Diver inspects 3 Franklin County bridges

A diver from Stantec, an engineering services company, descends into the Scioto River to inspect Fishinger bridge.

It’s not typical to spot a diver, in flippers and full helmet, plunging into the Scioto River.

But on Thursday, some amused kayakers and joggers on a nearby bike trail caught sight of a commercially licensed diver swimming below the surface to inspect the Fishinger Road bridge on the Northwest Side.

Federal law requires bridges to be inspected every two years, but Ohio requires inspections annually. Underwater inspection is required every five years. Franklin County paid $21,000 to Stantec, an engineering company based in Lexington, Kentucky, to bring in a diving crew.

Of the 357 bridges the county owns, only three require a diver for underwater inspection, said Ed Herrick, the county’s bridge design engineer. Most others can be done by wading into shallow water.

Steve Reuschle, a Stantec diving service manager and engineer, and his team was searching for any cause for alarm: a crack, logjams and general soundness of the concrete pillars supporting bridges on Hayden Run, Fishinger and Smothers roads.

“You can’t see this stuff above the water,” he said. “That’s why we have to send someone down there to physically touch and move things and pound on the concrete to see how sound it is.”

Although the diver is not an engineer, he has a camera attached to his helmet, providing Reuschle with real-time communication and a video feed from the boat.

Generally, Reuschle said, routine inspections do not find a lot of problems in areas such as Columbus where the water current isn’t strong. Because the team is inspecting only the three bridges, it plans to finish Friday after two days, spending one to four hours at each bridge.

Bridges are rated on a scale of zero to nine, Herrick said: Nine is pristine condition and built within a year, and zero meaning failed condition. Franklin County bridges average a seven. The lowest bridge rating in the county is a four, with upgrades planned in the next year.

Franklin County has 10 major bridge-repair projects — which will include replacement or rehabilitation — planned for 2018-2019.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 12, 2018.


School districts should adopt uniform crowdfunding policies, auditor says

Many Ohio teachers reach into their own pockets to buy an average of $600 in school supplies a year. To help alleviate those expenses, some have turned to collecting donations online through crowdfunding websites.

While that fundraising option has many benefits, such as engaging the community and allowing contributors to pay for school supplies at no cost to the district, there also are many risks. According to a report released Wednesday by state Auditor Dave Yost, more than half of Ohio school districts do not have specific policies on crowdfunding.

Dozens of online crowdfunding sites exist, some specific to teachers and classroom needs. One site — DonorsChoose — has raised $621 million for 600,000 classroom projects. There are currently more than 900 initiatives for Ohio classrooms on that site alone.

“The citizens can take it upon themselves to crowdfund for a specific cause the institution may not have the money for and get the resources,” Yost said. “But like a lot of things, the benefit of the thing is also the danger of the thing.”

In the report, Yost recommended that school boards create policy regulating crowdfunding by teachers and others in the district to avoid potential legal issues.

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) bar disclosure of personal information about students younger than 18 without parental consent. If those regulations are not followed, districts risk the loss of federal funding. Some districts allow the use of student photos in crowdfunding efforts, and more than half said their policies don’t address the issue.

Yost also warns about financial liability. Some donation sites will send specific products to the school with the money raised or give the funds directly to the district. Others give the lump sum to teachers, which raises many legal questions and potential violations of the Ohio Revised Code, because the district treasurer is required to be in charge of all school funds. If money being requested by a public entity isn’t accounted for, the treasurer would be held legally accountable.

The auditor recommends that school administrators review and approve all crowdfunding policies, designate which sites can be used, require the money be used for its stated purpose and mandate that donations will not be accepted without school board approval.

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 11, 2018.

Demonstrators protest immigration policies in downtown Columbus

A woman dangled more than 30 feet above fellow protesters along Front Street in downtown Columbus, attached by a harness to a crudely constructed tripod. At the base sat a man, whose arms were duct-taped around the wooden poles that supported the woman.

They were among 12 people arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, trespassing and resisting arrest Monday at a “solidarity rally” held to call for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agency has come under heavy public criticism over the separation of undocumented immigrants from their children at the border, and delays in meeting a court order to reunite them.

The two protesters with the tripod were determined not to leave until local officials took action to defy ICE. Police closed Front Street between West Broad and Gay streets during the demonstration of about 100 protesters and onlookers.

The woman, who hung from the structure that displayed a sign that said “ICE ruins lives here,” was suspended for about an hour before the Columbus Fire Division arrived. Several firefighters were raised on a ladder truck to meet the woman on her level. They removed her from her harness and brought her down to the street to be arrested at around 10:30 a.m.

Officers then detached the man from the base of the structure and carried him by his arms and feet into a police vehicle. Shortly after, officers disassembled the tripod and worked to safely bring down the three-story-tall structure.

While they used a chainsaw to break down the wood, protesters continued to chant, bang drums and wave their signs from the sidewalks. Police cleared the road and traffic was flowing on Front Street by 11:15 a.m.

Protesters moved the rally to the Broad Street entrance of the LeVeque tower. Police said several protesters entered ICE offices in the tower prior to the floor being shut down. Five people in the office were arrested for trespassing: one from Millfield in Athens County; two from California and two from Florida. Names of others arrested have not yet been released.

Organizers demanded local authorities end all aid to ICE and stop deportations in Ohio. Several other rallies have been held this month in Columbus to protest ICE and the separation of families at the Mexican border.

“No one is helping us or listening,” organizer Ruben Herrera said of local and state officials. “We must take these radical actions to be heard.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 9, 2018.

Columbus Police Academy graduates more diverse class

New Columbus Police Officer Craig Gibson shakes Mayor Andrew J. Ginther’s hand at the graduation ceremony.

A slightly more diverse class of police officers received badges Friday and soon will be hitting the streets of Columbus and other central Ohio communities.

Of the 52 recruits who began training at the Columbus Police Academy in December, 45 of them stood Friday before family and friends to take their oath, marking an end to 29 weeks of intensive training.

One of the top priorities of the Columbus Division of Police is diversity among the police force, said Chief Kim Jacobs. The 129th recruit class — with the highest academic average of any class in Police Division history — is made up of more than 30 percent minority officers, meaning nonwhite or female officers.

That percentage is higher than the current makeup of the Columbus Police Division, which Jacobs said is between 20 and 25 percent minority.

“We are always looking to have a variety of backgrounds,” she said. “The more we look like our community, the better we can understand and protect those people.”

Not only is the group more diverse in race and gender, but also in experience and skill sets. Among the recruits are a former pastor, an Ohio State University football player, military personnel and officers from other states.

Anthony Hamilton, a 27-year-old from Dublin, was thrilled to be among the graduating recruits. As his family left the auditorium of the police academy on the West Side, they swept him up in a tight embrace.

“It’s a great day,” said Hamilton, who will serve as an officer at Ohio State University. “I’ve always had a natural instinct to help others and be a pillar in the community, and I’m in a great position to bridge the gap between officers and people.”

Other graduates included former Ohio State football player C.J. Barnett. And there’s Jason Sekinger, who stands 6 feet 8 inches tall.

The graduates will undergo 15 weeks of field training, working with experienced officers, starting Sunday. Thirty-two of the new officers will join the Columbus Division of Police; the other 13 will become members of police forces in Gahanna, New Albany, Grove City, Westerville, Hilliard and at Ohio State.

“While others are running away from chaos, danger and crime, our officers are running toward it,” Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said. “They’re trained by the best to be the best.”

“We came here to learn,” said new Columbus police Officer Sarvone Johnson, 44, in an address to the crowd. “Now we are leaving to serve.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on July 6, 2018.

Dublin camp teaches service, conservation

Just because school’s out for the summer doesn’t mean kids can’t still learn new things.

More than 320 children gathered Monday in Coffman Park for Dublin’s first-ever Youth Service Day.

The kids, ranging from 6 to 12 years old, rotated among eight stations over five hours. Activities were geared toward conservation and service, such as making suet blocks with seeds for native birds, testing water quality in the pond and watching a wood-chipper demonstration.

The learn-and-serve day grew out of Global Youth Service Day in April. Shannon Maurer, the city’s volunteer coordinator, said organizers wanted to engage as many children as they could, so she began planning a day in the summer when a lot of kids would be participating in the recreation center summer camps. Kids from those summer camps participated in the service day.

“This helps them feel like they’re a part of something,” said Hallie Eichenberger, a camp counselor. “They’re understanding that they can and do make an impact in the world.”

With a budget of about $1,000, Maurer said, the project wouldn’t have been possible without the many volunteers running the event. Groups including the Solid Waste Authority of Central Ohio, which ran a session on the importance of recycling, participated as part of their community outreach programs.

“I learned a lot about recycling and compost,” said Payton, an 8-year-old camper. “If you’re not being nice and recycling, it’s bad because you’re hurting Mother Nature and killing animals’ homes.”

Tim Fleischer, a city horticulturist, ran a session in which kids interacted with a variety of plant species, such as smelling lavender and touching ginkgo leaves. He said activities like that allow kids to experience and appreciate nature in a new way.

“Some of the plants smell good,” 9-year-old Sohan said. “It’s fun playing with them and seeing nature.”

Maurer said she plans to hold the event in the coming years based on Monday’s success.

“It’s important for kids — and everyone, really — to learn how to coexist and safely interact with wildlife and nature,” she said.



Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on June 25, 2018.

Authorities urge caution, better training to avoid motorcycle wrecks

After three motorcyclists died Thursday in separate crashes over less than nine hours in Franklin County, authorities are emphasizing the importance of motorcycle safety as summer approaches.

More motorcyclists are hitting the road to soak up the sunshine and enjoy the warm weather, but they should be cautious, said Mike Stock, the safety and educational director for ABATE of Ohio Foundation, based in Hilliard. ABATE, which stands for American Bikers Aimed Toward Education, is an educational and advocacy group for motorcyclists.

The most important step, Stock said, is proper training. Some motorcyclists will acquire temporary permits, which do not allow them to ride at night, on the highway or without a helmet, but will not go through training courses or even take the test to be licensed, he said. The permit expires after one year but can be renewed.

“The people who are being trained are better riders and more likely to not get involved in an accident or be a little better prepared if they’re in an accident,” Stock said.

Other recommendations include staying alert, driving sober and wearing proper gear, including a helmet. Ohio law does not require licensed riders older than 18 to wear a helmet, but helmets are important to help avoid fatal accidents, said Lt. Robert Sellers of the State Highway Patrol.

Of the 157 motorcycle fatalities this past year, 71 percent of those killed were not wearing helmets. All three killed Thursday were wearing helmets.

Though there are many recommendations for motorcyclists, safety is a shared responsibility of everyone on the road, Sellers said. Drivers should treat motorcycles as any other vehicles by giving them space and not tailgating, he said.

ABATE of Ohio Foundation, in collaboration with the state, runs educational campaigns with signs and magnets that say, “Look twice, save a life,” and “Watch out for motorcycles.” Many drivers will often overlook motorcycles, which can lead to crashes. Stock urges drivers to remove any objects hanging from rear-view mirrors that can obstruct the field of vision, as well as looking twice before turning in intersections.

“We’re often overlooked,” Stock said. “It’s usually worse for us, too, because we don’t have the protection a car has.”

The motorcyclists who died on Thursday were Daniel Jones-Quartey, 27, Michael K. Bruce, 42, and William F. Parker, 27, all of Columbus. 

“Know your abilities, your limitations and your machine — that way you are prepared in case anything bad happens,” Sellers said.

Originally published for The Columbus Dispatch on June 15, 2018.

Canal Winchester uses minnows as well as pesticides in mosquito battle

As urban forester Dick Miller hoisted 50 pounds of minnows and waded into muddy wetlands, he swatted away mosquitoes buzzing in his ear. He slit the bag open and released thousands of tiny fish into the water, freeing them to do what they do best: eat and kill.

Instead of pesticides and chemicals, Canal Winchester is using a more-natural approach to get rid of pesky mosquitoes for the summer. Members of the city’s urban forestry department released 11,000 fathead minnows into five wetland areas and ponds around the city this week in hopes of decreasing the mosquito count during a particularly wet and hot season. The minnows — which Miller called “voracious eaters” — consume mosquito larvae in the water before they mature.

The city’s program is the only one of its kind in the area and complements what Franklin County already does to prevent mosquito-population growth, such as spraying pesticides. Miller said the city has been releasing minnows for three years, and he believes the approach is more efficient — and definitely more natural.

“When you fog, within minutes, it’s on the ground, and it’s not killing anything after that,” Miller said. “It all helps, but with the minnows, you’re releasing a native fish in their native habitat in their native state to do what they do best without any chemicals or pesticides.”

Miller said he can’t quantify the program’s results, but he said it’s so simple that it was worth a try. It’s relatively cheap, too, at $425 for about 11,000 fish. In comparison, Canal Winchester paid $6,200 to the Franklin County Health Department for mosquito control in 2017.

“For a few hundred dollars and a little bit of time, why not?” he said. “How could it not help?”

Summer hikes or barbecues might be disturbed by a larger mosquito population this year because of a particularly wet few months. According to the National Weather Service in Wilmington, June’s temperatures and precipitation have been above average. Rainfall and heat create ideal breeding conditions for some species of mosquitoes that lay their eggs in standing water.

Fortunately, Miller said, most mosquitoes are simply a nuisance.

The Ohio Department of Health has tested 27,000 mosquitoes in 33 counties this year. Of those, six tested positive for West Nile virus, a disease carried by infected mosquitoes that can be deadly. Three of those positive tests were in Franklin County. There has been no documented human case of West Nile in Ohio this year, said Richard Gary, the state public-health entomologist.

The Franklin County Health Department — whose jurisdiction is the entire county outside Columbus and Worthington — uses a variety of methods to deter growth of the mosquito population. The department targets larvae early by locating standing water and releasing bacteria that affects only mosquito eggs. But as the summer goes on and mosquitoes hatch, the county begins fogging with pesticides. The county also responds to calls about high mosquito activity and will spray specific areas.

People who do not want pesticides in their neighborhood can fill out a no-spray request on the county health department’s website. Columbus Public Health has a similar request process for city residents. Some people prefer this option if they have specific concerns about allergies, health or the environment.

“You can’t ever get rid of mosquitoes,” Miller said. “They’ll always be there, but we can manage them as best we can.”

Originally published by The Columbus Dispatch on June 14, 2018.