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Following orders to keep things drama-free led to NE Fresno watershed

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We now know that the Northeast Fresno discolored water controversy isn’t a mystery.

It’s a show.

And the residents afflicted with bad water are merely bit players – perhaps justifiably so.

That’s my takeaway from Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s update Thursday morning of the city’s ongoing investigation into this complicated tale.

“I want to give you a heads up – there’s a lot of material to cover,” Swearengin told reporters right off the bat. “I hope you’re wearing comfortable shoes. You’re going to be here for a little while.”

An hour later I left City Hall’s media room with my head spinning. I refuse to believe I was the only reporter in such a condition.

Swearengin did a masterful job of defining (and confining) the story line. She was joined at the microphone by City Manager Bruce Rudd and Public Utilities Director Tommy Esqueda. These two, however, were there to fill in the occasional detail. Swearengin was the traffic cop.

I’ll give you a quick rundown of Swearengin’s opening comments. I’ll follow with a look at the controversy’s timeline. I’ll briefly chew on statistics compiled during the city’s effort to fix things. I’ll add a few tidbits on what’s next.

I’ll end with what I think are the two elephants in the room, the obvious issues pivotal to understanding what has happened yet so far left unaddressed by City Hall: Context and motive.

Swearengin said a Northeast Fresno resident on Jan. 5, 2016 posted a complaint on a social media website about discolored water. The resident’s beef: City Hall refused to do anything.

Within an hour of the posting, Swearengin said, Georgeanne White (the Mayor’s chief of staff) forwarded the complaint to Esqueda. An hour after that, Council Member Lee Brand (who represents Northeast Fresno) forwarded to city officials an email he had received from the same person who posted the social media complaint.

“Within 24 hours of that complaint being posted, the administration began what has become a massive and thorough investigation into the causes of the complaint and the solutions to them,” Swearengin said. “That investigation is ongoing.”

Permit me here to remind you of the obvious. The discolored water controversy has been in the news a lot over the past three or four months. Fresno’s finest reporters – among them The Bee’s Tim Sheehan, Channel 47’s Angela Greenwood and Channel 30’s Gene Haagenson – have done an excellent job of bringing events to light. This widespread reporting enabled Swearengin to avoid adding time-consuming background to her remarks.

There are two main parts to the city’s investigation, Swearengin said.

The first is the science. Why is water, mostly from the Northeast Surface Water Treatment Plant, causing a trouble in certain houses? Galvanized pipe is seen as a culprit.

The second is bureaucratic process. As Swearengin’s opening remarks made clear, top City Hall officials say they were unaware of the water woes until January 5. Yet, good water systems have an effective fail-safe method of tracking trouble.

An outside firm is spearheading the city’s investigation.

“On Monday the city manager and I received the preliminary results of the investigation into the city’s customer complaint and reporting system and practices,” Swearengin said. “There are still two people left to interview. However, the preliminary results provide enough information for us to report out on that investigation.”

Who knew what about customer complaints of discolored water, and when? That’s part of what the investigation seeks to uncover. Toward that end, Swearengin said, investigators have read all pertinent in-house emails from 2004, when the northeast treatment plant went live, through 2016.

All this reading, Swearengin said, is to help City Hall “better understand what went into the overall decision-making process by past employees” regarding the handling of customer complaints.

(My initial thought: past?)

The investigators’ report shows several big problems, Swearengin said. One is a terrible process for reporting customer complaints to city officials and state authorities.

Also, Swearengin said, “there was an effort made by mid-level managers to represent the problem as one of affecting only a handful of homes – roughly eight to 10 homes out of 22,500 homes in the Northeast Fresno area – and that the Water Department was handling those few complaints and everything was under control.”

Keep that statement in mind. We’ll circle back to it.

Swearengin said two key questions remain to be answered. “Number one,” she said, “who made the decision to route customer complaints directly to the former water treatment facility operator, (a process that lies) outside the city’s normal reporting protocol? And number two, who directed city employees to not properly document complaints on the monthly reports to the state?”

If I understand correctly, number one refers to Bob Moorhead, who ran the northeast treatment plant until 2011. He apparently handled complaints about discolored water from a personal computer system at his home.

“Emotions are running high” in Northeast Fresno, Swearengin said.

Mark Standriff, the city’s communications director, prepared an excellent timeline for Thursday’s news conference.

To summarize, the northeast treatment plant went online in June 2004. The first email from a customer complaining of discolored water arrived in September 2004. On Feb. 2, 2005, various officials in the Mayor’s/City Manager’s office were informed via email by a top Public Utilities official (Lon Martin) that about 10 homes in Northeast Fresno were plagued with discolored water. (Alan Autry was mayor at the time; Andy Souza was city manager; city officials today say this email was the only official notification of the problem to City Hall’s highest levels until the events of early 2016). There was chatter in March 2007 about turning the discolored water problem into a City Council workshop, but nothing came of the idea. And, as we’ve seen, the city’s full-blown investigation into the troubles started on Jan. 5, 2016.

Standriff also prepared an excellent summary of statistics on current testing efforts by city workers (Esqueda discussed the figures, as well).

For example, a total of 1,136 fixtures in 376 homes had been tested for lead as of early August. Nearly 92% were found to have levels of lead either below the action level or no lead readings at all. Only 92 fixtures (8.3%) had lead results above the action level. Fifty-two homes currently are reporting lead tests above the action level.

As far as what’s ahead, the two biggies are 1.) investigators’ efforts to talk to Moorhead and Martin, and 2.) a community meeting on all things discolored water slated for Wednesday, Aug. 17 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Clovis West High School multi-purpose room. (Fresno State’s Save Mart Center must have been booked.)

All this barely scratches the surface of what’s going on.

But I can’t help thinking that all this detail, admirable and appreciated as it is, has the effect of someone shouting, “Look! A squirrel!”

My hunch is that the Northeast Fresno discolored water controversy is unfolding pretty much how top city officials expected from the get-go back in mid-2004. This painful reckoning with a relatively small number of disgruntled residents was factored long ago into City Hall’s grand strategy for the future growth of Fresno. Mid- and top-level Water Division executives knew what their policy-making superiors were up to. These Water Division executives every step of the way were doing with the discolored water problem precisely what they assumed was expected of them. The superiors didn’t want to know what was happening among the Water Division executives until the grand strategy was fully executed.

That grand strategy now has been fully executed. January 2016 was the perfect time for City Hall to tie up a few loose ends – like taking care of those customers with 12 years of complaints.

Let me emphasize – that’s merely my view of things.

I begin my explanation with a question: How does City Hall – any city hall – work? Well, City Hall has to get things done. I’m talking about the main things, whatever the politicians and voters decide those are. If you don’t get the main things done, you have no business being in power.

Remember Ralph Hanley? Hanley came to Fresno in the mid-1970s as city manager when we had the city manager-council form of government. By all accounts, the ex-Marine was one tough cookie (I know – once a Marine, always a Marine).

Hanley was the guy who brought Fresno into the modern era of municipal administration. As you may recall, Fresno in the 1970s was beginning to feel the hangover from explosive post-World War II suburban growth. Yet, even more suburban growth was on the drawing boards.

Hanley created the Urban Growth Management fee system – UGM fees, for short. Simply put, developers could develop pretty much to their heart’s content but they would have to pay their fair share of infrastructure costs associated with that growth.

In theory, we’re talking things like sewer, water, curbs, gutters, streets, parks, public safety.

As befits a city as big as Fresno even in the 1970s, the UGM system was complex. That’s one reason the developers hated the system and Hanley. But the big reason for the developers’ hate was they didn’t want to pay. They wanted the city to continue footing the bill for infrastructure.

Hanley won the war – the city became a national trendsetter with its UGM system. But his victory wasn’t good for job security. The City Council eventually fired Hanley.

By 2000, when Hanley was just a vague memory, city officials decided the UGM system needed a major overhaul. They enlisted the media’s help in setting the stage. City officials told reporters that the UGM system was so complex that it had become an administrative nightmare. City Hall’s smartest bureaucrats were overwhelmed by all the UGM rules. The public was led to believe that the nether regions of City Hall were full of overworked clerks toiling away at desks covered with huge stacks of UGM paperwork. When the paperwork was done, it was promptly lost.

I know the local news media bought this line. I was at The Bee when one of my newsroom colleagues wrote just this story.

Then Alan Autry became mayor in January 2001. His campaign theme was healing Fresno’s north-south rift. He called it the “tale of two cities.”

The healing would be no easy task, but Autry was a man of immense self-confidence.

His biggest challenge was finding lots of money to invest in inner-city Fresno. Autry saw the still-unfinished reform of the UGM system as his answer. You see, the UGM system required that the money raised in a specific UGM sector be spent only within that sector. Most of the growth was in North Fresno. Therefore, most of the money stayed in North Fresno.

But by 2004-2005, Autry had overcome developer opposition to craft a successor to the UGM system. The new model would be called developer impact fees. These fees would be hiked. And some of the money raised by these new fees could be spent (if certain rules were followed) in parts of town other than where the development occurred.

John Ellis and I wrote a bunch of stories for The Bee as these new fees worked their way through the City Council. In the course of doing these stories, I got to thinking about that story my Bee colleague had done in 2000 about City Hall’s total failure to properly administer the UGM system. The story line didn’t make sense to me. Government is able to keep track of immense numbers of taxpayers, for example. Keeping track of a couple of thousand UGM accounts couldn’t have been hard, could it?

To cut to the chase, I tracked down the guy at City Hall who was in charge of UGM record-keeping. It was exactly as I suspected. He showed me his files on the fourth floor of City Hall. Everything was there, in neat rows. Computers made it easy work.

Most important for our current story, this guy showed me how he had delivered to the City Manager’s Office annual recommendations for increases to each UGM fee so the system didn’t fall behind the true cost of things. If that happened, the taxpayer would have to fill the gap. One of the complaints about the UGM system was that its complexity and chaos explained why fees weren’t increased annually by the City Council.

I looked at all those printouts of recommended increases to the UGM fees. Most of those recommendations never saw the light of the Council Chamber.

“I turn them in,” the guy told me. “What they do with them down there (in the Mayor/City Manger’s Office) is their business.”

Well, what they did with those recommended UGM hikes was, in essence, toss them into the circular file. And perhaps they were right to do so. The politics of development in Fresno is monumentally complicated.

My point in part is to show that on really big issues City Hall isn’t stupid. City Hall on really big issues knows exactly what’s going on and where risks to grand strategy lie. If that requires City Hall on occasion to publicly portray itself as incompetent (“Oh, we don’t know nothin’ about UGM fees!”) to maintain a steady stream of economic development, then so be it.

But my point is also to tie the Alan Autry-UGM reform-Tale of Two Cities strategy to the pressures that lie at the heart of decisions made in connection to the discolored-water controversy.

City Hall in the late 1990s (Jim Patterson was in his second term as mayor) was coming to grips with its water crisis. I won’t go into all the details here – you no doubt recall them from the series of community meetings on water from several years ago.

Bottom line, we used to get all our water simply by sticking a straw into our amazing aquifer. But smart city officials knew late in the 20th century that those days were ending. To survive and thrive in the 21st century, Fresno would have do a better job of conserving and make better use of surface water from the San Joaquin and Kings rivers. We have entitlements to about 180,000 acre feet of water in a normal rain year from those two rivers, but we had let most of it pass downstream to other users.

We didn’t have the plants to properly treat that amount of water for human consumption.

So, in the second Patterson administration City Hall began planning for the first big step in our New Era of Water. That step was building the Northeast Surface Water Treatment Plant. But it was left to Autry to actually build it.

Think back to those years of 2001 to 2004. Autry had to convince Fresno to embrace residential water meters (we hated residential water meters so much we actually put a prohibition against their compulsory use in our City Charter). He had to get the northeast treatment plant built and ensure that it was a roaring success. He had to keep federal and state water regulators happy so Fresno would retain its access to all that river water. He had ensure steady and plentiful supplies of good clean water because he had to keep the development boom going full bore. He had to do this because he needed all those developer impact fees. He needed all those developer impact fees because he was just beginning to borrow millions of dollars on the bond market and those fees would help pay the annual bill. He needed all those millions of borrowed dollars because they would help pay for the parks and public safety and infrastructure and other stuff that would bring South Fresno into the 21st century and finally bring a measure of justice to neglected Fresnans. He wanted that glorious day to arrive because he knew that’s what all Fresnans of honorable spirit wanted.

Water was (is) at the heart of it all. And the brand new northeast treatment plant was just the start. Even when the northeast plant was still only a dream, City Hall knew a second treatment plant in the southeast part of town was an absolute necessity to Fresno’s future. Regulators in Sacramento and Washington, D.C. knew it, too. A troubled northeast plant that early on enflamed public passions (“See – I told you we don’t need no stinkin’ treatment plant – we’ve got enough groundwater for a thousand years!”) would likely doom the proposed southeast plant.

Fresno didn’t get around to approving Swearengin’s $429 million water project – which includes the southeast treatment plant – until a couple of years ago. And as we all know, that was a near-run thing.

I said early in this story that we’d eventually circle back to a key statement from Swearengin at Thursday’s news conference. Swearengin said that the preliminary investigation into the discolored-water issue found that “there was an effort made by mid-level managers to represent the problem as one of affecting only a handful of homes – roughly eight to 10 homes out of 22,500 homes in the Northeast Fresno area – and that the Water Department was handling those few complaints and everything was under control.”

Of course those mid-level managers would talk that way. They’d be insane to do otherwise. And their bosses knew it.

More importantly, the preliminary investigation’s finding treats you and me – the public – in a most patronizing manner. Remember the timeframe and the context I’ve given you.

It’s just a few months after the northeast treatment plant opened in mid-2004. We’re only 120 or 150 days into a brand new era of water management in Fresno. The northeast plant is arguably the most important capital asset belonging to the city. It’s success or failure is pivotal to everything the Autry Administration and the City Council want to accomplish. Every creak and groan and shudder at that new plant is of fundamental interest to every top official at City Hall. And then, before the northeast treatment plant is even out of basic training, the Big Shots at City Hall are told by mid-level managers that eight to 10 homes – not a couple of lean-tos built by the homeless, but eight to 10 expensive suburban houses – are already having their water systems turned into poison by the treated water coming from this Ultimate Change Agent.

Eight to 10 homes a mere four months after the plant opens is an unmitigated disaster on a variety of policy levels! If City Hall’s top officials – not mid-level managers, but the Big Shots – had an ounce of competence and dedication, then they only had to be told once about the discolored water problem. How often did Admiral Kimmel and General Short need to be told that the Japanese had arrived?

If the Big Shots were on their game, then concerns about the effect of the water from the northeast treatment plant on pipes within the plant’s service area would have become as much a part of the daily institutional culture in Public Utilities, City Council offices and Mayor’s/City Manager’s Office as morning coffee.

I’m here to tell you that I think the Big Shots, whether from the Autry Era or the Swearengin Era, have always been on their game. And these Big Shots were only too happy to have mid-level Water Division managers quietly juggle the discolored-water problem – be it chemistry or customer relations – as best they could until all the elements of the grand strategy were in safely in place.

The mid-level managers intuitively read the desires of the Big Shots. Heck, the Big Shots might have even said as much to the mid-level managers, being careful to leave no paper/email trail.

The mid-level managers did their duty. I believe they did this fully convinced that they were obeying all rules as they interpreted them.

I’m betting Moorhead and Martin will say as much.

George Hostetter
George Hostetter is The Sun’s Fresno Civic contributor – covering the City of Fresno, County of Fresno, and Fresno Council of Governments.

1 Comment

  1. It sounds like we’re lucky we aren’t like Flint, Michigan. What about the lack of regular reporting to the State? Were the mid-level managers told to ignore that requirement?

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