The tension between the mayor and the board of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority hit a breaking point in March 2017.
For more than two decades, PWSA’s board members had balanced their responsibility to manage the authority with the desires of the mayor and city council who appointed them. The ambitions of the mayor typically won out and the water system deteriorated.
At the beginning of 2017, PWSA still could not send out accurate bills and, in many cases, stopped sending out bills at all. In the past year, lead contamination in the city’s water had risen above the federal action level, and the public outcry had reached fever pitch.“It had become the biggest problem in the city,” Mayor Bill Peduto said.
Peduto believed that one of PWSA’s biggest problems was a lack of continuity in leadership. Since 2008, PWSA’s leadership had been a revolving door of scandals, interim directors and finally the private management firm, Veolia Water North America. The tumult in leadership meant the organization was constantly being pulled in different directions.
The first executive director after Veolia and PWSA parted ways — David Donahoe — left after six months. So Peduto tapped Bernie Lindstrom, who had recently retired after 25 years in the Army Corps of Engineers, as the authority’s interim executive director. In theory, the board had sole control over who it hired and fired, but Peduto believed that he would be held responsible for what happened and needed to take charge during what had become one of the biggest crises of his administration.
The board soured on Lindstrom. But they trusted Bob Weimar, who was effectively running PWSA’s engineering department as a consultant at the time. Weimar was the one they felt showed the most knowledge of PWSA’s water and sewer system and had been giving board members the most detailed description of what needed to be done to fix it.
Weimar was the one telling the board that the political pressure not to raise rates had left the water system “a mess.” “You can pay me now or pay me later. And if you pay me later, it’s going to be a lot more expensive. And Bob was the guy giving us the straight scoop on that,” said board chair Alex Thomson.
Weimar and other high-level staff did not think Lindstrom was up to the job. Lindstrom was focused on team building, Weimar said, at a time when the authority was in crisis and needed to “get shit done.”
Lindstrom had been telling the public that their water was safe to drink if they just ran the tap in the morning until the water changed temperature. At one board meeting a couple months before, in frustration, Lindstrom said, “Customers need to flush their damn lines!” according to a staff member at the meeting. The Pittsburgh City Paper reported that Lindstrom’s advice could have increased the public’s exposure to lead.
One senior staff member described Lindstrom’s leadership as not showing an appreciation for the gravity of the situation the agency was in: “The building is on fire, and he’s rearranging office furniture to drive down costs.”
Lindstrom did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The board wanted to make the change to Weimar in 2017, but he wouldn’t commit to the job for the long run. He was finishing up a three-year contract consulting for PWSA and was ready to retire back to New Hampshire and spend more time with his wife. He had been on the road for more than a dozen years, flying home to see his wife on the weekends. Thomson had tried multiple times to offer the job to Weimar, but Weimar was only willing to commit to the job on an interim basis.
Peduto was “frustrated with the lack of continuity, as were we,” Thomson said. “But once again we felt the continuity didn’t trump competence. It would be nice to have both but we felt that competence overrides continuity.”
Then Peduto announced to the press that Lindstrom’s contract was being extended without asking the board’s permission. The board was legally in charge of hiring the position. This led to a showdown between Thomson, the chair at the time, and Kevin Acklin, the mayor’s chief of staff.
“It wasn’t a screaming match, that’s not who I am,” Thomson said. “They were arguing the merits of why they thought this was the right decision, and I was arguing the merits of why it was the wrong decision.”
It wasn’t just the decision itself he thought was wrong but the precedent of allowing the mayor to override the board’s better judgment. Thomson had been given Peduto’s encouragement to put an end to the culture at PWSA where hiring decisions were made based on phone calls from Downtown politicians. Peduto had originally been supportive of Thomson’s effort to try to professionalize the agency. But Acklin told Thomson in a series of phone calls that the crisis at PWSA meant Peduto could no longer stand back.
Peduto believed the board members he appointed were not doing enough to hold PWSA staff accountable. “The changes to the chemicals being used brought again the question of whether the board had enough oversight and power to control what was going on with the staff at PWSA,” Peduto said. “It was at that point that Kevin Acklin and I decided to take over PWSA, and it was objected to by all sides.”
The month before, City Controller Michael Lamb had released a report, saying a lack of leadership continuity was one of PWSA’s biggest problems. He also criticized the board directly. “The board can’t just accept what’s presented to them by the executive director,” Lamb said at the time. “The board has to be engaged in the decision-making, and it doesn’t seem that’s happening.”
But Peduto’s move in response undermined the legal structure of the board. “When the City negotiated the contract for a PWSA Executive director in 2016, a responsibility that belongs to the PWSA Board, the City Overstepped its authority and went beyond working collaboratively with the PWSA,” according to a report later that year from the state auditor general.
Five days after Peduto tried to extend Lindstrom’s contract, Thomson and the two other independent board members who didn’t work for the city at the time — Caren Glotfelty and Andrea Geraghty — resigned. Glotfelty told the press a different reason but, in reality, she said they all resigned in protest of the mayor’s interference.
“I think we wanted to send a message. That is why we all three quit in the same timeframe,” she said.
Either it was going to be a functioning agency run by an independent board or it was going to remain a tool of the city’s political leaders.
Read the next story in this series: “Part 7 — A coalition of activists helped begin the turnaround at PWSA”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.
This story was fact–checked by Matt Maielli.
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