Saturday, July 16, 2016

Sparta Township confidentially paid $300,000 to resolve utility worker's claim that he was retaliated against for expressing concerns about copper and lead levels in Township's water supply.

On April 13, 2016, the Township of Sparta (Sussex County) agreed to pay $300,000 to its former Pumping Station Operator within its Municipal Utilities Department which provides water not only to Sparta but also to other surrounding areas. 

In his lawsuit, Mark Nelson said that the Township retaliated against him because he refused to obey Municipal Utilities Department Director Phillip Spaldi's June 2010 order to alter the method of treating the water supply immediately before samples were to be taken for testing by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP).  Nelson claimed that the treatment alteration caused the samples tested by the NJDEP to show lower levels of copper and lead than the water that was normally supplied to the public.  Nelson claimed that he told his direct supervisor Michael Sportelli "that the water sample sent to the lab to be tested should be consistent with the water being distributed to the public." 

Nelson also said that he complained in November 2010 about "lead and copper treatment mechanisms being turned off at the Township's Newstar and Buttonwood Pump Houses" which Nelson claimed "resulted in an increased likelihood of contaminated water being present in the Township's water supply to its residents."  He said that Sportelli responded to his complaints "sarcastically" by saying "we don't put the lead and copper in the water."

Nelson's lawsuit also complained that Township officials ignored his Summer of 2010 warning that closing down the Commons Pump House instead of converting it to a "booster station" would result in pressure and supply problems in the Sussex Mills area of Sparta Township.  He said that on April 17, 2011, the the Sussex Mills water tank became empty and that wouldn't have occurred had his "booster station" recommendation been heeded.

As a result of his complaints, Nelson claimed that Sportelli went on a campaign of falsely writing him up six times during a four month period for "job performance deficiencies."  The lawsuit claimed that "Sportelli's memos were issued in retaliation for [Nelson's] whistle-blowing activities."  He said that Sportelli also retaliated by having him "climb the Alpine Water Tank within the Township during a lightning storm to fix a purported communication issue," to work on an electrical panel during the storm and to enter into a confined space that had not been properly tested and ventilated.

Nelson also claimed that Sportelli and Spaldi made multiple copies of a Monthly Safety Inspection Sheet and submitted copies of the same sheet to the Township's insurance carrier monthly after inserting the current date.  Nelson said that he "advised Sportelli that it would be inappropriate to submit the identical inspection sheets for multiple months" and that the "monthly safety checklists were required to be filled out contemporaneously for each month, not before or after the fact."

Nelson said that he reached out to Township Manager David Troast on February 29, 2012 by way of an e-mail with "Ongoing fraud, waste and conspiracy at the Sparta Township Water Utility" in the subject line.  Sportelli allegedly responded by writing two more disciplinary memos.  He said that when he finally met with Troast in May 2012, "Troast refused to discuss [Nelson's] concerns regarding fraud and waste with the Department, but instead directed [Nelson] that he would only discuss with him disciplinary action to be implemented by the Township against [him]." 

The fact that Nelson was ultimately disciplined is evidenced by a provision in the settlement agreement calling or the Township to "withdraw and dismiss" Final Notices of Disciplinary Action that were filed against Nelson on January 30, 2013, September 8, 2014 and September 8, 2014.  According to the agreement, these notices imposed a "ten (10) day suspension, [a] thirty (30) day suspension with a Ten Thousand Dollar ($10,000.00) reduction in pay, and [Nelson's] removal, respectively."

Nelson's complaint, at the link below, contains many more allegations of improper and retaliatory actions by Sparta officials.

The case is captioned Nelson v. Township of Sparta, New Jersey Superior Court Docket No. SSX-L-266-13 and Nelson' attorney was Jeffrey D. Catrambone of Clifton.  Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from publicly disclosing the settlement terms.  Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public's right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of lawsuit's allegations have been proven or disproven in court.  Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the defendants.  All that is known for sure is that Sparta or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Nelson $300,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases resolve before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.