Hebron sewer plant operator gone; describes tense, unsafe atmosphere

Describes tense atmosphere she says was intended to push her out of job

HEBRON – The woman in charge of Hebron’s $4.5 million sewer plant before she stepped down last week says the facility became an “experimental playground” for a colleague once she clocked out.

Satrina Yates said she quit Tuesday morning after months of unsafe and tense working conditions she said were aimed at prompting her departure. Among her reasons is an atmosphere fostered by Village President John Jacobson and former village consultant Mike Miller that she said undermined her authority as the plant’s licensed operator and allowed a public works employee below her free rein.

“[Miller] was setting me up to run the plant backwards to have violations,” Yates said. “He was telling me to do things that weren’t right for the plant just to make it not function, not run properly.”

Village Trustee Susan Ritzert said the public works employee was being groomed to take over for Yates, a move she believes Jacobson saw as a money saver. The village of Hebron is gripped by debt to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for nearly the entirety of the loan to pay for the sewer plant.

Jacobson and Miller did not return calls for comment for this story.

Yates was hired by the village in 2006 and had been the wastewater treatment plant’s licensed operator since it was finished a year later. She was one of the last core employees from a village staff that has seen widespread turnover since Jacobson was elected last spring.

The sewer plant operator now joins a clerk, public works director and two treasurers on a tally of top village staffers who’ve quit since Jacobson took office. The public works department’s second-in-command was also fired late last year, as was a police officer who issued Jacobson a ticket for driving under the influence in 2011.

Before Yates, no employee who had left had spoken openly about their time with the village or their reasons for leaving. Ritzert, a trustee of 11 years, has blamed Jacobson’s over-control, shoddy communication, intimidation and shady tactics for the turnover.

Yates said the village leadership made it difficult to do her job. She said she feared being fired or that the working conditions would cause an accident at the plant for which she would be held accountable because of her license.

She said she came in one morning to find a public works employee doing a “full transfer” – during which the contents of the south tank are completely drained into the north tank, usually for maintenance purposes. She said she also caught the employee working after she’d locked up for the night, and that he was “pushing buttons, pulling levers, and draining things he’s not supposed to.”

“I was locking the gate and leaving, and then it became a free-for-all,” Yates said. “God knows what was going on when I wasn’t there.”

Such actions were prompted by Miller, whose control of the plant grew, Yates said, during his four months as a consultant, which ended in March. Miller, who was paid $2,200 a month during the time, was also working full time for the village of East Troy, Wis. Yates said she was originally under the impression that he would help provide needed maintenance to the facility, but soon felt he was there to groom the public works employee for her job.

“Making plans, making repairs – that was never addressed,” Yates said.

Finances continue to permeate every discussion in Hebron with the loan to the IEPA hanging over the village’s head. The village had been making interest-only payments until September, when the first $175,000, semiannual payment on the loan was due.

The village was unable to make in full that payment or the more recent payment in March.

IEPA spokeswoman Kim Biggs said the agency is in talks with the village and trying to be flexible.

“We have received some payment on it, but the primary focus on it right now is that we’re asking them to provide the information as to why they’re not able to make the payments and to provide a plan to get them back on track,” Biggs said.

Village Attorney Michael Smoron said that paperwork is currently being compiled. He added that the village has talked with the IEPA about a plan to forgive some of the debt, but that the agency has said such a measure might require federal legislation, since the money didn’t come merely from the state.

“Nobody’s made any commitment. Nobody’s made any promises,” Smoron said. “But I think the IEPA is aware of our difficult situation.”

As for replacing Yates, the public works employee who Ritzert and Yates believe was being groomed for the position ultimately wouldn’t qualify.

To get even the lowest distinction of wastewater operating license, a Class 4, Illinois requires at least one year of wastewater operating experience, according to the IEPA’s website.

“They aren’t allowed to run it without an operator,” Biggs said of the Hebron plant. “They have to provide us with a plan as to when they expect to replace that operator.”

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