Rank change 

Was a wastewater plant employee suspended for whistleblowing?

Keeping a city running—water flowing from taps, toilets flushing, lights illuminated—is a complex job. Citizens take such services for granted when they’re running without a glitch, but quickly become indignant when they’re not. Any municipality is bound to have its problems. What’s hoped for is efficiency in correcting the kinks in the system, which takes open lines of communication between workers and managers. What’s emerging between the city of Missoula and one of its maintenance workers is something very different. At issue is the city’s compliance with its permit to discharge treated wastewater into the Clark Fork River. No one disagrees that there have been problems in the past, or that the city has taken steps to address some of those problems. The bone of contention appears to be how the city treated its workers after those problems came to light.

The controversy stems from a report published last October by PEER—Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility—on the operation of Missoula’s wastewater treatment facility. In that “white paper,” PEER found the wastewater treatment facility had violated its discharge permit in some ways profound and others not so profound. Among the allegations were that the city had not submitted reports on time, that some sewage had bypassed the treatment facility and been discharged directly into the Clark Fork, and that the city chose to sample treated water at times of the day when they knew such samples would give the most favorable result.

The report ruffled more than a few feathers among city officials. Mayor Mike Kadas quickly assembled a review committee to address the findings in the PEER report. The committee found some of the allegations true, and some of the problems have since been corrected. In the meantime, however, the city employee whom city officials identified as the primary whistleblower, Howard Alger, has been transferred, then suspended. Whether the actions taken against Alger are in retribution for speaking out, or for Alger’s refusal to acquire necessary training for the position to which he was transferred is unclear.

The undisputed facts are this: Kevin Keenan of Montana PEER met with city officials prior to the publication of the PEER report on the city’s sewage treatment plant. He felt honesty was the best policy, and wanted assurances that employees at the facility wouldn’t be harassed in response to the report’s findings. At the meeting with Mayor Kadas, Alger’s name was repeatedly mentioned as the whistleblower in the PEER report. Two weeks later, Alger was suspended from his job.

A coincidence of Alger’s, not the city’s making, says Starr Sullivan, supervisor of the wastewater treatment facility. “Howard put his name in for a job that had come open in the collections part of our operations,” recalls Sullivan. “Now, the law requires us to fully inform applicants of the requirements of that job, and also requires us to hire the most senior employee for the job. Howard knew what the hours were, and that he would be required to get a commercial driver’s license for the job. We couldn’t not hire him unless he withdrew his application for the job. He didn’t do that, so we transferred him to that position.”

Alger recollects things differently. “What happened is that I applied for that position and turned it down. It would have changed my hours so that I’d have to quit school.” (Alger is completing a degree at the University of Montana.)

“A couple of months later, they showed up on a Friday afternoon with [city public works director] Bruce Bender saying that I’d have to show up for this job I’d turned down on Monday or I’d be terminated,” he says. “I refused to sign the transfer order, but showed up on Monday so I wouldn’t be fired. I have all the documents that show this. They had no right to transfer me out of the position I was in.”

Alger’s suspension is ongoing, and hinges on the fact that the city says he needs to get a CDL. In the meantime, relations between Alger and his employer have gone from bad to worse. In July, Alger took a vacation. While he was gone, the city dispatched a sheriff’s deputy to his house to serve him with a certified letter. Since Alger wasn’t home, the letter wasn’t received, though Alger and co-workers speculated it might be his termination notice. Not so, says Sullivan.

“Howard’s been refusing our calls and letters for a while. Basically, the letter just says he needs to report to work and get a CDL,” says Sullivan. From Alger’s standpoint, the city’s position doesn’t seem quite so benign. He notes that a memo generated recently from the city attorney’s office denied Alger’s habit of tape recording his grievance proceedings with the city. Alger responded by retaining a court reporter for his next meeting. Mayor Kadas, for his part, may have reason to refuse permission to record such meetings. Several sources have tapes from September and October of 2000 of meetings in which the mayor was informed of the city’s history with Howard Alger. Yet in a May 16, 2001 meeting, Kadas is heard on tape saying that he hadn’t heard of Howard Alger as a “whistleblower” until May 2001.

“I’m not sure what the mayor meant, but certainly, after he and his staff questioned me in September and October 2000 about Howard Alger, he didn’t mean he had never heard of him,” said Montana PEER director Kevin Keenan. “At minimum, he heard Howard’s name thrown out as a probable whistleblower by his own staff, the same place and time that I heard it.”

The flap over the PEER report seems far from over. PEER has filed suit in federal court over violations of the city’s discharge permit, and Alger has taken his complaints to the Occupational Health and Safety Administration in Denver. (The federal Clean Water Act prohibits retaliation against whistleblowers.)Those complaints outline a litany of oversight and cover-ups during the past decade at the wastewater treatment facility. “I’m hoping the city can clean up its act,” says Alger. “This has caused a major realignment in my life. I never thought people could get away with this kind of stuff.”

Sullivan sees things differently. “Why would the city choose to harass a worker involved in a highly publicized case like this one?” poses Sullivan. “It just wouldn’t be the smart thing to do.”

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