LOWELL -- Some city councilors on Tuesday called for the employees responsible for water-billing issues to be held accountable by the city manager, with Utility Executive Director Daniel Lahiff singled out for heavy criticism for the billing problems and other issues.
City Councilor Rita Mercier said she remains angry that some residents received water bills in the thousands of dollars because their bills were underestimated for years, which she called the result of someone being "too lax or derelict in their duties."
"What bothers me the most is that the person in charge, the department head, bears no responsibility, throws his employees under the bus by blaming others, and goes untarnished," Mercier said.
Mercier also criticized Lahiff and the department "for taking equipment that did not belong to them" to "lagoons that were not cleaned out and let go."
Lahiff was fined $5,000 by the state Ethics Commission in 2012 in connection with two previous ice storms in which he had city generators taken to his home. Earlier this year, the state issued a "notice of noncompliance" to the Utility because of problems with its sludge-containing lagoons, and $3.5 million will be spent to upgrade the lagoon system.
"I guess the only way you can get fired in the Water Department is if you swear to the real person who is responsible for these problems," said Mercier, referring to a Utility employee who was recently fired and later re-hired after allegedly swearing at Lahiff while voicing workplace-safety concerns.
Councilor Ed Kennedy shared Mercier's concerns about Lahiff's handling of the billing matter.
"What troubles me is that the department head has to be well aware that it's a problem, and the department head has not done anything to address it," said Kennedy, who also noted that there have been other problems at the Utility in recent years.
"Let's get to the root of the problem. Let's fix it. Then we are going to see how it happened and people are going to be accountable." said Councilor Corey Belanger of the billing issues.
The comments came during discussion of Mayor Rodney Elliott's unanimously approved motion calling for a report on the process for final water-meter readings. Elliott told The Sun afterward he agreed with his colleagues' comments about Lahiff.
"The department head is responsible for the problems," Elliott said.
Councilor Bill Martin said overall, the performance from the Water Utility and its employees when it comes to water quality and service has been very good, but the billing issues "gives all of us a black eye, not just the water department, but the entire city."
City Manager Kevin Murphy told The Sun he is still investigating the cause of the water-billing issues and plans "to take appropriate action based upon what I find to be the facts."
Asked if disciplinary action would be considered, Murphy said: "Everything is on the table."
Lahiff did not respond to a written request for comment late Tuesday night.
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