A Gilbert water official has filed a $750,000 discrimination claim against the town after, she says, management retaliated against her for publicly exposing a prolonged stoppage of voter-mandated fluoridation.
Water-quality supervisor Dipti Shah claims she discovered in 2011 that Gilbert was no longer pumping fluoride into the water supply at one of its two treatment plants and made note of that in the town’s annual consumer-confidence report last year.
Safety concerns had prompted town water officials to shut down the fluoride pump after the system began spewing a white powder, which was later tested and deemed a potential health hazard to employees.
Word of the shutdown never made it to the highest levels of town management, and the pump sat unused for more than a year. Gilbert has since hired a contractor to rebuild the system, and fluoridation recommenced in February.
Shah claims it was her disclosure of the fluoridation stoppage that brought the issue to the public’s attention, prompting an outcry from residents and the departure of the town’s public-works director and water manager.
Within 45 days of Shah’s report, town officials began moving forward with a plan to remove her from her job after nearly 10 years, according to a notice of claim filed on March 7.
Beginning last August, Shah was “subjected to several adversarial long meetings and subject to investigations with the clear intent to retaliate against her,” the claim says.
Phoenix attorney Brad Schleier, who filed the claim, did not respond to a request for comment. The town does not comment on pending legal matters.
Shah claims that town officials “interrogated” her several times about how she discovered the lack of fluoride and whether she was using proper lab procedures to test the chemicals.
In September, Shah says she was confronted by Gilbert’s human-resources director, who said Shah had “exposed the town” and asked if she would like to be placed on leave.
Meanwhile, the Gilbert Town Council had approved a $367,000 contract with Colorado-based CH2M Hill Engineers to perform an independent audit of the town’s water operations. The audit found Gilbert to be meeting bare-minimum quality standards while struggling with communication and personnel issues.
Shah says CH2M Hill’s lab manager entered her office and began pulling files, personal belongings and confidential staff personnel files, saying he had been ordered to take everything out of her office, according to the claim.
Shah disputed some findings in the private company’s audit but was placed on leave after her response was deemed to be “argumentative,” according to the claim.
By the end of November, Shah was fired. She quickly filed an internal appeal of the termination and a whistle-blower claim with the U.S. Department of Labor, and the town reinstated her in January.
But Shah was once again placed on administrative leave and, on Feb. 28, was issued a second performance inquiry. A week later, her attorney filed the claim, which is often a precursor to a civil lawsuit.
Despite Shah’s claim that the disciplinary actions came in retaliation to disclosure of the fluoridation stoppage, neither performance inquiry issued to her mentions the fluoride controversy directly.
Instead, Shah’s supervisors alleged that she treated staff and peers with disrespect and created a divisive work environment. The memos also describe reporting inaccuracies and failure to work cooperatively with CH2M Hill.
Gilbert began fluoridation in 2002 after a contentious public debate that culminated in the approval of a resident referendum in November 2000. The measure passed with 54 percent of the vote.
At the time, Gilbert had just one water-treatment plant, and town officials had opted to convert a system designed for adjusting pH levels rather than build an entirely new system for fluoridation.
Design flaws in the initial system may have led to its demise and created a potential health hazard to employees working in and around the pump area, according to town documents and statements from two former water-division employees.
The fluoridation equipment was not contained within a separate, well-ventilated room, as such systems typically are, according to a town memo. As pipes, fittings and gauges on the pumping system began to corrode, white powder formed on the equipment, causing a burning sensation in the eyes, skin and nose of some workers, the memo said.
Tests conducted in August 2011 — one month after officials halted fluoridation — found evidence in the powder of the hazardous chemical hydrofluorosilicic acid, which had apparently evaporated and crystallized, according to an industrial-hygiene report by IHIEnvironmental.
A new fluoride pump at the North Water Treatment Plant cost about $235,000 to build and includes several improvements from the initial system.