Tri-Town handled major issue, but won’t talk publicly about it

BRIDPORT — The Tri-Town Water District Board voted at a meeting last week not to reveal to the public at large what steps it had taken to investigate and prevent a recurrence of what it called, in a March email to customers, employee misconduct that resulted in a “large number of customers (being) woefully undercharged” over a two-year period.

But Tri-Town Board Chair Darwin Pratt did confirm to the Independent last week that the employee had been fired soon after the incident, and he has conveyed privately to some of Tri-Town’s customers in Bridport, Addison and Shoreham other steps the district has taken, including rotating meter readers.

For example, Pratt acknowledged in an email to customer Katie Rigg the central source of the problem — that “an employee was not consistently reading the meters.”

Rigg and her husband, Jeff Mack, live on the route for which the employee was responsible for reading all meters; though for those two years he did not actually read them all.

Rigg supplied water bills that showed the scope of the issue. Their annual bill one year, consisting of nine months because they spent three months in Florida, dipped to 9,000 gallons. That compared to bills from three other years that totaled 21,000 and 27,000 gallons, one of those when the couple also spent three months in Florida.

Rigg said the low bill included three-month summer totals of between 2,000 and 4,000 gallons that were simply not possible given those are the months that are the height of her nursery business and also the time of year they fill an aboveground pool.

“Those are completely, blatantly off,” Rigg said. “If you saw the gardens I have here? Uh-uh. Nope.”

Rigg and Mack also described what they were told about the personnel part of the investigation described in the March statement from Tri-Town. Essentially, she and Mack learned that when another meter reader worked the route the truth came out.

“(Tri-Town plant manager) Dwayne Roberts told us that (the fired employee) got COVID, and Mitch had to read his route, and he said, ‘This isn’t making any sense,’” Rigg said. “And Darwin said, ‘As soon as I was made aware I took action.’”

Although the board declined to discuss on the record with the Independent any steps it had taken to prevent the problem from recurring, Rigg and Mack told the Independent that Pratt informed them on a phone call that in the future employees will take turns reading meters on Tri-Town’s three routes as a double-check of the readouts.

“Instead of one guy doing the east loop every time, he’ll do the east loop one month, then the No. 1 loop the next month,” Mack said. “So they’ll keep an eye on one another.”

Rigg said on the whole she appreciates the answers and cooperation she has received since reaching out to Pratt.

“Darwin and I have a good rapport,” Rigg said. “He’s a nice guy, and I respect Darwin.”

The Independent also spoke to other Tri-Town customers who preferred not to be identified. Two were former elected officials in the district’s service area who said they were puzzled by the board’s decision not to talk to the press about what appears to be proper handling of the problem once it was uncovered.

On the day after the board vote, Pratt spoke to the Independent about not commenting.

“I’ve got to go with what they (the board members) say,” Pratt said. “They said enough is enough. It was a month and a half ago this happened. The letters were written, and they just felt they wanted to end it.”

The March letter had stated, “We have now determined that our water production systems, and our metering systems are fully functioning and thus there is no need to change our physical plant nor metering processes which are already in place.”

The March statement also said “none of the (underbilled) customers will be billed for unpaid past usage,” although a new “baseline” for their usage would be established over the next year.

According to the statement, despite the undercharging “the negative financial impact to Tri-Town has been minimal and is fully managed by the current administration. Thus, there is no need for concern as to the financial viability of the Tri-Town operations going forward.”

The letter also cited an “extensive personnel and engineering investigation.” Pratt said he could provide no on-the-record details on the engineering investigation. Board members have said they welcome individual inquiries, such as the questions from Rigg and Mack, but stated there have been few.

Pratt has said in the past district officials would welcome follow-up questions at 802-758-2202 or [email protected].

To be clear, the board does not have a legal obligation to answer questions from the press or public, although as an elected body it must follow Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.

That means keeping minutes of meetings and making decisions publicly, according to Jenny Prosser, General Counsel & Director of Municipal Assistance in the Vermont Secretary of State’s office.

However, Prosser said, that law does not require any such board respond to questions from the public or the press, which serves as a conduit to the public, even if it could be argued there might be a philosophical and practical reason to do so.

“Ultimately elected officials answer to the people,” she said.

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