Embattled Medford Water Commission Manager Larry Rains has been placed on paid administrative leave after months of controversy stemming from the discovery of lead in local drinking water.
"I plan to resign at the end of October," said Rains, who appeared stunned by the developments that led to his ouster following five executive sessions held by the Water Commission board over the last two months.
The board unanimously approved paid administrative leave effective Wednesday afternoon for Rains through the end of the month until a severance package deal can be worked out. Rains receives $147,576 annually plus benefits.
"Thank you very much for your service to the Medford Water Commission," said board member Lee Fortier.
The board appointed Eric Johnson, principal engineer, to be interim manager.
Board members declined to discuss the issues that transpired or release details about a severance package, though Rains' contract indicates he could be entitled to up to one year of pay.
"He's decided to retire effective the 31st," board member Bob Strosser said. "Anything that is hinged on discussions in the executive session, I'm not going to talk about."
Rains, who was getting ready to leave his office for the last time Wednesday after 28 years with the commission, declined to be interviewed after the meeting.
Rains' decision to step down came after the board learned that lead pipes known as pigtails were found in the water system despite claims by Rains to the contrary.
To date, 21 lead pipes have been found. In three instances where it was possible to test the water and where residents agreed to the tests, lead levels exceeded the federal EPA action level of 15 parts per billion.
Water Commission crews have found 298 locations where there is some indication that a lead pipe might be located underground. Of these, 111 have been checked. The Water Commission has hired two temporary employees to speed up the search for lead pipes.
In September, the Water Commission relieved Rains of his ability to unilaterally hire and fire employees after he abruptly terminated the agency's spokeswoman, Sara Bristol, without notifying the board in advance and without specifying a reason. However, Rains doesn't have to provide a reason to employees during their one-year probationary period.
On several occasions, board members praised Bristol's handling of the lead-pipe issue.
The Mail Tribune on July 17 reviewed emails and other documents from the Water Commission that shed some light on Rains' handling of the emerging lead-pipe problem.
On May 4, Rains told the board, “To my knowledge we have no known lead piping that exists in our system today,” though he added he couldn’t be 100 percent certain.
On the same day he made that statement, the commission's service crew discovered a lead pigtail on Newtown Street in west Medford. On May 27, another pigtail was found on Oakdale Avenue, and tests taken at a tap inside the house confirmed high lead levels. Water Commission records show a lead connector had been found on Oakdale Avenue before, in August 2015, almost a year prior to Rains' statement.
Commission Water Quality Manager Rosie Pindilli, in a May 11 memo to Rains, wrote she had "stated many times that we should not claim we have no lead lines until we prove we do not — that could become a public nightmare.”
Despite a public records request from the Mail Tribune, the Water Commission has refused to release a performance review of Rains that delved into his leadership style and performance. The review included meetings with current employees.
Johnson, the interim manager, said he will await further instructions from the board to determine the extent of his responsibilities.
"I will do what is requested by the board," he said. "We will continue on with the lead pigtail search and the corrosion study."
The corrosion study will determine how Medford's water interacts with pipes, and whether it is leaching out toxic metals such as lead or copper. The study will suggest ways to counteract leaching.
Johnson said Wednesday afternoon he hasn't had time to consider other questions about his new role. He said he didn't know whether the board wanted him to rehire Bristol.
"There has not been enough time to consider that," he said. "There has been no conversation about anything. I'll leave that up to the board's discretion."
Johnson said he expects the board will draft some kind of memo that will spell out his responsibilities as interim manager.
— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.