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Former Dade City utilities manager says city leaders are trying to pin blame on him for water outage

DADE CITY — After the spigots went dry, wires to a water tank alarm were found to have been cut, city officials said. Pump switches at three wells were offline.

Now that a month has passed since the entire city lost water service and still no one knows how it happened, the former utilities manager is pointing an accusing finger at the top brass, saying they tried to pin it on him.

An investigation, complete with lie detectors and statements under oath, should be done, said Rick Whalen.

"I will gladly take a polygraph," said Whalen, who was forced out of his job three days before the May 6 outage that for about an hour affected all 5,000 customers, including some who complained that they weren't made aware of a weekend boil notice that followed. Whalen said he was so concerned he wrote a letter to Gov. Rick Scott "summarizing the situation."

City officials say Whalen is overreacting. They said they never accused anyone of any wrongdoing, period.

"This is a disgruntled ex-employee," said City Manager Billy Poe. "I don't know why he needs to take a lie detector test. If he wants to set one up himself, he can."

Whalen's relationship with his bosses has been strained since he began in May 2009. During his job interview, a panel member jotted down in notes: "Loud — NY — a yacker." But Whalen's most recent evaluation from April 2010 rated him as satisfactory or exceeding expectations in most areas. He was recommended for a 5 percent pay raise. Communicating goals, notifying colleagues and maintaining a good rapport with subordinates were marked as "needs improvement." Whalen submitted his resignation letter March 28, but a month later he did an about-face and wrote Poe that he intended to stay. Poe dismissed him May 3. Poe didn't say why, but Whalen said in an e-mail that he had been accused of being unable to work with people. He also said that a subordinate had gone over his head when he asked crews to do "important safety work."

After the water outage, Whalen said city officials implied sabotage during a City Council meeting when they reported that wires to an automated alarm at one of two water tanks had been cut and that pumps had been found offline. Dade City police even questioned people asking if they had seen any suspicious vehicles in the area.

Yet despite the circumstances, Poe accepted an internal review that failed to pinpoint a cause and stopped short of ordering an outside investigation.

"We may never know what caused it," Poe said. "We're moving on and trying to improve our system so it doesn't happen again."

Whalen, 56, a certified professional engineer who holds a special license that allows him to operate water treatment systems, said a previous employee said the alarm had been malfunctioning for years, and wires had been disconnected since before Whalen arrived about two years ago. Whalen also questioned why the incident had not been reported to the state, which is required in cases of suspected vandalism.

Whalen said he suspects Public Works director Lennie Naeyaert allowed crews to flush hydrants to drain a water tank, which needed to be done before a key valve could be installed. Whalen said he advised against flushing the hydrants because it would drop water pressures too low. He said the tank needed to be isolated from the system before it could be drained.

Poe, however, said crews didn't flush anything.

"Work ... was merely an exploration of the pipes and valves in an attempt to find the best way to isolate the tank without affecting water users," Poe wrote in an e-mail to commissioners in response to Whalen's allegations.

Poe also said that the automated alarm in question was known to be working as of January 2010 when it called police dispatch. The alarm at the other tank had its power line disabled and the backup battery removed. "This system was known to be in operation as recently as the morning of 4 May 2011," Poe wrote.

Officials said trouble with a Florida Power transmission line in the Brooksville area could have caused a "voltage sag" around the time of the water outage.

His decision contradicted advice from city attorney Karla Owens, who recommended an independent investigation in light of Whalen's claims.

"I can only provide my best legal advice/professional experience," Owens told the Pasco Times. "I cannot make anyone take my advice."

Poe said early last week he thought the internal review was sufficient. But he changed his position after a conversation with Mayor Scott Black, who said an external review could help clear the air.

"I don't think we need a criminal investigation, but I have no problem with a review of the water system to make sure this doesn't happen again," Black said.

Other commissioners said having an outside person look into the matter was a good idea.

"If Karla feels like we should, perhaps we should," Commissioner Eunice Penix said.

Commissioner Camille Hernandez said the city owed it to the customers to do more to find out what happened. An incident that cut off a basic necessity such as water to an entire population should be taken seriously.

"Someone needs to be held accountable," said Hernandez, who holds a master's degree in public health from Yale University. "Having clean, safe water is important."

Poe said Thursday he has asked the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which was in town this week for a routine inspection, to review the city's findings. If that's not sufficient, he's willing to have a neighboring government do a review. Meanwhile, the alarms have been replaced, and the locks on the well houses have been changed. City officials also are working on improving their notification system so residents are aware when boil notices go out.

Whalen, who is searching for another job, said he wants his name cleared.

"Tampering with a water system is a federal crime," he said.

Former Dade City utilities manager says city leaders are trying to pin blame on him for water outage 06/11/11 [Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2011 12:14pm]
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