Indianapolis (written by John Tuohy/Indianapolis Star) -- Unlike previous instances in Indiana where officials were forced to resign or lose their jobs for wasteful spending or mismanagement, the Indiana State Fair officials who failed to evacuate the grandstands last year as a storm moved in and seven people died, were given a second chance. They rewrote the fair's emergency plan and hired a catastrophe czar.
As a result, the 2012 state fair that opens Friday is being run by the same team that accident investigators cited for indecisiveness, lack of direction and poor planning during the stage rigging collapse Aug. 13.
It includes the fair's executive director, Cindy Hoye, who failed to order an evacuation before a storm hit the crowd gathered for the Sugarland concert, and all but one member of the State Fair Commission, which the probe determined didn't have an adequate plan to respond to the emergency.
Although the old, inadequate safety plan has been jettisoned, reminders remain of its deficiencies.
A permanent plaque honoring the victims has been erected on the grounds, and a moment of silence will be observed at 8:46 p.m. on the one year anniversary of the accident.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has accepted the restructuring plan that takes emergency decisions away from the fair's executive director and eliminates the large outdoor concert.
He and the State Fair Commission say the new 425-page document is one of the strongest emergency plans for any fair in the nation. The commission hired a chief operating officer and a chief of safety and security and required safety training for its 1,200 fair employees.
In addition, the Indiana Legislature tightened the inspection code for temporary stages like the one that toppled.
"It's the best, most comprehensive safety plan that exists on this planet right now," said State Fair Commission Chairman Andre Lacy.
Daniels has said because state fair officials embraced the policy recommendations in two independent reports, they deserve a chance to show that both work.
Some government watchdogs, academics and legislators said the changes don't go far enough.
They said it was unfathomable that all those in a position of authority kept their jobs. The refusal to assign personal blame will only erode public confidence in government and encourages future missteps, the critics said.
"We failed the public in the biggest event in our state," said Rep. Ed Delaney, D-Indianapolis. "We had an opportunity to show that personal responsibility would be taken and failed. There were a series of judgment and procedural errors, and the executive director needs to be replaced."
Daniels and others insist the failures were institutional, that several factors beyond the commission's control contributed to the collapse and that it would be "scapegoating" to pin blame on one or two people.
A lengthy independent investigation cited several instances of human error, bad judgment, systematic failure and poor planning before and during the fair.
Lacy said that "this commission took responsibility" for its failures and corrected them. The accident revealed "a blind spot" and "ambiguity" in emergency preparations by the commission, he said.
But Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition of Indiana, said he found it "quite alarming" that the fair leadership is unchanged.
"You'd think there would have been massive restructuring of the commission," Olson said. "You just kind of assumed it."
Central to the findings of Witt Associates, which conducted one of the investigations, were the actions of Hoye in the hour before the stage rigging fell.
The New York firm's investigators found that she, her staff and commission members were uncertain about who had the authority to evacuate the grandstand.
Hoye thought the band, Sugarland, had authority to cancel when, in fact, it was the state fair's responsibility, investigators determined. It had apparently been so for years.
But she also told a state police captain that night, seconds before the collapse, that he could evacuate.
Hoye has come under criticism since the release earlier this year of the Witt report and one by the Washington, D.C., engineering consultant Thornton Tomasetti.
She twice offered to resign, but Lacy said he persuaded her to stay.
"Some in the media want to chop off Cindy's head," Lacy said recently. "It (should not be) directed at an individual. We have to correct the culture that was here, and that's been corrected. We've been forthright and open."
Hoye, who barely escaped being crushed in the collapse herself, said she thinks about the tragedy everyday. She said she agreed to stay in the $102,000 per year job because she can be most useful overseeing the reforms.
"I believe this is the best way we can honor the memories of the lives lost last year," Hoye, who has been executive director since 2004, wrote in an email to The Indianapolis Star. "I was asked to lead this organization forward to learn the tough lessons, adapt to a new culture and implement the tone from the top as the commission has charged."
Hoye has built a close relationship with two of the state fair's biggest boosters: the governor and his wife, Cheri.
"She is absolutely a great friend," Cheri Daniels said recently. "She didn't ask me, but I definitely would have said, 'Don't resign.'"
At this year's fair, the main stage concert has been moved to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in downtown Indianapolis, and decisions about evacuation are in the hands of new Chief Operating Officer David Shaw. If Shaw isn't there, Jessie Olvera, the director of safety and security, will make the decision.
If there is time, Shaw and Olvera will consult with a policy committee of fair officials.
Critics contend that in the private sector, Hoye and perhaps the entire board would have been swept out, as well.
"It seems reasonable that when you have a major disaster when clearly some people did not do what they were supposed to, somebody would be gone or a whole bunch of people would be gone and held accountable," said Brian Vargus, a political consultant and political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
But state Sen. Jim Merritt, R-Indianapolis, said the commission got it just about right. Firing people wouldn't have solved anything, he said, and fair officials have suffered enough.
"They have held themselves accountable because I've watched the pain that they've all gone through," said Merritt, chairman of the fair's legislative advisory committee. "I do think that they've been held accountable. It's all in the reports. It's very clear what happened."