Don't Drink the Water

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So the cover-up continues -- and in this case, what the people don't know just might hurt them.

When it comes to water stories, the typical newspaper reader skims to the bottom line -- what's happening with the rates? -- before moving on to more exciting reads like, say, a yarn about the costs of sidewalk construction. The only good popular work revolving around drinking water that comes to mind is Chinatown, but that was really about the arrogance of power, murder, and incest. This article too might seem to be about water, but it's truly about governmental deception and the pathology of bureaucracy.

Still, to get to the good stuff, you need a quick primer on Pompano's water history, which itself is full of conflict and controversy.

For the past 20 years or so, the city has pulled most of its water -- about 12 million of the 18 million gallons consumed daily -- from a well field on its east side. Flowing under the Pompano Aire Park just west of Interstate 95, that water is relatively clean and can be made safe to drink and clear as a windowpane at the city's old treatment plant.

In the city's eyes, it was a swell system. To the South Florida Water Management District, however, it was an environmental disaster waiting to happen. The rapid depletion of the eastern well field was causing saltwater intrusion, which can spoil an entire water supply.

So state water managers in 1991 ordered the city to start pumping more water from its western wells, which are located, rather ironically, in Palm Aire. The problem with the western water is that it's full of silt and sand and colored like weak tea. When run through the old plant, that water is safe to drink but retains a rusty tint. Nobody wants to drink brown water. Thus, to comply with the state mandate, Pompano had to build a new treatment plant that could properly clean the water.

For several years, the city put this off and continued to pump from the eastern wells without a permit. In 1998, the state fined the city $100,000, finally getting the city's attention. The following year, Pompano officials agreed to build a new plant. The city, in fact, embarked on a $40 million plan to revolutionize its water treatment program, including $25 million for the new plant and $10 million for a new wastewater system.

Heading this massive project was Flaherty, who came to South Florida from Maine and worked briefly for the City of Fort Lauderdale before Hargett hired him in 1996. Flaherty, who wore his gray hair pushed back over sharp eyes and a long, Wyatt Earp mustache, had a reputation in Pompano as a hard-nosed, hot-tempered, and often foul-mouthed boss.

To oversee the design of the new membrane filtration plant, the city hired Hazen and Sawyer, a New York engineering firm that has contracts worth tens of millions of dollars with numerous South Florida cities. The company made $2.5 million on the deal. Hazen and Sawyer's Albert Muniz, who often lunched and golfed with Flaherty and has a genial demeanor more like a politician's than an engineer's, served as project manager for the plant, which would operate in conjunction with the old facility.

In 1999, when the new plant was still only in the design phase, Flaherty hired Chris Fox, a long-time city mechanic, to be the water department's maintenance supervisor. Both men would come to deeply regret that Fox accepted that promotion.

I found Fox after a couple of city political activists told me he had a story to tell about city corruption. I met him in the working-middle-class neighborhood in Pompano where he lives with his wife and three children.

Fox told me that even after four years in the U.S. Marines and 14 years with the city, he wasn't prepared for life under Bill Flaherty. "He treats people with absolutely no respect," Fox says. "He gets into people's faces and cusses them out. He's like a pit bull: He gets on you, and he won't get off. More than 30 people have left the city in the past three years because of him."

Fox gave me a list of employees who had left the city, including a half dozen engineers, six executive secretaries, and three water plant operators. Workers who don't play strictly by Flaherty's rules, he said, are run out. Flaherty relies on strict control and fear, Fox told me, and considers anyone with the slightest hint of independence a threat.

Flaherty fired Fox last October. The reason: Fox had the temerity to call the county health department and ask about setback requirements for wastewater irrigation sprinklers. That was all it took. Flaherty became incensed when he learned that his underling had made the call without first consulting him.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman