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Water outage report: City botched communications, mayor exerted “extreme” pressure on staff members

City of Asheville

The City of Asheville has released its long-awaited Independent Review Committee report on the devastating holiday season water outage, and it highlights the city’s ineptitude in what it called “murky” communications, providing accurate information and even identifying who was actually in charge.

The report also said Mayor Esther Manheimer, according to city employees, exerted “significant,” “major” and “extreme” pressure on staff members regarding estimated timelines for restored water services.

“These people told the report’s authors ‘that if a public message was not immediately developed giving an estimate, the strong insinuation from the Mayor was that the jobs of the people stating objections were on the line,’” the report states. “The authors asked Manheimer about this and she said she did put pressure on staff ‘to change their assessment and put out a public message giving an estimate on the restoration of service.’

“She told the authors ‘that the public demanded a timeframe,’” the report states.

Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, at the podium, talks at a Jan. 3 press conference about the city’s water outage, which lasted more than a week. She’s flanked by Asheville City Council members, from left to right, Sandra
Kilgore, Sheneika Smith, and Antanette Mosley.
John Boyle/Watchdog
Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, at the podium, talks at a Jan. 3 press conference about the city’s water outage, which lasted more than a week. She is flanked by Asheville City Council members, from left to right, Sandra Kilgore, Sheneika Smith, and Antanette Mosley.

That “pushed” Water Resources Director David Melton to say water would be restored within 24-48 hours, according to the report.

Asheville’s city charter states that members of City Council, which includes the mayor, have to deal with city administrators through the city manager, other than “for the purpose of inquiry.” The charter states, “…neither the council nor any member thereof shall give an order to any city employee in the administrative service of the city, other than the city manager, relating to any matter in the line of his employment.”

A violation is a misdemeanor, “conviction of which shall immediately forfeit the office of the member so convicted,” the charter states.

The Watchdog requested a phone interview with Manheimer, but she emailed a statement noting she appreciated the committee’s “swift work to assess the causes and handling of the city’s holiday water outage.

“The city will work to implement the recommendations of the task force with the primary goal of preventing a water outage of this magnitude from ever happening again,” Manheimer said in the statement. “I also appreciate the constructive criticism; we’ve all learned a lot from this experience and this report and understand the work and training needed to address future emergencies.”

Manheimer later issued a brief addendum, taking issue with the report’s characterization of her behavior during the crisis regarding city staff.

“The conversation about water restoration involved several folks and ultimately a timeline was provided by water staff to those city staff preparing a press release,” Manheimer said via email. “I was certainly eager for the community to be provided a time estimate for water restoration but I did not exert extreme pressure to do so.”

The “collective opinion” of the IRC, the report states, is the outage “should not have been as widespread nor impacted as many customers nor lasted as long as it did.

The outage spanned 11 days, from Dec. 24 through Jan. 4, left tens of thousands of customers without water and shut down businesses during the holiday season.

The report also makes a slew of recommendations for improvements to avoid another similar outage. And it says the loss of water to thousands of customers without potable water created “a public health hazard.”

“City leaders and elected officials were consistently unable to identify who was in charge,” the report states, noting that two people identified themselves as the incident commander. “One member in City Leadership described the situation as ‘leading by consensus.’”

The report also found an “inconsistent or complete lack of training for elected officials, city management, and operational staff surrounding emergency management/response.”

It further noted that the only person the Emergency Response subcommittee spoke with who “was adamant” that Melton was the incident commander was now-retired Asheville Fire Chief Scott Burnette.

“A common response received was leading ‘within silos.’”

It cited the loss of operation of the Mills River water plant, one of three the city operates, as a key in the duration of the outage, as crucial chemical lines at the plant froze and the plant was out of commission for four days. Also, more than a week into the outage, Water Resources workers found a key 24-inch water valve in the River Arts District had been closed for several years.

Once opened it allowed water tanks in Candler to fill. The outage primarily affected South Asheville and the western part of Buncombe County, including Candler.

“The extreme, sustained cold temperatures certainly led to the loss of the Mills River facility and indirectly caused main breaks and the resulting record demands on the water system,” the report states. “However, the wide scale nature and duration of the outage event was largely avoidable and preventable.”

One infamous misstep during the crisis was the city’s inability to say how many water customers were affected.

“In an effort to give SOME estimate of the number of people affected, inaccurate information was provided to the public,” the report states. “The ‘About 38,000 people are affected’ was not based on actual outage data; it is the number of people signed up to receive AVL Alerts.”

Water Resources Department Director David Melton
Watchdog photo by John Boyle
Water Resources Department Director David Melton

“We do not find this misinformation to have been harmful to the public but it overestimated the impacts of the event,” the report states. “If anything, it helped relay how serious the situation was becoming. However, that number should never have been given and should not be used today.”

The report said elected officials did not receive timely updates, and those officials who did handle “themselves properly during the crisis,” according to proper crisis communications procedures, “were the ones essentially left out of the loop.”

“To her credit, the City Manager noted that this is one area where she felt she could’ve done better, both in informing all equally and preventing those with the information from exerting outsized influence,” the report states, referring to City Manager Debra Campbell.

“We respect the independent nature of the committee and look forward to Tuesday’s presentation,” Campbell said. “Clearly an exceptional amount of work has gone into the report and we look forward to the IRC presenting its findings to City Council and the community. We will continue to review the recommendations and are deeply committed to continuous improvement.”

“In the case of this event,” the report states, “most elected officials found out about the severity of the event from their friends and constituents. In some cases, their being out of town for the holidays added to their lack of direct information.”

The report states all levels of city personnel “identified the response to this crisis as ‘needing Improvement,’ citing an absence of training.

“Elected officials inserted themselves into operational areas which were the responsibility of departmental staff,” the report states. “This led to an emergency response which was described as ‘murky,’ ‘inappropriate,’ ‘unwieldy,’ and “cumbersome.’”

The city’s communications efforts received criticism, as it did during the outage. Residents expressed outrage at the city’s inability to clearly explain what had happened and give residents an accurate estimate of when water would be restored. One resident suggested in comments to an Asheville Watchdog story that the city’s leaders asking for more patience could “eat glass.”

Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell speaks at the city’s Jan. 3 press conference on the water outage.
Watchdog photo by John Boyle.
Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell speaks at the city’s Jan. 3 press conference on the water outage.

City Council formed the Independent Review Committee in January after the water outage.

Yet the city never issued a definitive count of how many customers were affected. The city caught considerable heat for inaccurate and spotty communications during the outage, and for not providing a timeline or other information in a timely manner.

The outage was precipitated by a severe three-day cold event. Throughout the system, 27 city-owned water lines broke, and when the city turned to its Mills River water plant to produce water, workers found it frozen.

Engineering experts say infrastructure issues, a lack of preparation and a poor response to the crisis played key roles in the debacle. The Water Department’s “tabletop” emergency exercise in early December involved a tropical storm deluge scenario, not a cold weather event.

The IRC report makes more than 20 “Immediate Recommendations,” including a reevaluation of the “overall role of the Engineering Division within the Water Resources Department,” with consideration of adding a production engineer position. “The goal should be to hire or groom a knowledgeable, experienced Engineer who is engaged in the day-to-day operations and decision-making of the water utility.”

The Water Resources Department Director, David Melton, is not a licensed engineer.

Melton was hired in February 2016 as assistant director of the Water Resources Department and promoted to director in November 2018. He earns $135,688 annually, plus a $3,600 annual car allowance.

City Council member Antanette Mosley said Friday afternoon she had not had time to read the entire report and would withhold comment. Council member Maggie Ullman said in a text message she was “glad the waiting period is over and we have the info we need to fortify our water system.”

Asheville Watchdog was unable to reach City Council members Kim Roney, Sheneika Smith, Sandra Kilgore or Sage Turner for comment.

One of the report’s authors, Mike McGill, declined to comment until after it is presented to City Council at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday, June 13.

Other recommendations include considering the creation of a “Water Utility Advisory Panel,” which would “be of assistance to the City Manager, City Council and the Mayor in their oversight responsibilities related to the (water department).”

Under “communications,” the committee recommends developing an updated crisis communications plan, and replacing the “operational approach” to public communications with a system where “communication professionals are elevated in importance and can have not just influence, but direct oversight of the crisis communications planning and implementation.”

The committee also recommends hiring a “Public Information Officer dedicated to the Water Resources Department.”

While the city blamed severe cold over Christmas — the low temperature hit 2 degrees on Dec. 23, zero on Dec. 24, and 12 degrees the next two nights — the cold snap was predicted days in advance and outside engineering experts have said it should not have been catastrophic.

Melton initially said about a dozen pipes broke, but it turned out 27 ruptured, with the average age of broken lines being 45 years. Most of those pipes were cast iron, which becomes brittle as it ages.

While Melton and Manheimer described the cold snap as “unprecedented,” Asheville has had at least seven cold waves of equal or colder temperatures in the last 50 years, according to a former scientist with the National Centers for Environmental Information in Asheville.

Since Jan. 1, 1999, Asheville Regional Airport, the official weather station for Asheville, has recorded 33 days with a low temperature of below 10 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. That includes a low of minus 1 degree in January 2014.

The Mills River water plant, actually located in northern Henderson County, is about 5 miles from the airport.

The nearby City of Hendersonville water plant, which serves that city and northern Henderson County, did not have significant outages.

The city required IRC members to sign “non-disclosure agreements,” or NDAs. Previously, City Attorney Brad Branham said the committee was “specifically designed to operate as an analytical task force.”

“As is commonly the case with such bodies, it does not serve an advisory or other statutory purpose for the City Council,” Branham said. “Therefore, it is not a public body. Moreover, the function of the IRC requires a greater degree of confidentiality during their review process.”

State law provisions exclude making public information that deals with sensitive public infrastructure from public records,” Branham said.

“Therefore, documents and information about the City’s water system cannot be shared publicly due to security concerns,” Branham said earlier this year. “However, it is imperative that the IRC has access to these materials in order to effectively and conclusively accomplish their task. The only way to balance these concerns is to maintain a confidential environment for this group to do its work. In the end, all reports and findings will be made public and presented in an open meeting.”

The IRC members are:

  • Water subject matter experts: Ted Tyree, engineer at the Knoxville Utilities Board; Michael Holcombe, former director of the Asheville Water Resources Department; John McLaughlin, Director of internal development at Highfill Infrastructure Engineering.
  • Communication subject matter experts Mike McGill — owner of a public relations firm that specializes in water issues.
  • Rob Brisley — U.S. Customs/Border Protection Incident Management Branch Team; Previously employed at N.C. Department of Public Safety as incident management team specialist; Disaster Response Specialist Contractor.
  • Emergency management subject matter expert: Dennis Fagnant.
  • Residential water customers: Michele Ashley, Kim “Dirt” Murphy.
  • Business water customer: Carolyn Roy, owner of Biscuit Head restaurants.

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. 

Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County.
John Boyle has been covering western North Carolina since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at jboyle@avlwatchdog.org