Councilor Roger Coles suggested in an email that City Manager Mike Kee consider retiring, but some other councilors defend Kee and Public Works Director Michelle Owen in the wake of the city's crypto outbreak
By Terri Harber
and Jayson Jacoby
Baker City's cryptosporidium outbreak this summer has led to a rift among city councilors about the level of responsibility City Manager Mike Kee and members of his staff bear for the crisis.
Councilor Roger Coles, in a recent email to Kee, suggested the city manager, who started work here three years ago this week, would be wise to retire "rather than putting up with all of these problems."
Councilors are expected to discuss the situation during an executive session preceding Tuesday's regular council meeting.
The executive session, which starts at 6 p.m. at City Hall, is closed to the public.
The regular meeting starts at 7 p.m.
The executive session was scheduled after the Council's Aug. 29 work session. During that public meeting councilors mentioned, without giving much in the way of detail, emails written by councilors that Councilor Kim Mosier described as "hostile" and Councilor Barbara Johnson called "mean-spirited."
A series of emails dating back to late July, which the Baker City Herald received from the city through Oregon's public records law, shows that Coles, along with Mayor Richard Langrell, have been critical of both Kee and Public Works Director Michelle Owen's performance.
Mosier, along with Councilors Clair Button and Mike Downing, meanwhile, have defended both Kee and Owen.
On July 31, the day the city announced a few residents had been infected with crypto, and recommended people boil water beforedrinking it, Coles, in an email to Kee, asked whether the city had been testing its water for the microscopic parasite "since the last fiasco over a year ago... we have been down this road before with Michelle! Hopefully she has been doing her job and the bases are covered."
Coles was referring to the city's announcement in November 2011 that small amounts of crypto had been found in three of 24 water samples tested during 2010 and early 2011.
At that time, Owen said that she had reviewed some, but not all, of the 24 test reports, when they were received, and that the three positive tests were among those she did look at initially.
On Aug. 4, when city and state officials had a suspicion that mountain goats, which live near the city's Goodrich Reservoir, were the source of the crypto contamination, Langrell wrote in an email to Kee:
"We have a water system with crypto in it because Michelle didn't think she needed to test the water in Goodrich. The safety of Baker City has been compromised."
Langrell's email continued:
"I think we have a good water system, it is not being operated properly. Mike you need to make some changes as Manager, or the City Council needs to make them for you."
Oregon's Health Division did not require the city to test for crypto after the 2010-11 regimen.
In an Aug. 6 email, Langrell accused Kee of not feeling "the least bit responsible for the damage done to people or businesses in this town" and only being "interested in covering your ass."
The focus of the city's and state's investigation shifted from Goodrich Reservoir to Elk Creek after a water sample taken from the latter, on Aug. 4, contained 913 crypto "oocysts" - the protective shell that makes the parasite resistant to the chlorine the city adds to its water to disinfect against other contaminants such as giardia.
No other water sample has contained more than three oocysts.
Langrell, in an interview Thursday, said his concerns about the city staff are not limited to the crypto outbreak.
"It's not just water. ... I just don't think Michelle is capable of doing a good job as public works director," Langrell said. "She's shown no interest in taking care of water. She's shown no remorse."
"We're up against the wall. Two positive (crypto) tests and the state could make us pay a $20 million bill for a filtration system," Langrell said.
Although the state lifted the boil order on Aug. 21, officials are requiring the city to test its water twice each week for crypto. If two consecutive tests contain any amount of crypto, the state will reinstate the boil order.
So far all water tests have been negative for crypto.
Button's emails have been in sharp contrast to Coles' and Langrell's.
In an Aug. 6 email Button wrote: "It's easy to accuse someone else of not caring, but the measure of whether or not we care individually is whether or not we provide the funding to actually implement the treatment regime, and when."
He also noted that the councilors "did not budget any funds for continued water testing beyond that required by the state."
In a Thursday interview, Button said he doesn't believe any city employee is or has been negligent.
"I haven't seen anything to make me believe that somebody really screwed up something that they should have known better about," Button said.
"I don't believe in making scapegoats. The Council was warned in the past that there is a risk. You can't expect people to see the future. The Council wasn't prescient, and we can't expect the staff to be either."
Coles continued his criticism of Kee in an Aug. 19 email which mentions the decision by Tasty Bake Inc. to lay off workers at its Baker City pizza crust factor, a decision the owner blamed on the crypto crisis that lost the business a major retail customer.
"...the same business that was wanting to expand a warehouse out in the business area off of 17th St. and probable jobs and it sounds like they will shut down with ripple effects to suppliers and truckers," Coles wrote. "Something to be really proud of, all on your watch!"
In an email to Button that same day, Kee wrote that he was considering resigning. Button encouraged Kee to stick it out.
"This has got to be wearing on you, but it would not be in the best interests of the city to lose you. It would be enough turmoil and disruption if you gave in to pressure to let Michelle go, and anyone who succeeds you would learn a bad lesson, with continued interference in personnel administration by a minority of council," Button wrote.
Mosier echoed Button's opinions about the situation in her own email to Kee.
"I have seen you and your staff working to manage the crypto contamination with diligence, and in close cooperation with the state authorities," Mosier wrote. "No matter how hard you work or no matter how well things are run, I don't think you can expect to hear positive remarks from either of them, on any issue related to the city."
Mosier said in an interview Thursday that she still has confidence in Kee.
"I need to see more information," Mosier said. "What I've seen doesn't clearly point to any one specific person doing anything negligent.
"If something else comes to light that shows this clearly could have been prevented, I might consider whether some disciplinary action is appropriate. Right now I don't have that."
Councilor Mike Downing, in an Aug. 19 email responding to Baker City resident Penny Rienks, who contended in an email that Owen was "promoted beyond her skill level," wrote that he believes Owen "has been nothing but professional and done her job to the utmost standards."
Coles said Thursday that the purpose of Tuesday's executive session is that "we are looking at accountability. It's not political. That's all there is to it."
Having that discussion in private is not meant to cheat the public, he said.
Coles said he thinks the privacy of an executive session will allow for much-needed candor among councilors.
"We're there to represent the public," he said. "Taxpayers deserve straight-forward answers."
Mosier agrees that councilors need to have a frank and complete discussion about the crypto situation, Kee and the staff.
"We need to have a full airing in executive session," Mosier said. "I want to know what other councilors have to say and what their concerns are."
Coles said there is evidence that city officials have not done all they could have to prevent cattle from trespassing on the watershed near Elk Creek.
The city has fencing materials in storage, but the fence, intended to keep cattle away from the creek, hasn't been built.
Kee said the city hopes to have the fence built this fall.
Cattle haven't been confirmed as the source of the crypto contamination, although the animals are a known carrier of the parasite.
Other possible sources include deer, elk and other wildlife that live in the watershed.
State officials collected samples of feces from cattle, elk and other animals last month, but test results are still pending.
Mayor asking for records, too
The Baker City Herald received more than 300 pages of printouts of emails from the city this week in response to the newspaper's request under Oregon's public records law.
Emails from city-provided accounts are public records.
The Herald received emails to and from City Manager Mike Kee's account, as well as from Jake Jones, the city's watershed manager.
Oregon law allows cities and other public entities to charge a "reasonable" fee for supplying records to the public and the media.
The city charges $26 per hour for retrieving records and reviewing them to see if any records, or parts thereof, are exempt from disclosure (the law allows exemptions for certain items), and 25 cents per printed page.
The labor and printing cost to the newspaper totaled nearly $105.
Mayor Richard Langrell made his own request for records and was dismayed that a portion of it would cost him "up to $100," said City Manager Mike Kee.
"I'm the mayor," Langrell said Thursday while visiting the Herald office. "I shouldn't have to pay for information."
He brought with him a records request. The section reserved for details about of what information he is seeking was left blank.
Langrell also had a petition signed by all seven councilors supporting his information request.
The reason for seeking a payment is because some of the material Langrell requested wasn't pertinent to current city business, Kee said.
Langrell wants information about a water tanks that were located in the Scenic Vista subdivision, a neighborhood of fewer than a dozen homes.
The city had to replace the tanks about a decade earlier than anticipated because of problems with the installation by a private developer.
Current city staff members weren't involved in the approval process, which occurred in 2003.
The city signed off on the project after trying to make repairs, then took responsibility for the tanks in 2004 and ended up paying the bill of nearly $200,000 for a replacement as part of the previous fiscal year budget.
- Terri Harber