County could be liable for tragedy at O’Donnell

Bill Cannon, the attorney representing the mother of the 15-year-old boy who was killed by a crumbling slab of concrete at O’Donnell Park on June 24, probably does not need much additional assistance to make his case about Milwaukee County’s liability for the tragedy.

However, Milwaukee County Supervisor John Weishan Jr. might have given him an extra boost anyway.

Cannon is representing Dawn Kellner, the mother of Jared Kellner, who died June 24 when a 13-ton slab of concrete fell from a façade in the parking structure below O’Donnell Park in downtown Milwaukee.

Initial inspection indicated that the slab was incorrectly connected in two places instead of the four that were called for in its original design.

The tragedy is being investigated by the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s Office, and the county has hired Graef engineers to inspect all of its structures.

Presuming an out-of-court settlement is not reached ahead of time, Cannon will no doubt make the case that the county was negligent in the death.

In doing so, Cannon could cut and paste the text from Weishan’s Milwaukee Biz Blog entry last week, when Weishan took a partisan swipe at Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker.

“Typically, it is not one thing that leads to a tragedy, but rather a series of poor choices that culminate into one catastrophic event. The tragedy at Milwaukee County’s O’Donnell Park parking structure is an example of how poor choices over the years can lead to a very foreseeable but tragic ending. Milwaukee County currently has a 0.5-percent sales tax that, at its inception in 1991, was to be used to pay for debt service on capital projects or to pay cash for those capital projects,” Weishan wrote. “In 2002, shortly after being elected County Executive, Scott Walker was successful in changing that county ordinance, enabling him to divert millions in sales tax revenue from the capital budget to the operating budget. Over the last eight years, more than $112 million in sales tax revenue has been diverted from the capital fund to the operating budget. This is similar to the State of Wisconsin using transportation fund dollars for social programs, something that Scott Walker has publicly criticized. Scott Walker’s diversion of capital dollars is a major reason for the distressed condition of many of Milwaukee County’s assets, including county trunk highways and parkway roads. Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s political pandering on taxes has come at an extremely high price in both human life and long-term asset value.”

In response, Walker wrote, “We all want answers when a tragedy occurs, but, at the moment of crisis, some have jumped to conclusions on the status of deferred maintenance. Our examination of previous inspection and maintenance records shows that the county did not defer any necessary maintenance, and ongoing maintenance projects are prioritized with public safety in mind. When the annex parking structure showed signs of deterioration, I took steps to have it removed before it could become a hazard. Milwaukee County residents can be assured that we will immediately address important maintenance issues with a close eye to protecting those who use our buildings … I will continue to work to keep property taxes in check for our residents, and always with the public’s safety at the forefront.”

It’s not too much of a stretch to envision a scenario in which separate attorneys will be needed to represent the county board and the county executive.

Meanwhile, Cannon said he has hired his own experts to investigate the cause of the tragedy.

“I think it would be wrong for me to speculate about the responsibility until all the facts are known,” Cannon said. “When I talk, you can rest assured I will know what I’m talking about rather than speculating.”

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