Nobody loses job for Fayette’s water system failures

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Brown wanted system ‘managers’ fired, but gets no support from other commissioners; Rapson ‘disciplines’ 5 system employees

Fayette County Commission Chairman Steve Brown insists he has seen enough to determine that “top management” at the Fayette County Water System “need to be terminated.”

Yet instead of firing top water system managers, County Administrator Steve Rapson announced Friday that he was suspending five unnamed water system employees without pay, along with other penalties, in the wake of two independent reports of basic operational problems at the county’s two water treatment plants.

Brown, in a letter to the editor this week, contends that he is beyond disappointed with the scenario.

“Up to this point, I have seen mismanagement, misdiagnosis of water problems, poor maintenance, alarmingly poor communication, incompetence, poor planning and the inability of management to assume responsibility,” Brown wrote. “… Based on what I have personally witnessed, recognizing the enormous impact the water system has on our citizenry, I have consistently maintained that top management in the system need to be terminated.”

The decision to punish the water system employees instead comes from Rapson “with the support of the remaining county commissioners,” Brown wrote, admitting that the punishments would be considered “firm … under most scenarios.”

“While any disciplinary action is a step in the right direction, my personal opinion is we did not go far enough,” Brown wrote. “However the decision has been made and vetted through the Board of Commissioners, so we will move on.”

Rapson has not yet released the full details of the employees’ discipline, including their names, citing a Georgia law that allows such records to be released 10 days following such disciplinary action. Rapson also noted that a county policy gives each employee up to five days to determine whether or not to appeal the decision. The employees signed their disciplinary papers Friday, Rapson said.

The Citizen has filed open records requests for information related to the disciplinary actions.

Rapson said Friday that each of the five disciplined employees also received pay classification and title changes, varying performance improvement plans and each will be subject to a disciplinary period.

Discipline handed down by Rapson includes requirements for “senior management” to prepare a corrective plan to address the findings of the EPD sanitary survey. Also, senior water system management must also prepare:

• A comprehensive capital improvement plan for the system;

• An update to standard operating procedures;

• A comprehensive communication improvement plan; and

• A customer service improvement plan.

Meanwhile, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division has recommended that five water system employees including Director Tony Parrott be investigated to determine if they “practiced fraud or deception,” or instead were “incompetent or unable to perform their duties properly.”

While none of the water system’s problems over the past several months have made the water unsafe to drink, they have eroded consumer confidence in Fayette’s drinking water, Rapson acknowledged.

Starting in May, water treatment problems literally left a bad taste in people’s mouths as taste and odor problems dragged on for several weeks.

A consultant who helped ameliorate the taste and odor issue determined that significant problems with operations at the Crosstown Water Treatment Plant in Peachtree City were to blame.

In a separate report documenting a review of the water treatment plants following the taste and odor problems, the Georgia Environmental Protection Division cited the water system for violating 10 Georgia safe drinking water rules and listed 147 deficiencies in the system that needed to be addressed.

Faulty plant operations were at the heart of an episode with high manganese levels in raw water that forced the shutdown of the Crosstown and South Fayette water plants, according to the consultant’s report July 25. That report cited improper lab testing, use of the wrong intake gate to draw water from Lake Horton and a failure of an automatic switchover machine that caused chlorine levels to drop at the Crosstown plant, which should have been detected by the overnight plant operator.

Rapson said Friday that residents expect better from the water system, and he wants the system to be positioned and recognized “as one of the superior water systems in the state.”

With five employees facing a potential state investigation, 10 drinking water rule violations and more than 140 deficiencies that need to be addressed, Fayette’s water system is currently not in the running for the “superior” label.

The county is undergoing a bid process to select a new “engineer of record” for the water system, a service that has been provided by Mallett Consulting for years and years. Mallett has been focused on maintenance and expansion of the water distribution system, but has not delved much if at all into operational matters, according to David Jaegar of Mallett Consulting.