By CJ Dablo
The City of Signal Hill continues to defend the quality of its water and the reputation of its water department, and an independent engineering firm confirmed at Tuesday evening’s Council meeting that the water systems are safe.
The reputation of the water department is at stake. Criticizing management practices concerning water safety and questioning the circumstances of his own termination, a former employee from the city’s water department made the fight even more public when he appeared before the Council on May 3.
“Anyone who slanders me or makes any false statements or damages my reputation as a water-treatment or water-distribution operator is going to be held accountable,” said Fazio Tuesday night.
Earlier this year, Fazio, a former employee who served as a water-systems operator for the City of Signal Hill, sent an email to the City to voice concerns about water safety and the safety of the employees, according to City Manager Ken Farfsing, who also confirmed that Fazio had been employed on a probationary term.
Fazio’s emailed correspondence was sent to a number of other places, including the city administration and an unknown number of Signal Hill residents, some of whom received a printout on their doorsteps that included a copy of that letter.
On Tuesday night, Fazio introduced himself to the Council as a “whistle-blower.” He said that earlier that afternoon he had passed a lie detector test in San Bernardino that monitored him as he read a statement. He asked to read that same statement into the City Council record that night.
Although City Attorney David Aleshire had cautioned Dean Fazio a few times against revealing the details of his personnel record into the public record, Fazio asked to continue to read his statement. The statement criticized his supervisor and other employees at the water department.
That evening, Fazio provided more details on several of the complaints he had already lodged against the people in his former department. One of the concerns involved maintenance practices that Fazio said endangered the safety of employees. Fazio also alleged that a senior water-systems operator told him to falsify water-quality records. (Fazio said in his earlier letter that he did not obey the order). But Fazio also suggested Tuesday night that there was more wrongdoing in his department. Fazio further alluded to improprieties surrounding overtime pay that was collected by other employees, adding to the list of allegations he had outlined in his earlier letter.
Fazio said he received a poor performance evaluation and was eventually terminated after he filed a complaint with Cal/OSHA, the State’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
Fazio’s list of concerns did not go unnoticed. The City hired Tetra Tech Inc., an independent engineering firm, to address the former employee’s allegations, said Farfsing. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) had already determined that the water had been in compliance with federal and state standards for drinking water, according to the letter they issued in April to the department of public works.
Don Roberson, an operations specialist with Tetra Tech Inc., said at Tuesday’s Council meeting that over the course of two weeks, the company reviewed the water department records, talked to water department supervisors and employees, and attempted to interview Fazio. A more comprehensive report of their findings will be available soon, but a summary report is available online at cityofsignalhill.org.
Roberson confirmed that the city’s water department is in compliance with the drinking water standards established by federal and state authorities.
“The water system meets and in most cases exceeds the [CDPH] requirement for water quality monitoring at the plant and in the distribution system,” concluded Roberson. “And, based on the findings and observations, we found no evidence that the system integrity or water quality has been or is in jeopardy of being in violation.”
In reply to direct questions posed by both Councilmembers Michael Noll and Ed Wilson, Roberson also confirmed that the water is safe to drink.
Roberson also spoke to a specific concern about the presence of older water in the water system in the Burnett area, but that issue was already addressed by the CDPH when they amended the permit to require additional testing in that area.
“So the water is basically is safe,” said Roberson, “and the health department– even though the residuals may be a bit low in the Burnett area where that water has aged a bit– they are satisfied with the results.”
Councilmember Ellen Ward asked Roberson if there were any recommendations for improvements. Roberson recommended refinements in daily reports and updating policies and procedures on a yearly basis.
He has never been hired to consult for Signal Hill in the past, Roberson said.
Farfsing said that he had felt it was still important for the independent consulting firm to evaluate the concerns even though the CDPH had already conducted an inspection of the water department.
“So I’m one who will not shortchange the employee safety,” said Farfsing. “That just makes no sense to me to do that. I’m not going to be one to shortchange public safety in the terms of the health and safety of our community.”
Other councilmembers said there were concerns that largely had to do with personnel issues, which are usually kept confidential.
“Our hands are tied in what we can say because it’s a personnel matter and we would be subject to a lawsuit,” said Noll, who indicated that the Council already did investigate Fazio’s initial complaint.
Aleshire acknowledged that there were allegations that employees lied.
“There [are] always two sides to every story,” the city attorney said.
A few residents who were aware of Fazio’s allegations had voiced their opinions on the issues raised by him before Fazio addressed Council.
“Any time there is a case of management retaliation in an organization– whether public or private– it sends a chilling effect on to all employees in that organization,” said Signal Hill resident Maria Harris. “And it creates a lot of problems for them, and it creates a lot of problems for management.” Harris asked for another independent party to investigate Fazio’s claim that his supervisors retaliated against him when he voiced concerns.
Bill Yochum, another Signal Hill resident, criticized the allegations against the water department.
“People are being told to be afraid of the quality of the water they’re drinking,” Yochum said. “And they’re being told who to blame for it: obviously, the water department management, the city manager, the city council, anybody else you can think of.”
Yochum called the accusations a “political maneuver” that “is not working in Signal Hill.”
Mayor Larry Forester voiced a personal interest in the water quality.
“I must tell you, people, I’m living with HIV and AIDS,” said Forester. “If anybody has a problem with anything with water, it’s me because my immune system is extremely compromised. Yet I have no problem drinking Signal Hill water.”
Aleshire said he would review the concerns raised by Fazio. The city attorney also said he would discuss the matter with Farfsing.
The City has budgeted $15,000 to cover the cost of seeking an independent consulting firm, but the final bill had not yet been presented to the City, according to Deputy City Manager Charlie Honeycutt.
Other City Council highlights:
Medical marijuana It’s official– in a second-reading vote, the City Council approved a zoning ordinance amendment that prohibits medical marijuana dispensaries in Signal Hill’s commercial and industrial districts. Dispensaries will also be prohibited as a home occupation.
Water Replenishment District lawsuit Cerritos, Downey and Signal Hill recently won a joint lawsuit against the Water Replenishment District (WRD). WRD had not complied with Prop. 218. The proposition from 1996 required WRD fees to be approved through a public hearing process, according to Aleshire. The city attorney also said that the WRD may appeal the case, and Aleshire will be assessing the economic impact to the City, including the cost of legal fees. The case is one of several lawsuits that Signal Hill filed against the WRD over the last few years, Aleshire confirmed.
Long Beach Pride The City issued a proclamation to honor the Long Beach Lesbian & Gay Pride organization as they celebrate their 28th anniversary festival and parade.
New traffic signal The City Council voted to authorize the city manager to enter into an agreement with the Long Beach Unified School District to install a traffic signal at Cherry Avenue and 20th Street. According to a City report, the City secured a $302,500 grant to cover the traffic signal’s construction.
Reservoir Park A presentation on Reservoir Park highlighted new innovations at the park, which celebrated its grand opening last month. The park features several exercise stations geared toward physical fitness for seniors. The park also has drought-resistant plants in its landscaping design.
The next Signal Hill Council meeting will take place at City Hall Tuesday, May 17 at 7pm.