WHETSTONE — Two employees fired by the Whetstone Water District accuse Board President Tim Sulger of violating state open meeting laws, threatening the health of water customers and failing to obtain board approval before working with a private contractor on repairing Well No. 2.
Robert Salazar and Jim Demuth, who had worked for the district for eight and 12 years, respectively, were two of the three employees terminated by the board at a meeting Jan. 25. Members also fired the district bookkeeper Patricia Woolsey.
They said Wednesday actions by Sulger in taking over the repair of the district’s Well No. 2 almost resulted in contaminated water entering the local water supply. Salazar said Sulger’s public statements that the well was not contaminated are falsehoods, proven by five of six water quality test records filed between Sept. 18 and Nov. 3, 2016.
Records provided by Salazar show four tests taken by Whetstone Environmental Services, a privately held company in Huachuca City that provides water treatment services, indicate amounts of coliform exceeded levels allowed by the Arizona Department of Water Resources. The sixth and final water test at Well No. 2, taken by the district’s Operator, YL Technologies in Sahuarita, on Nov. 3, showed water quality at permitted state levels.
Salazar said Well No. 2 was contaminated by gravel, provided by Sulger, at the time Well No. 2 was being repaired.
“The gravel wasn’t purified,” Salazar said.
Demuth, who is heading a committee that has successfully organized a recall of three board members, said the selection of the contractor who did the work at Well No. 2 was decided after an executive session of the board that violated the state open meeting law. Demuth said the contractor, W/W Services, is not listed with the Arizona Registrar of Contractors and the company was utilizing another drilling firm’s state license to do work at the Whetstone well.
He said contacting the Willcox-based W/W Services was done by Sulger, who then presented the board with the company’s bid, which was approved by the water district board after executive session that was not posted on the agenda.
Salazar said he has been in contact with the Arizona Ombudsman-Citizens’ Aide, which has confirmed that they are aware of the violation. In public statements, Sulger has acknowledged previous violations of the state Open Meetings Law, and said the district subsequently requested legal help from Cochise County, who appointed attorney Lauri Owen to work with the board.
Since Owen’s appointment, water district board members have drafted and approved bylaws, defining the authority of the board. The dispute with the employees became public after reports of contamination at Well No. 2 were challenged by Sulger. The board president said the well was kept offline because of a dispute with the district operator and not because it was contaminated.
At the Jan. 25 meeting, Sulger and board members pointed to an absence of credit card records and the costs of operating the water district as two reasons why all three district employees were terminated.
Owen intimated that credit card spending was suspicious, pointing out that the district averaged between $4,000 and $5,000 a month, but reported just $208 for December. Board members voted at the meeting to gather bids for an audit of the district’s finances.
Demuth said prior to Sulger’s involvement in the water district, credit card spending could vary dramatically every month, depending on the maintenance needs of the district.
Salazar said the district would order what it needed to extend water lines, purchase tools, or other supplies necessary to extend service or make repairs. Demuth said exact records of all the credit card transactions were kept, but he questioned whether they exist following the termination of the bookkeeper.
“We used a credit card because, we got 1 percent back, and we could use that to save the district money on other purchases,” Demuth said.
Salazar said actions by Sulger after the well was repaired, but before the water quality tests were completed, demonstrate the board president’s intention to return the well to service at the peril of district customers.
“That’s what it’s all about for me,” Demuth said. “The actions of this board threaten the health of the people who are served by the district.”
Demuth is listed as the contact for a committee that collected enough signatures to require a recall election this May for Whetstone Water District voters.
Cochise County interim elections director Martha Rodriquez said last month that 74 signatures from registered voters were needed to stage the recall election. Petitions for Leonard Howell and Robert Tinney carried 76 signatures and Sulger’s had 79, the director said.
Sulger told board members at Wednesday’s meeting that if the recall is conducted, he calculated the cost at about $75 per customer in the water district.
“It’s going to cost us another $3,000,” he said.