Staff of the Tahoe-Truckee Sanitation Agency can’t seem to agree on how things are going at the facility.
“We call it the Twilight Zone out there,” said a current employee we’ll call Jamie (who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from management) of working at the agency. “Once you cross the gate, you’re in there.”
It’s apparent there is unrest at the wastewater plant. The Ink has conducted many interviews with agency staff over several years and reviewed public comments submitted to the board of directors, which have indicated serious concerns among employees. The common denominator of divisiveness is general manager LaRue Griffin, who took over the helm in May 2015. While some say that Griffin and upper management are friendly and approachable, and that his team is bringing needed change to the agency, others state the plant is being run in a “troublesome” manner that has led to a dysfunctional organization.
There is also a worrying increase in recent reports and rulings from regional and state regulatory agencies. Currently, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board is investigating TTSA because of the agency’s rising trend of waste discharge violations. Regarding the agency culture, TTSA in early 2020 was cited as retaliatory toward staff members who attempted to unionize. More recently, it was found in violation of state board laboratory requirements.
Of it all, Griffin maintains he is an apt manager and that some employees are simply resistant to change. He wrote in an email to Moonshine Ink that he doesn’t believe there is opposition to his management style, which he defines as directive, accountable, and supportive, and not overly demanding nor unforgiving; of the control board’s investigation, he said TTSA will cooperate. Griffin has repeatedly declined a live interview and thus all communication with Moonshine Ink has been via email.
“During the time I have served as general manager, TTSA has made changes to processes and accountability, which some may welcome and others may not,” he wrote. “I understand the challenges that come with change and understand it can be difficult to accept change when things have been done a certain way for numerous years.”
Griffin is approaching the end of his contract term, set to expire May 3. Recent actions by the TTSA board of directors, including conducting a 360-degree performance review of Griffin, have led some staff members to believe that not all board members may seek to renew the contract.
“Maybe the board is trying to get all their ducks in a row to get a serious look at him,” said Jim Redmond, senior mechanic at the agency. “That’s our hope as employees. We’re thinking that [the board is] finally seeing the light.”
Current board member Blake Tresan, who also serves as general manager of the Truckee Sanitary District, confirmed via email that a comprehensive survey by a third party was sent to all employees last year. The results were discussed among board members and Griffin in November and December closed sessions. Tresan declined to impart further details on the survey, saying he is prohibited from sharing the results publicly.
On whether Tresan, who joined the board in December 2017, will push for Griffin’s continued employment with TTSA, he wrote, “This issue is not yet before the board. I will evaluate at that time.”
Overall, there seem to be numerous avenues on which current agency concerns are coming to a head.
Promotion, probation, demotion
Multiple claims of retaliation from both proverbial sides of the aisle were shared with Moonshine Ink, as well as submitted during public comment at board meetings over the past few years. Redmond, a 62-year-old senior mechanic who’s worked at the facility for over 15 years, says he experienced direct retaliation for standing up for his staff.
In the fall of 2016, Redmond became interim foreman in TTSA’s maintenance department after the previous manager was dismissed. Redmond explained that his responsibility during that time was to oversee preventive and corrective maintenance throughout the facility. He retained the interim position until the end of January 2017 when he applied and was hired as the new maintenance department manager.
During his six-month probationary period, Redmond said he and his crew addressed a backlog of work. But when Griffin demanded more and more of both the electrical and maintenance departments, Redmond explained to the GM and other department managers that priorities needed to be made regarding what would and wouldn’t be addressed.
“I was accused of not being a team player and favoritism toward people in my department …” Redmond recalled. “I was getting this uneasy feeling. My six-month probation comes around and I have this meeting with LaRue and he pulls me in and it’s terrible.”
Redmond’s probation was extended three months, and the second review was worse. “I got demoted from the department manager back down to a maintenance mechanic,” he said.
“… I really think what he thought was I was going to be so upset and PO’ed [with] what he did to me that I was just going to quit and leave. Well, I didn’t; I took the demotion and I stayed.”
Reflecting upon this experience, Redmond says he feels he was taken advantage of. At the Dec. 13, 2017 board meeting, he made a public comment saying as much.
“The crew respected me and LaRue used me for my knowledge and abilities to get all this stuff done,” he said, summarizing his statement at that meeting. “You’ll extend it out as long as the nine months and then toss me to the side. I said maybe it’s not illegal, but it was unethical and immoral to do that to myself and the department.”
Redmond has been on medical leave for a heart condition since November.
Aaron Carlsson, senior engineer at TTSA, has proffered multiple public letters to the board, saying that a contingent of employees are basically malcontents. Contending that he had been dubbed “LaRue Griffin’s poodle” in one letter; in another, he shared his initiation with the agency over three years ago:
“When I was first hired at TTSA, I understood there was a group that was dissatisfied with the new direction Mr. Griffin was taking the agency. In the beginning, I was impartial and sought out viewpoints from each side. When I asked a fellow employee why they were unhappy, they responded, ‘Things could be better.’ Over the last three years, I have concluded there is no substantive reason for dissatisfaction, only a simple desire for ‘things’ to return to the way they were before [Griffin became general manager].”
Redmond and Carlsson are among few staff willing to go on record with Moonshine or at board meetings; most are fearful of retaliation, whether by management or coworkers. The anonymity extends to statements submitted to the governing board. Since September 2020, nine anonymous public comments have been entered during board meetings.
In a letter first submitted in October, and restated at the November and December board meetings, an unidentified employee wrote, “Some of the staff here claim they are targeted, intimidated, and harassed by management, but they are the ones that do these actions to others that are not in their clique. And when they do not get their way and get themselves in trouble, they claim they are being targeted, harassed, and retaliated against for speaking out.”
Another letter submitted in October included the statement, “Mr. Griffin’s management style is to ensure support of his plans through fear, threats, and intimidation rather than get employee support by building trust and through good team building practices.”
A former employee spoke directly with Moonshine about their experience of working for the agency, on the condition of anonymity due to ongoing TTSA connections in their new position. This person received multiple write-ups during their tenure and alleges it was because of a willingness to speak out against what they saw as an unfair use of power by management staff. The atmosphere, this individual explained, of “continuously being retaliated against, harassed, [and] belittled” led to their resignation in 2020.
“I’ve never seen such turnover, and it’s people who have been pushed out and they’re standing up really for what’s ethical and right,” they continued. “They choose to leave or they know they’re going to be terminated so they retire early. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
TTSA’s human resources administrator, Vicky Lufrano, shared with the Ink that since May 4, 2015 — the start of Griffin’s employment at TTSA — 36 people have left the agency; of those, 34 were categorized as retiring or voluntarily leaving and two as ‘other.’ Those numbers do not include summer interns. Currently, there are 46 employees at the wastewater treatment facility.
The breakdown of staff numbers for and against current management styles has rarely had a number put to it. But in October, one of the anonymous pro-management employees writing in to the board meeting identified approximately 16 out of 46 employees (35%) as “disgruntled.” Yet many of those interviewed who are opposed to Griffin’s leadership style say it’s almost a perfect split.
As the board sees fit
When it comes to internal allegations and complaints, TTSA’s board of directors isn’t the go-to for solutions, according to district protocols. Griffin conveyed in an email that staff members should abide by the employee handbook, which includes an internal complaint procedure asking individuals who believe “they are the object of harassment or discrimination on any prohibited basis, or who has observed such harassment or discrimination, or who believes they have been subjected to retaliation, shall notify their supervisor, [human resources], or any supervisor or manager.”
Final decisions regarding these internal issues are made at the discretion of the general manager, not the board. “To the extent employees have brought up concerns at board meetings, those typically have been referred to appropriate personnel for consideration,” wrote Griffin.
Director Tresan backed up these statements, confirming that the board’s role is to set policy and manage the general manager, who in turn oversees staff.
The concern some employees have expressed is that the GM is the problem in the first place, and any complaints that could be made about Griffin or upper management will simply lead to retaliatory efforts.
If the general manager is involved in a complaint, Griffin explained, an employee addresses HR, who would consult with TTSA’s legal counsel on the matter. At that point, the board can hear the complaint involving the GM in a closed session. Griffin added, “In the event the employee bypasses the procedure and reports a complaint directly to the board of directors, the board may consider the matter consistent with the Brown Act [the open meeting law].”
Jamie, the aforementioned anonymous current employee, expressed concern with previous attempts by staff members to approach the board members directly.
“We don’t trust the board,” Jamie said. “We have gone to them with all of our issues and we have told them flat out there’s harassment, there’s retaliation, there’s intimidation, there’s bullying here, and we told them we don’t feel comfortable saying this in public.”
Tresan told Moonshine that he has listened to these staff members, both at board meetings and through direct interaction, and he believes they are sincere about their concerns.
Beyond the family feud
Steve Parsons is a Truckee resident who has grown concerned about the issues at the agency. He compares TTSA’s management to former President Donald Trump’s administration with a decision-making team that plays favorites, values loyalty over competence, and rewards lies but punishes truth.
Parsons doesn’t work for the agency, but he’s become heavily engaged in its goings-on since hearing from friends and acquaintances who work or have worked for TTSA, and after discovering what he sees as Lahontan Regional Water Quality Board enforcement shortfalls.
His concerns led to the creation of the TTSA Tribune, a blog dedicated to revealing “how a public agency is terrorizing its employees and the Truckee River.”
“I started it myself, and I am the only person involved, although through the anonymous tip line I have received a lot of good, detailed information, from members of the public and employees alike,” Parsons wrote in an email. “I was upset that there was such tremendous apathy from the local community. I mean, I understand that nobody wants to have to think about the local wastewater treatment plant — it should just be there and it should work. But I also know that the community cares a lot about their river, and the dysfunction at TTSA is really having a negative impact on that.”
Since the mid-August 2020 beginnings, Parsons shared, there have been 100 posts and nearly 14,000 page views. Those interested in publishing a comment simply email Parsons at firstname.lastname@example.org and he posts — anonymity guaranteed.
Based on his research, conversations, and submissions to the blog, Parsons has determined that there are not two sides to what’s happening at TTSA, though news outlets may present it that way.
“I also understand that [local media has] lots of different issues and stories to cover and can’t just dedicate [their] paper[s] to TTSA,” Parsons expressed. “And Griffin and the board count on that. They just keep their heads down, wait for the … articles to blow over, and keep right on doing what they’re doing.”
The blog format of the TTSA Tribune, meanwhile, Parsons added, is solely focused on what is happening at the agency: “There are a lot of stories to be told about how both TTSA and Lahontan are failing this community and the environment.”
Up and coming
The Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, which covers the vast majority of California’s eastern edges, oversees TTSA’s discharge quality and levels of compliance. Ben Letton, acting assistant executive officer for Lahontan, told Moonshine Ink that the control board is currently evaluating TTSA due to a number of violations by the facility in recent years: From 2010 through 2014, TTSA had five violations; since Griffin took the helm of the agency, 17 violations have occurred. (Of those, one from October 2019 was ultimately dismissed.) View a summary of TTSA violations between 2010 and 2020 here.
Though a full evaluation is underway to look more closely at the cause of each of those, Letton said that in general “they fall into three categories: One is pH violations at the point of compliance in a monitoring well, … [another] is calibration of flow meters, and there is also apparently a violation of coliform [meaning possible presence of disease-causing bacteria].”
“Our staff has been tracking the violations now for several years, and I would say it’s probably reached a saturation at this point where we recognize there’s quite a few,” Letton explained. “… Previously, we were monitoring the number of violations and the egregiousness of the violations … Now, considering some of the violations levied by the [Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program] … it’s been somewhat cumulative to the point where, yeah, we’ve been dedicating more resources to this issue.”
The ELAP violations include conflicts of notice for position, lack of documented training program, and no update or review of standard operating procedures since 2017.
Lahontan staff expects to provide recommendations of investigative findings to its management between May and July. Robert Tucker, senior water resource control engineer with Lahontan, wrote in an email that the state agency “may evaluate the list of violations, or a portion of the list, and in the evaluation may make changes in the violation descriptions and may reevaluate the merits of each violation.”
Regarding the investigation, Griffin responded via email, “TTSA expects the LRWQCB will evaluate and investigate such matters as it deems appropriate and TTSA will cooperate as needed.”