Board meetings at the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency are usually sparsely attended and over in 30 minutes. On June 14, employees and concerned citizens piled into the modest board room at TTSA, and the monthly meeting turned into a two-hour standoff.
The players: The TTSA board of directors, under the leadership of 28-year president of the board Oz Butterfield, supported by general manager LaRue Griffin; and the majority of employees who have been attempting, since February, to gain formal recognition from the board that they are now a union-represented workplace. Employees say they have followed the letter of the law when it comes to representation — the majority of workers included in the bargaining unit voted by authorization card in February to join the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Chapter 1245.
“Let’s have a vote,” said Dale Cox, who represents the Squaw Valley Public Service District on TTSA’s board. “If there are 50 people, and we have 26 people in favor of the union, then we unionize. You folks get your way and the board, at least I, will support you guys in any way that you decide to go.”
“Bullshit,” said Jon Northrop, board representative for the Alpine Springs County Water District, who teleconferenced in to the contentious meeting. Northrop has otherwise been silent about the unionization effort at TTSA, as have the other board members outside of the board room.
His under-the-breath utterance was perhaps not meant to be archived — it isn’t in the abbreviated meeting minutes prepared by the agency — but its message was clear: The effort by employees to unionize was not a welcome addition to the agenda, and the board of directors seems to have a limited understanding of pertinent labor laws.
As North Tahoe’s only wastewater treatment plant, TTSA provides a crucial service to the public — filtering and processing sewage and keeping the Truckee River watershed free from related pollutants. But this key public agency is facing serious internal unrest, stemming from what employees say has become a culture of secrecy and harassment, rife with mismanagement and favoritism that poses a threat to TTSA’s level of service to the community.
THE ONLY OPTION
In September 2016, a group of TTSA employees reached out to a number of local union organizers, hoping to find an organization that could represent their interests at an agency they felt was becoming increasingly indifferent to its workforce.
“We feel that this is our only option for a secure, fair, and respectable working environment,” said Jeff Claussen, an operations shift supervisor at TTSA, in a speech given during the May 2016 board meeting. In it, Claussen said that during the previous two years an “atmosphere of uncertainty” created by employee terminations and a lack of transparency caused employees to feel “dispensable and disrespected.”
Moonshine Ink reached out to several board members and upper-level managers, but none of those contacted was willing to comment on employee allegations or the union.
In February, employees in the proposed TTSA bargaining unit, which includes the maintenance and operations department, voted in the presence of a third party to seek representation from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local Chapter 1245, which represents skilled trade jobs throughout Northern California and Nevada.
IBEW lead organizer Rick Thompson sent a petition for recognition to TTSA’s general manager, LaRue Griffin, on April 5.
Four months have passed, but the board of directors has offered no formal recognition, acknowledgement needed before both employees and TTSA management can move to the negotiating table.
Griffin declined to be interviewed by Moonshine Ink, but said that the “agency respects the rights of its employees to decide whether they wish to be represented by a union.”
Both parties are working with the Public Employment Relations Board to “facilitate this process,” he said.
Griffin briefly mentioned the petition at the April 12, 2017 board meeting, which spurred employee backlash at the May board meeting, where Claussen addressed the board directly during open session. Griffin’s sparse attention to the matter could be construed as a way of ignoring the employee union and delaying further action.
“We believe this [omission] was done with the intention of undermining the effort of employees to organize,” Claussen said in his address, referring to Griffin’s quick mention of the effort a month prior.
Employees proposed a single bargaining unit, common for an agency of TTSA’s size, according to Thompson — the agency has a total of 57 employees, 36 of whom are in the bargaining unit — but their proposal was countered by agency management, who proposed four separate bargaining units, one each for management, administration, operations/maintenance, and professional employees. According to the National Labor Relations Act, managers cannot join unions or be part of a bargaining group, and are not considered part of the labor force. The management’s proposal shows an ignorance of labor law and is an attempt to stall the unionization effort, Thompson said.
“It’s our position that the delays over the bargaining unit that TTSA is sticking to … we feel that it’s disingenuous. It really is just a delay tactic,” Thompson said.
Each bargaining unit, which represents a set amount of employees, is required to negotiate, vote on, and sign their own separate agreement. A small agency negotiating with four separate bargaining units could be an arduous process, and will further divide employees who wish to organize, according to Thompson.
In July, IBEW submitted several unfair labor practice charges to the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB), the governing body for labor disputes and employee organizing in California. The charges were based on a failure of TTSA to notify employees of the unionization effort and an anti-union speech made by Board President Butterfield.
According to IBEW and several TTSA employees, after the agency was initially given the union petition in April, TTSA officials did not post a copy of the worker’s petition anywhere on the premises, and subsequently failed to post any notice when IBEW submitted the petition to the PERB board in May — both inactions are considered violations of California’s Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (MMBA), legislation enacted in 1968 to promote full communication between a public agency and its employees.
After the May board meeting, Butterfield allegedly made anti-union remarks to several employees in their work spaces, and made disparaging remarks to one employee who was part of the proposed wall-to-wall bargaining unit — the meat of another public record; an unfair labor charge submitted to PERB.
“There’s a clear, continued pattern of anti-union activity,” Thompson said. “We, of course, would rather TTSA voluntarily recognize the rights of their workers to organize and stop laboring under this idea that they have the power to deny that right.”
Workers at any agency are required to follow a set of guidelines that governs collective bargaining efforts, laid out in the MMBA. Until 2000, local rules determined by a county or special district would supersede statewide laws. For example, TTSA, a special district, established policies dictating how and to what extent collective bargaining could take place within the agency. However, in 2000, the California PERB assumed oversight of these documents in order to scrutinize local rules against their own regulations.
When Thompson and IBEW requested a copy of TTSA’s employer-employee relations policy, they discovered a collective bargaining policy three decades old, created in 1985, without a single update since.
Several of the TTSA policies — including a requirement that the names of all employees in the group be given to TTSA management — are outdated and now considered illegal, according to national labor law.
Thompson says IBEW notified TTSA of the violation and asked to work to solve the discrepancies one-on-one through a phone call to the office, instead of through legal counsel, a proposition they extended to TTSA again when they submitted the employee’s petition to unionize.
These phone calls never took place.
TTSA retained legal counsel from Wiley, Price, and Radulovich, a firm that represents employers in labor law cases. From the time the agency received the petition in April to the end of June, the law firm was paid more than $9,000 of taxpayer money to fight the employees’ unionization effort.
The same firm has been paid more than $22,500 total since September 2016, according to agency financial records.
Additionally, on the heels of employee complaints leveled against members of management in fall 2016, TTSA hired a third-party consultant to assess organizational practices and development. The consultant, Ileana Vassiliou of Creating Effective Organizations, is an executive coach who has previously worked with Fortune 500 companies and international businesses.
Findings from the consultation cannot be found in any public record released by the agency, nor is there any mention of the consultant service in the agency’s minutes. Financial records, however, reveal Vassiliou was paid $12,625 for her services.
Several employees, who wish to remain off-the-record, have questioned whether spending public money on these services is appropriate.
Dispensable and Disrespected
Moonshine Ink reached out to several current and past employees at TTSA, and most, though not all, wished to remain anonymous, citing fear of retaliation by management if they spoke publicly. A few common themes emerged: employees were afraid to voice concerns, felt they had no outlet — TTSA lacks an official human resources department, and they questioned the agency’s lack of transparency and management of financial resources, including the disappearance of funds for employee training and certifications after Griffin assumed the role of general manager two years ago, in July 2015. Concerns spanned generations of employees, from those who have worked there for a few months to those who have several decades under their belt.
Former employee Lon Peterson spoke with Moonshine Ink about his own experience at TTSA, where he says he was forced into early retirement after more than two decades of employment. Peterson began his career at TTSA in 1993 in the operations department, which oversees the sewage treatment and filtration process for all five public utility districts in North Tahoe. After nine years, Peterson moved from operations to the maintenance department, a common lateral move at the time based upon seniority — maintenance workers enjoy a set Monday to Friday schedule while operations employees work nights and rotating shifts.
Over his 22-year career at TTSA, Peterson received satisfactory performance evaluations and was told his work was “exemplary,” until Maintenance Supervisor Vince Wildeman stepped into the position of maintenance superintendent in July 2015. Within seven months, Peterson was fired.
“For many years I have been the object of Vince Wildeman’s ridicule, intimidation, and harassment both verbally and physically,” Peterson said in a letter addressed to the TTSA board of directors, presented at the packed meeting on June 14.
Peterson is petitioning the board for lost wages and retirement compensation resulting from what he said was a wrongful termination from the agency five years before his planned retirement.
The termination process took place over a period of six months, beginning with a poor evaluation from Wildeman.
“I’d never in 22 years gotten a poor evaluation. I’m just your average worker guy. I’m always competent,” he told Moonshine Ink.
Other current and former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity said that intimidation and a feeling of job insecurity were common during Wildeman’s tenure as maintenance superintendent.
“We were all subject to Vince pushing us around,” Peterson said. “He would actually yank tools out of our hands and jump in there and try to show us how to do it, and then throw the tools down and … walk off.”
Over the six-month termination period, Peterson wrote numerous letters to Griffin and made regular visits to his office to dispute Wildeman’s allegations. In the end, Peterson said, Griffin unflinchingly backed management.
“LaRue [Griffin] never gave the employee the opportunity or gave them the benefit of the doubt. It was always, ‘I’m siding with management.’ He picks a side without any type of investigation or knowing what happened,” Peterson said.
On Jan. 19, 2016, Griffin called Peterson into his office and terminated his employment.
Peterson, who has been married for 30 years and has two daughters, says he intended to retire in 2020, when he turns 55 and would have spent 27 years at TTSA. He was forced to begin drawing retirement early, at age 50, lowering his retirement benefits by $1,500 a month for the remainder of his life — a 30 percent reduction from the benefits he anticipated.
Peterson was not the only employee to brush with Wildeman. Phillip Fay was hired into the maintenance department in July 2016, given a proposed termination notice and put on administrative leave at Wildeman’s request in September 2016, and was “re-hired” within the week.
Moonshine Ink contacted Fay and he did confirm he received a “proposed termination” but declined to comment on the particulars other than to say: “I returned to work the following week and two of the senior staff that conspired against me were soon removed from their positions.”
Fay documented his experience in an open address to the board of directors in November 2016. In it, Fay details a culture of belittlement and bullying on the part of Wildeman, and initial inaction by Griffin.
After two months on the job, Fay was abruptly given a notice of “proposed termination,” and was escorted to the shower, where two senior managers monitored him before he was escorted from the property.
“A humiliating experience to say the least,” Fay described in his address. He appealed to Griffin after his proposed termination, and in a face-to-face meeting, detailed in the address, revealed how “toxic” the atmosphere in the maintenance department had become.
Wildeman left TTSA in November 2016, and though he represented some of the greater misdeeds at the agency during his tenure, according to TTSA employees Moonshine Ink interviewed, his departure appears to have had little effect on the agency’s culture at large.
In his own letter to the board of directors in May, Operations Shift Supervisor Jeff Claussen reiterated that an “atmosphere of uncertainty” had been created at TTSA that extended beyond the maintenance department and the employment of Vince Wildeman.
“In [the past two years], employees have been terminated, and others have been pushed into early retirement due to various circumstances. This was done with no care for employees’ careers, families, or the effect on employee relationships, he said.”
KEEPING IT IN THE FAMILY
A clear family legacy has played out over the decades of TTSA’s existence, and employees assert that cronyism and favoritism abound at the agency.
The sanitation agency sits apart from any commuter or commercial route along a two-lane road dubbed Butterfield Drive — named after the agency’s inaugural General Manager Oz Butterfield.
Butterfield’s presence at TTSA, and at public utility agencies in general, proved perennial. He completed a 14-year tenure as TTSA general manager in 1986 and went on to become general manager at the Truckee Sanitary District (TSD), one of TTSA’s member districts that sends wastewater to the agency for treatment, from 1989 to 2004, when he retired.
For 28 years, from 1989 to present, Butterfield has sat as president on the TTSA board of directors, a position he continued after he retired as general manager of TSD, which immediately thereafter hired him as a special consultant to the agency.
Butterfield, now in his 90s, recently indicated at a TSD board meeting that he might want to step down as TTSA board president in the near future. TSD General Manager Blake Tresan has been selected as his successor.
“In an effort to smooth the transition they’ve appointed me as the heir apparent for that position and designated me as an alternate member. I’m being asked to also attend the TTSA meetings,” Tresan said.
Per TTSA bylaws, Tresan will have no authority to vote or act until Butterfield resigns his position, but he will “shadow” Butterfield in the interim.
In addition to Butterfield’s monopoly over TTSA’s governance, cases of nepotism pop up regularly over his tenure. In 2007, his daughter Marcia Beals became general manager at TTSA, rising quickly through the ranks after starting as a phone operator. Beals served as general manager until 2015, when she unexpectedly left her position.
Craig Woods, who served as general manager until his retirement in 2007, hired his son Kevin Woods and daughter Celeste Graves to the agency, where they are still employed. Recently, the daughter of administrative manager Roshelle Chavez, and the daughter of operations superintendent Mike Peak, were hired at TTSA as interns — positions that were not advertised, neither internally or externally, according to agency employees.
“Rarely was a position posted. It was usually given,” Peterson said, reflecting on his own time at the agency.
INEFFICIENCY ON THE INSIDE
When you flush the toilet in North Tahoe, waste makes its way through a maze of sewer lines overseen by one of five public utility districts, but it all flows to a single destination — the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency. It was formed in 1972 on the heels of California’s Porter Cologne Water Quality Control Act, which mandated that effluent — suspended solids that remain after sewage treatment — be transported out of the Basin.
Prior to TTSA’s formation, utility districts within the Basin, including the Truckee Sanitary District and Tahoe City Public Utility District, treated wastewater individually.
“All the communities were told they could not treat and discharge wastewater within the basin,” explained TSD General Manager Tresan.
Each of the five water districts in North Tahoe have separate facilities, separate management and administrative departments and separate service charges, prompting recommendations for consolidation of some services. In 2003, the Nevada County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) conducted a municipal service review of wastewater service in Eastern Nevada County.
The 109-page document suggests, “TSD, along with the other member entities, could merge or consolidate with T-TSA, resulting in one wastewater agency to perform both service functions — collection and treatment.”
The report asserted that administrative costs could be reduced within these agencies, and personnel needs would likely remain the same. In addition, “there would be uniform employee benefit standards and maintenance programs.”
Placer and Nevada counties have a combined total of 79 special districts, with a population of less than half a million. This is more than Orange County, which has 75 special districts and a population of 3.1 million. The number also dwarfs Santa Clara (46), Alameda (53) and Contra Costa (72) counties — all with populations of more than 1 million.
The 2003/04 Nevada County grand jury also investigated the status of wastewater treatment at TTSA and made several recommendations, including the creation of a TTSA master plan, a leadership role for the agency in reducing inflow — stormwater that enters the sewer pipe and decreases efficiency — and reiterates the possibility of merging or consolidating with local water districts to reduce overhead costs and use taxpayer dollars more efficiently. Butterfield responded via letter to the grand jury recommendations, and said that consolidation did “not appear appropriate” and that it had not been demonstrated that such consolidation would improve efficiency.
At the agency level, employees at TTSA are concerned with the apparent lack of transparency. The websites of TTSA member districts, including the Truckee Sanitary District and the Tahoe City Public Utility District, post monthly meeting agendas and minutes, share financial information, and some provide a live webcam of board meetings. In contrast, TTSA posts a board meeting agenda, but does not post minutes, financial documents, or live video on their website.
“Why is it that all of the TTSA member district’s websites have full transparency, while TTSA’s website provides limited information for the public and, more importantly, the employee?” Claussen wrote in his May letter to the board.
Other employee concerns include the lack of a human resource department to provide a neutral avenue for employees to voice concerns and grievances, and the outdated contracts they are currently operating under — several employees told Moonshine Ink they never received an official copy of their employment contract updated on July 2016.
IN A QUAGMIRE
The petition to unionize and several unfair practice charges are now in the hands of PERB officials, and TTSA employees wait in limbo for a decision to be reached. When that will happen, according to Thompson, is anyone’s bet.
Recognition is step one. What it will grant employees, Thompson said, is the opportunity to sit down at a bargaining table and come up with a contract that all parties can agree on, which is then brought to a vote. Employees have agreed to pay union dues from their existing salaries, absolving TTSA of fiscal impact.
Only after this entire process is complete is a group of workers truly represented by IBEW.
“We want a better working environment,” Claussen wrote. “We hope to keep TTSA a more positive and career-oriented place of work with certified and professional employees.”
The next board meeting, scheduled for Aug. 9, has been cancelled, postponing the next opportunity for public comment until Sept. 13.