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Board fires Beatty water system manager

BEATTY — It could have been ugly.

Instead, it was orderly, if unpleasant, as the Beatty Water and Sanitation District Board met Dec. 19 to, among other things, deliberate the performance and continued employment of General Manager Fred Willis.

The board’s meetings are usually held in a tiny room in its headquarters, but, in anticipation of larger than normal public attendance, this one took place in the Community Center. A sheriff’s deputy was also on hand in case of fireworks.

At the beginning of the meeting Willis made a plea to the audience asking everyone to “remain calm and professional” as there could be “heated discussion.” And, as it turned out, everyone behaved quite civilly.

Willis’ woes began back on Friday, April 12, when raw sewage began flowing to the surface from a sewer line beneath a mobile home on the corner of Cedar and Second Streets in Beatty.

Willis’ crew spent some time trying to remove the blockage in the main sewer line, but were unsuccessful.

To keep the sewage from spreading further, Willis dug a shallow trench to carry it downhill into the bed of the Amargosa River. He says it was already flowing into the river anyway. They later installed a pump and pumped the sewage directly into the river bed.

Continued efforts to remove the blockage failed, and by dark on Saturday evening, Willis and his crew were so tired and frustrated that they took the next day off. They resumed work on Monday. After excavation and the replacement of 23 feet of pipe that had sagged into a dip allowing debris to accumulate over the years, sewage was flowing normally again.

Willis says that, with his mindset and upbringing, the idea of channeling the sewage (an estimated 224,000 gallons over the 4-day period) did not seem like “a big deal.” He learned differently when he heard from the Nevada Department of Environmental Protection on the matter.

It turns out it was a very big deal under Nevada law — one that could cost the district as much as $100,000, $25,000 for each day of discharge. Willis was called to appear for an NDEP show-cause hearing in Carson City, Oct. 7, and he and the board have been awaiting the agency’s decision regarding any fines or penalties.

Under questioning by the board, Willis readily admitted he had made mistakes “out of lack of experience.” He said he did what he thought was right at the time, and was never malicious, “but my mindset was wrong.”

Board members pointed out that, instead of channeling and pumping the sewage into the river, he could have gone to Pahrump or Las Vegas to borrow or rent a trash pump to pump the sewage from one manhole to the next, bypassing the blockage while they worked on it.

Board member Boyd Madsen said that the district had a trash pump at one time, but it wore out and was sold and should have been replaced. “You could have rented one and had it here in a few hours; then you’d have all the time in the world, said board member Boyd Madsen. (After the incident, a pump and the necessary hose have been purchased.)

Madsen also said Willis could have called the NDEP hotline, but “made no effort to call anybody at all for help.”

“Until the NDEP got hold of me I didn’t know what was going on,” said Willis. “I wish I’d contemplated the possibility previous to it happening, too. I wish I had.”

Willis said he had followed through with sampling and using disinfectant in the river bed, following NDEP requirements and had taken further samples of his own volition. He said that fecal coliform bacteria levels had fallen.

“Nature takes care of fecal matter,” said Willis. “It has to. Otherwise we would be swimming in it. It has since life (began).”

Regarding the day Willis and his crew took off during the incident, Board member Richard Johnson said, “I know what it’s like to work and be frustrated, but you’ve got to bite the bullet. You were cold and wet and discouraged, but the welfare of the town and the river was at stake.”

“It appears to me,” said Madsen, that they (the NDEP) have put the ball in our court to see what we are going to do to keep it from happening again before they make a decision.” Johnson agreed.

Of the possible fine, Madsen said, “the district can’t handle this.”

In the light of this incident, Johnson told Willis, “I like you as a man, but I have a hard time having confidence in your ability to make decisions. I worry about the district in your control.”

Chairman Amina Anderson stressed that it was the manager’s job to keep the district in compliance with regulations. She also said she was very frustrated and disappointed by a lack of answers to questions.

“If you’re going to fire me over it,” said Willis, “get on with it.”

He also said, “When I was offered the job, I wasn’t sure I was cut out for it. I didn’t want the job in the first place.”

Board members also had questions about the district finances. No one seems to have a clear picture of the financial health of the district or how its various accounts are managed.

Johnson said he was happy to see Jeannie Ybarra, who has a background in bookkeeping, as a new member on the board. “I’d take very seriously any recommendations she would make.”

Ybarra said she would have to have more information, including bank statements, to get a clear picture of the finances.

Board members also said they felt that Willis had not kept them properly informed about many matters. He said he couldn’t know and do everything.

Resident Butch Baker spoke in defense of Willis, saying he had knowledge of the system and that “he won’t make the same mistake again.”

In the end, the board voted to terminate Willis as manager.

This leaves the district temporarily without a certified operator. District Attorney Brian Kunzi, who attended the meeting, said he had been in communication with the NDEP and had some recommendations to make.

First, and the board agreed, was to allow the county to designate their water operator, Jack Osburne, serve as the operator of record until the position could be filled. He also said that the NDEP has contracted consultants who could be of assistance, and that this might not cost the district anything, but could just be a service they provide.

Following a recommendation from Bob Revert, the board also gave the office manager broader authority to act during the interim.

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