A controversial reorganization of Petersburg’s public utilities is complete. The borough assembly Monday approved the third and final reading of ordinances to create the new position of utility director and give that person oversight of Petersburg Municipal Power and Light. The assembly also approved the hiring of public works director Karl Hagerman as the new utility director and the promotion of his assistant, Chris Cotta to the public works director’s job. Opposition to the change continues.
Power and Light employee Bob Ziemke was one of a number of people testifying again this month against the plan to restructure utility departments. He continued his opposition to hiring public works director Karl Hagerman to oversee the electric department, along with the water and sewer utilities.
“Karl is without a doubt highly regarded, politically correct in his choice of words, does a good job as public works director, budgeting, etc.,” Ziemke said. “That is not the point. This has never been about the work he performs. The fact of the matter is he lacks electrical background for what is considered an electrical superintendent. He would be splitting his time between three separate utilities when the electrical department is a full-time job all in its own.”
Ziemke pointed out that opponents of the plan gathered 272 signatures over the weekend in an informal petition against the change.
David Whitethorn also referenced that petition and said he turned it in to the borough on Monday. “There’s a lot of people out there that really hope you people take a serious look at what’s going on here and take their signature into consideration,” Whitethorn said.
The public appeal requested the assembly vote no on the reorganization. The assembly was considering a slate of six ordinances that create a new position of utility director, taking the place of the superintendent of the electric department. That’s job’s been filled on an interim basis since last June. The borough advertised for a new electric superintendent in the fall but only received a handful of applicants. After that the assembly decided to move forward with the reorganization. It was originally proposed by the borough manager almost a year ago, meant as a cost saving measure. It also had some support from members of the public.
“As our population is slowly dropping, state funding sources are unreliable and the federal system is basically a reality show, the is the exact wrong time to increase the salary and pay upwards of 40,000 dollars in the search cost for a managerial position which we probably don’t need,” said Chelsea Tremblay. I commend the manager for looking for ways to save money and I’m thankful for some of the conversations this has encouraged.”
The assembly has been split 4-3 on the issue this winter and that split continued with four assembly members maintaining support for the change. Several also explained why they remained supportive despite strong public opposition.
“I hear what people are saying, I understand some of their concerns but I feel differently about that,” said assembly member Jeff Meucci. “I think there are some issues within the electrical utility that need get looked at. And hopefully by this restructuring we’ll be able to start to address some of those concerns.”
The last electrical superintendent, Joe Nelson, retired at the end of June after 14 years. Since then Hagerman has been the interim head of the department with employee Scott Newman overseeing day to day operations. Hagerman has also been in charge of capital projects in Power and Light during that time.
Assembly member Eric Castro gave several reasons for supporting the change, including the oversight of the department in the past year. “Karl and Scott have been safely and effectively sharing the leadership of this electrical department following Mr. Nelson’s retirement,” Castro said. “If the restructuring were to happen tomorrow the community will not notice a difference in service. These last eight months have proven the electrical department will continue to function as it has in the past.”
But the mayor and other assembly members remained opposed and it’s been one of the most controversial issues in local government in recent memory. Mayor Mark Jensen resigned his seat over the plan last spring and has been voting against it since winning his seat back in the fall.
“Since its inception May 2nd of 2017 I didn’t think it was a good idea,” Jensen said. “I appreciate everybody’s opinions but I don’t think it’s a good move for the municipality.”
The issue also generated a recall petition last year after the assembly met in executive session on the topic in May. But the borough did not approve that recall vote. Instead, candidates made it an issue in the fall election.
This month the assembly votes were all 4-2 in favor of making the ordinance changes to approve the reorganization. Jensen voted no along with Kurt Wohlhueter. Brandi Marohl, who has also opposed it, tried to attend the meeting by Skype but the connection couldn’t be made in the borough assembly chambers.
The vote was also 4-2 to give the borough manager the green light to hire Hagerman and Cotta. And assembly member Meucci read an email into the record from the borough manager reminding borough employees that they were not allowed to circulate political petitions while working and using borough vehicles. From the assembly’s standpoint those are the last votes on the issue. Hagerman will be the borough’s new utility director, Cotta will head up public works and Newman will be promoted to be general foreman in the electric department, continuing to oversee day-to-day operations.