Two weeks ago, two top managers at the city-run regional sewage plant were meeting with the city’s internal auditor when, suddenly, they were yanked away, told to report to Human Resources and sent home without pay.
They figured that West Palm Beach officials didn’t want them talking to the auditor about their boss in the utilities department. They were prepared to back a series of complaints of harassment, intimidation and retribution by Assistant Utilities Director Joe Carlini, The Palm Beach Post has learned. In fact, one of them said, Carlini cautioned him in advance to be wary of what he told the auditor.
In documents, the city asserted that its actions were based on an anonymous complaint on an unrelated matter. The men have not been given an opportunity to respond to the complaint. In the meantime, Carlini has been reassigned.
On Tuesday, the city gave the sewage plant manager, Rolando Nigaglioni, an ultimatum: Admit wrongdoing and be demoted or be fired. He refused and was fired.
“It’s all retaliation,” he told The Post.
The other employee, plant superintendent Scott Galloway, remains on leave without pay. Two other plant supervisors were placed on unpaid leave Aug. 22 but later reinstated. One had complained this summer of harassment by Carlini.
At stake is oversight of the largest sewage plant in Palm Beach County, which is preparing for an $85 million overhaul. The plant also plays a critical role in the operation of the county’s largest power plant: Sewage water at the plant is treated and piped west to cool Florida Power & Light’s natural gas plant.
Also at stake is the independence of the city’s own watchdog.
The county registered its alarm last week over Nigaglioni’s removal and received from the city an email assuring it that the plant is fine. Critical to the county is assuring the flow of coolant — 22 million gallons a day — to the FPL plant.
Some city commissioners and regional partners expressed outrage and disappointment over the city’s action.
“I believe that Rolando was an excellent manager,” said Mario Loaiza, chairman of the plant’s policy-setting board and a Riviera Beach utilities official. “My biggest concern is the continual operation of the (plant) and making sure that we operate as safely and efficiently as possible.”
The action calls into question the ability of the city’s internal auditor to conduct an independent investigation of wrongdoing in city hall.
“It’s chilling,” Commissioner Shanon Materio said. “This is a very strong message to the auditor that he may not work for the administration but someone in the administration is going to oversee what he’s doing. This is all about control.”
The emails, some signed “John Doe,” began flowing to City Commissioner Kimberly Mitchell in June. They described an atmosphere of fear in which favored plant employees informed on colleagues to Human Resources; HR worked with Carlini to cow workers with findings, firings and unpaid suspensions; and Carlini’s micromanagement undermined leadership.
The emails blamed Carlini, the former sewage plant manager who had been promoted last year to assistant utility director overseeing the plant. On Aug. 21, the city reassigned him away from plant oversight, although he retains his $103,000 a year job.
Mitchell passed the emails to the internal auditor.
One contained a signed complaint from June. In it, electrical supervisor James Looney, one of the four suspended last month, accused Carlini of harassment, saying he felt “disrespected and slightly humiliated” when Carlini came up behind him and acted as if he were “urinating on my back.” This was a colleague, Looney quoted Carlini, “pissing on you.”
Carlini’s personnel file, made available by the city Friday, contains no reference to the complaint or whether he was investigated.
Looney withdrew the complaint July 29 after the city assured him he would report to Nigaglioni.
Armed with some of these complaints, the internal auditor, Roger Strout, told Nigaglioni he wanted to tour the plant. Word got back to Carlini, Nigaglioni said. He said he got a call a few days before the Aug. 16 tour: “You need to be careful what you tell them,” Carlini warned.
There was no love lost. About three months earlier, Nigaglioni said, he had met privately with Carlini’s boss, Utilities Director David Hanks. He accused Carlini of harassing employees and handing out countervailing orders. He mentioned inappropriate behavior. After that, he said, Carlini stayed away.
Nigaglioni and Strout met for about a half-hour before embarking on the tour, joined by Galloway. About midway, Nigaglioni and Galloway got calls from Human Resources. Both must come downtown. Take separate cars. Do not finish the tour.
When they arrived, they were separated. Nigaglioni said he met with two people, including Human Resources director Marta Vittini. Less than two weeks later, Vittini resigned at the end of her six-month probation.
They were told to turn in their badges and cellphones. They were placed on administrative leave without pay. They were told they had falsified records and they would have an opportunity to defend themselves.
As is routine in unpaid leave, they couldn’t return to their offices without the permission of their supervisor, Carlini. And they were told not to talk to city employees.
Strout said said HR told him that the timing of the summons had nothing to do with his visit. It was simply coincidental.
He called his visit to the plant routine and not part of a formal investigation. However, city officials say he will launch a formal investigation Tuesday.
Faced with an ultimatum and no way to defend himself, Nigaglioni wrote to the city on Tuesday: “It really seems I have been targeted after my complaints to you about Joe’s unlawful activities.
“I do not wish to end my employment with the city, and am asking for a chance to show you that these accusations against me are untrue.”
He was fired that day.
The city refused to comment on its actions and has not made Hanks or Carlini available for comment.
The charge against Nigaglioni centered on whether he falsified his application for his state wastewater certification. He pursued the training even though it was not required for his job.
He took a course, paid for by the city. He paid the $200 application and exam fees himself. In May, he passed the state exam. To finish, he needed to certify that he had operated the plant for a year. Galloway certified that he had, and they sent it to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
An Aug. 15 memo by Scott Kelly, an assistant city administrator on the job for about a month, said the city received an anonymous complaint alleging that Nigaglioni had not been performing the functions he needed for the certification. The memo recapped a phone conversation Kelly had with a state investigator, Ron McCulley, who had received the same complaint.
Kelly wrote that McCulley said he had been suspicious of Nigaglioni’s application but had no reason to question it until the complaint arrived. McCulley, who received the complaint on Aug. 8, agreed to suspend his investigation to give the city time to investigate, Kelly wrote. The city’s file contained Nigaglioni’s timesheets but nothing else indicating an investigation.
The anonymous complaint cited specifics that appear to have come from a plant worker. It stated Nigaglioni “has not signed operator logbook, has not done any performance of process control, has not done any laboratory testing, has not done any wasting change and has not done any control of the hydraulic system.”
The city’s decision to suspend and then fire Nigaglioni based on an anonymous complaint appears to contradict a statement by Mayor Jeri Muoio. In responding to a “John Doe” email concerning problems at the sewage plant, Muoio wrote July 1: “We will not act on an anonymous letter.”
A DEP spokeswoman refused to discuss the complaint or make McCulley available because it is part of an open investigation. She pointed out that Nigaglioni’s license remains in good standing.
The city’s swift action shocked Loaiza, chairman of the plant’s oversight board.
“Rolando should be given the chance to address the accusations in the complaint and be given access to his files in order to do so,” he wrote in an email. “I find the entire situation to be very unfortunate.”
Since the regional sewage plant started decades ago as a city-only plant, the city is the sole operator and has all the power to hire and fire employees. The board, made up of representatives of the county and the four cities that share the plant, oversees policy, not operations. Carlini is the city’s representative on the board.
When Hanks promoted Carlini to assistant director, the city allowed Loaiza, as board chairman, to serve on the panel selecting Carlini’s replacement as plant manager.
Carlini also served on the panel and backed his right-hand man, Tim Martin. Loaiza argued in favor of Nigaglioni, who had worked in Port St. Lucie and Broward County before coming to the city’s water plant in 2010. Hanks and another city employee sided with Loaiza and they hired Nigaglioni for the $83,350-a-year job.
With Nigaglioni gone, workers said the city put Martin in charge of the plant.
But he no longer reports to Carlini. On Aug. 21, city officials assigned the other assistant director in utilities, Sam Heady, who had overseen the water plant, to oversee the sewage plant.
Sewage plant serves 500,000
The East Central Regional Water Reclamation Facility treats sewage from West Palm Beach, the county, Palm Beach, Riviera Beach and Lake Worth. West Palm Beach operates the plant.
Who’s running the sewage plant?
Joe Carlini: Complaints over his behavior and management have been sent to city commissioners in recent months. He ran the regional sewage plant from 2008 to 2012 before his promotion to assistant utilities director overseeing the plant. The city removed him from plant oversight on Aug. 21.
Rolando Nigaglioni: Hired to run the regional sewage plant last year, he was pulled out of a meeting with the city’s internal auditor on Aug. 16 and fired on Tuesday after city officials received an anonymous complaint that he had falsified his record on a state training certification. He said he did nothing wrong and the city didn’t give him a chance to prove it.
Scott Galloway: One of four plant supervisors and a 15-year plant employee yanked out of meeting with internal auditor and placed on unpaid leave Aug. 16 for certifying that Nigaglioni had met the qualifications for his state certification. He remains on unpaid leave.
James Looney: Sewer plant electrical supervisor who complained in June about Carlini’s behavior but later withdrew the complaint. Placed on unpaid leave Aug. 22 to investigate his state certification but since returned to duty.
Anthony Armeli: Sewer plant mechanical supervisor placed on unpaid leave Aug. 22 to investigate his state certification but since returned to duty.
Tim Martin: Sewage plant supervisor who vied for Nigaglioni’s job, placed in charge in the immediate aftermath of the removal of the other four top plant managers.
Sam Heady: Assistant utilities director overseeing water plant; placed in charge of sewage plant after Carlini’s reassignment.
David Hanks: Utility director since 2008; promoted Carlini to assistant utility director last year.
Roger Strout: City’s internal auditor since January; replaced longtime auditor Imogene Isaacs who left in a clash with city commissioners over her independence.
Scott Kelly: Newly hired assistant city administrator reporting to City Administrator Ed Mitchell. Oversees utilities department and signed off on Nigaglioni’s firing.