Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Complaint Against American Sewer Dropped

City officials can't verify complaint, but may still consider debarring contractor.

By - Jun 6th, 2019 08:46 am
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American Sewer Services employees. Left photo by Brian Oliver. Right photo by Sam Singleton-Freeman.

American Sewer Services employees. Left photo by Brian Oliver. Right photo by Sam Singleton-Freeman.

A complaint that an employee of a city contractor, American Sewer Services, used racially charged language couldn’t be validated by a city administrator, but Alderman Robert Bauman is still pushing for the city to stop using the company

A complaint submitted by a city employee alleged that an American Sewer worker directed a racial slur and other “colorful” language towards the city employee at a city job site. The incident, according to testimony before a city committee in May, was triggered by the city employee raising question about the manner in which a trench was being dug and how the city would need to repair the work. City employees routinely visit job sites to inspect private contractor work.

American Sewer Services forfeited more than $890,000 in city sewer contracts in January 2018 after an employee was photographed brandishing a firearm and another was found with a white supremacy sticker on a cooler at a job site. Following the January 2018 settlement, another company employee was found carrying a firearm at a city job site and the company forfeited another contract.

Wednesday morning at a meeting of the Common Council’s Public Works Committee, Department of Public Works administrative services manager Dan Thomas informed the committee he could not successfully validate the complaint. “At the conclusion of my investigation, I was unable to substantiate the complaint so we consider the investigation closed,” said Thomas in a brief statement.

Bauman, the committee chair, without providing specifics, asked about an additional series of concerns that have been forwarded to him about the condition of American Sewer job sites. Thomas said those concerns have been addressed or are in the process of being remedied.

Bauman asked what remedies the city has to ban American Sewer from bidding on city work. The alderman is no fan of the contractor, having told Thomas and his colleagues last month: “I’m perfectly willing to pull the trigger on this outfit without hesitation.”

Thomas said that the contractor, one of only a handful that bid on city sewer projects, could be debarred for performance reasons, but that the recent complaint could not be used.

Should it be debarred, the firm could appeal any decisions to the Department of Public Works Commissioner Jeff Polenske for a final ruling.

Assistant City Attorney Katherine Block echoed Thomas’s assessment and said Polenske’s authority to debar and hear any appeal lies within the city charter. She said a more formal opinion on the matter would need to come from independently-elected City Attorney Grant Langley.

But issues between the city and American Sewer aren’t just getting discussion at City Hall.

A lawsuit between American Sewer Services and the city is pending in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for June 18th.

The case, originally filed on June 27th, 2018, was filed by the contractor over the company’s belief that it should have been awarded an approximately $400,000 lead service line replacement contract. The city deemed American Sewer a “non-responsible bidder.” In an affidavit, then-Milwaukee Water Works superintendent Jennifer Gonda said the company submitted an unbalanced bid with high prices on some items and prices as low as one cent on others. Unbalanced bids are problematic for the city-owned utility because lateral replacement involves replacing both publicly and privately owned property.

American Sewer Services has been awarded more than $104 million in contracts for sewer and water work for the city since 2005 according to city records

About the Complaint

The complaint regarding racially charged language was dated January 24th and received by the city on January 31st. The city notified the employee that an investigation was opened on February 6th. But then Thomas said he found American Sewer unresponsive, having sent multiple emails and letters without a response.

A response recently came from American Sewer that stated the address given in the complaint was in the City of West Allis.

“My suggestion for [American Sewer] was to identify people working in the City of Milwaukee that day, take photos of them,” said Thomas. “So as to render irrelevant what the address was.” The complainant would then identify the American Sewer employee from a photo lineup.

The precise details of the complaint were not available to be reviewed by Urban Milwaukee. The Department of Public Works declined to provide the complaint because the allegation has not been substantiated. The description of the complaint portrayed in this article comes from Thomas’ testimony before the committee.

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