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Rob Perez

Raising Cane

By Rob Perez

Sunday, May 5, 2002



Disputes at
wastewater
plant linger


The mess at the Kailua Wastewater Treatment Plant keeps getting messier.

New allegations of wrongdoing and discrimination are surfacing even as several city agencies, including the police department, are conducting investigations.

More workers are stepping forward to identify what they say was inappropriate or illegal activity at the sewage plant in recent years, much of it allegedly carried out, orchestrated or condoned by supervisors.

The latest accusations involve the use of city funds to purchase potted plants for a private residence, the illegal tapping of a cable TV line to get service to the facility, and a supervisor improperly getting paid by the city while on active duty with the military.

A "Raising Cane" column in March detailed previous allegations of, among other things, supervisors taking workers to do projects at private homes on city time, the disappearance of thousands of dollars worth of city supplies and rampant abuse of overtime.

Workers also described what they said was an extremely hostile workplace environment where anyone who questioned the supervisors was harassed and where the potential for violence was great.

Police have been summoned there on several occasions because of disputes.

The recent publicity and management changes, including some made before the controversy became front-page news, have led to improvements, some workers say. But others say major problems remain and management is trying to cover up some of the past misdeeds -- a charge denied by the city.

Since March, the city has transferred two supervisors from the facility, demoted another, suspended another and brought in two supervisors from other treatment plants, workers say.

The aim has been to clean house and improve the work environment. And what an environment it was.

The allegations, some of which already have been substantiated, portrayed a workplace that seemed out of control, with taxpayer money being misspent, employee tensions growing to alarming levels and supervisors operating with little or no oversight. One manager, for instance, was able to rack up roughly 40 hours of overtime a week for months, workers say.

Bringing the overtime issue to the forefront, the United Public Workers filed a class grievance late last year on behalf of its union members at the plant, claiming that supervisors since 2000 were being paid overtime to do groundskeeping work that should have been performed by UPW members. The grievance is pending.

Tim Steinberger, head of the Department of Environmental Services, which oversees the sewage plant, said through a city spokeswoman that his department began investigating various concerns long before the publicity hit. He said investigations and follow-ups on personnel matters are continuing.

"We have taken action on several personnel matters at the Kailua facility as we deemed appropriate," Steinberger said.

He declined to answer specific questions, except to say the department has not been informed of the allegations about the potted plants.

Jacob Silva, who has worked at the Kailua site for more than a year, told the Star-Bulletin that late last year he was ordered to accompany two supervisors on a trip in a city truck to a Waimanalo nursery.

At the nursery, they loaded numerous trays of small potted plants onto the truck bed and, on the way back to Kailua, dropped off several trays at the home of one of the supervisor's relatives, Silva said. The rest of the plants were unloaded at the sewage facility.

One of the supervisors mentioned that the purchase order for the plants totaled $1,000, Silva said.

A nursery representative, who asked that her name and the name of her business not be published, said the city always used purchase orders to buy plants from her nursery. She could not recall any occasion in which city workers used cash to purchase plants for their personal use.

Regarding the cable television service, Solomon Silva, another Kailua worker and Jacob's brother, said a group of employees paid for the service until it was disconnected in August 1998.

But within a day or two of the disconnection, a temporary supervisor illegally tapped the cable line to restore the service, which remains connected, Silva said. He said at least two supervisors were aware the service was not being paid for.

An executive with Oceanic Cable did not return several phone calls seeking comment. But Oceanic told Silva last week that the matter would be investigated, he said.

Several workers raised questions about a supervisor who continued to work at the plant and draw a city paycheck while on active duty with his military reserve unit, drawing a paycheck from the military as well.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association, which represents blue-collar supervisors at the plant, said its labor contract with the city does not permit supervisors to draw a city paycheck while on active duty, particularly for a lengthy period. The idea is to prevent double dipping.

The city stopped paying the supervisor once another supervisor voiced concerns and the matter was brought to the city's attention, HGEA said.

Carol Costa, a city spokeswoman, said she couldn't comment on individual cases.

But the general policy under the HGEA labor agreement permits employees on military duty to simultaneously draw city pay for about two weeks each year, Costa said.

The Kailua supervisor, however, received city pay beyond the 15-day limit, the union said.

Confusion over the policy surfaced when local reservists were called to active duty after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Gilbert Valentine, the Kailua supervisor who first raised concerns about the pay issue, received an involuntary transfer to the Honouliuli sewage treatment plant last month.

He and several workers said the transfer was in retaliation for Valentine blowing the whistle on supervisor overtime abuse and for supporting the rank-and-file in its disputes with management.

"He was the only supervisor who backed us," said Kenny Mersburgh, a truck driver at the plant.

The city declined to discuss the Valentine case. It is investigating a discrimination complaint he filed recently against several managers that, if upheld, underscores how hostile the workplace environment was.

Among the charges, Valentine said he was suspended for alleged insubordination even though his witnesses weren't interviewed and, in one case, the person doing the suspension investigation was named as a management witness to the incident. Several of Valentine's witnesses disputed the insubordination accusations.

The Valentine case is one of several discrimination complaints under investigation involving former or current plant managers.

It's all part of a tangled mess that may take months to unravel and begs the question, "How did top management allow this to happen?"

Taxpayers deserve some answers.





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: rperez@starbulletin.com.



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