Centreville town attorney is fired over alleged plant mismanagement

Council also dismissed manager over sewage spills

April 16, 2004|By Johnathon E. Briggs | Johnathon E. Briggs,SUN STAFF

CENTREVILLE -- Town Attorney Jonathan Hodgson was fired last night by Centreville's council members -- the latest fallout stemming from apparent mismanagement of an aging wastewater plant that has routinely sent raw sewage into a Chesapeake Bay tributary and spurred a moratorium on building permits.

"We felt that if we're going to clean the slate, we're going to clean it all the way," Councilman Norman Pinder told the two dozen residents who packed the tiny council office. "He got caught in the middle of it."

It was the second dismissal by the council this week. It fired Town Manager Terence E. Adams, who was the plant supervisor, Monday night after grilling him in a closed session about its operation.

Last night, in announcing the action, council members said Hodgson -- whose legal services were contracted by the town -- was too closely tied to Adams and had prevented them from knowing all they could about problems at the 45-year-old plant. Hodgson did not attend the meeting last night.

News reports brought the problem to light -- a malfunctioning pump at the wastewater plant that may have dumped more than 1 million gallons of raw sewage into a small creek that feeds the Corsica River here in the Queen Anne's County seat. The Corsica runs into the Chester River, which flows into the bay.

The whistle-blower was a former plant operator, Robert Griffith, who says he was fired after complaining publicly that his boss, Adams, failed for years to report sewage overflows. Adams has said that he was not aware until recently of the plant's problems.

The 210-year-old town has imposed a 30-day freeze on new building permits, which could be extended monthly until the completion of a new $9 million sewage treatment plant. Slow-growth advocates blame a development boom for straining the old wastewater facility.

The people packing the meeting room and adjacent hallway -- residents and would-be homebuilders and buyers -- voiced their anger about the treatment plant problems and the projects delayed. They were given an update on plant operations from its new manager -- Miller Environmental Inc.

Many demanded that the Town Council conduct a thorough investigation into the apparent mismanagement. State environmental agencies and the Environmental Crimes Unit of the state attorney general's office are already investigating.

"The events of the past week have shaken our community to the core," resident Rob Babbitt told the council.

Gasps were the response from residents when Miller representative George Smith said that in the 10 days since the company took over, "major deficiencies" have been found at the plant, including 61,500 gallons of sludge backed up in its tanks.

Harriett Goodmuth, who has made a deposit to build a home in the Symphony Village development, said her life is in limbo due to the building moratorium.

"I can't sleep at night because of this," said Goodmuth, who lives in Severna Park. "It's just insane. We want to move over here but we don't want to hurt the bay."

Sveinn Storm, a Centreville resident, said he wanted Griffith to get his job back, and accused the town attorney, manager and former council President Michael Whitehill -- whose term ended yesterday -- of concealing the problems.

"We are asking you to right a wrong, we are asking you to send a message," he told the council, to applause. "Give Mr. Griffith his job back."

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