Was Louise Wardell fired for cause, as the city says? Or, as the former lab tech asserts, because she blew the whistle on a coverup of bacteria levels in city water?
After five years of motions and mediation attempts, Wardell’s wrongful termination suit goes to trial Wednesday in Palm Beach County Circuit Court.
According to her lawsuit, two days after she transferred from the Public Utilities Department’s wastewater plant to its drinking-water test lab in June 2007, she found bacterial colonies in samples from city neighborhoods. Had the city acted, she alleged, it might have avoided a September 2007 citywide boil-water order and a subsequent overhaul of its water system.
Instead the 13-year veteran of the department was fired in January 2008. The city cited “incompetence and inefficiency.”
Wardell sued. She’s demanding back pay and benefits as well as reinstatement and legal costs.
The trial, which is expected to last about five days, was scheduled after two mediation efforts, in November and in July, ended in impasse; the most recent on Friday.
A city spokesman would not discuss the case. “We are looking forward to proving in court rather than in a newspaper that Ms. Wardell was treated fairly,” Elliot Cohen said.
Wardell had alerted lab manager Steve Schmidt that samples taken near the western communities of Ibis and Andros Isle showed bacterial colonies that might indicate contamination by human or animal waste. Also, chlorine levels were low in some samples, meaning there might not be enough to kill bacteria.
She alleged that Schmidt, a recent hire from Rhode Island, made her cross out the results and write in “A,” to indicate fecal coliform was absent, she said.
Within two weeks, Schmidt ordered all samplings followed by automatic retests. In an interview at the time, he said, water samples tested clean until a September test showed the high bacteria readings, which he said refuted Wardell’s claim that her June discovery might have headed off the boil-water crisis.
After the FBI interviewed her in November 2007, Wardell said, she was “the subject of increasing criticism and hostility” by her employer, leading to her firing.
The FBI investigation found no signs the reports were falsified. The city said several city staffers insisted Wardell was never told to falsify results.
In February 2008, then-mayor Lois Frankel ordered her police department to conduct an internal investigation into whether Wardell was made to change results, though the city said a preliminary inquiry refuted Wardell’s allegations.
City spokesman Elliot Cohen said this week that the investigation was stopped at the request of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
EPA correspondence from 2008 and 2009 shows the agency found the city was discharging water used in filtering into its retention pond, which overflows into a canal. The correspondence shows the city fixed the problem and that the federal agency closed its investigation in 2010 with a finding that allegations “were determined to have been unsubstantiated.”
Last week Circuit Judge Janis Brustares Keyser found that the city could block Wardell from using evidence relating to the FBI investigation.
The city, in an unsuccessful attempt in February to have the judge throw out the case, said Wardell was fired for lack of performance, including failing a proficiency test and missing a shift. It said it was Schmidt who recommended she be terminated, the city argued, adding that that then-assistant city administrator Ken Reardon — who would leave in March 2008 — agreed with Schmidt and that his firing of Wardell had nothing to do with the “boil water” incident.
“That’s what they’re trying to say. Of course they’re going to destroy my character,” Wardell said Monday.
She said she had good evaluations throughout her time at the city, and then “all of a sudden in November I’m put on a plan of improvement” — a variation on employee probation. “How does that happen?”
Wardell said her lawyer is working on a contingency fee basis but that she has struggled financially since her firing. She said she’s had a few part-time and full-time jobs since leaving the city and has had no health insurance.“It’s been a rocky road.”
City officials say that Schmidt, who resigned in May 2009, is believed to have died.