One week after The Shepherd published an expose on conditions at the Milwaukee Water Works, new concerns over employee competence and efficiency were being raised by former employees and others.
Milwaukee Water Works Superintendent Carrie Lewis this week said that all her employees “are trained in safety” and receive a “full battery of training on the job,” but she could not say whether they could read warning labels on chemicals or even read the names of chemicals they worked with.
Lewis said the employees were trained how to respond to various hazardous materials but conceded that in her five years with the department she had never seen a job posting requiring “reading’ as a condition of employment.
“All people who are hired are screened according to the standards in place at the time they were hired,” she said.
Lewis made her comments just on week after The Shepherd published the results of its own investigation into allegations Milwaukee Water Works employees urinated in water filters, passed out drunk, watched porno movies, made bombs, masturbated in the open, sexually harassed at employee Nancy Grider and skinned animals.
Lewis said the allegations were from an earlier period – years before she took her job.
But she said that even if some employees had been hired who cannot read, hazardous materials like ammonia, chlorine and fluoride used in water treatment are identified by “standardized labels” and the containers as well as the pipes they flow through are color-coded.
“If you’re really concerned with public safety you’d be asking what we’re doing now,” she said.
Sally McAtte, the city’s human resources manager, said there is no “reading test” required for employment, but “most jobs would have a “written component.” She said that even the application form would require the applicant to read more than just “name” and “address.”
In another matter, Lewis confirmed that she recently received a tip that Water Works employees were meeting “regularly” for breakfast at Ma Fishers restaurant at an hour when they should be on duty. Lewis said she stopped at the North Farwell Avenue restaurant one morning on her way to work to see whether the report was true, and she bumped into four employees there about 8 a.m.
But she said that the employees were allowed to take breaks during the day and that they took all their breaks at once rather than spread them out.
“Their supervisor counseled them about it,” she said.
Why were they counseled for taking legitimate breaks?
“Public perception,” Lewis said.
Meanwhile, Sandra William, who worked in maintenance at the Howard Avenue water plant, told The Shepherd that a Water Works manager appeared drunk when he arrived at her house to verify she was ill one day when she called in sick. She said the supervisor gave her money and sent her to buy vodka, brandy and cigarettes for the two of them, and he stayed perhaps six hours drinking.
If it wasn’t enough that Water Works employees allegedly urinated in the public drinking water supply, taxpayers will pay the legal costs of both sides in a battle over whether a report by former FBI agents who investigated the allegations in the federal civil rights lawsuit Nancy Grider v. City of Milwaukee, et al., is exempt from the state’s public record law.
Last week, Robert McKnight, principal assistant corporation counsel, suggested a show down could be avoided if the city allowed him to review the document and decide for himself whether the $28,824 Armitage & Associates report may be withheld from the public.
The Milwaukee County Corporation Counsel is bound by law to prosecute civil violations arising from violations of the state public records laws.
“After balancing the interest of the public in access to public records, and the interest of the public in protecting the confidentiality of certain records, we have determined that these records should not be released,” Langley said two weeks ago.
Langley maintains that state law exempts material from public “if discussed in public, [it] would be likely to have a substantial adverse effect upon the reputation of any person referred to in such histories or data, or involved in such problems or investigations."
But this week, Asst. City Attorney Linda Burk confirmed lawyers in Langley’s office were considering providing a copy to McKnight.
McKnight said the city was “non committal.” He said the city might give him a copy of the report although they maintain it is confidential “because I am supposed to prosecute these things.”
McKnight said the city might prefer being forced by the courts to open the records “to get them off the hook.” -- Geoff Davidian