More litigation for South County district

Former sanitation employee has filed a 2nd lawsuit over loss of her job alleging she was fired for ‘whistle-blowing’

clambert@thetribunenews.comFebruary 25, 2011 

A former employee of the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District has filed a second lawsuit over the loss of her job, claiming her position was eliminated to cover up unethical operations at the agency’s treatment plant.

In the lawsuit filed Tuesday against the district administrator, his private engineering firm and the plant’s chief operator, Devina Douglas alleges that her position was cut in September because she was bringing to light problems that threatened the contractual relationship between the agency and the defendants. She seeks economic and punitive damages and a jury trial.

Douglas, a Cal Poly graduate hired as a lab technician in January 2009, sued the district in January, alleging she was retaliated against for speaking up to state regulators about issues with the agency’s operation and water-quality sampling methods.

John Wallace, who has run the district about 25 years, said he could not comment on pending litigation. His firm, the Wallace Group, provides engineering services to the agency.

However, district board members maintain that Douglas’ position was eliminated to save money — an estimated $40,000 this fiscal year and $75,000 in future years.

They also say the district pursued other cost-savings measures, such as postponing projects and renegotiating chemical supply costs, after new-connection fees fell and the district’s revenue dropped.

The district now contracts with San Luis Obispo-based Abalone Coast Bacteriology for some of its testing, at an estimated cost of about $25,000 per year.

The board has a representative from each of the three communities served by the sanitation district: Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano.

The new suit and two previous actions that have been filed — one by Douglas, another by a former plant employee Scott Mascolo, who was recently terminated — underscore allegations of wrongdoing that have been simmering at the district for more than a year.

Earlier accusations

In July, the state Water Resources Control Board filed a notice of violation against the district with six deficiencies and compliance issues, including improper collection of effluent samples.

The district later changed its sampling methods, updated its operations manual and answered the state’s request for record-keeping information, Wallace said.

In January, the board sent a letter of proposed disciplinary action to the chief plant manager.

The board’s Office of Enforcement found that Chief Plant Operator Jeff Appleton had “willfully or negligently allowed a violation of water discharge requirements” and failed to ensure proper operation of the plant.

Specifically, water board staff found deficiencies: operators were not provided with written standard operating procedures, the plant’s operations and maintenance manual had not been updated since 2000, raw data collected by operators was not kept for the required period of time, and disciplinary action wasn’t reported to the state.

Appleton has filed an appeal, and the Office of Enforcement has 30 days to respond, said Dave Clegern, a water board spokesman.

The district has sent an updated operations and maintenance manual to the water resources control board, Wallace said Friday.

It has also changed its record-keeping procedures to make sure raw data is kept per state requirements, and it plans to report disciplinary action to the state.

More recently, members of the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation — a nonprofit organization advocating for protection of oceans and beaches — have been making the rounds to city council and board meetings in the South County.

They’re asking officials to request the district investigate “potential malfeasances” of the Wallace Group’s involvement with water-quality monitoring and reporting for the plant.

So far, no councils or boards have done so. Wallace said that he’s reached out to Surfrider members and offered a tour of the plant.

Disputed accounts

Douglas first filed a complaint on Aug. 31 alleging discriminatory employment practices with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

She also filed a discrimination complaint with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which was closed Nov. 29.

In response to the OSHA complaint, district legal counsel Michael Seitz wrote, “The decision to eliminate the lab technician position was taken for legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons ... the district is not aware of the alleged ‘whistle-blowing’ activities now claimed by Ms. Douglas.”

The district was only aware of an issue raised over the testing of a sample, which occurred a year and a half before the layoff, he continued.

Douglas’ new lawsuit, which also names Appleton, alleges that her continued employment at the plant could show district officials that it could remain in compliance at a lesser cost using in-house employees than contracting with Wallace.

She also states that the Wallace Group’s contract with the district pays the company “no less than $80,000 per month.”

A review of monthly payments authorized by the district board from November through February — the dates available on the district’s website — show Wallace Group received from $57,281 to $76,264 for administrative services, in-house operational projects, major projects and “reimbursement projects,” such as inspecting local restaurants’ grease traps.

Other employee’s case

District administrators also could not comment on personnel actions regarding Mascolo, a 12-year employee and plant supervisor.

Mascolo said Thursday he was recently notified that his employment was terminated following a decision made by Grover Beach City Manager Bob Perrault, who served as an information hearing officer.

Mascolo was placed on administrative leave in March after district officials alleged he displayed anger management problems toward his co-workers.

In September, a third-party arbitrator ordered the district to reinstate Mascolo to his former position and pay.

A few months later, Mascolo said he received a notice of intent to terminate his employment on allegations that he falsely accused another employee of embezzling money received by selling scrap iron.

Mascolo has filed an appeal, said his attorney, Thomas Giovacchini.

Mascolo believes his employment was terminated because, he said, “I exposed something that they don’t want to have exposed. How can you justify stealing public money?”

Mascolo contacted the county Sheriff’s Department on Sept. 13 to report that he believed another employee embezzled funds, department spokesman Rob Bryn said.

Two deputies determined the claim was unfounded, he said.

The case was forwarded to the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, which earlier this month declined to file charges, Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerret Gran said.

The Tribune is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service