Politics & Government

Is it a conflict of interest for the Granite City mayor to serve on two sewer boards?

State Rep. Jay Hoffman discusses appointments to MESD board, director

State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, discusses legislation to prevent the director of the Metro-East Sanitary District from having a long-term contract, and would take away an appointment from Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler, a Republican.
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State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, discusses legislation to prevent the director of the Metro-East Sanitary District from having a long-term contract, and would take away an appointment from Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler, a Republican.

The Granite City mayor now has the potential of being on two boards that oversee sewer systems, which would give him influence over nearly 80 sewer-related jobs and more than $14.5 million in sewer-related spending.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has signed legislation that changes the appointment process to the five-person Metro East Sanitary District Board by assigning one spot on the board of commissioners to the mayor, or his designee, of the largest town in the district. That town is now Granite City, whose mayor is Ed Hagnauer, a Democrat.

Hagnauer already is the chairman of the regional sewer board. Among existing points of contention with the MESD, some Republican legislators now contend that allowing Hagnauer to serve both boards constitutes a conflict of interest.

The new law, which goes into effect on Jan. 1, also requires the executive director of the MESD to live within the district, and would prevent the executive director from having a long-term contract. The legislation was one of more than 145 bills Pritzker’s office announced in a Friday news release the governor had signed with no fanfare.

Former Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed similar legislation last year. With a new governor and larger Democratic majorities in place, the bill sponsors were able to pass the legislation and this time get it signed.

(Senate bill) 584 passed the House and Senate with veto-proof majorities and was supported by the Illinois Municipal League,” said Jordan Abudayyeh, Pritzker’s press secretary, in a statement to the BND. “The governor looks forward to continuing to work with local stakeholders in the Metro East to grow jobs and spur economic development in the region.”

It would give local Democrats control over a district that has seen cutbacks in order to balance its budget after nine years of running budget deficits. Those cutbacks included cutting 28 jobs at the district after Steve Adler, a Republican, took over as executive director.

The MESD currently has 47 employees. Adler and his board of commissioners oversee roughly $7.9 million worth of expenses a year, according to its website.

The Granite City wastewater treatment plant has 32 employees and a $6.6 million budget, according to Superintendent Jeff Hamilton.

Adler said the district in the past was the crown jewel of the metro-east when it comes to patronage jobs for local Democrats. He called the legislation politically motivated.

Currently, the Madison County Board Chairman Kurt Prenzler, a Republican, appoints three people to the MESD board. St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern, a Democrat appoints two members.

Each county’s board chairman must appoint at least one member from the opposing political party to the board.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner was in Granite City to veto an Illinois State Senate bill which would have changed the makeup of the Metro East Sanitary District board, which the governor feels is a political manipulation.

Regional sewer board

The MESD also is a part of the Granite City Sewerage System, a regional system that also covers Glen Carbon, Special Service Area 1 of Madison County and Granite City. The entities all send sewer water to the Granite City facility. The regional system has a 12-person board.

Ed Hagnauer Provided

Under an intergovernmental agreement Granite City Sewerage System, the mayor of Granite City names five people to the 12-person board, as well as appointing one of the 12 members as chairman of the board.

His office said Monday morning that he was overseeing flash flooding that occurred after storm that dropped between 5.5 and 7.5 inches of rain on Granite City.

Hagnauer, who also serves on the Madison County Transit Board, has not return phone calls seeking comment since.

The MESD, appoints four people to the Granite City regional sewage system board. Glen Carbon has one member, and special service area one in Madison County has two positions. The positions on the regional board are not paid according to the regional agreement.

However, being a commissioner on the MESD board pays $14,495 a year.

Hagnauer being allowed to potentially be on both the MESD board and the regional sewage board was among the points of contention brought up by those who opposed the legislation.

During floor debate in the House in May, state Rep. Charlie Meier, R-Okawville, asked if it would be a conflict of interest to allow the Granite City mayor to serve on both boards.

While on the House floor, bill sponsor state Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Swansea, said he would offer up follow-up legislation to prevent the Granite City mayor from being paid by both boards.

“I would be willing to pass a trailer bill that indicates the mayor wouldn’t receive any additional salary as a result of serving on this board, but if he has a designee, that person would,” Hoffman said.

Stephen Adler, Metro-East Sanitary District executive director, and Don Sawicki, MESD board member, discuss possible changes to the MESD board that have been proposed in legislation passed by the General Assembly. The bill goes to Gov. Bruce Rauner

Granite City charging MESD

Opponents of the legislation also say the MESD was overcharged by the Granite City Wastewater treatment plant, and it was discovered by current MESD personnel.

However, when one of the four entities that isn’t charged the correct amount over the course of a year, the following six months is used to correct the error.

If one of the entities is overcharged, it can be reimbursed for the overage or have the amount credited over the next six months, said Hamilton, the Granite City sewer plant superintendent.

If an entity is undercharged, it then has six months to make up the difference.

According to records obtained from the Granite City Wastewater treatment plant, MESD was billed nearly $1.6 million during 2018, but only paid $929,000 to Granite City. The billing records also indicate credits being applied in one month to MESD’s account and some bills of $0.

Adler contends Granite City and MESD have a good relationship, and “bills were paid unless there is a disagreement over the charges; in fact, MESD was repaid credits due to overcharges last year.”

080417tvgiganticpumpmotors (2)
Metro East Sanitary District Director Steve Adler is dwarfed by the massive pump motors inside the pumping station where the Cahokia Canal enters the Mississippi River. Tim Vizer tvizer@bnd.com

Sewer line break

Another point of contention was the discharge of untreated sewer water into the Mississippi River, because of a sewer line break on May 9, 2017 that occurred when Bob Shipley was still the executive director of the sanitary district.

Shipley alerted the MESD board of the break on May 17 during a board meeting, according to district minutes.

Letting the untreated water flow into the river was a violation, and the district received a violation notice from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which was sent on May 18, 2017.

The MESD commissioners approved a separation agreement with Shipley on May 22, 2017, district minutes show.

Adler, who was a deputy county administrator at the time, was then appointed as the executive director of the MESD at the same meeting.

Each day, about 2 million gallons of raw sewage and storm water are being pumped into the Mississippi River because of a sewer main break. The sewage is upstream from the area's main drinking water intake.

Work on the sewer line could not begin to take place until the river level went down, but that meant millions of gallons of untreated sewer water spewed into the Mississippi River for several months.

“You shouldn’t be dumping raw sewage into the Mississippi River. That is unacceptable and shouldn’t happen,” Hoffman said. “That all has happened under the current executive director and the current board.”

Work to fix the break was concluded on Aug. 15, 2017 and there are no other problems at the location, the IEPA said.

“MESD is not under citation by IEPA for anything, and the dumping of sewage initiated by my predecessor, which was repaired on my watch,” Adler said in an email to the BND.

Adler added the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wouldn’t allow any excavation until the river went down low enough, in order to prevent any kind of sand boils, a decision that was made before he joined the district.

Complaints of MESD

Among the issues Hoffman brought up during about the district, was a contention that the district doesn’t maintain ditches and other lines it’s responsible for. Hoffman also said there have been sidewalks and roads collapsing because of mismanagement of the MESD.

“All you have to do is go to Granite City and see the mosquito infested ditches they don’t even mow that are right next to school districts, and then tell me it has something to do with politics. Hoffman said.

Adler also contended that any repair and maintenance is done immediately.

“I might add that the flood systems performed well during the second highest flood level recorded since 1785,” Adler said.

Opponents of the legislation have said operations within the MESD have improved since Adler took over day-to-day oversight and new commissioners have joined the board.

Prenzler even touted efforts during Monday’s storms as some areas did not experience flooding as they had in years past.

“The past couple of years Metro East Sanitary District worked to make improvements in the system,” Prenzler said in a news release. “The level of Horseshoe Lake was lowered to increase water storage capacity and the ditches and canals were cleaned out to improve the flow of storm water.”

Joseph Bustos is the state affairs and politics reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, where he strives to hold elected officials accountable and provide context to decisions they make. He has won multiple awards from the Illinois Press Association for coverage of sales tax referenda.