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Bungled hiring process puts deputy water director on leave

Thursday, April 1, 2010 by Michael Kanin

As In Fact Daily first reported this morning, the City of Austin has confirmed that Austin Water Utility (AWU) Deputy Director Perwez Moheet has been placed on administrative leave. The action appears to be the result of a botched process in appointing seven officials in AWU’s Pipeline Operations Division.


Those placements and the circumstances surrounding them are detailed in a March 24 report that was the result of a months-long investigation conducted for the City of Austin by MGT of America. Former Sheriff Margo Frazier, now a senior associate at MGT, wrote the report.


The report also exonerated AWU Assistant Director Gopal Guthikonda and a handful of other AWU managers who had been accused of harassment and discrimination. In the process, it alleges that his accusers had colluded in an attempt to “oust Mr. Guthikonda.”


Calls placed to phone numbers listed for Perwez A. Moheet were not answered.


According to MGT, the series of events that directly led to Moheet’s involuntary vacation date back to the January 2009 water main break at 6th and Lamar. AWU’s lag in responding to that event caused the utility to restructure its Pipeline Operations Division. As part of that effort, four acting Division Managers, an acting Superintendent, and an acting Supervisor were appointed to temporarily serve in those roles.


In December of 2008, Joe Davila had also taken on the responsibilities that had belonged to Pipeline Operations’ Scheduler Rodney Bartch, who had retired. He wouldn’t officially be appointed to the post until September 2009.


As Austin’s water crisis deepened into the spring and fall of that year, AWU started what began as a rather traditional hiring process for the four Division Manager positions. When the jobs were formally posted in June, each of the acting Division Managers—Marco Salinas at Meter Maintenance, Nowell Mojica at Water Distribution System Maintenance, Lonnie Turner at Wastewater Collection System Maintenance, and John Muraida at Valve & Hydrant Maintenance—applied for the respective position that they had been appointed to.


By September, the elaborate hiring process for filling the positions permanently collided with a perceived need to fill the positions quickly. After reportedly stating “that the Water Utility is getting ‘a lot of heat from City Hall’ regarding response times to water breaks,” Moheet began what the report characterizes as “a unilateral campaign” to permanently install the four Division Managers, the acting Superintendent, Mark Martinez, the acting Supervisor, Raymond Lopez, and Davila. Interviews for the Division Manager positions had yet to be completed.


In the report, AWU’s assistant director of Pipeline Operations, George Calhoun, says that he informed Moheet on September 11 that “the acting division managers were not the top candidates in the first two interviews….” Moheet claimed that he could not recall, “knowing that the interviews for the first two positions had taken place….”


In any case, Moheet pushed forward with his efforts to permanently appoint the seven acting officials, telling AWU Director Greg Meszaros that the group was “exceeding performance expectations.”  On September 15, Meszaros asked the city’s Human Resources Department to approve the appointments. The report says that the AWU director  “did not know the status of the interviews” but that “it would not have made a difference in his decision.”


Shortly after Meszaros’ request—and before receiving a response from the Human Resources Department—Moheet sent a congratulatory email to the seven appointees.


Though the report found that “the decision to appoint was ultimately made by Mr. Meszaros,” it added that it “was based on the suggestion and advice of the Water Utility’s Deputy Director, Perwez Moheet.”


The flaws in the Pipeline Operations appointments were uncovered as part of MGT’s examination of two hiring discrimination complaints. The accusers in that case, Onnie Bohr and Kirk Obst, alleged that AWU had allowed race and, in the case of Bohr, gender, to play an inappropriate role in its decisions about who would fill each of the four Division Manager positions. Both complainants are Caucasian.


Though the report found “that there was no evidence of race or gender discrimination,” it had scathing words for the process by which the Pipeline Operations Division Manager spots and the three other mid-level positions had been filled.


“(T)he Water Utility’s decision to stop and abandon the formal hiring process and appoint does not conform to the city’s standard promotional process. Moreover, the decision to appoint in the middle of the process demonstrates a general disregard for the city-wide personnel policies and only serves to create (or exacerbate) suspicion and distrust throughout the Water Utility,” it reads.


“While the Water Utility supports its decision to appoint on legitimate business needs, the evidence calls into issue whether there were other reasons for the decision.”


City officials declined to comment further on the matter Thursday morning.



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