Board chair recommends firing Tampa Bay Water leader

Matthew Jordan has led the utility, which provides drinking water to millions of people, since 2013.
Matthew Jordan is the general manager of Tampa Bay Water.
Matthew Jordan is the general manager of Tampa Bay Water. [ Photo by Tampa Bay Water ]
Published Oct. 15, 2020|Updated Oct. 15, 2020

The chairman of the region’s main water utility is seeking the dismissal of its general manager over concerns about interactions with the agency’s governing board and its employees.

Tampa Bay Water chairman Dave Eggers, a Pinellas County commissioner, made his request in an email to fellow board members Thursday. The commissioner earlier this year raised questions about general manager Matthew Jordan’s ability to communicate with the board as well as local governments. He also shared an anonymous letter, from “proud supporters of Tampa Bay Water and its mission,” that alleged a poor work environment.

Since August, Eggers wrote, he has talked to five Tampa Bay Water employees who supported parts or all of the letter, which alleged low morale, sexism, and a lack of leadership. The letter claimed staffers feel undervalued and some are retiring early, that Jordan does not meet with most employees and that he does not have clear priorities for the agency.

“None of them were the author and two of them shared that they agreed with the entirety of the letter,” Eggers wrote in his email. He explained that, with the agency’s lawyer present, he personally asked Jordan, who has led the utility since 2013, to step down. “After a week and three meetings with Matt and various other phone calls, it has become apparent that he does not want to resign.”

The Tampa Bay Water board is scheduled to meet Oct. 26. Eggers said he will ask for a vote to fire Jordan.

A request to speak to Jordan, sent through a spokeswoman for the utility, went unanswered. A person who answered the phone at his office late Thursday said he was not there. Jordan said at the board meeting in August that he read the letter and did not agree with its claims.

“For some time, including last year, I’ve been concerned about his performance,” Eggers said in an interview. Conversations with employees, he said, only confirmed that worry. Eggers declined to speak in detail about those discussions but said they added to questions about leadership and communication skills.

On the letter’s sexism allegation, specifically inappropriate and disparaging comments toward women, Eggers said he did not see evidence of harassment but: “There has been some concern raised about just a different approach to men and women. ... I really don’t want to get into any more specifics on that.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers leads the Tampa Bay Water board.
Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers leads the Tampa Bay Water board. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The Tampa Bay Water governing board includes local elected officials from areas the utility serves: Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco Counties, as well as St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey. The utility in June set its 2021 budget at $182.8 million. Jordan’s salary is $240,448, according to the agency.

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Several board members said they were surprised by the email Thursday and did not know enough to comment.

Jordan in the last couple of years has received mostly favorable or average performance reviews, records show. A few board members, including Eggers, St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice and Hillsborough Commissioner Sandy Murman, however, have offered low marks.

“The Board is taking this very seriously and nothing will disrupt Tampa Bay Water’s number one priority — to provide clean, safe drinking water to the region,” Rice said in a statement.

Among his specific concerns, Eggers said he was upset to see in a recent five-year audit some performance measures lingered unresolved. Those included issues with management and information technology security issues, he said. Jordan, according to Eggers, agreed there were problems “but (said) that it was no big deal.”

When presented with the anonymous letter in August, several board members suggested employees who had trouble should come forward to discuss the matter with Eggers or human resources officials.

“I have found our director very responsive, very accessible,” Hillsborough Commissioner Mariella Smith said at the time. “When you’re unable to consider the source at all ... it’s very difficult for me to take them seriously.”

Smith did not reply to a call or text message seeking comment Thursday.

Tampa Bay Water is at a critical moment. Only last year board members worried the region was careening toward another water war, the likes of which helped lead to the creation of the utility in the late 1990s. Pinellas representatives clashed with officials in Tampa over the city’s plan to pump treated wastewater into the aquifer before using it in the drinking supply.

“The essence of Tampa Bay Water and what we do and how we deliver water to our member governments is fine,” Eggers said. “We are now at a different place where I think bold leadership and a much stronger communication style is warranted.”

Times staff writers C.T. Bowen, Tracey McManus and Steve Contorno contributed to this report.