Don't Drink the Water, Part IV

Target: Hargett

I won't say they fear me, because they probably don't. But politicians do seem to avoid me. And when I speak with them, they sometimes seem perturbed by my questions. Broward County Commissioner Josephus Eggelletion once ranted at me that New Times has an agenda to destroy the political careers of all African-Americans. Commissioner Lori Parrish, who prides herself on accessibility, abruptly hung up on me and now doesn't return my calls. Plantation Mayor Rae Carol Armstrong once angrily threatened to call security if I didn't stop interviewing her and ordered me out of City Hall.

And Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne once struck me in the head with an iron skillet.

OK, the skillet thing never happened, but the other stuff is true. The point is that public officials generally don't seem to appreciate my company. So it's hard to describe how strange it was when Pompano Beach Mayor Kay McGinn, Vice Mayor Lamar Fisher, and Commissioner Susan Foster showed up at a September 15 talk I gave to the South Pompano Civic Association. When I finished rambling on about stories I'd done on the Pompano water department, the trio rose one by one and thanked me.

Then the mayor promised that the city would take action on my findings. I stood dumbfounded, expecting that all of us would suddenly freeze in place and Rod Serling would emerge from a shadow and start talking into a television camera.

The Sentry, a small Pompano weekly (that occasionally reprints my articles), ran a story on the meeting the following week, telling of 60 or so people engaging in "lively discussion" about the scandal. One line: "Several in the audience wanted to know why taxpayers were still paying the salaries of former lab director Gerard Weber... and [Public Works Administrator] William Flaherty."

Can I get a hallelujah? When I first wrote about the water department (see "Don't Drink the Water," March 13), Flaherty and Weber were firmly in power and covering up a chlorine outage in the Palm Aire community. They also falsified water tests for state regulators and operated a wholly incompetent and dysfunctional city water lab. Since the article was published, a state criminal investigation has commenced, the Broward County Health Department has cited Pompano for failing to maintain adequate chlorine levels in Palm Aire, and everyone in the city admits there was indeed a serious problem at the water department.

It finally looks like the two are going to pay a price for their shenanigans. City Manager Bill Hargett, a chief apologist for Flaherty and Weber, has announced the reorganization of the entire public works department. The position of public works administrator is being (add your own thick and annoying Austrian accent here) terminated. Bill Flaherty has until January 2 to leave the city. Weber's position will also be axed, and he'll be disconnected from the public dole at year's end.

Flaherty was one of the most powerful men in the city, overseeing the water, utility, and engineering departments. Under the reorganization plan, the three departments will have individual directors who will answer to the city manager. "I trust that this plan will allow for more accountability and more efficiency," says Fisher, who called for an investigation of the city's water department after the March article was published. "Hopefully, we will all find out a lot faster if there are problems in the future."

But this isn't enough. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) needs to finish its investigation and crack down on any crimes the men committed -- and I believe laws against falsification of records and official malfeasance clearly apply in this case. The state should send a strong message to city officials across the state that if they don't play squarely with regulators and come clean about problems with the water we drink, a flood of trouble will come their way.

And there is still one Pompano city employee who must go: Hargett.

While the reorganization rightly strips Flaherty of his job, it also gives the city manager more power -- something he's shown he's ill-equipped to handle. Hargett was as guilty of covering up the problems at the water department as anyone, and ultimately, he bears responsibility for the entire fiasco. After former city employees Chris Fox and Nick Hoffman complained about the water department skullduggery, Hargett began a campaign to discredit them, calling them disgruntled and downplaying the chlorination issue. The manager wasn't out to find the truth; he was out to mangle it beyond recognition. The guy must have gone to the Dick Cheney School of Intelligence-Gathering. Ahmad Chalabi must have had his ear. It's a wonder he didn't link Fox and Hoffman to uranium tubes in Africa. In truth, they deserve the credit for housecleaning at the city. All I did was listen, unlike Hargett, Broward County Health Department regulators, and the Sun-Sentinel.

There have been other scapegoats: After then-water plant superintendent Stephen Scully talked with me about problems, Hargett ended his employment. Long-time lab assistant George Mitchell was blamed by Flaherty and recently unfairly demoted.

Back on March 25, two weeks after "Don't Drink the Water" was published, Hargett announced the results of another so-called investigation of the department: "All is well," he told the City Commission. That very night, unbeknownst to the commission, city workers were flushing fire hydrants in Palm Aire. A week later, the state cited the city for inadequate chlorine levels.

Had Hargett not been forced to act, he would have continued his stealthy disinformation campaign. City activists began demanding accountability, and two of them, Karen Foley and Joyce Tarnow, sent copies of the article to the DEP, spurring that agency's involvement. The health department, in addition to the citation, began its own investigation of the Pompano water department.

Prominent activist Janice Griffin, an attorney who is running for mayor, calls for an end to the Hargett regime. "If New Times wouldn't have hit with its reports, this would have all been song and danced away," she says. "Either Bill Hargett knew about these problems and covered them up or he didn't know about it, which makes him incompetent and not capable of doing his job. Either way, he should lose his job."

I tried to ask Hargett why anyone should have any confidence in him at this point, but he didn't return my call. Instead, he dispatched the gracious city spokeswoman, Sandra King, to inform me that he wouldn't be informing me of anything.

When I asked Vice Mayor Fisher if he supported Hargett, his answer was telling: "I'm not going to comment on that." To me, that counts as a show of no support. But the manager has a key ally in Mayor McGinn. Although she made the promise at the civic meeting, McGinn has largely been AWOL on matters concerning the water department scandal. So I called her to ask about Hargett and the new reorganization.

"Oh, hi, Bob. I need to call you right back," McGinn told me.

She never did.

In other words, things were back to normal.

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