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Watertown City Water Department hit with personnel problems

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WATERTOWN — The city’s Water Department has been hit with the recent suspension of its head operator, the sudden resignation of its second in command and disciplinary action against five employees.

On April 24, the city suspended Brian D. Gaffney, the water filtration plant’s chief operator, for insubordination, said Syracuse attorney Lawrence M. “Micah” Ordway, who is representing him. That day, maintenance supervisor Kerry S. Augustus also quit his $54,000-a-year job in protest.

In a separate issue, five employees were suspended this winter after the city determined they urinated off a small vessel being used to dredge undrinkable water in the coagulation basin at the city’s dosing station off Route 3 in the town of Pamelia, said Bruce Pinkham, who works in the water filtration plant and is vice president of the city employees union.

Mr. Gaffney was suspended after he ignored an order by his boss, Water Superintendent Michael J. Sligar, to turn off a water gate at the Huntington Street water filtration plant on April 16, while the Black River was under the threat of potential flooding, Mr. Ordway said earlier this week.

Mr. Gaffney now faces losing his job. A Section 75 hearing will be held at 9 a.m. today to determine whether he should be terminated from the $64,000-a-year job.

Mr. Gaffney declined to comment, referring all questions to his attorney. City Manager Sharon A. Addison and other city officials also would not discuss the situation.

“These are personnel matters that are not yet concluded,” Mr. Sligar said.

City officials also declined to release information about the men’s employment background with the city, instructing the Times to file a Freedom of Information request.

In defending his client, Mr. Ordway insisted that Mr. Gaffney did the right thing when Mr. Sligar gave the directive to a technician who works at the water plant.

Mr. Gaffney disagreed with the tactic, so he ignored the order. As required by the state’s sanitary code, he contacted the local state Department of Health office to see whether it was the right move to shut down the equipment, Mr. Ordway said. Department of Health personnel agreed with his client; the city maintains he disobeyed an order and charged him with insubordination, he said.

Mr. Gaffney subsequently was suspended without pay, pending a hearing, according to civil service law. Mr. Gaffney is considered a manager, so he is not represented by Civil Service Employees Association Local 823. If his attorney successfully argues his case, Mr. Gaffney would return to work.

“The only option he had was to call the Department of Health and notify them,” Mr. Ordway said.

A hearing officer will make a recommendation to Ms. Addison, who has the final say on whether Mr. Gaffney loses his job, she said.

While not discussing his situation, Ms. Addison stressed that at no time has the public been put at risk as a result of the two top operators not working there. Mr. Sligar said the plant is in the capable hands of three employees who have earned state water operator licenses during the past two years.

“The plant has not missed a beat. The plant is not in peril,” Mr. Sligar said.

With Mr. Gaffney suspended and Mr. Augustus no longer there, Aaron T. Harvill was named interim chief plant operator and Paul H. Barben Jr. has been appointed interim maintenance supervisor, according to an April 24 memo to water department staff from Mr. Sligar.

Retired Water Superintendent Gary E. Pilon said he could not comment about Mr. Gaffney’s situation, saying he was subpoenaed to testify at today’s hearing. Two Health Department officials, Michael Tracy and Claude Curley, also were subpoenaed, he said.

Mr. Harvill also was among the five employees suspended for urinating into the untreated water at the dosing station, several sources said.

He and water distribution employee Guy Tefft were suspended for five days without pay because they are licensed water plant operators. The other three employees — Matthew J. Burgenstock, John McCauley and Rick A. Artz — do not have licenses and were suspended for two days, Mr. Pinkham said.

In Mr. Sligar’s view, the matter has been put behind. The five employees admitted to what they had done and were punished for it, he said.

“They’re good men,” he said.

Using newly purchased equipment, the five workers were involved last fall in a two-month operation of dredging sediments — containing goose fences, runoff water and other materials — from the “raw water” in the basin, city officials said.

The contraption, called a horizontal dredger, was hooked up to cables on both sides of the nearly mile-long basin, allowing it to travel only from shore to shore. A suction device at the front of the craft was used to suck up the sludge at the basin’s bottom.

Except for taking time for lunch, the five were told they could not take any bathroom breaks once they started their shifts, Mr. Pinkham said. A men’s room in the dosing station building also was not easily accessible, since the vessel was not navigable, he said.

So they urinated into the “sludge,” he said.

While the incidents occurred during the fall, the information remained between the five men until somehow it got leaked out in December and finally reached City Hall administrators this past winter, Mr. Pinkham said.

Mr. Sligar became enraged with the five employees’ action, Mr. Pinkham said.

During a meeting with Ms. Addison, he expressed his anger, calling them “the five stupidest city employees,” then naming each one individually, Mr. Pinkham said.

“It ticked me off,” said Mr. Pinkham, who represented the five employees as their union rep. It upset him so much that he went back and told them, he said.

But Mr. Sligar insisted Mr. Pinkham is misrepresenting the facts of what happened in the meeting with him. Ms. Addison added that Mr. Pinkham betrayed their trust.

“I recall only saying that I thought what they did was stupid,” Mr. Sligar wrote in a March 24 memo to Mr. Pinkham, in which he instructed him not to instruct Water Department employees about personnel matters.

By doing so, Mr. Pinkham, the local CSEA’s executive vice president, contended that his boss is interfering with union business, and that he has the right to deal with employees on CSEA business.

“People don’t want to talk to me,” he said. “They’re afraid to talk to me.”

He said he hopes the regional CSEA office will take up the matter and file an unfair labor practices case against the city.

Mr. McCauley and Mr. Burgenstock declined to comment. Mr. Harvill, Mr. Teftt and Mr. Artz could not be reached.

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