Several years ago, the Texas legislature considered
requiring fences around virtually every man-made body of
There was no distinction between swimming pools, wading pools,
waterfalls or portable hot tubs.
All across the state, the industry was in agreement: The measure,
as written, was too restrictive at best, draconian at worst.
“This was a statewide regulation,” says Dan Gossage,
owner of Dan’s Pool Service in Boerne, Texas. “A lot of
cities had it for new construction, but this would have required
retrofits. It would have been completely onerous.
“We got in front of the right committee and were able to
strike it down,” he added. “But at that point we knew
we needed a mouthpiece in the capitol, someone to talk to
As a result of the fencing battle, in 2005 Gossage helped establish
the Aquatic Professionals Education Council, a group to advocate on
behalf of the pool industry in Texas. The Austin-based organization
was fashioned after California’s powerful lobbying group
SPEC, which consistently beat back decades of questionable
Today, the pool and spa industry has become a magnet for government
regulation — from local permitting to statewide energy codes
to federal safety laws. In this new environment, it’s crucial
that industry members help lawmakers develop sensible regulations
based on facts and science.
But this is a challenging task at best, especially for an industry
that for decades has been vilified as heartless
“child-killers” who are solely concerned with lining
Here, we examine the industry’s government relations efforts,
the new challenges that have emerged, and how advocates are working
to overcome them.
California has long served as a legislative bellwether, taking the
lead on regulations ranging from energy-efficiency to water
conservation to safety laws.
For more than three decades, the tone of pool and spa legislation
in the state — and thus the nation — was the
responsibility of one man.
Don Burns never set out to be the pool industry’s advocate,
or, as some would say, its savior. He was an attorney and lobbyist
in the insurance field when, in the mid-1960s, he was asked by an
old friend to take over the local Northern California chapter of an
Then came the first oil embargo of 1973, and an emergency
regulation threatened to ban the use of gas to heat pools. Burns
and industry members acted fast, filing an appeal which ultimately
That exercise gave rise to a new lobbying organization: the
California Spa and Pool Industry Education Council, or SPEC.
Over the next three decades Burns earned accolades industry-wide
for his advocacy efforts, while also garnering his share of
criticism among drowning-prevention groups that felt he was
uncaring about child safety.
But Burns dismisses those charges.
“In Washington, as well as the 50 states, we see stumbling
governmental agencies attempting, too late, to make sense out of
law[s] seemingly written with the sole intent of creating a legal
Rubik’s Cube,” he has said. “No matter how we
come at it, this problem stubbornly refuses to be
As the years passed, the legislative front intensified across the
In May 2000, a young Florida legislator named Debbie Wasserman
Schultz won passage of a law requiring that all new pools and spas
be equipped with a variety of safety measures.
The Florida Residential Swimming Pool Safety Act called for pools
to include at least one new safety feature before it could receive
a certificate of completion. But the law wasn’t clear
regarding contracts that were signed before it took effect. Would
those jobs now be subject to the new requirements?
Four months later, a Tallahassee, Fla.-based pool company,
Pensacola Pools East Inc., filed a lawsuit in Leon County asking
for a temporary injunction against the law. The suit challenged the
date of mandated compliance, Oct. 1, 2000, and the impact it would
have on pool projects in varying stages of completion.
The suit was supported by industry leaders statewide, and their
decision to back Pensacola Pools would have far-reaching
“It was absolutely the worst thing we could have done,”
says Dan Johnson, a past president of the Florida Swimming Pool Association and founder
of contracting firm Swim Inc. in Sarasota, Fla. “The advice
we were given in terms of fighting the advent of regulating safety
in our industry was just bad, and we were too stupid to know
Florida industry insiders widely acknowledge a missed opportunity
to form a positive relationship with Wasserman Schultz. Instead,
the lawsuit provided more fuel for those who claimed the industry
didn’t care about safety. And battle lines, already drawn,
As a result, FSPA in 2006 hired a full-time lobbyist,Jennifer Hatfield, to serve as director of
government affairs. In addition to a law degree, Hatfield brought
an intimate knowledge of the legislature, where she had previously
worked full-time for the Florida speaker of the House of
“I would equate the advent of Jennifer to the invention of
the wheel,” Johnson says without a trace of irony. “It
was that radical of a change. All of a sudden, those of us who were
so proud of what we had achieved realized that we hadn’t
“We didn’t know anybody legislatively, didn’t
know the process or how to get in touch with lawmakers, how to talk
to them, or how to work with them,” he adds, citing the
handful of volunteers — builders and service technicians
— who assumed most pre-Hatfield advocacy efforts. “She
brought all of that to us. All of a sudden we went from riding a
bicycle to driving a sports car, politically.”
Another defining moment, this time in the Northeast, came in 2002
during one of the worst regional droughts in decades. Local water
agencies had proposed restrictions on water usage — no
filling of new pools, no topping off existing ones — that
many believe would have decimated the industry.
Officials with the Northeast Spa and Pool Association marshaled a
coalition that included members of the swimming pool, landscaping
and even golf course industries. The funds they raised were used to
hire lobbyists, who attacked the regulations on both the county and
state levels, and managed to win relief for all affected
“When an issue came up, like the drought, members and
non-members pulled together because they saw a threat to their
ability to do business,” says Lawrence Caniglia, executive director of
Hamilton, N.J.- based NESPA. “It’s the perfect reason
why you need strong industry associations — something strong
enough to respond to those types of threats that come down the
That same year, the tragic drowning of seven-year-old Virginia
Graeme Baker in a backyard spa sent shock waves across the
industry. Investigators found that Graeme, the granddaughter of
former Secretary of State James Baker III, had been the victim of
suction entrapment — a rare occurrence in which hundreds of
pounds of pressure exerted by a pool or spa’s circulation
system pins a person or object to an underwater drain.
Almost immediately, the writing was on the wall.
“Ultimately it was highly visible, tragic incidents such as
this one that brought us the federal law,” says Carvin
DiGiovanni, senior director, technical and standards for APSP. “We knew it was
What’s more, the sponsor of what would become the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act
was none other than now-Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman
The first-ever federal legislation
pertaining to pools and spas was signed into law on Dec. 19, 2007,
and took effect one year later.
Though its intent is widely lauded, the law’s subsequent
interpretation and resulting impact on public pools —
including crippling expenses and widespread closures — has
left many questioning its ultimate effectiveness.
For an industry that had previously flown under Washington’s
radar, VGB was the ultimate game-changer.
In the wake of Graeme Baker’s drowning, industry leaders
recognized the need for early involvement. But previous battles in
the Florida legislature quickly derailed hopes for a meaningful
contribution from the industry.
“They didn’t want to hear from us,” Johnson
remembers. “We made phone calls that never got returned. It
was a real struggle to get in there. The truth is, we didn’t
get involved until it was two or three years in already. But it
wasn’t for lack of trying. It was for lack of being listened
to, and it was our own fault.
“We filed a lawsuit [in 2000] to stop Debbie Wasserman
Schultz’s legislation from passing in the state of
Florida,” he adds, “and she saw our industry at large
as being anti-safety.”
In fact, the industry has long been condemned by politicians and
citizens alike for a perceived lack of concern for pool safety. Too
often, it seems, if pool professionals oppose poorly conceived
legislation, it becomes misinterpreted as opposition to any
regulation at all.
For example, in 2006 SPEC helped alter a proposed double barrier
bill, California’s AB 2977. The group lobbied to take
removable mesh fencing off the list of allowable safety devices,
arguing that such barriers were only 4 feet high, whereas state law
called for fencing around pools to be 5 feet.
“That makes it easier for a child to get over,” Burns
said at the time. “We think it is absolutely antithetical to
the whole purpose of the bill.”
Nonetheless, the bill was sponsored by the California Coalition for
Children’s Safety & Health, the Drowning Prevention
Foundation and the California Safe Kids Coalition. Resistance to
its language was not viewed favorably by supporters, regardless of
the rationale, recalls Burns.
Indeed, the stigma of indifference is one the trade continuously
fights to shed.
“Safety has always been a key for the industry,”
DiGiovanni says. “Peel everything away, and safety is good
for business. On the other hand, kids getting hurt in pools is not
good for business.”
It’s natural for parents and lawmakers to seek to fill the
void left by a child’s drowning, DiGiovanni explains. It
becomes a passion — and understandably so.
But passion is an emotion, and that can feed the belief that one
additional product or barrier would have saved the child’s
Unfortunately, that information gap isn’t always filled by
those with the best intentions. The preponderance of regulatory
activity in recent years has opened the door for special interests,
some of whom appear determined to see their products written into
codes or legislation — and some even masquerading as safety
“When a manufacturer wants to sell its product, the problem
arises when other products that have not been developed yet may be
excluded because they don’t fit the exact definition of what
may have been written into the standard,” Caniglia explains.
“So it hurts competition, and nobody wants that.”
What more, overstating the capacity of, say, a safety device, can
give officials and consumers a false sense of security if that
device is not engineered for the function or code it’s
designed to satisfy, he adds.
Taking Over the Message
Fairly or unfairly, today’s political battles often are
fought and won in the press — be it through the trades or
In early August, for example, an Associated Press article featured
Nancy Baker (Graeme’s mother) and another parent of an
entrapment victim claiming members of the pool industry had sought
to weaken the federal statute.
“The laws are trying to be rolled back by the pool industry,
and we really want to make sure that we’re here to protect
the children,” stated Karen Cohn, whose 6-year-old son died
in 2007 after he was entrapped in a suction outlet in his
The article, which was picked up by major newspapers across the
country, featured a brief quote from a pool and spa industry
representative sandwiched by descriptions of the Cohn and Baker
family’s advocacy efforts.
“The media … talks to both sides, but they don’t
always report on both sides,” Caniglia says.
“It’s the emotional toll of these stories — these
horrible tragedies take place where a child drowns, and everybody
wants a fall guy.
“[We say] we want to prevent entrapments, and this is how you
do it,” he adds. “And what gets reported is that the
pool and spa industry is trying to make pools unsafe.”
The issues may vary from state to state, but the tactics are
John Norwood, who assumed leadership of SPEC after Burns retired in
’09, managed to modify legislation this summer that may have
prevented pool builders and service technicians from installing and
repairing pumps. Instead, they would have had to subcontract the
work to an electrical contractor.
“It was a labor-backed bill that could have required pool
contractors to use union electricians,” he said. “And a
lot of these groups have good press efforts that they can utilize
throughout the state.
“This is a contact sport,” Norwood adds. “A lot
of bad things get passed, and it’s not because people
don’t fight against them, it’s because all of a sudden
there’s a group of people who decide that’s what they
want to do.”
But advocacy also must become more encompassing, industry insiders
say. And the future success of any national effort depends on a
vast network of volunteers, serving as the industry’s eyes
The goal is to identify and respond to matters early enough in
order to bring about a positive outcome, “or at least know
when a bill or rule is filed,” Hatfield says.
“Let’s have our ears to the ground so we know when
things come out. The real utopia, of course, is to find out about
it before it’s introduced.”
Back in Texas, where APEC is preparing for regulatory showdowns at
the start of 2011, board members are pleading for greater
involvement from a statewide industry that likely numbers between
5,000 and 6,000 strong.
It’s a common problem among professional associations: how to
boost participation, particularly at a time when businesses are
struggling for survival.
“Legislators are not our enemies,” says APEC board
member Pat Walsh, who also serves as president of APSP’s
South Texas Chapter in San Antonio. “They can be our
partners. They can’t craft this legislation without advice
from people in the industry.
“We’re not looking for more government
regulation,” he explains. “But it’s coming
anyway. And in my limited experience, I’ve found lawmakers to
be very open to the truth and science of matters. Why let them pass
laws that are counter-productive when we have the solutions.”