Kosmicki: Sewage spills, aftermath show Avera is unqualified

Hollister City Manager Bill Avera has proven with his response to sewage spills into the San Benito River that he’s nowhere near equipped to handle his top leadership role.

Avera should resign immediately, or else the city council should fire him and start the process of replacing him.

His leadership during the two latest sewer spills, along with his handling of the crisis in the aftermath and his lack of accountability today, underscore that Avera does not have the maturity or decision-making capacity to properly handle urgent situations with potentially major consequences for everyday Hollister residents.
What if something similar happens again? What if a much-worse disaster occurs? The city can’t take the risk of answering those questions, especially here in earthquake country, in a place with limited money and resources and where the economy has been mostly sideways for decades.

Avera not only led the charge to keep the sewage spills secret from the public, but he and the city also concealed the matter from the Central Coast Regional Quality Control Board. It’s the same agency that in 2002 fined Hollister $1.2 million and, more significantly, slapped the city with a ban against all new construction that lasted for a half-dozen years, crushing the local economy like a wrecking ball through wooden planks. It came after a 15 million-gallon sewage spill into the same riverbed, which officials at the time embarrassingly and erroneously blamed on a gopher hole.

Apparently Avera, around with the city at the time of the 2002 sewer spill as a top planning official, didn’t learn any lessons, at least telling by his handling of the July and September spills and his own blaming of the latest breaches on worn-out equipment.

His failings started with the city’s response to the July breach of a pipeline valve leading to the domestic sewer plant, which takes in waste from the San Benito Foods cannery. His administration’s lack of transparency with the public and state water board was inexcusable for someone paid more than $180,000 a year to watch over a city of 36,000 people.

Why would he approve of such an irresponsible direction? There is no logical explanation for it, other than that he and others wanted to hide it because they feared the consequences, which are potentially worse now due to state water board enforcement action. He absolutely should have been forthright with the state board, especially in light of the relatively recent moratorium enforcement, and informed the public about the breach problem and environmental impacts.

Instead of devising a permanent solution to the problem, Avera and other officials came up with a hodgepodge plan to patch the valve leak with an inflatable plug, which predictably, eventually burst from the pressure. The problem clearly needed a permanent solution, which the council finally approved this week long after the spills, and not a temporary fix.

Now here we are six months after the initial spill, and the city until just recently— after officials found out the state wasn’t happy—had been continuing to execute the inflatable rubber-ball plan with the breaches.

Perhaps even worst yet, Avera has refused to take responsibility for the spills or botched response and inexplicably blamed it on equipment—meaning he’s arguing no human error, or that his and others’ decisions along the way somehow didn’t play into the outcome. He also made a point to downplay the significance of the environmental damage, which is saying in certain terms that it’s just no big deal.

He refused to entertain the notion that the cannery might actually pay into the repairs for a valve leak that he himself blamed on acidizing caused by the tomato plant. Why would the city forgive the cannery of any expense if its acid caused the problem? Who is getting an unequivocal pass? Why do Avera and other officials making six figures in a small, rural town constantly act like they’re playing with funny money instead of taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars?

This is still a relatively poor community whose residents pay through the roof on sewer bills due to the city’s general incompetence back in the early 2000s.

This place and its residents can’t keep making the same, impractical mistakes. People here can’t accept mediocrity in their leadership. For those reasons, it is time for Avera to move on, either voluntarily or through a city council decision.

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