Arbitrator: La Center didn't err in firing worker

Arbitrator rules for city regarding wastewater treatment operator

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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A former La Center public works employee will not get his job back after being fired twice by the city, a Public Employee Relations Committee arbitrator ruled Wednesday.

In his ruling, arbitrator David Gaba said the city did not violate a collective bargaining agreement when it terminated wastewater treatment operator Jeff Adler for a second time last February. The arbitrator's decision puts to rest a two-year conflict, in which the city originally fired, reinstated, and then fired the four-year operator again.

Jeff Sarvis, the city's public works director, said the arbitrator's decision came as a relief after a long, difficult period for both the city and Adler.

"It's never an easy position for either party to be in," Sarvis said of the two periods of arbitration. "But, with that said, we're glad to have a decision."

The city hired Adler to work at its treatment plant in 2008 but fired him in 2011, following an incident in which he changed a setting at the wastewater treatment plant that caused it to stop working properly. Water samples at the time indicated the changes could have irreparably damaged the plant.

Prior to the incident, the city sent Adler three letters of reprimand, the last of which warned him that he could be terminated if he didn't improve his performance. The city also issued him a one-day unpaid suspension.

The employee union successfully appealed the termination at the end of 2011. At the time, a PERC arbitrator ruled the city had to reinstate Adler and pay him $40,000 in back salary.

La Center pays wastewater treatment operators between $50,000 and $52,000 a year.

Wastewater plant supervisors again cited Adler for incidents after he was rehired.

On Christmas, while working alone, Adler left a voice mail for a supervisor stating that one of the treatment plant's air blowers was vibrating and making noises and should be switched off.

He left the treatment plant before switching it off, according to the arbitrator's report.

Alarm disarmed for three days

The most serious incident, which eventually led to Adler's second termination, involved his disabling of an alarm that monitors the city's treatment plant. The alarm remained disarmed for three days before supervisors noticed it was down during a power outage.

The city eventually fired Adler last February "for both dishonesty and for incidents of careless and avoidable equipment mistakes" according to a brief the city filed with PERC.

During the second round of arbitration, the employee union argued the incident occurred because the city failed to adequately train Adler, giving him only 30 minutes of guidance on the alarm system.

In his written decision Wednesday, Gaba wrote that "the facts simply do not support this argument."

Adler's attorney during the arbitration, Patrick Emmal, did not return a message seeking comment.

Sarvis says the city spent about $10,000 on the arbitration, primarily on attorney fees.

La Center's public works department, which has 12 employees, hired a temporary worker to fill in for Adler when he was placed on leave.

Since Adler's termination in February, the city has not taken any disciplinary action against its other treatment plant operators.

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://www.twitter.com/col_smallcities;tyler.graf@columbian.com.