Watershed commissioner strikes back at missing meter audit

Atlanta Watershed Commissioner Jo Ann Macrina is taking aim at City Auditor Leslie Ward over a recent report that said the department can’t account for 10,000 water meters.

Macrina said Ward’s findings were “misleading” and “disingenuous” in stating the department can’t account for the meters between 2006 and 2013. Macrina said the bulk of the missing meters went unaccounted for between 2006 and 2009, long before Mayor Kasim Reed took office.

The commissioner also disputed Ward’s assertion that Watershed has failed to put “consistent processes in place” to guard against loss.

The department has been rocked with repeated allegations of theft and mismanagement in recent years. She believes the audit should have done more to make clear the work Watershed has already begun to fix those problems, such as efforts to streamline its inventory management software and consolidate big-ticket equipment to one central warehouse.

“We have processes in place and are continuing to work (on them),” Macrina said, acknowledging that the department is still upgrading its software and security measures. “I do not want our ratepayers to think we’re not responsible and not accountable. I do take action and I take quick action.”

The auditor’s office agrees with Macrina that the bulk of the missing meters were purchased prior to 2010. But Ward and audit supervisor Amanda Noble counter that there’s no way to know exactly what happened to them, and said that’s because of poor record-keeping that still needs improvement.

“Even if they know when the missing meters were purchased, they don’t know when they went missing,” said Noble, adding Watershed hasn’t provided data to the auditor backing up its claim.

Ward said she stands by her staff's findings. No matter what changes Macrina has implemented, Ward said, the department still has a long way to go.

Among the observations she made while conducting the audit this summer were inconsistent inventory management and lax security at each of Watershed’s 10 facilities, including keys left in locks.

“The conditions that we wrote about in the audit were things we observed in June and July. I can’t audit ‘Working on it’,” Ward said. “You’d have to question how coordinated an effort has really been made. We just didn’t see evidence of it on the ground.”

To be clear, both Watershed leaders and members of Reed’s administration accepted Ward’s recommendations. And while Chief Operating Officer Michael Geisler also said the missing meters pre-dated Reed’s administration, he believes the audit’s observations are useful.

“Audits are meant to be constructive and give us the opportunity to address the ills that affect us,” he said.

The commissioner was traveling in Washington last week when Ward presented her report to a city council committee.

In a meeting with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Macrina outlined steps she’s taken to stamp out the theft problem, all the while complying with the department’s highest mandate: providing clean drinking water.

Watershed Management provides water and sewer services to more than 180,000 residential and business accounts across the metro area. Macrina is charged with overseeing a $4 billion dollar upgrade to its water and sewer infrastructure required by federal regulators.

Macrina, who joined the city in 2011 from DeKalb County, said she made staffing changes soon after taking the helm, has worked to limit overtime to save millions and started a “loss prevention program” well over a year ago that includes installing surveillance cameras.

“In reality, we’ve already seen great strides towards reducing (theft),” she said.

She’s twice brought in experts to review the department and shared that work with Ward, she said. She accused Ward of appropriating recommendations from those reviews into the audit.

“What I don’t appreciate is they claimed that work as their own,” Macrina said.

Ward balked at the accusation, calling it “outrageous.” Ward noted her office cited those reports in its findings.

“We do our own research and have best practices and appropriate controls for whatever we’re auditing,” she said.

The audit caps off a series of blows to the embattled Watershed department, which has been plagued by reports of a theft ring and mismanagement inside the agency. Items reported missing or stolen in recent years include 28 industrial water meters worth $5,210 apiece, an $80,000 backhoe and copper.

Those reports, in combination with a public outcry from a group of Watershed employees earlier this year, prompted Reed’s office and the Atlanta City Council to call for a series of investigations.

In addition to Ward’s audit, the city’s law department recently concluded an investigation of Watershed that led to the firing of more than a dozen workers. City officials have not said publicly, or to the employees themselves, why they were terminated. The Atlanta Police Department is still conducting its own investigation of criminal activity inside the department.

Macrina doesn’t dispute Watershed has a theft problem, one she believes has operated inside the department for at least several years. But she also believes the theft has been reduced to just a small percentage of the department’s total inventory.

Part of her frustration, she said, is she can’t always comment on how she’s addressing the problem because of ongoing criminal investigations.

“I can’t say everything. I wish I could,” she said. “But people need to know … I’m not going to neglect my duties. I’ve never been that way.”

Geisler said making wholesale changes takes time.

“You don’t move a mountain in a day,” he said. “All the steps are being taken now and we will continue to do so until we get this resolved to our satisfaction and to the public’s.”