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Chatham water system in trouble

By John Hammond
Posted Friday, March 3, 2006

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Pittsboro, NC - Will Baker, Chatham County Water Utilities Director, resigned as of March 3, citing lack of management support in the County and continuing interference in water utility management.

Mr. Baker, apparently notified the County Manager three weeks ago of his intention to resign, unless he was given the necessary administrative and managerial authority to run the department and to report directly to the County Manager. He complained of the current managerial style of encouraging end-runs and rumormongering that was making it impossible to run the department effectively, efficiently and professionally.

The County Manager accepted his resignation indicating that he did not intend to give the Director the authority to operate and preferred and “end-run” style of management. Mr. Baker was appointed on February 14,2005 and served a little over one year before resigning as of March 3, 2006.

Water resources, as well as sewer and storm water controls, are among the hottest issues in growth-stricken Chatham County. Losing a professional and experienced water director at this crucial time is a blow to Chatham County and its citizens – and a black mark on the county’s professional standing. In the last three years, Chatham County has had three water utility directors: Ron Singleton resigned early in 2003, Steve Talbert was hired in October, 2003 and was let go at the end of his six month probationary period, in August,2004. And after a five month hiatus, Will Baker was appointed in February, 2005

At the time of Will Baker’s appointment, Chatham County Manager Charlie Horne, noted that Mr. Baker has “got a great background and a good rapport with folks.” He also commented that hiring Baker was part of a plan to restructure the county’s public works department. But by not giving the new director authority to manage his own department and by encouraging the constant end-running that has frustrated professional efforts, not only has the county manager’s reorganization plans fallen apart, but, more seriously, the future of Chatham’s fledgling water system is clearly in jeopardy. And professionally it is certain that the County will have a difficult time hiring another professional – who will have little confidence on longevity seeing the background of three professionals who were made to bit the dust under the weight of Chatham’s peculiar – and dangerous – managerial style.

Moreover, it leaves Chatham citizenry teetering on the brink of chaos at a time when consistent and long-term professional management is sorely needed.

Perhaps it is time to request that the DENR and its Division of Water Quality conduct another investigation of the administration, management and operation of Chatham County’s utilities department; they did one in 2004 and another one is needed now.

It may also signal the need for a separate Chatham County Water and Sewer Authority to operate away from continuous – and detrimental – political interference.

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