LA CENTER — The temperature was high and emotions were even higher Wednesday night at the La Center Community Center as members of the City Council voted to have the city retain the current operation of its wastewater treatment plant.
After a work session and public meeting extended to almost five hours, including emotional and spirited comments from the La Center community members that filled the Community Center, council members voted 3-2 to retain operation of the treatment plant instead of turning that operation over to a private contractor.
“Emotions just took the best of everybody in my opinion,’’ said La Center Mayor Greg Thornton, who initiated a nine-month effort to privatize operation of the city-owned treatment plant. “Some of the council members didn’t look at the benefit to the ratepayers and the residents of La Center. It’s unfortunate it went the way it did.’’
At Wednesday’s work session, prior to the public meeting, members of the council had the final of three presentations from consultant Paul Eisenhardt, of the Eisenhardt Group, a Port Townsend-based Washington firm the city had hired to help find an alternative for managing their wastewater treatment plant.
Eisenhardt’s presentation focused on the comparison between the city maintaining operations of the treatment plant and contracting with Veolia Water Technologies, deemed the more preferable of two bids La Center received in response to its Request For Proposal (RFP) approved by the council in February.
According to Thornton, a previous presentation by Eisenhardt in June showed the contract with Veolia would cost the city an additional $168,000 over seven years. However, at the final presentation, the mayor said Eisenhardt illustrated that a potential contract with Veolia wouldn’t cost the city any additional funds.
“I thought that would be enough to get it approved, but it didn’t happen,’’ Thornton said. “We had a proposal by the contractor that was essentially the same cost to the city but was a higher level of service with guarantees and risk transfers. Usually, if you can get the same level of service at a lower cost, or a higher level of service at the same cost, that makes sense. We could have had a higher level of service at the same cost of operations.’’
Thornton’s reference to the higher level of service that would have been provided by Veolia included the contractor’s offer to provide three full-time employees who would provide 7-day a week onsite staffing, the development and implementation of a computer maintenance system as well as an asset management system, and the contribution of Washington regulatory experience and knowledge.
Those factors weren’t enough to sway three members of the council — Al Luiz, Randy Williams and Heather Birdwell-Currey — who voted in favor of the city retaining operations of the treatment plant. Council members Liz Cerveny and Joe Valenzuela voted against the motion.
“We’re still a small community; we’re still a small town,’’ Luiz commented before the vote was taken. “My feeling is to keep it in house and do our due diligence to hire the right staff and continue down the road. Somewhere down the road, when we’re at 8,000, or 12,000 or 15,000 people that (privatization) may be something we need to do.’’
Thornton’s exploration into privatization of the treatment plant actually began in November of 2016 when Sue Lawrence, then supervisor of La Center’s treatment plant, resigned to pursue another opportunity.
“We keep hearing about staffing but I don’t think as a city we have done our due diligence to hire since we lost the last supervisor,’’ Luiz said.
“Because this (privatization) was on the table, we didn’t look for somebody at that time,’’ Williams said. “If we decide to keep this in house, I think it will be easy to find another person. I don’t think we’re going to have a roadblock to find somebody else.’’
Birdwell-Currey did not offer any comments at the meeting to explain her vote to have the city retain operation of the treatment plant. It was suggested during public comments that Birdwell-Currey recuse herself from the vote because her father, Bill Birdwell, is the current lead operator at the treatment plant.
City Attorney Daniel Kearns said Birdwell-Currey was well within her right to vote on the issue and that a potential “conflict or bias’’ wasn’t grounds for recusal, as it is in judiciary matters. Kearns said the only factor that should lead to her recusal is if she had a financial stake in the outcome of the decision at hand.
“She is not financially dependent on her father, so there is no reason for her to recuse herself,’’ Kearns said.
Valenzuela and Cerveny explained their votes against having the city maintain operation of the treatment plant.
“I’ve been a member of fire (department) consolidations before and they’re always emotional,’’ Valenzuela said. “We should try not to operate on emotion. We should operate on what is the best interest of the community long-term. We need to maintain our system to a higher level than what we’re doing.’’
“This has been a process looking very deep overall at what is the best value we can get knowing we’re going to have a great deal of development and growth at the (I-5) junction as well as additional residential growth we have in the community and how can we best manage this as a small city,’’ Cerveny said. “How can we get to the point where we have the staffing we need without laying more burden on the two staff (members) we have and how can we get to the point where we have a computerized monitoring system that we know we need and how can we do that with a limited staff.’’
In the past weeks and even days leading up to the decision facing the members of the council, emotions of members of the community, city staff and council members turned to a focus on the past performance of the treatment plant, and specifically current employees Bill Birdwell and Jeremy Klinski.
Thornton repeatedly pointed out that if operations of the treatment plant were turned over to Veolia, the employment, wages and benefits of Birdwell and Klinski were guaranteed by the RFP approved in February by the council. Birdwell and Klinski would be given the choice to go to work
for the contractor or they could select a transfer to the city’s Public Works Department. Thornton’s attempts didn’t seem to have an impact on the members of the community upset by their perception that the performance of the current and past employees was being questioned.
“It was a big disappointment to me,’’ Thornton said. “Unfortunately, emotions took over the room.’’
Thornton said the city would move forward with an attempt to hire a Level III certified supervisor and find a way to duplicate the other benefits that would have been provided by a contract with Veolia.
“That was the benefit of having a firm like Veolia,’’ Thornton said. “Their expertise and all their additional personnel would have been available to put those programs into practice. The city can start its own computerized management system but we have to find the right person who has that skill set who can do it or find some other company. I don’t know how that will work to be honest with you. That’s why it is unfortunate we didn’t choose the contractor because we would have gotten all of those services with that contract.’’
For more information, visit the city’s website at www.ci.lacenter.wa.us .