Don't Drink the Water III

An underling becomes the sacrificial lamb, but Bill Flaherty must go

When Pompano Beach water plant operator George Mitchell walked into work at 7:30 a.m. recently, fellow employees were waiting for him with a fresh copy of the Sun-Sentinel.

"You're not going to believe this," one said to Mitchell, a 25-year city veteran who makes $65,000 a year.

They directed him to a story on the front page of the local section under the headline "Pompano Beach acknowledges problems at water plant laboratory." In the middle of the August 13 story was this paragraph: "A technician, George Mitchell, has been reassigned to a position outside the water plant. The city accused him of losing a log book, failing to report problems to management, and failing to check certain instruments."

The soft-spoken 44-year-old father of three couldn't believe what he was reading.

"I was shocked," Mitchell recalls. "Every single thing in that paragraph is untrue. I was in total disbelief. I tried to read the rest of the story, but I couldn't focus on it. I had to read the paragraph twice to comprehend it because my mind was in a cloud."

But then, nobody said it would be easy to be a scapegoat for a major public scandal. Mitchell's name is now forever linked to the city water lab's problems, which are monumental. After state inspectors found dozens of serious deficiencies last November, Pompano was stripped of its state lab certification and is now paying some $100,000 per year to outside firms to conduct routine water tests. In late June, state inspectors visited the lab again -- and found it still woefully deficient. Rather than face fines and citations, the city voluntarily surrendered virtually all of its authority to test its own water supply.

Even worse for the city, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, last week opened a criminal investigation of the water department, according to Howard Rosen, environmental administrator for the Broward County Public Health Department. Rosen is wrapping up his own Pompano water treatment plant probe, which was sparked by a March 13 New Timesinvestigative report. While Rosen's office may levy fines and citations, the DEP will determine whether city officials committed crimes such as falsification of records and official misconduct when they covered up chlorine shortages in the Palm Aire neighborhood last fall.

Mitchell, a lab technician, had nothing to do with the Palm Aire problem. And he shouldn't be blamed for the mess in the lab. Though he might have made some minor bureaucratic mistakes, he was just an assistant, an order taker with limited scientific training.

The real culprit is Public Works Administrator Bill Flaherty, who holds ultimate responsible for the lab. Flaherty served as the facility's technical supervisor, and it is he who has signed off on lab operations and vouched for the facility and its director, Gerry Weber, for the past seven years.

Though Flaherty allowed the lab to fall into utter disarray, he isn't taking blame. Instead, he's dishing it out. Flaherty led the investigation into the laboratory. And it is the administrator who wrote a stinging criticism of Mitchell in a four-page report issued August 8.

The Sentinel, like any good tool, just parroted the official's dictum. It was wholly a public show. Flaherty never reprimanded Mitchell for any of his supposed crimes.

In fact, Mitchell had no idea he was being blamed for the deficiencies until he read it in the newspaper. "Flaherty never talked about any of it to me and never wrote down a thing about it," says Mitchell, who is risking his job by speaking out but decided that he needed to defend himself against a public attack by his boss. "Now I'm being blamed for everything."

In his report, Flaherty wrote that he put former water plant superintendent Steve Scully in charge of fixing the problems in November. Scully, he wrote, did a good job of assembling a solid plan of action. But Flaherty had no kind words for Mitchell; the administrator claimed that the lab tech failed in his effort to reorganize the facility, leading to more deficiencies uncovered by the state.

Mitchell counters that he was never given any written instructions or trained to run a laboratory. "They had me in the microbiology section of the lab, and I am not a microbiologist," he says of the city's pathetic attempt at bringing the lab up to snuff. "I did what I could. It was like no one was in charge of the hen house. I had other assignments at the same time -- I was operating the water plant. And not only that, we were working with a skeleton crew. I am not the laboratory director, and I am not in charge. I was never in charge. I was given an impossible task with the resources available, and I wasn't qualified to do what they were asking me to do. It was a circus."

Mitchell was particularly rankled by Flaherty's allegation that he didn't report problems to management. Mitchell claims he reported many deficiencies, even though questioning authority in the Public Works Department could be hazardous to one's employment. For instance, Mitchell complained to Flaherty in 2001 that Weber wasn't conducting fluoride tests correctly. For his vigilance, Mitchell was cited for insubordination. The charge was withdrawn after Mitchell, who has consistently scored excellent ratings on his job evaluations, appealed. Chris Fox, a former maintenance supervisor at the water treatment plant, was also written up and ultimately fired for calling attention to incompetence and problems in the department.

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