Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Hiring Brandon Dickson: An Engineered Outcome?

A concerned citizen wrote City Council members on June 13 regarding the hiring of Brandon Dickson as the Assistant Water Treatment Administrator.  The citizen expressed their belief that Executive Director of Public Works Ricky Dickson's son was being hired in at a significant premium to other 2nd tier management positions within the water department.  City leaders quickly mobilized to quell the nepotism concern which had reached the Standard Times news desk.

I learned of Brandon Dickson's hiring from a confidential source the week before he officially started on June 16.  That source prompted my research into the city's process.  The official timeline shows:

City staff provided the following information on the selection process.
The Assistant Superintendent Water Treatment Plant is a new title that was created by upgrading the vacant Water Treatment Supervisor. This was part of the succession planning efforts of the City of San Angelo.

The Assistant Superintendent Water Treatment Plant position was posted to outside candidates from February 26, 2016 through March 11, 2016.  The position was posted once for internal and outside candidates together.

The panel consisted of Bill Riley, Director of Water Utilities; Allison Strube, Assistant Director of Water Utilities; and Charles McGuire, Water Treatment Administrator. 

Thirty four applicants applied for the position; five were interviewed by the panel; Mr. Brandon Dickson was selected.
The panel reported their recommendation to Lisa Marley, Director of Human Resources, who consulted with the City Attorney for review against the nepotism policy of the City. When the City Attorney confirmed no conflict, the recommendation was approved by Lisa Marley and Bill Riley, Director of Water Utilities, was notified of the approval. At that point, the panel’s recommendation was finalized.

Brandon's base salary is $84,500 plus two 5% bonuses for his Class A Operators license in both water and stormwater. His annual pay is $92,950 plus relocation expenses. Given the Class A Water Operator license from TECQ was a basic requirement for the position I thought it odd that this would result in a bonus. 

Also, the city bridged Brandon's time such that his start date with the city is 8-28-2000, which gives him benefits at over the 15 year seniority level.  That makes a difference in both vacation and retirement benefits.

I followed up with several questions for city staff and their responses can be reviewed below:

1)  If the Class A Water Operator license was a requirement for the position,as stated in the job posting, why would that result in an extra 5% bonus?  It would seem to be part of the position's base pay as it is a basic requirement to get the job.

1. There are no documents responsive to this request. In March 2009, the practice was implemented to pay 5% for each Water or Wastewater Operator license that was received by any Water or Wastewater operators up to the Superintendent level. This was a result of the pay and classification study that was completed in 2008. It was determined that it was necessary to augment the pay scales in order to reduce attrition. In July 2014, the practice was expanded to include Water or Wastewater employees other than operators.
2)  In a June 14th 10:24 pm e-mail City Manager Daniel Valenzuela said he wanted to quash concerns about Brandon's hiring with city council.  He said he wanted to update City Council tomorrow, which was June 15.  The information I reviewed lacked what Daniel did with City Council.  I would be interested in knowing Daniel's response to the citizen's concerns to members of City Council, the means and content of his communication with Council members.

2. Please find the attached email from Daniel Valenzuela. Portions of the e-mail included: 
The Assistant Water Treatment Administrator position was not “given” to anyone. We advertised the position, received 34 applications which included several good candidates, 5 of which were invited and interviewed.
Prior to offering Brandon the job, we checked with Lisa Marley in HR as well as the City Attorney to make sure there was no conflict considering his father’s position. Both were confident that there would be no conflict due to the fact of the multiple layers of supervision between father and son. It is also important to point out that this process was conducted with no involvement from Ricky Dickson.
3)  What was the pay range for the position before it was upgraded to Assistant Water Treatment Administrator?  What is the new pay range for the upgraded job?  How does this compare to information in the most recent wage survey for that position (information the city uses to keep its wage and salary program competitive?  Where does the city benchmark itself overall for competitive purposes?  Where does this position fit competitively relative to the city's overall pay program?

3. There are no documents responsive to this request. There was never a classification of an Assistant Water Production Superintendent. The previous position was the Water Treatment Supervisor, grade 20. The current salary range for that grade is $36,526 - $54,790. (The FTE from the vacant Supervisor position was used to create the new classification. The position is not replacing the Supervisor position.) The new classification is Assistant Water Treatment Administrator, grade 31. The current salary range for this grade is $61,516 - $91,991. The grade placement of the new position is in line with the current pay plan, based on requirements of the position and similar positions within the City. 

As for the question "Where does the city benchmark itself overall for competitive purposes?"

4)  A number of e-mails copied City Attorney Theresa Adams.  I never saw a reply from her.  Water Utilities Director Bill Riley wrote City Manager Daniel Valenzuela "Prior to offering Brandon the job we checked with Lisa Marley as well as the city attorney to make sure there was no conflict."  I would be interested in knowing when city legal staff advised on the process which resulted in the interviewing, hiring and employment of Brandon Sanders (dates and times).  If there is any further information that can be shared in this regard, I'd be most grateful for the opportunity to review it.

4. Lisa Marley worked with Bill Riley on his email response to Daniel, and she asked that he include that Theresa James was consulted on the hire. Lisa spoke with Theresa to be sure there was no conflict with the City nepotism policy once Brandon Dickson was the selected candidate. There are no documents associated with this conversation other than the nepotism policy, which is attached.

5)  Public Works Executive Director Ricky Dickson was copied several times in e-mails and there were no replies from him.  Did he at any point in the process expressly recuse himself from the hiring process once he learned his son was a candidate?  If there are any other e-mails from Ricky relative to the upgrading of the position, prior to his circulating the job descriptions on February 8th, I would appreciate the opportunity to review them.

5. There are no documents responsive to this request. Ricky Dickson did mention to Lisa Marley that he wanted to stay out of the process concerning Brandon. To her knowledge, the job description was the only input or involvement Ricky had in the process.
A confidential source believes Dickson set up the process for his son to be chosen for a greatly enhanced position with nearly an immediate opportunity for promotion. The reason they believe this is Ricky Dickson told them Brandon would be returning to city employment. The source says this conversation occurred in January, prior to Ricky's kicking off the search by circulating the revised job description in early February. 

The last time a citizen challenged Brandon's hiring leaders went into overdrive defending the action.  I've shared the city's stance extensively in this post and added information that could call the process into question.  Those who really know Ricky Dickson will have a sense as to what is true.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

City of San Angelo Courting Two Interstate Highways

The City of San Angelo Development Corporation funded the city's sponsorship of Ports-to-Plains/Interstate 27 and Interstate 14 running through town.  Interstate 27 would be a North-South route while Interstate 14 would be more East-West.  These two efforts are in sync, according to the Ports-to-Plains blog.

“Overall I view this as positive for Texas and Ports-to-Plains,” said PTP President Michael Reeves. “It shows that there is a recognized need for new interstates in Texas, provides a valuable new connection for the Ports-to-Plains Corridor, and also the potential for collaboration on an extension of Interstate 27.”
That collaboration involves the section of Interstate between San Angelo and Sterling City.  It would be branded both I-27 and I-14.

The Development Corporation approved $20,000 in sponsorship for the Ports-to-Plains Annual Meeting to be held in San Angelo September 13-15.  The budget called for $5,000 for a Port-to-Plains Summit and money for travel to a number of meetings, including PTP.  Annual dues for the year were estimated at $60,300.

City Councilwoman Charlotte Farmer said San Angelo City Manager Daniel Valenzuela approved another $20,000 in sponsorship money from the public coffers bringing the city's total donation to $40,000 for the upcoming Ports-to-Plain annual meeting.

San Angelo could go from no Interstates to two in a relatively short period of time.  Many people attribute San Angelo's charm to not being on an interstate.

Citizens recently turned out to share their concerns about local trash service, which city leaders designed and bid with little public input.  It will be interesting to see if and when city leaders update citizens on their interstate plans. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Devon Energy Monetizes Midland Basin Assets

San Angelo's Standard Times reported in July 2013

Geography, geology and charm brought Devon Energy to San Angelo.
The need for capital may take Devon Energy away from our area.  A corporate press release stated:

Devon Energy Corp. (NYSE: DVN) announced today it has entered definitive agreements to sell its remaining non-core assets in the Midland Basin for $858 million. These transactions include the Company’s upstream assets in the southern Midland Basin and its undeveloped leasehold in Martin County, Texas.

In the northern Midland Basin, Devon agreed to monetize its working interest across 15,000 net acres in Martin County, Texas along with 13,000 net acres in eight surrounding counties for $435 million. 

In a separate transaction, Devon entered into an agreement to sell its assets in the southern Midland Basin for $423 million. 
A June 2016 Investor Presentation showed Devon focusing on two areas for exploration, the Delaware Basin in Far West Texas and Eastern New Mexico and Oklahoma's STACK formation.  This raises questions as to how much longer Devon will be in San Angelo. 

Geology, geography and charm may not have been enough.  Will Pioneer Resources or the unnamed buyer take over Devon's San Angelo operation?  The answer may come at the next Development Corporation meeting.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Dickson's Son New Assistant Water Treatment Plant Superintendent

San Angelo's Public Works Department, headed by Executive Director Ricky Dickson, hired Brandon Dickson as Assistant Superintendent for the Water Treatment Plant.  Brandon is Ricky's son.

Public Works is an administrative office that oversees and coordinates the work of the three City departments that are most responsible for San Angelo’s municipal infrastructure – the Water Utilities, Engineering Services and Operations departments. 
This past week Brandon started work in the Water Utilities division under Water Production.

It turns out Brandon's father had a similar beginning.  The press release on Ricky's 2014 promotion to Public Works Executive Director stated:

He (Ricky) began his career with the City in 1990, working in Water Distribution/Waste Water Collection.
It's not clear if Ricky's start involved supervision.  In1994 Ricky began supervising street maintenance and today hold's that ultimate operational responsibility.   As you drive around San Angelo's city streets know Ricky Dickson supervised their maintenance for most of the last two decades.

This isn't the first Public Works father-son team.  City Councilman Dwain Morrison sang an early warning on Carollo Engineering's hiring of Blake Wilde after Blake had been fired from the city's Engineering Department for cause.  Carollo designed and managed construction of the Hickory Aquifer project for San Angelo's Water Department, then headed by Will Wilde, Blake's father.

Area citizen may have a bad taste in their mouth from the Wilde-Wilde father-son history.  That would mean a Dickson-Dickson father-son employment situation would need to be crystal clear and squeaky clean.  It would be concerning if the son were slotted for rapid advancement within his father's bailiwick.

Father's Day will have passed when City Council meets on Tuesday but relationships, like memories, live on.

Update 6-19-16:  The City's website has no record of an Assistant Superintendent for Water Production or Water Treatment Plant   Site searches on these terms produced no results and there is no current record of such a position in the City's Staff Directory.  This leads me to believe Brandon's position is new but I will confirm this with city staff.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Conserrvative Approach to Estimating Water Suppy = Aggresive Water Billing

City Council will entertain a presentation on water supply next Tuesday.  Water Chief Bill Riley informed council on the city's approach to estimating future water supply.  His memo states:

The City’s Drought / Conservation Plan implements different stages of drought levels based upon water supplies. This calculation takes into account our current and available surface supplies coupled w/ the minimum daily Hickory Groundwater pumping. CRMWD provides the number of remaining months for the City of San Angelo to continue bringing in water from O.H. Ivie. This calculation also takes a conservative approach by assuming a "no-inflow" scenario and also utilizes monthly evaporation rates established by the Texas Water Development Board for the area.
No-inflow and high evaporation rate assumptions mean the city enters drought levels much sooner than it did in the past.  Drought levels impose higher water rates on citizens.  As the drought level increases so do water prices.  A conservative approach to projecting water supply is an aggressive approach to billing San Angelo water users.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Will Water Board Put Brakes on Reclaimed Water?

The City of San Angelo's began exploring wastewater reuse a decade ago.   Most area citizens have only been aware of efforts the last two years.

In May 2014 City Council approved the hiring of Allan Plummer Associates to conduct a reclaimed water use study for a price not to exceed $190,000.  Allan Plummer's initial reclaimed water study for San Angelo occurred in 2006.  The 2006 study suggested putting treated water into Twin Buttes Reservoir.  The 2015 version puts treated water directly back into our water pipes.  This process has been referred to by opponents as "Toilet to Tap."

October 2014 found the city employing Raftelis Consulting to ensure citizen's water bills would rise enough to pay the $136 million needed to implement the use of wastewater for drinking purposes. Yes, there were verbal machinations over "not naming" a specific project but the funding happened to be enough for the reclaimed water project.  Raftelis's study cost an initial $90,000 plus an additional $17,000. 

The City's Water Advisory Board got a complete remake in April 2015.  It's not clear what sins the former board committed as they only met at staff's pleasure.   Several members did complain to Council about not meeting.  That's when staff and Council flushed the Water Board.

City staff updated the newly appointed Water Advisory Board on reclaimed water in their initial meeting.  The Board recommended a reclaimed water pilot study for direct potable reuse, estimated at $1.1 million, in June 2015.  In three week's time the pilot project added $100,000 in costs. 

On June 24, 2015, the COSADC Board approved an allocation of One Million Two Hundred Thousand and No/100 Dollars ($1,200,000.00) of sales and use tax proceeds for cost to be incurred by CITY in conducting a pilot test for the design of direct potable reuse of reclaimed water.

The reconstituted Water Advisory Board met in February 2016 to consider one strategy for San Angelo's future water supply, reclaimed water.  Staff failed to mention the possibility of further expansion of the Hickory Aquifer well field as a means to ensure future water supplies.

The Water Advisory Board stepped back to consider a number of other options, which they've done the last few months.   Water Chief Bill Riley will share options with the Water Board, including further Hickory expansion on Tuesday, June 14th.

The City of San Angelo's website currently states on its Water Utilities page::

Abundant rainfall in 2015 in no way diluted the need to urgently press forward in San Angelo’s efforts to secure more water. 

Our swath of West Texas is one of the few places in Texas where reservoirs remain at less than 20 percent of their capacity. In contrast, East and North Texas reservoirs are brimming with water. Unless significant runoff flows into O.H. Ivie Reservoir, San Angelo’s primary water source, it could be functionally dry next year. 

That underscores the continued need to diversify San Angelo’s water portfolio

And that’s exactly what we’re seeking to do

At the time of this writing, we are preparing to forward a recommendation from the Water Advisory Board (chaired by 2015 Citizen of the Year Mike Boyd) to the City Council that it approve a wastewater reuse project. That $136 million effort would make available to us approximately 7 million gallons per day. 
Recent rain runoff doubled the amount of water in Lake Ivie and area lakes are in better shape vs. a year ago.

Thus there is no current urgent need, no rush to pull the trigger on reclaimed water.  However, the project has momentum and staff have consistently pushed it as the solution.

The public will hear staff's update on current water sources and their ability to meet our water needs.  Hopefully Mr. Riley will share staff's assumptions in their predictions of how long our current supply will last.  While they failed to share all their math, staff assumed no rain and only counted surface water in making their prediction.  Thus, Hickory Aquifer water was not counted as a water resource.

The City's website states on Hickory:

In a worst-case scenario, the City could produce 9 MGD on a continual basis for five years before all the banked water would be used. Afterward, San Angelo would still be able to use its annual water allocation, which is currently 2,750 acre-feet per year. This amount increases to 5,000 acre-feet per year in 2021, to 10,000 acre-feet per year in 2026 and to 12,000 acre-feet per year in 2036.
The city has 40,000 acre feet of banked Hickory water, which will continue to grow as long as the city is minimally pumping.   The amount the city is allowed to carry in its Hickory bank will drop to 20,000 acre feet in 2026.  The Water Board must balance the reasonable use of Hickory water along with surface water supplies as it considers future water sources.

This week's Water Advisory Board will be interesting.  I look forward to watching the video. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Staff Failed to Update Water Board on Current Water Supplies

San Angelo's Water Advisory Board recent agenda had a variety of topics but it lacked a most basic one, the amount of water currently available to meet anticipated water needs.  Citizen Scott McWilliams shared his assessment with the Water Board.  He projected the city has an anticipated 17 years of water between the current 30 months of surface water, expected rainfall (firm annual yield based on drought of record) and use of a fully developed Hickory Water field.

The Water Advisory Board narrowed their list of future water sources to five.  Three of those included Hickory Aquifer expansion, rehabilitation of the E.V. Spence Lake pipeline and using reclaimed water, known as direct potable reuse or toilet to tap. 

Former City Councilman and Water Advisory Board member Kendall Hirschfeld commented on Lake Spence pipeline rehab.

"My concern would be spending $20 - $30 million today and Spence continues to do what it has the last couple of years."

For the last couple years Lake Spence is up over 18 feet.  It holds 51,200 acre feet of water today, four times more than it did two years ago.

I don't fault Water Advisory Board members.  There's no evidence city staff updated members with area lake levels and storage volumes.

Currently, the City has 40,000 acre feet of banked Hickory water which must be used in the next nine years or it will be lost.  Water users paid increased base fees and tiered water use charges since 2011 to fund the Hickory project and its $120 million price tag. 

Water rates have and will increase dramatically to fund the city's next big water find to the tune of $136 million.  That happened to be the price of direct potable reuse. 

The State of Texas and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have money available to fund projects/studies.  The State has low interest loans for approved water projects.  The Bureau of Reclamation, which owns Twin Buttes Reservoir, has grant funds for reclaimed water studies.  City staff applied for the federal grant and asked for the Water Advisory Board's endorsement for their $300,000 request. 

It will be interesting to see how our leaders go forward in the water arena.  Will Water Board members plan to use banked Hickory water in a measured way before it expires?  Will they explore staff assumptions on surface water that reduced over 50,000 physical acre feet of surface water to a projected 30,000 acre feet, the two year supply?  So far, they've been a relatively quiet group.  Pretty soon there might be much to talk about.  After all, it is water in West Texas.