Accusations spill out in water treatment plant case

The scandal at Augusta's Highland Avenue Water Treatment Plant is not going to evaporate as quickly as some members of the city's personnel board had expected when they voted to reinstate two employees caught on tape stealing taxpayers' money through a time-card scheme.

Augusta commissioners will talk about appealing the board's decision to reinstate John Allen III and Santonia Dennis at Tuesday's meeting -- behind closed doors, most likely -- but any vote will be taken in public.

The mayor and commissioners have received an unsigned e-mail from a Michael Burgess -- or someone purporting to be Burgess -- alleging other serious lapses at the plant by employees that threatened the city's water supply and put the public at risk.

While time-stealing has been going on for years, it was the flooding of the hypochlorite room in March that went undetected through three shifts of employees over a 24-hour period that triggered the investigation, the e-mail states.

Other allegations include: falsified lab documents, supervisors leaving uncertified trainees alone at the plant, workers sleeping six hours on a shift and overflowing the fluoride into Turknett Springs to an EPD secondary maximum containment level.

Water treatment plant operator B.B. Langham said he's never heard of Burgess but that he himself brought the time thefts to interim Utilities Director Drew Goins' attention, but nothing was done. Langham then went to Commissioner Joe Bowles and told him about the thefts. Bowles said he'd do something about them, and he did. An investigation was launched by new Utilities Director Tom Wiedmeier, Langham said Friday.

Langham said he did not write or disseminate the e-mail sent to commissioners but verified that most of it was true, disputing only events causing the flooding of the hypochlorite room and another mechanical failure that led to millions of gallons of bad water having to go down the drain. Human Resources Director Rod Powell said no one by the name of Michael Burgess was employed by the city.

I e-mailed Burgess at the address on his e-mail Friday and told him I had a copy of the e-mail, but he has not responded.

Dennis and Allen are still on paid leave. Employees John Tucker and Cliff Pittman were not fired because their offenses were not as extensive and they did not lie when questioned. A position was created for supervisor Michael Hopkins, who claimed he didn't know what was going on.

Except for member Chip Barbee, the personnel board and at least three commissioners agree that because all five were guilty, all should be fired or none should be.

AND THE CLOUDS PARTED: Too bad such a controversial subject follows last week's commission retreat, where everyone was mainly of one accord about issues commissioners have haggled over since consolidation 14 years ago -- things such as giving the administrator more power and tinkering with the so-called "charter." Only when commissioners actually vote to do some of the things they talked about will anything really happen. Still, it was nice seeing everybody in such good humor.

NOW READ THIS: Augusta's new public library opens June 25 with a fun-filled week of activities for all ages, which could include a ceremony naming it in your honor, if you have a million dollars you can donate. But hurry. Somebody else might beat you to it, to your eternal regret.

Those who have already donated to have various parts of the library named for them are: the Meybohm family, $50,000, first-floor computer area; $25,000 each from the Barry L. Storeys, teen area; R.W. Allen and Associates Inc., writing center; the Howington family, Children's Center; Richard Strother Carter and Josephine Odell Carter, $20,000, Georgia Heritage Conference Room; The Dorothy Mustin Butolph Talking Books Center, $20,000; Jacquelyn Murray Blanchard, $15,000, Reference Help Area; Georgia Bank and Trust, $15,000 for the Circulation Area; and First Bank of Georgia, $10,000, Puppet Theater/Imagination Station.

Other naming options are available, including the Georgia Heritage Room, the Children's Library and the Augusta Legacy for Literacy Stairwell.

SAVING GRACE: Staff Writer Johnny Edwards' 9-year-old daughter, Grace, began her education at a Richmond County public school all bright-eyed and hopeful -- eager to learn, happy and optimistic.

Pre-K was a joy. Kindergarten went smoothly. First grade was just fine. Then things went sour in second grade. Unruly classmates made learning difficult, and Grace became discouraged. She and Johnny looked forward to third grade, but the year was once again wrecked by discipline issues in the classroom, along with the school system's relentless obsession with the CRCTs. Four years in a row, Johnny tried to get Grace into a magnet school, but each time she failed to win a slot through the system's race-based lottery system.

Grace was so frustrated and unhappy in the public school that Johnny contemplated the unthinkable -- moving to the suburbs. He tried to sell his house in Augusta and move to Columbia County, but the value has decreased so much since he bought it, he couldn't sell it without taking a huge loss. Nevertheless, the tax assessor's office raised the value last year, the Board of Equalization upheld the increase, and he had to pay more taxes. So he started exploring the private school option, finally found one he could afford and enrolled Grace there for next year.

Needless to say, during all this, there have been many discussions about public schools, all of which Grace absorbed to such an extent that now the word "public" to her is a bad word. She will not go to a "public" restroom, and she scoffs at the "public" school her friend goes to in Columbia County.

The moral of this story is be careful where you buy a house because you might get stuck there and have to pay private school tuition and taxes for schools with no saving graces.

WHAT'S IN A NAME? In the words of Don Leeburn , member of the Georgia Board of Regents, as reported by Morris News Service's Walter Jones , the Medical College of Georgia is going "from a two-boss or three-boss system to a one-boss system" with the approval of contracts that will reorganize the governance of MCG's hospital and clinics by creating the MCG Health Systems board to oversee them.

MCG's incoming president, Ricardo Azziz, will become the chairman and CEO of MCG Health System and oversee the college, its hospital and the faculty's physicians group.

For the first time in 10 years, the MCG operation will be one big happy family, except for one member in exile, the old MCG Foundation. Former President Dan Rahn fired the foundation and appointed his own in 2008 after it wouldn't give him $5 million. The old foundation didn't go away, though, and the regents want the new foundation to be called the MCG Foundation and have sued to get the name because they want the money that is willed to the MCG Foundation to go to the new foundation.

But doesn't it make sense now that everybody is reuniting, that the old foundation and its allies be invited back into the fold? Or do the regents just want to make a point? After all, the rich old guys who have sided with the old MCG Foundation are the ones dying and leaving endowments. The young ones with an affinity for the new foundation not only don't have as much money, they also aren't ready to die.

BULLISH ON THE OLD FOUNDATION: They tried to put them out to pasture way before their time.

Now they're sitting on their money bags and won't give a dime.

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