Beginning of the end for reclaimed water investigation

Winter Springs’ quest for answers about why a $2.7 million water treatment plant worked for less than a year in the last decade may end with one more meeting. Left to be decided is what previous city officials and staff knew or possibly hid about the system that, according to Mayor Kevin McCann, never worked as designed. The people providing answers will be current city commissioners.

After months of “feet dragging” by the targets of the Winter Springs City Commission’s subpoenas, the Commission decided on Feb. 28 to make a final push for closure to its investigation of a reclaimed water system gone wrong.

Commissioner Ted Johnson, expressing frustration about the investigation, didn’t mince words. “At our last meeting we stated that we’ll see where we are on the 28th. Well, here we are on the 28th and it just seems to me that the stall tactics, the diversions, are just going to keep coming.” Johnson said of the remaining subpoenaed former city officials and staff who had so far failed to appear before the Commission, “Clearly they’re not anxious to help us out in understanding the problems.”

They had either refused to be questioned or told City Attorney Anthony Garganese that they were unavailable to be interviewed by the Commission about the Lake Jesup water reuse plant that was designed to pull 1 million gallons of water per day from the lake to shore up the city’s water supply at a critical time.

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The water plant was designed to pump water for lawn irrigation systems, but when it failed, the city had to continue to use drinking water for irrigation instead. This, plus a reduction in the amount of water the state allows cities to pump out of the aquifer by the St. Johns River Water Management District caused Winter Springs to exceed its usage limit by about 100 million gallons last year, resulting in the city’s declaration of a water emergency.

Two final engineers involved in the project had told Garganese through an attorney that they were unavailable, triggering talks of ending, or at least indefinitely pausing, the investigation.

“So, Anthony, you communicated to their attorney that we would be willing for them to call in on the telephone…and they still have just dragged their feet,” Deputy Mayor Kevin Cannon said.

“It’s been quite a while,” Garganese said. “I don’t remember off the top of my head the date…It’s been probably close to 6 months since the initial subpoena that was sent.”

The frustration with the duration of the investigation had been mentioned by Commissioner Rob Elliott in early February. At the Feb. 28 meeting, he called for an end to it.

“I get the feeling if we get these people to talk to us we’re not going to learn a whole lot more…I’m at the point where I really would rather not pursue this investigation any further,” Commissioner Rob Elliot said.

“I think we’ve done due diligence in following up for the people of Winter Springs in trying to determine why this plant was not functioning properly,” Johnson added. “What we have is what we have…we need to move on.”

Cannon expressed unease with ending the investigation entirely, quickly suggesting that the current Commission should go on record about what they knew about the situation and when, and that they could do it at the next City Commission meeting.

“I think it would be unfair for us up here not to go on record,” he said. “I think we should go on record under oath, just like we asked, well, none of the other commissioners or prior mayor would do it, but the prior city manager did and the prior city engineer did. Let’s take that, Anthony and [City Manager Shawn Boyle], and put it into a report, and let’s put it behind us.”

Garganese said that the city could still revisit or restart the investigation at a future date.

“I think that we have a fiduciary duty to wrap up the investigation properly,” Cannon said. “The ‘Golly gee I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know’ which is what we heard from the only two witnesses that came in pretty much, that doesn’t cut it.”

At one point Elliott mentioned some trepidation at even listing the names of the recipients of the subpoenas who refused to testify, but other Commissioners quickly pushed back on that idea.

“I think you just report the facts,” Johnson said. “The folks in the city of Winter Springs are intelligent people. So if I’m sitting there reading a report, and ‘OK, the following folks were subpoenaed, and out of that group, here’s who came in,’ and I’m looking at a list of folks who ignored it, I’m going to draw a conclusion from that, and I think that the people will just go with that.”

The City Commission will meet next at 6:30 p.m. on Monday, March 14.

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