DeKalb residents could be under boil water advisory until Saturday after massive main break. Video by John Spink/AJC

Torpy at Large: DeKalb’s sodden Bizarro image proves hard to break

It felt like old times, standing there last week at the chasm near Buford Highway, the epicenter of DeKalb County’s latest water disaster.

Looking down into the hole was Alessandro Salvo, a contractor leading the effort to fix a 48-inch water main that had 700,000 residents boiling water to keep dysentery at bay.

I first met Salvo in July 2015 when he was called in to repair an epic break a couple of miles away on that same line after unprepared county crews couldn’t handle it. But instead of getting a pat on the back and a check for the trouble, the county’s Watershed Department chief at the time, Charles Lambert, blamed Salvo for the screw-up.

Back then, I asked him about that mess, as well as the dysfunction and outright corruption that had snake-bit the county.

“It’s, it’s a Bizarro World,” said Salvo, repeating a term I had been using to describe DeKalb. “It has its own set of rules. It’s a Bizarro Government.”

Bizarro is the alter world in Superman comics where up is down, funny is sad, and bad is good. It sure fit the bill when talking about DeKalb at the time. And Salvo should know. He has been, in effect, a warrior there in the battle for good government.

In 2011, Salvo went to the FBI when two DeKalb inspectors tried shaking down his company. He became a mole and helped send the crooked government workers to the pokey.

But remember, in Bizarro World, good is bad. So in 2012 his company was the low bidder to replace water lines, but DeKalb gave the work to two other firms, costing taxpayers $270,000 more.

Salvo went public, claiming retaliation for his good deeds. He appealed to DeKalb contracts director, Kelvin Walton, without success until a judge stepped in and gave Salvo the business.

A year later, in 2013, a grand jury described all sorts of hinky and seemingly outright illegal doings in the Watershed Department.

Alessandro Salvo, a contractor who has fought corruption and politics in DeKalb County, keeps pulling the county’s bacon out of the frying pan. Photo by Bill Torpy
Photo: BILL TORPY / AJC

Interestingly, Lambert, the water department official, had been feeding info to police about crooked doings in his department. But, the grand jury said, DeKalb cops stopped looking into the matter when the former county public safety director realized that further investigation might pull in county officials.

One of those officials, Walton, was caught lying to investigators and became a mole himself to avoid getting charged.

I bring all this up because DeKalb seemed to be on an upward trajectory. Two troublesome county commissioners got voted out, another went to prison, and the county has a new CEO, Michael Thurmond, a competent government wonk who has thrown himself into fixing a water billing system gone haywire.

The county is in the midst of a $1.35 billion upgrade of its aging water and sewer system as part of a federal consent decree. It has been a journey fraught with issues and should be nearing completion. But this is DeKalb, remember?

This driver ignored road closed signs and preceded to drive into deep water on Buford Highway on March 7, 2018. She successfully retreated. Buford Highway was flooded just north of I-285 in DeKalb County because of a massive water main break. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For instance, the first contractor hired in 2012 to start work on a wastewater treatment plant was woefully unprepared for the gig and the county had to stop the job, citing shoddy work, and redo the project.

In 2015, the county hired Scott Towler to head the water department, a place where directors had the longevity of Wendy’s fry cooks.

Towler, an engineer, was tasked with helping the county get a handle on the limited sewer system capacity that caused hundreds of sewage spills and hampered development. The latter is troublesome because development spurs economic growth and tax money, sectors in which DeKalb has been lagging.

Last year, Towler took on a role familiar in DeKalb — whistleblower. He started complaining to his superiors and ultimately to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including EPA’s criminal investigation division. He alleged the county was cutting corners in approving new tie-ins to the sewage system.

In June, he complained that sewage spills were rampant, and that DeKalb was on pace to surpass 2016’s total of 131 spills. He was right. There were 186 last year.

Later, he accused higher-ups of marginalizing him. Finally, he quit last week, saying deputy chief operating officer Ted Rhinehart and CEO Thurmond were trying to urge him to make decisions that violated the law.

For at least a year, he had been talking with county ethics chief Stacey Kalberman about what he saw going on.

Stacey Kalberman, DeKalb County’s ethics officer, was formerly ethics chief for the state of Georgia. CURTIS COMPTON / ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: CURTIS COMPTON / AJC

Kalberman used to be the state’s ethics chief. In 2014, she won more than $1 million in damages and attorneys fees in a whistleblower lawsuit after she was driven from office for doing too good a job investigating Gov. Nathan Deal.

Her lawyer, Kim Worth, now apparently represents Towler. It’s almost like the circle of life.

The DeKalb CEO’s chief of staff calls Towler a “disgruntled ex-employee” making “slanderous (and) baseless accusations.”

The CEO himself told the AJC he inherited a mess and has been digging out as best as humanly possible. Thurmond said the county has cleaned 220 miles of sewers and has conducted hundreds of inspections.

Video via Doraville Police Department, from officers who first responded to DeKalb water main break.

The most recent waterline screw-up apparently wasn’t DeKalb’s fault. Officials say the line isn’t old, only 20 to 30 years. They say a long-forgotten private sewer line running near the pipe probably collapsed, causing soil deterioration and, ultimately, calamity.

But the wide public pain of the water outage coupled with the latest leadership defection will again put the department front and center. That’s good because delivering clean water to homes and then bringing it away without anyone getting sick is so, um, 19th century.

I was surprised to see Salvo working on the scene, given his historic (and hard-headed) forthrightness.

In fact, his company is on a four-year contract to replace and repair water and sewer lines, usually before they break.

“They realized we did good work for them,” he said, adding the government is trying to turn the corner. “There was a regime change and it’s forgiven.”

Maybe it’s a sign of DeKalb trying not to be so Bizarro.

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