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Rains can't hire or fire

The Medford Water Commission Wednesday stripped Manager Larry Rains of his ability to unilaterally hire and fire employees after he abruptly terminated the agency's spokeswoman. 

"We're taking a function away from a general manager," board member Jason Anderson said.

Rains, who is the subject of an ongoing performance review, fired Sara Bristol Friday without notifying the board in advance and without specifying a reason. However, Rains doesn't have to provide a reason to an employee during the one-year probationary period.

The board now requires Rains to notify it first before he fires or hires an employee.

Board member Bob Strosser voiced his concerns about firing Bristol because she has taken the lead in providing the public and media information about 16 lead pipes found so far this year in the water system. Strosser wanted the board to hold an executive session to find out why Rains took the action against Bristol without giving the board a head's up.

The commission held two executive sessions to discuss a performance review of Rains and to find out why Rains fired Sara Bristol, who had been praised by the board previously for her handling of the lead pipe issue.

The performance review is being conducted by Rudd Johnson of Crown Hill Consulting LLC in Medford.

Board Chairman Leigh Johnson said he couldn't discuss any of the findings in the performance review, although the board is expected to meet again on the subject at a future date.

"Until we finish our review of the work that Mr. Johnson did, we basically have everything in a holding pattern for a little while," Leigh Johnson said.

Bristol spoke before the board on Wednesday and said it was an honor for her to work with the commission for the past 10 months.

"I was disappointed to hear last Friday that 'it just isn't working out,' because I had big plans for the future," she said in a prepared statement.

Bristol said she'd hoped to overhaul the commission's website to be more mobile friendly and to undertake more public outreach, including with schools and other organizations.

"Of course, I've also played a more public role the last three months as the face of the commission in the midst of the lead investigation," she said.

Bristol said she had added several dozen locations that required more investigation for lead pipes during the past three months.

Rosie Pindilli, water quality manager, said she was a little uneasy after learning that Bristol was let go because the Water Commission is now without a professional spokesperson.

"Sara has represented us very well in regards to the news media," Pindilli said.

The board also approved spending $60,000 to hire four temporary workers as well as equipment to speed up locating additional lead pipes in the system.

Water crews have identified 286 locations where more investigation is required. So far, exploratory holes have been dug at 50 of the locations, requiring additional manpower to look at the remaining 230.

So far 16 lead pipes, known as pigtails, have been found and are being replaced with copper pipes.

The board also agreed to pay $250 toward any blood tests from residents who are concerned about high lead levels in their water where a pigtail has been found.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.