Mayor says water plant staffing shortage no secret, disputes 3OYS report
JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba disputes the findings of last week’s 3 On Your Side investigation revealing severe staffing shortages at the city’s O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant.
The report, which aired Thursday, showed, in November, that former City Engineer Charles Williams warned that if the city lost one more water operator, it would be forced to shut down a treatment plant.
The mayor, though, says staffing issues at the plants are no secret, and that the administration has openly discussed challenges filling positions at the city’s treatment facilities.
“And so recent reports, exclusives that have said or illuminated this challenge... The only thing that was exclusive about that report was the notion of the interpersonal conflicts that take place in a stressful work environment,” Lumumba said.
Emails obtained exclusively by WLBT also show that the city’s top water official was never provided the information she needed to bring on a part-time water operator, despite requesting that information multiple times.
Additionally, operators logged hundreds of hours of overtime in a matter of weeks to ensure at least one Class A operator was on duty at the city’s two surface water treatment plants at all times, according to timesheets submitted to EPA. Coverage is required under both state and federal statutes.
The mayor’s claims come even as council members who spoke to WLBT said they had not seen the documents and were unaware of how severe staffing shortages at the plants were.
Lumumba told reporters on Monday that the city has not made staffing issues a secret, and that the report only revealed internal conflicts between employees.
“We have all experienced that in our various fields of work,” he said. “And, so yes, there are disputes, there are disagreements that take place as we endeavor to get it right.”
The mayor was referring to an email exchange between Public Works Director Marlin King and Deputy Director of Water Operations Mary Carter. Carter requested information to bring on a part-time operator, however, King never provided the information.
Lumumba also said WLBT’s reporting was “not balanced,” in saying there were gaps that no Class A operators were on duty at the plants.
“Some of the reporting with respect to certain days or an estimate of time where we did not have expertise was not balanced, by the fact that we had contract workers out there who have the expertise or the Class A certification,” he said. “That was not calculated in some of those numbers that were put out there, and so we need to challenge and check those numbers so that we give residents a true depiction of what is taking place.”
That concern aside, the mayor said staffing levels at the city’s plants are at critical levels.
“And we are communicating that as frequently as we can,” he said, “because we believe we owe you honesty, and we’re working continuously to deal with that.”
WLBT’s analysis was based entirely on information the city of Jackson provided to the federal government, meaning the EPA would have come to the same staffing conclusions 3 On Your Side did in that investigative report.
The mayor referred to that information, which includes time sheets for water operators the city submitted to EPA as part of its July 22 response to the agency.
WLBT’s Barbie Bassett and C.J. LeMaster discussed Jackson’s water crisis on WLBT+.
The timesheets, which were primarily for the month of June, showed that there were 153 hours without a Class A operator at the O.B. Curtis Water Treatment Plant and 55 hours where no Class A operator was on duty at the J.H. Fewell Water Treatment Plant.
In April, the city council approved a contract with Staffmark Investment LLC to provide additional workers at Curtis.
At the April 13 meeting, Carter said at the time that the temporary workers would include one Class A operator. However, she told the council the contract would be used mostly to augment the plant’s maintenance division, which had several slots that had been frozen.
“This is maintenance. These are not operations. Although the staff contract does include a certified operator,” she said at the meeting. “A person that retired, who came back to help us.”
Temporary workers brought on under the Staffmark contract are Alexander Clayborne and Holsey Nelson III. Nelson has an Active Class A license, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health’s website,
For June, Staffmark invoices showed Nelson worked 139 hours. However, the invoices do not say when Nelson was at the plant. Additionally, sources within public works say Nelson did not work at Curtis after June 29. Based on our analysis, the plant was still without Class A operator coverage for at least 36 hours from that day until July 2, the last day of timesheets submitted to EPA show.
When WLBT asked Public Works Director Marlin King about the gaps in the Class A coverage we discovered, King never mentioned contract workers at all.
Instead, King said his deputy director of water operations, Mary Carter, also held a Class A license and worked those gaps, but her times would not have been listed on any timesheets because she’s a salaried worker.
Carter later disputed that claim, telling WLBT she didn’t work all of those times without Class A coverage. It was not known if she filled in after Nelson’s last day.
The mayor also said that independent contractors also do not clock in
Meanwhile, city documents submitted to the EPA do not specify that contract workers would be performing operator duties. Instead, minutes from the April 13 council meeting show that workers would fill in doing “clean up and light industrial duties,” “skilled labor - LI [light industrial] duties, clean up,” “utility maintenance,” and “clerical.”
Staffmark invoices were submitted to the city regularly since March, with the first week of service being the week ending March 20, 2022. The last contractor invoice sent to EPA was for work performed the week ending June 26.
Clayborne, who is not Class A-certified, was invoiced for $15.73 an hour, while Nelson was invoiced for $25.74 an hour, a sign he likely was doing operator work during his time at the plant.
It was unclear what hours or shifts the contract laborers worked. Said Lumumba, “If you’re looking at, as a measure of who’s there... an independent contractor does not clock in, so that would not be factored into your equation.”
We reached out to Nelson for comment, but have yet to get a response.
Want more WLBT news in your inbox? Click here to subscribe to our newsletter.
Copyright 2022 WLBT. All rights reserved.