Rob Perez

Raising Cane

By Rob Perez

Sunday, March 17, 2002

Stinking mess

Workers say management failings
led to abuses at Kailua sewage plant

Management failings at the city's Kailua Wastewater Treatment Plant over the last few years have led to an appalling array of abuses, from the disappearance of thousands of dollars worth of supplies to rampant misuse of overtime by supervisors, according to former and current workers.

"This place is out of control," said Kenneth Mersburgh, a truck driver who has 16 years at the plant. "Illegal activities, violence, intimidation, harassment -- it's all there."

Among the most blatant abuses, managers have taken workers on city time using city equipment to do improvement projects at homes of supervisors or their relatives, the employees say.

At least four city agencies, including the Honolulu Police Department, are investigating different aspects of the workers' charges.

The Kailua Wastewater Treatment Plant on Kaneohe Bay Drive is a hotbed of operations abuses, say some workers. The complaints are under investigation.

The employees said plant managers since the mid-1990s have used the facility to conduct illegal gambling operations and to solicit people to invest in bogus or questionable schemes, sometimes handling wads of cash while on the job.

The workers accused supervisors at the Department of Environmental Services' plant of trying to cover up the illicit activities and harass anyone who questioned their actions.

The employees also said workplace tensions are so high they worry violence could break out, drawing references to the fatal shootings of seven Xerox employees in 1999 by co-worker Bryan Uyesugi.

The city administration, however, said it is taking action to resolve problems at the plant. It also denied any management cover-up, noting the various investigations under way.

One already has determined that a supervisor and an employee last July went to a private residence while on city time to do pipe work, according to Frank Doyle, the department's deputy director. "I would think that there might be city equipment (used)," he said.

Disciplinary action is being taken in that case, although Doyle could not say what kind and against whom, citing confidentiality laws.

Doyle also said one of the department's top managers from another plant was assigned to run the Kailua facility about two months ago to help address the problems. The manager, Nick Musico, already is making improvements, including "clamping down on the amount of overtime used by supervisors," Doyle said.

Some employees, including at least one supervisor, have been transferred from the plant, and Doyle said more personnel changes are planned. About 40 workers are based there.

"It's an environment we're looking to improve upon," Doyle said.

That environment will be under intense scrutiny in the weeks ahead.

Police are investigating the allegations of employees doing work at private residences while on overtime, according to Det. Walter Kawaa of the white-collar crime detail. Such practices would constitute theft of city resources.

The city's Ethics Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Office also have separate investigations under way. The commission is looking into alleged ethics violations and the EEOO is investigating harassment charges.

Workers say they have complained to management about some of the problems, but that only triggered more harassment.

Tensions have been so high the past few years that police have been called to the plant several times because of workplace disputes.

In one case, a fight between two employees ended with one of them suffering three broken ribs. A week later the injured employee, Sheldon Bishaw, died of a heart attack, and his estate has since sued the city, the other worker and several supervisors, alleging the assault contributed to his death and the city didn't do enough to prevent the attack.

The other worker, Solomon Silva, claimed self-defense, saying another co-worker witnessed Bishaw initiate the altercation.

Silva said he was being sued because management failed to correct a hostile and volatile workplace environment.

The city declined comment on the case because of the pending litigation.

The Kailua plant is considered such a bad and stressful place to work that department employees elsewhere are reluctant to transfer there and filling vacant positions often is a problem, according to workers at Kailua and other treatment plants.

"People are quitting because they can't take it any more. It's like being in a prison or a funny farm," said James L. Barboza, who spent 12 years at Kailua before transferring to the city's Sand Island plant three years ago.

The Star-Bulletin spoke with nearly a dozen workers in on-the-record interviews. Most said they were so fed up and frustrated with the on-going problems and lack of corrective action that they decided to speak out. But many colleagues, they added, still are afraid to complain publicly.

If you speak out, "they bring the hammer down on you," Mersburgh said.

One distraught worker was so intimidated by supervisors he was found hiding in an office toilet stall, his feet off the ground to try to avoid detection, workers said.

"They didn't physically attack you," said George Smith Jr., another Kailua plant employee. "Mentally, they would abuse you. They would mock you, ridicule you. Anything you did would be so scrutinized to the point you started doubting yourself."

That's why Norman Salsedo, a truck driver, said he didn't speak up when he was taken to a private residence by a supervisor last year while on overtime to help install an underground sprinkler system.

"I would keep my mouth shut because I was afraid of retaliation," said Salsedo, who has since transferred to the city's Honouliuli plant.

Even after he was transferred, however, the supervisor called him several times at his new workplace to harass him, Salsedo said. He eventually went to court to seek a temporary restraining order against the supervisor. The judge didn't grant the order but warned the manager to stay away from Salsedo.

Fear of retaliation also was one reason Silva said he didn't say anything when he was taken by a supervisor to the same residence as Salsedo but on a later date, again while on city time.

"I knew what would've happened if I spoke out," Silva said.

Doyle, the deputy director, said only one incident of doing private work on city time has been brought to the administration's attention.

Silva said he discovered on Friday that the time sheets from the day he was taken to the private residence have been altered to make it appear as if he didn't get overtime that day.

Doyle could not be reached later to address that allegation.

Regarding the charge of missing supplies, Mersburgh, Smith and others said they noticed materials, including chemicals, fertilizer, oils and plastic piping, periodically would disappear from the Kailua plant's storeroom last year.

Among the materials was a type of potent herbicide that no one on the staff was licensed to apply, they said. Yet 5-gallon containers of the chemical no longer are there, they said.

"We're talking about thousands of dollars worth of products," Mersburgh said.

Many of the products, he added, were purchased from a company whose sales representative at the time had a romantic relationship with one of the plant supervisors. A company representative did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The Ethics Commission is believed to be investigating a potential conflict of interest involving those purchases. Chuck Totto, the commission's executive director, declined comment, citing confidentiality restrictions.

Doyle said the supervisor who ordered the products followed proper procedures. In addition, the department reviewed storeroom purchases over the past four months and found no unusual activity, Doyle said.

But based on the workers' allegations, the department plans to investigate purchases for the past year, Doyle added.

He also said the department was unable to turn up any evidence that illegal gambling or solicitation for investment schemes took place at the plant. Doyle acknowledged that allegations going back five years are difficult to investigate.

Mersburgh and other workers said solicitations were made as recently as last year and that some of their colleagues lost thousands of dollars on failed investments pitched by supervisors. The employees also said they occasionally saw football betting sheets being passed around and large sums of cash on the premises.

Barboza, the Sand Island worker, recalled walking into a second-floor office about five years ago and seeing a supervisor with five sizable piles of cash on his desk.

Asked why a supervisor would have lots of cash at a sewage treatment plant, Doyle said, "I think that would be unusual for anybody."

Also about five years ago, an ex-con who recently was released from prison came to the plant and pulled a gun on a supervisor, threatening to kill the manager if he didn't pay a large debt to a local gambling syndicate, Silva said.

Silva said he later helped mediate a settlement between the supervisor and the syndicate boss in charge of collecting the debt.

Carol Costa, a city spokeswoman, said the administration is confident no gambling or investment solicitations are going on now.

Among the steps the city has taken to improve conditions at the plant is to hire a dispute resolution firm. That company has started working with management and staff to ease tensions and create a team-like atmosphere.

But employees wonder whether anything will change.

"There is violence brewing at our workplace, and I pray nothing happens," Silva said.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:

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