflict of interest in doing so.

Attorney Mark Anderson said there is no conflict of interest for Snider to prepare the minutes because the board approves the minutes and added that they control the content of minutes by state law.