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Four AWU employees demoted over qualifications

Wednesday, April 13, 2011 by Michael Kanin

Four Austin Water Utility division managers have been demoted because they failed to pass a state test required to hold their positions. AWU Director Greg Meszaros announced the demotions in an email to all utility employees on Tuesday.


The four workers – Lonnie Turner, Marco Salinas, John Muraida, and Nowell Mojica – had been division managers in the utility’s Pipeline Operations section. Their promotions, which occurred outside the normal promotion process, eventually led to the forced retirement of AWU Deputy Director Perwez Moheet in April 2010.


All four employees served as acting division managers before that temporary title became permanent. Though they had each applied for the position they were eventually awarded, none of the four was the top finisher for their position. According to a report critical of the hiring process by management research and consulting firm MGT of America, Moheet began a “unilateral campaign” to have Salinas, Mojica, Turner, and Muraida permanently appointed because of pressure from City Hall to improve the utility’s response times to water main breaks. (See In Fact Daily, April 1, 2010, April 7, 2010).


Some employees expressed hard feelings about the hiring process, accentuating distrust and suspicion within the utility, according to the MGT report. Onnie Bohr and Kirk Obst also applied for the open division manager positions. They each filed a complaint against the water utility in the matter. In those complaints, they suggested that the utility had allowed race – and, for Bohr, gender — to play a role in its decision. Obst and Bohr are both Caucasian.


The MGT report found “that there was no evidence of race or gender discrimination.” However, Moheet was forced to resign because of his failure to use the city’s elaborate hiring process to fill the positions, even though other candidates were proceeding through the process (see In Fact Daily, April 7, 2010). Moheet is now the director of finance for the city of Kyle. The four new division managers were allowed to keep their jobs until Monday, when the 18 months they were allotted to obtain their certificates ran out.


Meszaros’ email notes that they “were reassigned to other … positions within AWU.” He told In Fact Daily that they would fill already vacant positions. The utility currently has 110 open jobs. This amounts to slightly more than 10 percent of the work force. Meszaros said the utility has kept that number of vacancies in order to save money during a time when AWU revenues are down.


“It is important for us to uphold the minimum job requirement,” Meszaros told In Fact Daily. “They got frequent reminders to complete this obligation … sometimes you can only lead a horse to water; you can’t make them drink.”


In his email, Meszaros was frank about the situation. He told his staff that Turner, Salinas, Muraida, and Mojica had each had 18 months to complete the certification for a Class B Water Operator License from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. That document requires applicants to have a certain amount of education and experience in the field. They also have to pass a test that Meszaros says requires some preparation.


“It’s a hard exam,” he said.


Salinas took the test, but, according to Meszaros, the state was unable to grade it because he lacked the required amount of field time. Turner, Mojica, and Muraida appear to have failed the exam.


A fifth employee who was promoted by Moheet, Manny Macias, passed the test and retained his position.


Meszaros noted that the license in question is not a requirement for division manager applicants. “We would give anyone 18 months to get the license,” he said.


In his email to employees, Meszaros wrote, “In order to ensure continuity during this transition, we are naming individuals to acting roles in each of the affected positions.  Manny Macias will serve as Acting DM for the Collection System Maintenance Division, and Robert Johnson will fulfill the Acting DM role in Collection System Services. George Calhoun will act as DM in the Meter Shop, Mercedes Garcia Lopez will serve as acting DM for Construction Services, and Dave Juarez will oversee Valves & Hydrants and Distribution System Maintenance.” Calhoun and Juarez are assistant directors.


Meszaros said he wants to take a couple of weeks before posting the positions so his management team can “look and see if we want to make any organizational changes … I just want to talk it over with my executive team … With all these openings happening at the same time,” he said, the utility may want to take the opportunity to reduce costs while still providing the same service levels.

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