Facing allegations of wrongdoing from two former employees and some local residents, board members governing a South County sewage treatment plant have decided to conduct a peer review of best practices there.
But that review might not go far enough for a few residents and members of the local Surfrider Foundation chapter. They had hoped the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District board would conduct a more in-depth investigation of the plant’s operation and the water-quality testing methods overseen by the district administrator and his private engineering firm.
“An investigation is needed here,” said Grover Beach resident Bob Hays, who has questioned the propriety of John Wallace working as both the district’s administrator and its engineer. “I think it lacks transparency.”
The district board hired an independent investigator last year to examine specific allegations made by two of its former employees and to conduct a comprehensive workplace assessment. Richard Thomas of Ojai-based Thomas Consulting has been paid $14,389 for his work.
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Thomas’ report concludes that the decision to contract with Wallace as administrator and for his firm to provide engineering and project management services to the district is within the board’s purview — but that it “can provide the ‘appearance’ of a conflict of interest” and “may subject the district to continuing questions of impropriety.”
The district board met in closed session Wednesday night to discuss Wallace’s contract — which he’s had for 25 years — but did not report that any action had been taken.
The board has one representative each from Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano — the three communities served by the sewer plant.
The board was set Wednesday to respond to environmentalist group Surfrider’s concerns and to try to move past problems that have plagued the district over the past year.
Those problems include lawsuits filed by former employees; disciplinary action proposed against the chief plant operator by the state Water Resources Control Board’s Office of Enforcement; and six deficiencies and compliance issues identified at the plant by state water board staff.
District board member Jim Hill of Oceano suggested hiring a consultant to look at the district’s management practices and recommend improvements. Board member Tony Ferrara disagreed.
Thomas “did a fair, unbiased investigation, so to state we need another investigator to come in and look at the same things is unnecessary,” said Ferrera, who is mayor of Arroyo Grande.
Ferrara said the district has spent about $125,000 responding to the lawsuits and other allegations over the past year.
The board instead requested Wallace bring back a proposal for a peer review of best practices, incorporating staff from other sewage treatment plants in the area.
Brad Snook, a volunteer coordinator for Surfrider, said the board’s action did not address water-quality issues at the plant.
“It they want to do a peer review or something else, that’s fine,” he said, “anything that helps the culture of the plant heal. But the water quality issues and the notices of violation are not addressed by something like peer review.”
Problems at the plant were detailed in a lawsuit filed by Devina Douglas, a former lab technician who was hired in January 2009.
She alleges that she was laid off in September in retaliation for alerting state regulators about issues with the agency’s operation and water-quality sampling methods.
A subsequent investigation by state water board staff resulted in a notice of violation and prompted the district to respond to issues, including the lack of an updated operation and maintenance manual and work orders that revealed improper collection of effluent samples.
The state water board’s Office of Enforcement also sent a letter of proposed disciplinary action to Chief Plant Operator Jeff Appleton, stating he had “willfully or negligently allowed a violation of water discharge requirements” and failed to ensure proper operation of the plant.
Appleton filed an appeal and submitted two grievances: one alleging Wallace would not provide personnel files on Douglas and former employee Scott Mascolo, which Appleton said he needed to prepare his defense. The second alleges the district’s counsel, Michael Seitz, had made a decision not to represent Appleton in his appeal without consulting the district board.
Appleton also attached a summary of issues at the treatment plant since 2004; state water board officials determined the summary did not dispute the allegations against Appleton and on March 11 continued to recommend that his sewage treatment plant operator certificate be downgraded for a year.
Appleton remains on medical leave from the plant.
Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated on Twitter by following @SouthCountyBeat.