Nearly every current PWSA leader pointed to one of PWSA’s biggest problems: There was a history of hiring people because of their political connections, not because of their knowledge, experience or skills.

“The whole staff all the way down to people who worked the streets tended to be people politically connected or appointed,” said Paul Leger, who served on the board from 2014 to 2021.

Take, for example, former Pittsburgh city councilor Tonya Payne. Payne, who died of colon cancer last year, was hired in 2012 as the safety manager but her resume didn’t show any experience with safety issues, let alone in construction, plumbing or water plant operations. She was “referred for the position” by state Rep. Dan Deasy, the chair of PWSA’s board at the time, without receiving any other applications for the position.

Veolia Water North America had to hire an outside safety consultant because Payne lacked knowledge of construction safety, according to a former PWSA employee. There were around 50 serious workplace injuries at the time, a high percentage for the industry.  

City Controller Michael Lamb said there were a lot of politically connected people at other authorities, like the parking authority, as well. “They always become landing places for people who move out of city government for one reason or another, people you don’t want to fire but are not happy with performance or people you want to unload from city payroll,” he said.

Those employees preferred to go to PWSA because PWSA was on the same pension plan as the city, according to Scott Kunka, a board member between 2007 and 2013. PWSA’s pension payout was even better than the city’s, said Leger: City pensions were reduced by half if someone also received Social Security but at PWSA employees received a full pension.

A hallway at PWSA’s Aspinwall water treatment plant. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

“The water authority was the final destination for a lot of city employees,” Kunka said. “They couldn’t find their niche in city government so they did find a home at the water authority.”

City leaders would go to PWSA to fill vacancies when they came up. “I had one board member tell me once that it didn’t really matter who was hired to work on customer service,” one former PWSA employee said.

The practice of political hiring was believed to be common in the organization. When Will Pickering, PWSA’s CEO, was hired as the communications manager at PWSA in 2016, he said a colleague asked him: “Who are you connected to or related to? Why are you here?” 

Bob Weimar, the former executive director, said PWSA’s old hiring practices contributed to some of the problems at PWSA. “So you would have a person in charge of billing who had not been trained,” he said. “So you had some people in those positions who might work hard but didn’t have acumen to go to the next level.”

Few people who said it was a problem could point to specific people who were hired for political favors, so it’s hard to judge how widespread the practice was. Alex Sciulli, the current PWSA board chair and former director of the water department in the 1980s when it was still part of the city, said he believes the amount of political hiring is sometimes overstated. 

“Anytime you have public agencies, there are people with so-called influence,” he said. “But in my opinion, I don’t think nepotism had anything to do with the operation of PWSA.”

Julie Quigley, the director of customer service at PWSA, said that in her 27 years, she only knew of eight people who were given jobs for political reasons, but she didn’t know how many people in other departments may have been hired that way.

“It’s not a bad thing in all cases,” Quigley said. “Oftentimes you get people who really know what they are doing.”

PWSA’s drinking water treatment plant in Aspinwall in 2017. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board criticized PWSA in 2008 when it hired Len Bodack, a PWSA board member and former city councilor from a politically connected family, as a mechanics supervisor. But some staff who worked with him there said he did a good job.

Chelsa Wagner, the county controller, said PWSA has a legacy of being the place in the city where “if somebody wanted to hide someone, they would hide them there.” But that has changed as the jobs have become more technical, she said.

Former Mayor Tom Murphy said he didn’t remember ever asking PWSA to hire someone. “In my view, they had to do the civil service test like every other city employee,” he said.

The political hiring largely came to an end in the Peduto administration, according to several former employees and board members. 

“The mayor and chief of staff at the time made it clear they wanted to change the dynamics at PWSA,” said Alex Thomson, the former chair of the board. “For a long time, it had been run politically. They wanted to change it to more of a professionally run utility and gave us a significant amount of latitude to do that.”

Read the next story in this series: Part 4: A new board: PWSA’s crisis hit slowly and then all at once”

Explore more stories in this series: “A water crisis swept through Pittsburgh five years ago: This is the fullest account of what happened.”

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s environment and health reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

This story was factchecked by Matt Maielli.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...