Firing of TRE manager sparks debate over water system failure
July 17, 2012
Two days after the state declared their water safe to drink, board members of the Topaz Ranch Estates General Improvement District fired their operations manager.
On July 13, board members voted 4-0 to terminate Ole Chavez, an hourly, at-will employee who’d been put on unpaid leave just days before a system failure left 740 homes without potable water.
Chavez, a 43-year-old Topaz Ranch Drive resident, said he received a written notice on July 6 informing him he was on leave, pending the July 13 hearing on his employment status.
The notice listed three charges of misconduct: failing to comply with OSHA requirements; refusing to leave the TREGID office building where mold had been discovered; and verbal bullying of board trustees and/or members of the public.
Signed by Board Chair Larry Offenstein and Vice Chair Denice Morphew, the notice said Chavez’s actions constituted insubordination, willful violation of board policies, exposure of the district to legal liability, and public embarrassment.
Concerned the issue may end up in litigation, both parties declined to comment on specific charges.
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“One board member resigned over the mess,” Chavez said Monday. “They didn’t have any proof on any one of them (charges). I had all the proof that I was in compliance.”
Offenstein said the board can back up every charge made in the notice.
“I can’t go into detail too much because it sounds like he wants to take it to court,” he said Monday.
Chavez said that when he was put on leave, he was stripped of his monitoring duties two days before the water system suffered a serious failure.
On July 8, a broken water main caused the state to issue a boil-water order for all residents in the system. The order became a no-consumption order the following day when an unflushed well was mistakenly activated for use. District officials ended up contracting a private potable water truck to service residents until the consumption ban was lifted late July 11.
Chavez said he completely disagreed with Offenstein’s comment that the main break was “an act of God,” as stated in the July 11 edition of The Record-Courier.
“It’s no one’s fault. It was an act of God in a system that’s 45 years old,” Offenstein said that day.
Chavez said the district has an automated telemetry system that monitors tank levels and pumps. An alarm system is hooked up to the district manager’s cellphone, he said.
“They stripped me of my cellphone and keys, too,” he said. “The main break was not on my watch. I pre-warned them that there were vital things going on, and that I still needed to be there. We had a few well issues, and one of the tanks was coming offline for repairs. The tank is related to the system, but it had nothing to do with the main break.
“I’ve been there 10 years. I’ve put my heart and soul into that system, and people need to know that.”
Offenstein stood by his statement.
“We explained the failure pretty well to the public,” he said. “There was nothing we could do about it. We’d brought a water operator on board.”
Bob Foerster, executive director of the Nevada Rural Water Association, said he was called in as interim operator as soon as Chavez was put on leave.
“I started that Friday morning (July 6),” he said. “I had alarm responses on the GID’s phone, and I did respond to alarms Friday and Saturday night.”
However, Foerster said both nights involved nuisance alarms unrelated to the main break on Sunday.
“The alarm system is a generic alarm. It calls the telephone, and you know there is an alarm, but you don’t know what it’s for until you get here,” he said. “I have no idea what led to the main break other than the pipe was approximately 50 years old.
“The pipe broke because the pipe broke. We were monitoring and responding to the system as normal. The reason the GID brought me in is that they’re required to have a certified operator at all times. The alarm response is an example that we were monitoring the system.”
At the July 13 hearing, Offenstein said he had to remove three people during public comment.
“They basically got belligerent, and I couldn’t control them,” he said. “I had two deputies at the meeting because I suspected something like that might happen.”
Gray Hills resident Jim Eckart confirmed he was one of three participants thrown out of the meeting. He denied behaving belligerently.
Eckart said his 30-year-old son Jerry, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, had worked for the district for five years, but was terminated the same day Chavez was put on leave.
“This kid got up every morning and went to work, and Ole was personally responsible for him not ending up in jail,” Eckart said Monday. “They not only got him (Chavez), but they got the kid. I’m not vindictive, I’m not going to sue anyone, but I want the truth to be known to every water customer.”
Despite a July 6 memo obtained by The Record-Courier explicitly terminating Jerry Eckart, Offenstein said the young man was placed on leave for two weeks. He confirmed the district owes Eckart unpaid vacation and sick time, estimated to be upwards of $4,000.
“We told his dad that we would consider rehiring him if he would come and talk to us,” Offenstein said. “Per the dad’s request, we gave him two weeks to straighten himself out. Officially, he is on leave.”