City says multiple public records requests have been costly to taxpayers


By Frank Lewis

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Portsmouth City Manager Derek K. Allen says responding to questions generated by M. Jane Murray has now cost the city of Portsmouth $42,182.50. Though Allen was not present at Monday’s Portsmouth City Council meeting, his explanation of the Water Level Sensor at 23rd Street and Grandview Avenue, was passed out to the members of Council who were at the meeting.

Portsmouth City Solicitor John Haas referenced some emails about public records requests in which he says the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) has been contacted and in turn has responded by having the city respond to the questions in the emails, which Haas says has cost the city.

The issue deals with a monitoring device which the city manager says Murray refers to in her questions. It is a Water Level Sensor, specifically a Rawdon Myers MultiSmart SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) unit which was bid out with the 2009 SCADA improvements and was one of 28 units installed in 2010. Allen said the specific purpose of the 23rd and Grandview unit was to monitor the flow level in the eight foot diameter Lawson Run sewer. He said the purpose was strictly monitoring and provides information only and there were no operation changes at the Portsmouth Wastewater Treatment Plant due to readings from that device.

However, Allen said, Murray believes the gates at the influent structure at the Portsmouth WWTP were raised or lowered based on data from the device and he said she has said “It was required by the U.S. EPA in October 2008 to protect us from basement backups.” Allen said the device is not required by EPA.

“There is just some basic misunderstanding about how the wastewater system in the city of Portsmouth works,” Haas said. “There has continued to be numerous emails going to the city now for public records requests along to the EPA, the U.S. EPA and the Ohio EPA, and with all the assertions and the allegations that have been presented none of them has turned out to have any merit. We’ve been forced to respond by the EPA at a significant cost to the city.”

Allen’s report showed the city has had to pay its environmental attorney, Squire Patton Boggs $24,592.50 since January 31, 2014 and the city has incurred invoices from Strand Associates for mathematical calculations and documentation to the U.S. EPA refuting what he said were “false allegations by M. Jane Murray. Those invoices, according to Allen, have totalled $17,590 so far.

“These costs do not include the loss of productivity by city staff including myself to stop other work to respond repeatedly to these allegations,” Allen said in his report. “This $42,182.50 will be paid for through higher sewer fees beginning in 2016 by the citizens of Portsmouth.”

Haas explained the telemetry equipment in question to the Daily Times after the City Council meeting.

“It’s a monitor that monitors the amount of water in the combined sewer at 23rd and Grandview,” Haas said. “When that was installed it never really worked right because, when it would rain, the stormwater drains would pour water out into that manhole where the monitor was located and it would pick up the water pouring in and report that the water was that high when it wasn’t. So it was giving false readings. It’s important only for recording water levels. It doesn’t change anything that Wastewater Plant does with respect to how they operate the plant. And that’s where there’s a misunderstanding.”

Haas said, somehow, the person who keeps sending the records requests through emails to the EPA asserts that the report generated by the equipment to the Wastewater Plant would cause workers to drop the gates to let water out, which, in turn would relieve the flooding on Grandview Avenue.

“One has nothing to do with the other,” Haas said. “In fact, these gates here at the Wastewater have been down all year. They’ve never been up. The EPA said to just leave them down.”

Haas called attention to a diagram in the packet issued by Allen which purports to show what was happening. He said there is a 50 foot elevation difference between the Wastewater Treatment Plant where the gates are and Grandview Avenue.

“For that to happen, every sewer in town would have to back up first before you would ever work your way up there,” Haas said. “There’s just a complete misunderstanding of physics. It’s continuous and it has been explained and explained, but it has just not been understood. What is happening is that there are allegations made, emails are sent to the EPA. They want the city to respond to them so that they can respond to the complainant.”

Haas said it has become frustrating to the city to continually respond to the requests.

“At what point can we just say enoughs enough?” Haas said.

A phone message request for a callback from Murray was not immediately returned.

Reach Frank Lewis at 740-353-3101, ext. 1928, or on Twitter @franklewis.

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