GSD Requests Prompt Payment, Holds Closed Meeting on Alleged Whistleblower Situation, and Approves Contact Chamber Contract
However, the March meeting of the GSD Board of Directors began with a closed session on impending litigation brought by Administrative Assistant Tina Stillwell who alleges she was fired after showing the auditor financial irregularities she had observed.
Stillwell’s March 7 filing in the Humboldt County Superior Court of California claims Emerson “created a hostile work environment,” that Emerson “directed” her to record the purchase of another district’s tools into a GSD account, and that within 30 days of receiving the auditor’s report, Stillwell was placed on administrative leave and soon notified she would be terminated from employment.
The District is not free to speak their side of the issue as they are bound by confidentiality in matters concerning personnel and litigation.
In open session, Emerson expressed the increasing pressure to replace the contact chamber. According to the Operators, to meet the gradually increasing seasonal demand for water in Garberville, the treatment plant is currently operating 17 hours a day at the maximum rate they can process water without a functioning contact chamber in place.
Emerson said, “We can provide enough water right now because we have enough 8 inch pipe between the treatment plant and town to meet the requirements for disinfection, but if we increase the gallons per minute per day based on the demands in town, we have to have a different contact chamber.”
A water system’s contact chamber is a low pressure region of the plumbing where the filtered water is treated with a disinfectant, usually some form of chlorine. The contact chamber allows time for the disinfectant to act before water is delivered to a home or other user. This low pressure mixing chamber allows the district to increase the rate at which water is treated so that summer time demand can be met.
In Februray, when Emerson presented his plan to replace the broken underground contact chamber with an above ground version, Emerson had told the Board he was trying to get a thousand gallon baffled tank designed for use as a contact chamber given for free to GSD in exchange to the manufacturing company for the results of the ‘tracer study.’ Positive results from the tracer study would provide the manufacturer easy entry into the California market, Emerson had suggested last month.
However, in March, when Emerson gave the update, the idea of a free tank seemed to have gone by the wayside. It was not addressed directly, though. Board Member Richard Thompson asked if the manufacturer had “finally agreed on how it’s going to be paid for?” Emerson answered, “Well, the insurance company is involved in that. They’ve assured us, if you can use an email from an insurance company, that we will be compensated for the expense.”
Also Thompson queried Emerson on the contact chamber manufacturer’s recommendation for the tank’s foundation due to engineering concerns. Emerson said, “Our first priority is to get the tank ordered, and the engineers are working on the pad to support the tank. That is critical because it’s going to have to be a pretty thick slab.”
Thompson then asked, “You might need piles because the ground seems kind of damp there?”
Emerson responded, “Well, that’s the next phase. Once we get the tank ordered, we need to get all the old pipe that failed pulled out, let it dry out and put a drain in the bottom.”
Thompson continued, “I guess I’m overly concerned about it failing because the foundation supporting the tank is crucial.” Emerson agreed, “It’s a concern that we all have and are working on it because it’ll have to be thick enough with supportive rebar and mesh to make sure it doesn’t separate.”
Thompson, who retired from CalTrans as an Engineer, explained he was more worried about the foundation settling and shifting in the wet region the treatment plant is built upon. Emerson explained, “That’s why I want to fill that entire area with a slab because with more room it spreads it all out, rather than having it with piers and footing.”
Discussion of the immediate need for the contact chamber resumed.
The tank’s manufacturer has told the District this contact chamber can produce a .7 baffling factor. GSD Operator, Dan Arreguin said GSD needs a factor of .46 to meet the community’s needs and Emerson told the Board the manufacturer will guarantee the purchase price and the shipping costs if the tracer study results fall below 0.5
The baffle factor ratio effectively decreases the rate treated water can be distributed by increasing the time treated water must travel to its first delivery destination. This shortens supply when demand is high.
When asked what would replace this contact chamber if the results of the tracer study fail to meet the District’s minimum needs, Emerson said, “We are confident that we will meet the requirements, and that we are going to have what we need, and even if the tank were to fail, I probably would have them keep that tank in place and not send it back, and then do some other configuration of piping including that tank which would be a lot less money.”
Moving on, GSD used the need to notify customers of a planned water outage, due to the fire hydrant replacement project, to test the District’s new emergency notification system. The need for the emergency communication system arose from the lack of communication when the contact chamber originally exploded. LINK Interim Administrative staff member Mary Nieto played the computerized voice read the message customers would hear.
The technology is provided through the company that does GSD’s billing services. It uses the same database and “robocalls” customers to deliver emergency messages when a need arises. The technology allows GSD staff to craft a message specific to each event. It allows them to either record the message in their voice or to have the computerized voice deliver the message.
Through the test, Nieto learned the technology’s database allows her to group customers according to the specific water distribution “routes.” Nieto sees this would save critical time in a true emergency because all the customers of a specific section of the distribution system could easily be selected and notified of a problem that impacts them.
And, the Board approved preliminary contract language for GSD Operator Dan Arreguin to become a contract employee to Phillipsville CSD through the GSD administration. GSD’s attorney has written the preliminary contract. According to Emerson, the SDRMA insurance company covers both districts and says claims that arise while Arraguin is working for Phillipsville will be covered by Phillipsville’s policy and not GSD’s.
In a phone conversation after the meeting with Division of Drinking Water’s (DDW) Barry Sutter, Lead Engineer for the Northern District, the DDW does not insist on any specific relationship between districts. DDW does insist that all districts have an appropriately licensed Operator performing the duties. Sutter does say, however, that the DDW does encourage small districts to merge. Sutter acknowledges loss of local control, but refers back to the improvements in consolidated management.
Lastly, the Board determined to remind landowners that property owners are ultimately responsible if their tenants walk away from their water bill. The Board agrees that doubling the deposit from its newly adopted $100.00 deposit might be challenging for people just moving into a new rental given all the costs of moving, especially given the high cost of water in this district.
The conversation then segued to a discussion of ongoing billing problems in which Board Member Doug Bryan expressed mounting frustration about people who pay their bills late especially after their water is actually shut off.
Last month, the Board heard a mid-year review of its budget and learned the district is about fifty thousand dollars ahead of projections in revenue, largely due to additional income from late fees and reconnection fees that were added by the Board last year.
Nonetheless, Doug Bryan would rather it didn’t happen, “We need to have a talk to property owners and explain to them the cost that the staff incurs, that this district continues to incur. Our staff time is spent chasing around our own people to pay the bill. So, we are spending money to spend money to spend money instead of just spending money to get things done around here. Like trainings, like accounting software, like maintaining the ordinances, like anything else, anything, literally anything else than just chasing around customers.”
At the end of the meeting, it was noted that one seat on the GSD Board of Directors remains open after Gary Wellborn moved out of the area, and two others seats, occupied by Board Members Linda Broderson and Doug Bryan, will be up for re-election in November. The filing deadline for the election is August 10. One must be 18 or older and live in the District to be eligible for election to the Garberville Sanitary District Board of Directors.