Atlanta's watershed commissioner resigns

As commissioner of the city of Atlanta's Department of Watershed Management, Hunter was charged with guiding the city through the precarious multibillion-dollar sewer project mandated by the federal government.

But he had also emerged as a polarizing figure. He alienated customers and City Council members alike, who said that while he was brilliant, he was also arrogant and aloof.

On Tuesday, the Hunter era officially ended.

According to the city’s chief operating officer, Peter Aman, Hunter resigned after discussions with the executive branch over his job performance and the future of the department. And while praising his work on the federal consent decree, under which Atlanta agreed to fix its aging sewer system after a 1994 lawsuit, Aman said the department now has to start focusing more on customer service.

“We felt that this department had done some incredible things, but we needed a new direction,” Aman said. “We need to be more effective in serving the customers. There has to be a greater focus on customer service problems.”

The department has had some problems under Hunter, but the final straw may have been the swelling of complaints over the past two weeks from water customers who have complained about sudden spikes in their bills.

Customers have reported $20 bills jumping to $80. Or $100 bills jumping to $600.

“I am encouraged that Commissioner Hunter has resigned,” said Buckhead resident Bill Lucas, who has been representing his neighborhood on water issues. “It is a step forward for the people involved who are having these water problems. The commissioner is responsible for the department, and the department is a disaster.”

Besides serving the city of Atlanta, the department provides drinking water for the Fulton County cities of Fairburn, Union City and Hapeville; and Coweta, Clayton and Fayette counties. In addition to Atlanta, it handles wastewater for the Fulton County cities of College Park, East Point and Hapeville; and DeKalb and Fayette counties.

Aman was swift in moving toward changing the culture of the department.

Along with Hunter, four of the department’s six deputy commissioners -- Sally Mills, Sheila Pierce, Debra Henson and Chris Hebberd -- were let go.

Dexter White, who was just hired as the deputy commissioner of public works, has been named interim commissioner for the Department of Watershed Management. He had been director of public works for the city of Richmond before coming to Atlanta in July.

James Beard, another new hire, who was brought in as the deputy chief finance officer, has been named the department’s deputy commissioner of finance. Deputies David St. Pierre and Angelo Veney will remain as well.

“Today is a watershed moment for the city,” said City Council President Ceasar C. Mitchell, noting the irony in his statement. “He was a no-nonsense guy, and he certainly had his hands full with a newly developed department that rivaled the airport in size and obligations. Seeing his departure is somewhat a surprise. It was an unceremonious way to go.”

Aman said although his resignation is effective on Friday, Hunter will remain until at least the end of the year to serve as a consultant on consent decree issues. Hunter will continue to receive his current salary of $192,219 until the end of the year.

The city is seeking a 15-year extension -- from 2014 to 2029 -- to complete Atlanta’s $4 billion plan to fix the aging sewers, improve water quality and stop pollution of the Chattahoochee River.

“He has some of the deepest technical knowledge of this, and it wouldn’t be appropriate to let all of that go,” Aman said.

Hunter was not seen in City Hall on Tuesday, but in a statement, he said, “I came to the city eight years ago to implement the federally mandated consent decrees, manage the $4 billion capital program and organize the Department of Watershed Management. By the end of the year, I will have substantially accomplished those goals.”

Hunter was named commissioner by Mayor Shirley Franklin in July 2004, after serving two years as the deputy commissioner for engineering.

He was quickly charged with organizing the department, which for the first time incorporated the city’s wastewater and drinking water systems into one unit.

His biggest task has been working to modernize and overhaul the city’s water and sewer infrastructure, a $4 billion project mandated by the federal consent decree.

“During Hunter’s tenure, the Water and Sewer Fund’s bond rating has improved, we have exceeded Wall Street’s financial requirements, and the possible consent decree extension’s 20-year financial model outlines the department’s path forward,” Aman said. “Since 2003, DWM has completed the consent decree requirements on time and under budget, issued over $2 billion in bonds and just last week was awarded $50 million in state revolving fund loans.”

Despite whispers for months that Hunter was on his way out, there was always the specter of Hunter being the one who best understood the legal situation tied to the upgrade of the sewer system.

“The consent decree was used as a bludgeoning weapon,” said Councilwoman Natalyn Mosby Archibong, chair of the City Utilities Committee. “I am not saying we don’t have to be respectful of it, but we had the right to pierce the veil. No one is Teflon in city government.”

While Hunter seemed to thrive in the heavy lifting, his critics say his department sometimes seemed out of control. Just over the past month or so, the department was deep in the spotlight, but not in a good way.

In late July, four Watershed Management workers were fired and a manager quit when an investigation revealed that they circumvented rules to purchase $2.1 million worth of equipment. A week later, two workers were accused of pocketing cash from customers in exchange for fixing their outstanding water bills. Then in mid-August, two other workers, who install water meters, were arrested; they were accused of stealing junked meters and selling the copper.

"It has been a perfect storm of bad things," said Archibong, who had several run-ins with Hunter. "Something had to give. We've got to stop the flow of blood."

The city still has not officially determined the cause of the recent spikes in water bills.

Aman said as part of the customer service overhaul, the city would create a better form of communicating with residents and applying the city’s established rules on addressing problems and complaints. The city will also start taking all complaints seriously; accelerate the response times of appeals complaints; and address whatever systemic issues might be responsible for rate spikes. Right now, anyone who complains of a spiked bill can appeal it and not pay the contested amount until the appeal is resolved.

“I am hopeful that the result of this termination would create a new culture geared toward customer service and higher accountability,” said Archibong. “This gives us an opportunity to have a do over in organization.”

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