Mayor Dennis Walaker can't recall a city-maintained street ever being blamed for a fatal car accident in Fargo. Not during his 32 years as a city employee, his 17 years as the city's Public Works operations director or his 2 1/2 years as mayor - ...

Mayor Dennis Walaker
Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker gathers his thoughts Thursday at City Hall during an interview about the Dec. 10 accident that claimed a girl's life. Jay Pickthorn / The Forum

Mayor Dennis Walaker can't recall a city-maintained street ever being blamed for a fatal car accident in Fargo.

Not during his 32 years as a city employee, his 17 years as the city's Public Works operations director or his 2 1/2 years as mayor - until now.

Walaker raised eyebrows last week with his statement that "The rut caused the accident" resulting in the Dec. 10 death of Fargo 8-year-old Amanda Leininger.

On Thursday, Walaker sat down with The Forum and spoke at length for the first time about his decision to make that statement, what it might mean in a possible lawsuit against the city, the city's level of responsibility in the accident on South University Drive and the public reaction to it - including what he terms "nasty" phone calls to Public Works employees.

It's been a week and a day since the accident. What have you personally heard from the public about the crash?


There's one issue that needs to be addressed: We all understand that right after the accident, they search for somebody to blame. Some of the e-mails and phone calls received at the street department have been pretty nasty. Calling the girls "killers" doesn't have any validity. I feel that's really in poor taste. We're providing a counseling service to them, and we do that to anybody that needs it, including the street department employees that were out there at the site the day it happened.

But until this is all done - they had limited information, and to say that somebody was responsible for the accident to me doesn't have much credibility. And all of these people are taking this personally, and it's hard not to.

As far as myself, it's been relatively positive; especially the point where we tried to assure that the driver of the car encountered a situation that was not her responsibility. It was difficult. We had some drivers that were down there that had encountered the same difficulty with the shoulder, and they had trouble - very experienced drivers. So for her to accept the responsibility for her sister's death is wrong. She has to understand that it was a condition that was beyond her control.

Have you spoken with Amanda's parents or her sister, Jessica, who was driving?

No, no, no.

Dr. Mahoney, who is also a city commissioner, was the attending physician when they were brought to Innovis hospital, and he's the only one that I have known that's had any direct contact. I've had some contact with some of their relatives; have written to me and so forth.

As far as assigning any responsibility to this accident, I don't think there will be - but that's up to people besides myself. We need to get all the facts.

What we plan on doing is, when the police investigation is done and our investigator is done, which is probably going to be two weeks from now, we're going to have a press conference and release all the same information to all of the news media.


We would probably at least make this available to the family prior to this news conference so they're not shocked on what they hear.

Did you attend the funeral?

No. I asked. I never heard one way or the other whether that invitation was extended or not.

There's a lot of emotion, and I feel the family needed to - you know, I wanted their - it was important to understand that this period of mourning was theirs, not somebody trying to upstage the process.

What prompted the decision to observe a moment of silence for Amanda at Monday's City Commission meeting, and have you ever done that before?

As far as a moment of silence, it's rare, but we have done it in the past.

And, again, what prompted that?

I just felt it was something that we needed to extend - you know, besides stating in the media that we extend our condolences. We just thought it was appropriate.


Why were you so quick to state publicly that the rut caused the accident?

There are certain people that feel this should be encompassed by the attorneys, that nothing needs to be said since I was not at the accident. But I thought it was important. I mean, I have two girls, and I can remember when they used to be driving to school. I also have a 7½-year-old grandson and a 5-year-old grandson, so it hit me very personally. And then it happened within the city limits of Fargo, so that's why I took it hard. And we were there within - we were going to make the repair Wednesday morning after the rush hour. I mean, there are thousands of cars that go up and down that route every day. So waiting until Wednesday morning when the equipment was ready and the material was ready - and the solution to the problem was the correct solution. You can't just sit out there with a shovel and throw gravel into a hole. That doesn't last very long.

And I was privy to the initial report from the police chief, and the rut was a contributing factor. There's no question in my mind. Now, I was not there, and I can be criticized by the legal profession about making these statements, but I thought it was important that the driver understood that it was something that was beyond her control, and it was just a sequence of events that happened. There's some people that drove through that and got involved in the rut that, you know, had considerably more driving experience, but they had a tough time.

But as far as me personally, you know, taking responsibility for this - it was a tragic accident, and that's what I hope everybody understands. It was a tragic accident.

And as far as the street department is concerned, they took action on Tuesday to come up with a reasonable method of repair. And people have to understand that there are all kinds of things that you can do in the summertime. There are things you can do in the wintertime. But it all takes time. And that's what this is all about. They had a good plan. Wednesday morning at 8:30 they were going to close it off after everybody got to school, and this happened at 10 minutes to 8. Is it unfortunate? Absolutely.

You probably realize the city could face a lawsuit.

Absolutely, but that's immaterial. You know, if the family chooses - I mean, there's some decisions that they have to make, and I can't imagine that the attorneys aren't trying to solicit this case. We understand that.

How do you think your comment in saying that the rut caused the accident might affect that?


It's not going to the change that the rut was there. It's not going to change what happened. If the courts decide that we did not act in an appropriate manner - we did, as far as most of our staff and everybody and our attorney feels that we did react. It's a tragic accident. I've been told by several people in the public, it was an accident. It was nothing that was malicious by anybody, any stretch.

What you have to understand is the street department will get hundreds of calls. There are over 4,000 accidents - even in the summertime about 400 accidents a month. The police officers make recommendations and we react. To say that we don't react is absolutely ludicrous. We do react. We have people on call 24 hours a day, both from the street department and the water department.

Some people have suggested the city may have been negligent by not putting up some orange cones to warn people (of the rut).

Well, OK, the cones are a joke. For winter snow removal and everything else, they don't make any sense. Cones are for a very temporary process. Barrels with sandbags inside the barrels to keep them from blowing around in the wind makes some sense. But that's what was done after they made the repair.

People have asked why that wasn't done before they made the repair.

Well, that's hindsight again. You know, 'Why wasn't it done?' I mean, this 20/20 hindsight, everybody's guilty of that, everybody. You know, what could have been done to avoid this tragic accident. And it was tragic, there's no question about it. It was a tragic accident, a tragic loss of life. But to scream for somebody's head to roll to me is premature, absolutely premature.

The police released the audio of the call that was made to dispatch, and from dispatch to public works, relatively quickly. Is there a rift right now between public works and the police department?

I don't know. I really don't know. It was data that they had. Everything that we have will be released. We're trying to make this as transparent as possible.


So does the public have any reason to be concerned that maybe other departments aren't responding to concerns raised by police?


I still think it's extremely premature to criticize the people that just relayed information. I mean, that's what they've always done. They relay information.

When you were public works operations director, did you ever have a tragedy like this, one where you felt a road had caused a fatal or life-altering accident?

No, I didn't. The one I remember was on 12th Avenue North, where this young woman went around a barricade and entered an excavation. It was under a contract at the time. They had barricaded and so forth, so it was dismissed.

But as far as an area that was being maintained by the city, no.

When you agreed to this interview on Tuesday, you said that you had finally started sleeping again.

Well, I didn't sleep last night because we had a meeting with our attorneys yesterday, and they wanted to - I mean, they wanted to pull in our - I mean, that's the problem with it: Do we keep this thing open and transparent, or - you know, I mean, I thought it was extremely important for the family that they knew this was something beyond her control, and a lot of experienced drivers had problems negotiating this.


This is a caring community. This really is a caring community, and people have to understand that, that we are not oblivious to care. I mean, we care, too. We are humans.

You're probably best known in this community for your role in the flood fight of '97. With that in mind, is this one of the most trying events in your public service life?

What really brought this home was the age of the people.

You pick up the paper every day and, in India, there was 170, 195 people that were murdered over there. Does that bother you as much as this one single person? No, it doesn't, because it was not here.

Do you foresee the city changing any policies or practices regarding how it responds to citizens concerns?

There is that debate going on, especially about the retrieval of information as far as the phone system is concerned and when we get the information, when we don't get the information. And those are always starting points for attorneys.

We will evaluate the entire system and make improvements where we think it's possible.

I mean, what it really gets down to is somebody has to make a decision: Does this require immediate action? What is immediate? What is timely? Or can it be corrected?

I mean, there is no question about it: There will be a review of the situation. And I think the city will learn from this process. God, I hope we learn.

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