On the same day that DeKalb County faced a massive water main break that caused widespread outages, its leaders were also forced to respond to accusations of wrongdoing and illegal actions from its Department of Watershed Management director.
Scott Towler submitted a scathing two-page letter on Monday to the county’s deputy chief operating officer, Ted Rhinehart. In it, he accused Rhinehart and the county CEO of urging him to make decisions that violate federal and state laws and leaving him out of meetings and decision-making once he resisted.
VIDEO: More on the DeKalb water outage
“I have no choice but to resign this position — despite significant impact to my life and my family — because of the ongoing retaliatory actions by you and CEO Mike Thurmond in response to my refusal to violate the law and participate in unlawful activities in the operation of DWM, especially those which are a violation of the county’s Consent Decree and federal and state environmental laws,” Towler wrote.
Contacted at his home Wednesday, Towler declined to make additional comments. In his letter, he said he would continue working until March 16. During a news conference held by the county on the water main break on Wednesday, Reggie Wells was introduced as the interim director.
Thurmond’s office denied Towler’s allegations and said it is his letter that is potentially unlawful.
“Mr. Towler is a disgruntled employee that has made a series of slanderous, baseless accusations against county leadership that are not grounded in fact,” LaKeitha Carlos, the CEO’s chief of staff, said.
DeKalb’s Watershed Management department has been plagued by issues over the years, including outdated meters that led to widespread water billing issues and a decaying sewage system that is the source of regular spills.
The county has been under a federal consent decree since 2011. This agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required the county to update and improve its network of sewage pipes and reduce the number of sanitation spills by 2020. County officials say they are working to meet the deadlines and submit twice-yearly reports to the federal government showing that progress has been made.
Towler complained publicly last year after learning county officials allowed a health clinic to open without requiring a mitigation plan for the impact of its sewage. Towler later reported the problem was fixed when the county replaced manhole covers nearby. DeKalb was never cited for any consent decree violations in that case.
In his resignation letter, Towler says that Rhinehart eventually took over day-to-day operations at Watershed Management and began to ignore his staffing decisions and other recommendations. Towler wrote that the EPA recently gave the county feedback on its implementation of new sewer capacity policies that confirmed objections he raised in the past, but the information was not shared with him.
“I am concerned by the county’s decision to keep this critical information from the director of DWM — as well as from the citizens of DeKalb — in an effort to hide the obvious compliance issues with its policies,” he said in the letter.
The county said in a news release Wednesday that all rules and laws have been followed and that communication with state and federal oversight agencies is ongoing.
“The county has been in constant contact and collaboration with both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division throughout the development of all policies and protocols, and we are confident that those policies and all actions taken by the county related to the consent decree have been in full compliance with all applicable laws and standards,” the release said.
-- Staff writer Johnny Edwards contributed to this report.
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