Murky Waters

The City of Phoenix has spent $30,000 and a year trying to figure out what's wrong at a water-treatment plant

On a bulletin board in the break room at the City of Phoenix's Squaw Peak Water Treatment Plant is a notice to all employees: "As an organized employee, you have the right to be represented by your union steward at an investigatory interview."

That advice comes in handy at Squaw Peak. While the plant's employees work full-time, around the clock, to test and treat the water which flows to the city's taps, a lot of their time has also been spent answering the questions of investigators.

For more than a year, the City of Phoenix has been probing allegations of theft, illegal dumping and mismanagement at Squaw Peak. The city has spent $30,200 for two private detectives to conduct dozens of interviews and compile reports totaling 1,500 pages. A water-production superintendent has been reassigned as a result of the investigation, according to the water department's director.

But despite all that effort, city officials still haven't decided what to do with the two supervisors who many employees say are responsible for the problems at the Squaw Peak plant. Some problems with sloppy management have been documented, but there's little solid evidence of the more serious charges leveled against the two. One supervisor has left Squaw Peak--voluntarily, taking a $12,000 pay cut just to get away from the plant.

That supervisor, Maureen Hymel, declined to comment for this article. However, the records of the investigation show that Hymel grew frustrated after she issued a reprimand to an employee for sleeping on the job in April 1996.

Hymel was tagged with a grievance by the employee after the reprimand, and she felt her authority was undercut by the way the grievance was handled. In September 1996, after she had already voluntarily left Squaw Peak, Hymel wrote a letter to Michael Gritzuk, the water department's director, reeling off a list of problems at the plant, including "past and recent accusations of theft, alcohol abuse, unauthorized use of city property, falsifying or records and reports, 'padding of overtime,' etc."

Hymel asked Gritzuk to evaluate the plant. "No problem will be solved until it is identified . . . so that we can focus on our main business: WATER."

Gritzuk, concerned by Hymel's letter, went to deputy city manager David Garcia. After discussing the letter, Gritzuk says he and Garcia and assistant city attorney Mike Hamblin made the decision to hire an outside investigator to look into the problems. "We wanted to take a look at this from a very neutral point of view," Gritzuk recalls.

The city hired Dan Burr of Investigation Specialists Ltd. in December 1996. Burr's investigation, which was completed in February, dredged up more than the city expected.

Employees recounted rumors to the investigator, ranging from water-department workers being driven to suicide to alcohol use on city property to misuse of the plant's fax machine.

"There was an awful lot being said, but the question was, what was fact?" Gritzuk says.

But in the midst of the competing rumors, carping and back-stabbing in the report, some patterns did emerge.

Wes Taylor, another treatment-facility supervisor, and Tom Martin, who oversees the entire plant, were named by many employees as being at the root of several problems.

Theft was reported again and again to Taylor and Martin, with no action taken, the employees said. Tools and equipment would go missing, yet Taylor and Martin refused to implement an inventory control system or even report the thefts to the police.

Plant staff also accused Taylor of illegally dumping waste chemicals, including acid, into the sewer. As part of treatment at the facility, chemicals are added to the water. Excess chemicals are stored in disposal tanks. Before the investigation, the chemicals were then mixed with other chemicals to make them safe enough to pour into the waste-water system.

The Squaw Peak employees claimed Taylor ignored safety guidelines and dumped highly acidic material into the sewer in violation of city codes. Efforts to get Tom Martin to address the problem with Taylor were useless, according to Hymel and others.

Taylor and Martin denied the allegations. But the accusations in the first report--even though many were unsubstantiated--convinced city officials to take a second look.

Another detective, Jim Humphrey of Humphrey Consulting, was hired in May to confirm or refute 34 different issues raised by the Burr report, including Taylor's and Martin's roles in the problems.

Humphrey's investigation ruled out some of the wilder accusations--such as water-department employees being driven to suicide--but found evidence to support others. (The suicides of two water-department employees several years earlier were found to be unrelated to their employment.)

Operator logs obtained by Humphrey show that on the occasions cited by employees, acid was dumped into the sewers in violation of city codes. The logs also indicate that Martin was informed of the violations by the plant's staff.

Taylor, when questioned about the dumping, admitted that the chemicals were dumped as part of normal operations, but says that the acidic content was always within safety limits. The logs, however, show the acid content was sometimes above the limit.

Martin discounted those entries to Humphrey as merely the grumblings of disgruntled workers. "[I]t must be remembered that the operations staff can be very uncooperative, and they would do anything to make a supervisor . . . look bad," Martin told Humphrey. "So, [Martin] would say a lot of the notations in the logs were false."

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