oak bluffs commissioners
Wastewater commissioners Hans von Steiger (left) and Robert Iadicicco fail to see eye-to-eye on the future of the Oak Bluffs plant. Mr. von Steiger has voted twice to oust plant manager Joe Alosso (foreground); Mr. Iadicicco staunchly opposes. — Ivy Ashe

The Oak Bluffs wastewater commission Tuesday rescinded a recent decision to eliminate plant manager Joseph Alosso’s position, instead forwarding a recommendation to the town selectmen that they take the same action.

With town counsel Ronald Rappaport, labor counsel Jack Collins, Mr. Alosso, interim town administrator Robert Whritenour and selectman Michael Santoro attending the meeting, the commission voted unanimously to rescind its Jan. 26 decision to eliminate Mr. Alosso’s position for budgetary reasons. The board then voted 2-1 to recommend the selectmen eliminate the position.

Selectmen later took no action but said they intend to look into the the matter.

Mr. Rappaport and Mr. Collins both said the commission did not have the power to eliminate Mr. Alosso’s job; that power rested with the selectmen, they said. Counsel prepared motions for the board to read.

Commissioners Gail Barmakian and Hans von Steiger voted to recommend that the selectmen eliminate the position, effective July 1. Commissioner Robert Iadicicco voted against the measure.

Ms. Barmakian reiterated her financial concerns about the wastewater department operating at a deficit.

“We need to take proactive steps and assure the public that we’re doing everything we can to avoid raising rates,” she said. She has argued that the wastewater plant could operate without the plant manager’s position, and would save about $70,000 by taking that step.

Beyond personnel issues, the commission discussed ongoing issues with unpaid wastewater bills, listing outstanding debts from 2005 to 2011 of about $81,000 that have resulted in liens on homes, and outstanding 2012 bills of $285,263, and whether they have the means to collect money from unpaid bills.

The wastewater department’s financial situation is not like the situation Oak Bluffs has recently found itself in, Ms. Barmakian said, with revenues not meeting expectations.

As he did last week, Mr. Iadicicco spoke against the decision to eliminate the manager position, calling it unwarranted. “I would oppose this action,” he said. “[Mr. Alosso] has been here since the day the plant opened, he organized and trained the staff, he has overseen several million dollars worth of expansion, [been] personally involved in every project, and has always performed in an exemplary manner.”

“If the board sees fit to reduce personnel at the plant, that’s one issue,” he said. “But summarily dismissing the manager I think is unconscionable,” he added, saying that the decision implies his services are less than satisfactory, which is not the truth.

He and the other commissioners disagreed on whether the board has ever discussed eliminating the plant manager’s position. Ms. Barmakain said the manager’s position has been a subject of ongoing discussion before the wastewater commission, and took note of the fact that other similar wastewater plants combine the roles of chief operator and plant manager.

“This position has been discussed, or the necessity of it has been discussed, for about a year and a half and most recently since Sept. 29 when we had the cost-cutting discussion,” she said, noting that town officials had called for both cutting staff and raising rates.

Mr. Iadicicco disagreed, saying the budget has been under discussion but the decision to eliminate Mr. Alosso’s position was a “bolt from the blue.” And he questioned the two other commissioners about a discussion they had in the hallway prior to the meeting last week, calling it a “back room consultation.”

“Bob, you make an accusation that’s completely untrue,” said Mr. von Steiger, who said he and Ms. Barmakian did not discuss anything relating to Mr. Alosso’s dismissal, but instead discussed agenda matters.

Mr. Alosso, who spoke little at the meeting, said if the commissioners privately discussed a matter on the agenda, they had violated the state open meeting law. “Just so you know,” he said.

Yesterday he spoke to the Gazette by telephone and addressed the issue of cost-cutting at the plant. “I think we certainly haven’t had a meaningful discussion about how to reduce costs [at the wastewater plant],” Mr. Alosso said, adding that he hopes to be included in those discussions.

He said it is hard for wastewater users to pay their bills in a struggling economy. “I think it’s unfortunate and I feel for the users that can’t pay their bills,” he said. “But I can’t control the economy...[we] can’t get money from people who don’t have it.”

Mr. Alosso said it wasn’t for him to decide if the plant needs both a manager and a chief operator. Other employees may be capable of doing the work he does, he said, but it would take away from their other tasks. The other staff at the plant is “not capable of doing what I do now as well.”

Meanwhile, “I keep going to work each day,” he said.

On Tuesday this week, Mr. Alosso submitted his resignation from his job as wastewater manager at the Edgartown plant, following a report criticizing his management and billing practices there.

In Oak Bluffs the matter now moves on to the hands of the town selectmen. A few hours after the wastewater commission met, the selectmen briefly discussed wastewater matters at their meeting.

“I don’t know how the board feels, but I’m concerned about the wastewater and the commission and how it’s operating and functioning, “ said Mr. Santoro. “Today they rescinded their vote that they took last week. I would like to see the [selectmen] be a little more active and maybe see if we can’t get some type of audit, not only a financial audit but also a management audit . . . I think that needs to be done sooner than later.” He asked Mr. Whritenour for guidance.

Mr. Whritenour said the town would soon have the results of a financial audit that examined billing practices, to make sure the town didn’t have any of the same billing issues that took place in Edgartown. He also noted that the Oak Bluffs plant does not accept septage, which was the main source of billing discrepancies in Edgartown.

Ms. Barmakian said the wastewater commission intends to give the board a more comprehensive recommendation regarding the staffing at the plant, and the duties of each position. “We all want to do the right thing, and we want to follow proper process, and we want to follow the proper sequence,” she said.