KEVIN LEININGER: Sewer District’s $23,400 payment to county official raises questions
When Jeff Morris was fired as executive director of the Allen County Regional Water and Sewer District in December, board members of the 41-year-old agency that serves 3,000 customers in less-developed areas said the decision was based on performance, not malfeasance.
But according to documents obtained by The News-Sentinel and interviews with Morris and other participants, that bland explanation doesn’t begin to tell the story of why a man with more than 40 previous years of experience with Fort Wayne City Utilities was terminated — a story that includes a substantial payment to a high-ranking county official, allegations of coercion by a Fort Wayne official and an age-discrimination complaint lodged with the city’s Metropolitan Human Relations Commission. Morris was 61 when he was fired.
The board’s July 2019 evaluation of Morris does indeed cite numerous performance deficiencies along with a misuse funds, which Morris denies. But what might otherwise be dismissed as a fairly routine internal personnel matter is very much a bigger public concern worthy of additional scrutiny for two reasons, one of which became obvious last month. That’s when the board voted to reimburse County Building Commissioner John Caywood for the $23,400 it cost to connect his and neighbor Joey Tippmann’s new houses on Mayhew Road to an adjacent sewer line operated by the district.
According to the board’s 2019 performance review, Morris “allowed (Caywood) to construct a sewer line to his property without seeking board approval or following public bidding requirements.” But the board agreed to the payment anyway, and waived the $2,000 connection fee for Caywood and Tippmann, after attorney Andrew Boxberger suggested Morris had made commitments that could be considered legally binding and expose the district to expensive litigation if not honored.
Developers often pay the up-front cost of installing utility lines, figuring they will recover their investment once lots are sold. It is, however, unusual for utilities to reimburse that expense, as the district did. And that, said Tim Roy, the only board member to vote against the payment, “makes it look like one county official came to another, asked a favor and got it. It’s hard to swallow.”
Morris contends he’s being a made a scapegoat, and that it was board chairman and prominent developer Ric Zehr who obligated the district. “Mr. Caywood was going to run a private line to an existing manhole at his cost, the appropriate thing to do. At some point, Mr. Caywood contacted Mr. Zehr, after which I was informed that the district would be paying for it,” he said.
Boxberger said Zehr had suggested that the district could add new customers at a much lower per customer cost if it looked for opportunities near its existing lines. “When (Zehr) heard that Caywood had purchased a lot in the Maysville district area, he asked Jeff to discuss the opportunity to connect with Caywood. There were potentially 6 lots and future opportunities for connection . . . That was the extent of Ric’s communication on that matter until Jeff unilaterally acted.”
Boxberger also said the district is not obligated to waive connection fees on the other properties served by Caywood’s sewer but noted that “when the district does a new projects it always waives connection fees if a homeowner connects within 90 days of receiving the notice to connect.”
Caywood, meanwhile, said he did nothing wrong and that he hired builder Wayne Johnson to handle construction of his house to avoid any apparent conflict of interest. Caywood said he approached Morris about the sewer only because Johnson was unavailable and said the project faced delays and added costs after the district became involved.
“I’ve been doing this 50 years and I’ve never seen such a fiasco,” Johnson agreed. “One hand (at the district) didn’t know what the other was doing.”
Caywood is supervised by the three Allen County Commissioners, and although Commissioner Nelson Peters and some staff members were involved in the discussions between Morris and Caywood, Peters said he remembers few of the details. “We always counsel our department heads to be beyond reproach,” added Peters, who declined to elaborate.
I don’t buy the age-discrimination claim and I am not accusing Morris, Caywood, Zehr or anybody else of wrongdoing in this case, which board members insist cannot be repeated now that policies are in place to prevent it. But even if all’s well that ends well and the district’s $23,400 payment turns out to be a good investment, the agency clearly could benefit from additional scrutiny and oversight. I’ll explore that further in my next column detailing Morris’ allegation that he was fired at least in part because he questioned City Utilities’ influence over what is supposed to be a county agency — a contention Boxberger and the city, of course, deny.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at 461-8355.