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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—In an exclusive interview with Mayor James Cahill on August 25, New Brunswick Today learned that another employee in the city’s embattled Water Utility has been suspended without pay.
However, the identity of the suspended employee remains a mystery to the public, despite repeated attempts to obtain that information.
The utility is still reeling from a scandal involving its longtime treatment plant operator, Edward O’Rourke, who remains suspended after being accused of falsifying official reports in 2013.
But details are few and far between about the newest person to be suspended from the utility. Even the position that the suspended worker held has not been disclosed to the public.
“It was not a high-level position,” said Cahill, declining to say exactly what position the person held because he was unsure.
Cahill said he did not try to have anyone fired or suspended during his several months as Acting Water Director, but indicated that there was “another fellow” who was recently suspended.
“I did not suspend anyone while I was Acting Water Utility Director, nor did I fire anyone,” said Cahill. “I believe it happened under the new Director.”
Mark Lavenberg took over as the Water Utility Director on July 6. He is the fourth man to hold the title in the past year.
Cahill’s spokesperson declined to indicate how long the employee has been suspended, or what position they held.
“I understand you have an active [Open Public Records Act] request seeking this same information, please continue to seek it that way,” said Jennifer Bradshaw, an employee of the Mayor’s Office.
Bradshaw also declined to confirm whether the person was still suspended without pay.
But her boss, who has been the city’s Mayor since 1991, said that it was not something residents should be concerned about.
“Is this something residents should be concerned about?” asked this reporter, citing the case of O’Rourke, who ran the water treatment plant for more than 25 years before being accused of filing falsified water quality reports.
“Oh no, this is about somebody–It has nothing to do with the treatment of water,” said Cahill. “It really just was somebody who was not paying attention to their job, but not in a treatment perspective.”
At least seven times during a three-year period, the Water Utility failed to notify state regulators and the public that the city’s tap water should be boiled before use.
O’Rourke remains suspended without pay for more than a year and half over the scandal, but now he is not the only Water Utility employee in that situation.
The city has said they cannot fire O’Rourke or proceed with an administrative hearing about his alleged misconduct, because they are waiting to see if the state files criminal charges against him.
At a September 2 City Council meeting, officials declined to name the other suspended worker, or discuss why they were being discplined.
During the tense meeting, officials initially declined to say whether the public had been put in danger three times, before admitting only that “the water coming out of the plant” did not pose a threat to public health.
“I can’t comment on that,” said Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin, after Council President Kevin Egan referred our question to him.
“So you won’t say whether the public was put in danger or not?”
“Not at this time Mr. Kratovil,” said Council President Egan.
“That is unacceptable,” responded the author of this article.
“No one’s life or anything was threatened that I believe. I think we would have heard about it if something was threatening,” said Egan, ordering this reporter to “move on.”
Eventually, city officials provided some more information.
“The water coming out of the plant never put the public in danger. We thought it was appropriate to take action for other reasons, and I’m not commenting on it any further,” said Loughlin.
Loughlin ran the utility for more than five years, during the time period when falsification of records allegedly began.
Since then, three men have held the Water Director job and Mayor Cahill has twice given himself the position of Acting Water Director.
In July 2014, Cahill quietly signed an agreement with a private water company, NJ American Water, to take over some of the functions of the utility.
The current privatization agreement between the city and the company is set to expire on September 30.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.