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A single complaint prompts sandstorm response from Clark County

All it took was one negative comment on Yelp to send Clark County’s top administrators into public relations crisis-mode earlier this month, working hard and fast to squelch criticism over a seemingly mundane subject: the coarseness of sand.

It all started at 8:39 a.m. on Sept. 2, when Rich Mueller, a parks and recreation program director, received an automatic alert about a complaint posted on Yelp, a popular website that allows Internet users to review virtually everything.

The complaint said in part: “Sand volleyball? More like gravel volleyball!”

That set off a flurry of activity as Mueller emailed two other county staffers, seeking guidance on a response.

Soon, Real Property Management Director Jerry Stueve emailed to tell Mueller he could post that the county was working to resolve the matter. Mueller suggested directly addressing the poster, Tim C., by name.

But what, exactly, to tell the anonymous Tim required still more senior-level guidance, prompting a long-running email exchange — obtained under the state’s public records law — that offers a peek inside the public relations machinery of Clark County, where even a comment about coarse sand at Sunset Park’s volleyball courts can involve a half-dozen administrators and others, and untold time spent crafting just the right words and tone.

Las Vegas-area volleyball players started complaining last month after the county’s Real Property Management department put 1,000 tons of coarse sand on the court, planning to save some money. Restocking the finer-grain sand the players were accustomed to would have cost $40,000 more. Their complaints reached the “highest levels” of county government, according to one senior recreation administrator’s Sep. 2 email.

“I would agree with any statement that (county public relations manager) Erik Pappa endorses since this is a very sensitive topic at this time,” wrote Darrell Rich, another Parks and Rec program administrator.

‘Finer sand’

Given the gravity of the situation, Pappa and Stueve combined their expertise — Stueve’s knowledge of fine particles; Pappa’s way with words. They’re the pros on this kind of thing, each paid well over six figures per year to handle delicate issues like this.

In a protracted email exchange, Pappa proposed assuring Yelp’s audience that the county agrees “softer sand is needed.”

Stueve crossed that out.

“Softness is not a characteristic of sand,” Stueve emailed him.

“How about ‘more delicate’?” Pappa suggested.

“Your call,” Stueve replied. “Delicateness is also not normally a characteristic of sand. Maybe ‘less abrasive.'”

“I got it: Finer sand,” Pappa emailed.

That was 11:18 a.m. Time was of the essence. Tim’s slam was still unanswered.

Pappa and Stueve copied six other county staff on the exchange for review, including Parks & Recreation Director Jane Pike.

At 11:51 a.m., after more than two hours of hard labor, the county was finally ready to post a response on Yelp:

“Hi Tim C. thanks for your review. We agree that finer sand is needed and are working diligently to quickly find an acceptable sand for these courts. We apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused and hope to have news for you very soon about when the new sand will be in place.”

Exactly how much that labor cost taxpayers is unclear, because county officials also do other work in between their email exchanges.

Did they overreact?

Pappa says no. It’s normal to get input from multiple people when crafting a statement, he explained.

And those words were aimed at an audience bigger than Tim C. Pappa said the statement was a “template” for all public comments on the topic — not merely a response to one Yelp comment.

Not that the public servants expect any thanks for their hard work.

“We’ve heard from pretty much anyone on planet Earth who plays sand volleyball,” Ron Carrington, an property management staffer, emailed his fellows. “I wonder if they’ll all be as quick to call and thank us when we replace the sand they hate with an even better product than was there before.”

Carrington tossed in a smiley face emoticon, perhaps to lighten the mood.

Meanwhile, the county has received a sand sample from Utah and four other samples to evaluate as a replacement to fix the problem, Pappa said Monday. He said the county will review the samples internally and “probably seek input” from volleyball players. He was unable to provide a timeline, but said the county wants to finish as quickly as possible.

Contact Ben Botkin at bbotkin@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2904. Follow him on Twitter: @BenBotkin1

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