Thursday, city officials revealed their findings of a preliminary investigation into who knew what- and what went wrong- when discoloration complaints about water in Northeast Fresno first came in back in 2004.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin says, “This is an enormous investigation.”
After two weeks of an outside investigator questioning both past and present employees, Mayor Ashley Swearengin saying the city has a clearer picture of where things went wrong, when brown water started surfacing in Northeast Fresno homes more than a decade ago.
“There was a consistent lack of reporting discolored water complaints, both internally and externally from 2004 to 2015,” says Swearengin.
According to emails Eyewitness News uncovered through a public record’s request, from 2004 to 2015- the water problems had been presented as a minor issue that were under control with only a handful of homes complaining of discoloration. But according to employees who were recently questioned, 150 to 200 complaints were actually coming in each year. The city says it learned a bulk of the complaints were being directly routed to a man named Robert Moorhead, the former Chief of Surface Water Operations, who was allegedly conducting city business on a private server and personal cell phone.
Swearengin says, “The investigation references Moorhead’s record keeping system as, “a lot of boxes.” As a result, we don’t know how many complaints were coming in each between 2004 and 2011.
Eyewitness News reached out to Moorhead, who tells us his position was cut back in 2010 which is why he lost his job. He tells us it’s true he used a personal computer and cell phone, but says it’s because he worked around the clock and needed to be reachable on a phone that was easier to use. He also says his supervisors made the call to have complaints transferred to him.
“The water quality folks didn’t want to touch the issue, so they usually sent the problem my way because I was trying to dial into the treatment plant to correct the problem,” says Moorhead.
The city also pointed out a timeline of events, regarding when the first complaints came in 2004, as well as the first mention of lawsuits about bad piping from asia in 2005. A month after that, Moorhead emailed both of his supervisors, telling them one resident saw his 10 year old pipes and said they looked like they were 40 years old.
Moorhead says, “I mentioned it to make other people in the water department aware of the situation, but again from a water point of view, I guess it was above my pay grade to get on the radio and say ‘hey check your faucets or plumbing, you might have bad pipes.’ “
Then Public Utilities Director Rene Ramirez did chime in, asking Moorhead, “Are we telling folks that their plumbing is in bad shape and instead of being 10 years old is more like 30 or 40 years old?” Ramirez goes on to say…”we don’t want people to raise “you know what” with their home builders saying that we told them their plumbing was aging and know they want their plumbing to be replaced. I don’t think that is a position we want to take.”
Eyewitness News also found an email from the former Assistant Public Utilities Director Lon Martin, who says only 5 to 10 homes are affected, “…but if word got out it may be more.”
We asked the city if action could be taken in terms of negligence, or if more people will be held accountable. The mayor says that’s unclear right now, but she vowed to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.
Meanwhile, Moorhead points out that even after he left the city in 2010, it appears until this year, complaints still weren’t being handled properly.