Confusion surrounds Marengo wastewater treatment plant incident

Marengo City Council to vote on proposed chain of command resolution at next meeting

MARENGO – Poor communication about an incident at Marengo's wastewater treatment plant has led to a draft resolution clarifying the chain-of-command structure for city employees.

Mayor Don Lockhart asked for an independent third-party study to determine whether the incident, which led to false rumors circulating about raw sewage being released from the plant, was reported to the appropriate supervisor or department head.

The final report, which was reviewed at the Marengo City Council meeting this week, said "several unfortunate mistakes and misunderstandings" caused confusion.

“This all boils down to protocol with communications between employees, the council and myself,” said Lockhart, who is recommending the City Council consider the chain-of-command resolution now that the report is complete.

On April 6, a piece of equipment fell into a basin in the wastewater treatment plant, which resulted in two permit violations. According to the report, which was conducted by Kelly Cahill – an attorney at Zukowski, Rogers Flood and McArdle – employees at the wastewater treatment plant were “on top of the situation.”

However, not all staff and council members were notified of the incident at the same time, which caused confusion when questions regarding the plant were brought up at the April 11 City Council meeting.

Cahill interviewed people involved, including city employees, managers, the mayor and five aldermen. Lockhart said Wednesday he did not yet know how much the report cost.

The first exceedance in permit standards happened the week of April 6, and the second April 12, according to the report.

Marengo Public Works Director Howard Moser did not know about the first exceedance until April 12, so when staff was asked at the April 11 City Council meeting whether waste was being dumped in the river, he said there were no problems, according to the report.

Some aldermen, including Dennis Hammortree, already had heard about the problems at the plant, so Moser’s response made it look as if the people in charge didn’t know what was going on, the report stated.

The proposed resolution lays out who appointed officials and city employees should report to, and Hammortree said he believes the resolution was made to limit his access to staff – something Lockhart denied.

Hammortree found out about problems at the plant after speaking with employees before the April 11 meeting, according to the report. He then toured the facility on April 13 because he said he does his homework and had questions on whether the plant is at capacity.

“My whole problem with this thing is how we can spend $12 million and not have the capacity and a treatment plant that functions as it was promised,” Hammortree said.

Lockhart said the plant is not over capacity to his knowledge, and there is a two-year warranty on the plant that was finished about a year ago.

Moser’s interview in the report indicated that the plant would not be able to handle industrial waste.

“This is what irritates me,” Hammortree said. “We can’t get the facts, we can’t get the truth.”

For Alderman Steven Mortensen, the chain-of-command resolution wouldn’t limit the council in talking to city employees.

And regarding the fact-finding report: “I think it was very helpful because not everyone knew what was going on,” Mortensen said. “And everyone should have the information, not just a select few.”

The City Council is set to vote on the resolution at its June 27 meeting, City Administrator Gary Boden said.