×

KEVIN LEININGER: Fired boss questions city’s influence on county sewer district

Sewers don't usually get a lot of attention, especially once they're buried. But management of the Allen County Regional Sewer and Water District deserves more scrutiny. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Jeff Morris
Justin Brugger
Andrew Boxberger
Kevin Leininger

The Allen County Regional Sewer and Water District is governed by seven voting board members: three appointed by the County Commissioners, two by the mayor of Fort Wayne, one by County Council and one by the Board of Health. Does that create a conflict of interest for board members Justin Brugger and Matthew Wirtz, who also happen to be executives with Fort Wayne City Utilities, which through the district serves 3,000 customers?

The district’s former executive director certainly thinks so. In fact, Jeff Morris insists he was fired — by the unanimous consent of the board, it should be noted — at least in part because he tried to do something about it. A district spokesman, however, insists that’s simply not true.

As I reported Saturday, Morris (who was 61 at the time) leveled an age-discrimination charge against the district after losing his job in December for reasons board members said were “performance-related.” But in the complaint filed with the Fort Wayne Metropolitan Human Relations Commission, Morris also linked the termination to his opposition to the 2016 agreement under which the district pays City Utilities about $243,000 per year for billing, maintenance, financial management, engineering and other services.

“I opposed the ‘shared services agreement,’…informing Brugger and Director of City Utilities, Kumar Menon, that they were engaged in a conflict of interest…In my next performance evaluation, which occurred soon thereafter, it was determined I should be terminated for poor job performance and the need for a ‘better fit,’ ” the complaint stated.

In response to that 2019 evaluation, Morris replied in writing that Brugger reacted by threatening to expel the district’s office from the city-owned Citizens Square Building and added, “I gave a lot of political capital getting you this job…We pay you good money.”

“It was obvious Brugger was not wearing his district ‘hat,’ ” Morris wrote — meaning he believes Brugger was representing the city’s interests, not those of the district’s mostly rural customers whose sewer rates are among the highest in the county.

Morris said he believes the district could dramatically reduce costs by doing much of the work handled by the city through in-house. After an initial investment of about $60,000 for software, the district’s annual costs would be no more than $80,000, he said.

In a letter to the Metro commission, Morris’ attorney, Loren Allison, also said the city also failed to provide Morris with requested district financial information “contrary to the express wishes of the State Board of Accounts.”

I wanted to ask Brugger about Morris’ claims, but City Utilities would not make him available. Instead, Menon said in a statement that “We are not aware of any member of the board making such a statement (as Brugger is alleged to have done).”

District spokesman and attorney Andrew Boxberger had considerably more to say, calling Morris’ allegations “false, misleading and untrue, which unfortunately is a pattern of behavior that led to his termination to begin with.”

Boxberger said the district believes the shared services agreement provides “the opportunity to engage City Utilities to provide some services gave the district the opportunity to harness a well-staffed and proven entity to lessen the financial burden on the district’s customers.”

Boxberger also said that because the agreement is in force until 2021, “There was no action that could be taken by Mr. Morris regardless of his feelings…so his claim makes little sense.”

But according to Morris, the shared services agreement wasn’t the first time Brugger’s alleged conflict of interest surfaced. Not long after being named executive director in 2017, Morris said, Brugger asked him to write a letter in opposition to a bill proposed by Sen. Liz Brown, R-Fort Wayne, which would have addressed the issue of potential conflicts-of-interest among board members. The bill, which Brown said was proposed by county officials, would have prevented city or county employees from serving on the district board but ultimately failed to pass.

Boxberger, however, said it was the board that asked Morris to write the letter opposing Brown’s bill, and that Brugger only wrote the letter Morris signed because “Morris was not capable of putting forth an articulate response as instructed by his employer.”

As I stated in my Saturday column about the board’s recent decision to reimburse county Building Commissioner John Caywood for the $23,400 he spent to install a sewer line to his home and that of a neighbor, there is no “smoking gun” here. But, clearly, the allegations and facts warrant a closer look by various officials.

In the meantime, the board has decided that Morris will not be replaced, at least for now. Instead, day-to-day operations will be overseen under the shared services agreement by Nathan Baggett. He’s a City Utilities engineer, and “the district feels very lucky to have him,” Boxberger said.

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 kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

NEWSLETTER

Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)