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City Council Approves New Water Director Without Speaking to Him

Alexei Walus Named Water Director, But Did Not Show Up For Council Confirmation
Water Tower
A water tower at the headquarters of the New Brunswick Water Utility. Charlie Kratovil

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Not much is known about the man who was scheduled to take over as New Brunswick's Water Utility Director this week.

All five of the City Council's members admitted they had never met or spoken with Alexei Walus, who previously worked at the Brick Township Municipal Utilities Authority.

But that did not stop the Council from approving him as the city's next Water Director at their October 15 public meeting.

"I don't know about anyone else but I have not met him once," said City Council President Rebecca Escobar, before casting her vote to hire Walus to the $105,000 a year cabinet-level position.

"He was interviewed by the person hired to do the interview and we are fully confident that he is a good candidate for the position. So there's no need to hold the appointment at this time," said Escobar.

Walus will take over for Cahill, who has filled in as Director of the New Brunswick Water Utility since July and abruptly brought in American Water to run the water system.

The city's website still lists Cahill as "Interim Water Director."  A voicemail left by this reporter for the "Office of the Director" was not returned on Monday.

Cahill offerred the job to Walus after first hiring the search firm of Carpenter Shackleton to find the man to replace Frank Marascia, who left the job after less than two years.

The firm, which does not have a website, is owned by downtown New Brunswick resident George Shackleton, though the company is based in Chicago.  The company was paid $19,275 plus expenses for the search, and did not do background checks on any of the candidates. 

Loughlin said "[Shackleton] had experience in developing a list of potential candidates. He had done that when we had hired Frank Marascia and Keith Smith," the two employees who left in quick succession earlier this year.

"We had retained the services of an executive search consultant who had conducted multiple phone interviews with many candidates," said Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin, who ran the Water Utility for five years.

"[Shackleton] identified two that he felt strongly we should interview. We did interview the two and Alexei Walus was the best candidate of the two." 

Asked how she was confident having never before communicated with Walus, Council President Escobar said she trusted the administration Cahill, her running mate in today's election.

"Because I have confidence in [Business Administrator Thomas] Loughlin and the Mayor with the information that they provided to us about the experience," responded Escobar.

Loughlin was in charge of the Water Utility for five and a half years, following the suicide of Shawn Maloney in 2007, amid a federal corruption investigation.

During Loughlin's tenure, the Water Utility submitted falsified reports to cover up problems with the water, neglecting to protect the public from dangerous microorganisms by declaring legally required "boil water advisories" at least six times in a three-year period.

"We think [Walus is] an excellent candidate," said Loughlin. "We were happy to make an offer to him."

Loughlin told Escobar that, "[Walus has] been the chief operator of the Brick MUA for 16 years now."

But a press release issued by the city said Walus has only been the chief operator there for 12 years.

"Walus has 28 years of experience in water treatment and distribution," reads the October 10 statement from City Hall announcing his appointment.

New Brunswick Today asked City Hall for a photo of Walus and a copy of his resume, but Cahill spokesperson Jennifer Bradshaw declined to provide both.  A public records request for the information has not yet yielded the document.

"Please request Walus's resume via OPRA request.  I do not have a photo of him available for distribution," said Bradshaw.

"My confidence has been shook," said Jim Walsh of Food & Water Watch, who pressed the Council to exercise stronger oversight over the embattled utility.

"The Director quit and we put the mayor in charge," Walsh said.  "There's really been no independent investigation into why these two high-level employees left."

"I think there needs to be an investigation into this because its very unusual to have that sort of dynamic happen."

This summer, the Council admitted they had not been consulted about Mayor Cahill's plans to privatize certain funcitons of the utility.  Then, in a reversal of process, the Council voted to approve the privatization deal with American Water after it had already been signed and enacted.

When members of the public came out in strong opposition to the law during a required public hearing, Escobar cut off public comment after just three speakers, and in a chaotic scene, the Council unanimously voted over loud protests for a temporary 45-day privatization deal that would end up lasting almost twice as long.

Finally, the Council approved the $868,000 1-year privatization deal in September, despite arguments that simply hiring new Water Director could fulfill the stated goal of the privatization: providing adequate "license coverage" required to operate the water system.

Walus, who is one of almost a 100 people in New Jersey with both a T4 and W4 license, could not be reached for comment.  It is not clear if he started the job on Monday, as planned.