Three of the five members of the Brown County Regional Sewer District Board have resigned amid allegations that the Brown County Health Department has been derailing the Bean Blossom sewer project and disparaging the current sewer board along the way.
But the two health department staff named at the May 2 sewer board meeting — John Kennard and Dr. Norman Oestrike — say they’re fully on board with the sewer project and have been all along and that the root of the problems is personality conflicts.
President Evan Werling, Secretary Nina Leggett and Treasurer Terri Schultz all submitted their resignations after Werling gave a nearly hourlong talk on “what the truth is about what’s been going on.”
Various groups have been working to bring sewer to the Bean Blossom area for more than 14 years. So far, the project has not progressed to the point of applying for state funding.
Werling blamed the lack of progress on former sewer board members, one of whom resigned after Werling joined the board, and on “mismanagement” in the health department.
The sewer board has no involvement in health department operations and vice-versa, but both groups must collaborate if Brown County is to have sewers in unincorporated areas. Nashville, Gnaw Bone and Helmsburg have their own sewer plants and boards.
Kennard is a former county commissioner, a former sewer board member and a current health department employee who focuses on septic systems. Oestrike, a neurologist and mechanical engineer, is the Brown County health officer and Kennard’s boss. Both were in the back row of the meeting; neither said anything.
Brown County Health Board President Jim Zimmerly, a nonvoting advisory member of the sewer board, also stayed silent. The health board hires/fires, advises and evaluates the health officer, who is responsible for running the health department.
Werling lambasted past sewer board members and the health board for a lack of detailed documentation about the need for the sewer project, and alleged “sabotage” by the health department when the sewer board tried to obtain a “boots on the ground” survey of septic system failures in the Bean Blossom area to show the need for the project.
He also brought up cost omissions in the sewer project engineering report, which a previous sewer board commissioned with county money.
At least four engineering reports have been done since 2001.
The July 2016 version, which was prepared for the current board, contains seven pages of data and photos documenting need for sewers. It mentions small lot sizes, hilly terrain, soil types that aren’t favorable for absorbing septic system discharge, 50-year-old septic systems still in use and photos showing likely signs of septic system failure on select properties.
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The Brown County Health Department is the primary source of that information.
The report does not list a hard number of how many properties in the Bean Blossom area are currently having septic system problems. It says, “The Brown County Health Department has cited several homeowners in the area for septic system failures and has denied issuing septic permits to several potential businesses and residences.”
“If you want to call that the ‘list,’ yes, we’ve got ‘em,” Kennard said last week about the citation letters. “But we don’t have a list that we’ve done a boots-on-the-ground inventory.”
The engineering report also cites stream analyses by the health department taken “at several locations throughout the Bean Blossom area.” E.coli counts were 2,400 parts per million downstream of the Bean Blossom Trailer Court in Hoppers Branch Creek, and 690 parts per million in a ditch on the north side of Covered Bridge Road, the report says.
Indiana Administrative Code says that the acceptable level of E.coli bacteria in all surface water is less than 125 CFU/100 mL over a 30-day period in five samples.
Parts per million and CFUs are equivalent measurements.
Kennard said last week that it was never determined if the source of that E.coli was animal or human; he had only recently found labs that could do that testing, and each test costs $400 so it’s cost-prohibitive.
In the meeting, Werling alleged that Oestrike had canceled a study the state was going to do of individual properties in the Bean Blossom area last fall. He showed an email from Zimmerly, the health board president, to Mike Mettler at the Indiana State Department of Health, requesting the state’s help with a sewer/land survey. Mettler responded with: “Got it. We’ll be in touch soon with details.”
Ken Severson, spokesman for Mettler and the state department of health, said in an email to The Democrat May 4 that “the state health department requires that any request to conduct a community survey of sewage disposal practices must come from the local health department, either directly from the local health officer or through a vote of the local health board.
“ISDH informed the Brown County Regional Sewer District of that practice when they submitted a request for our assistance,” Severson wrote. “We have not received a request from the local health department per that guidance.”
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Oestrike said that request won’t be coming from him, because that documentation isn’t needed and because conducting such a widespread survey is not practical with the staff he has.
He said he was asked if volunteers, such as sewer board members, could be trained to do it instead, but he’s not going to do that because detecting septic problems with certainty is not simple.
“The issue is much more complex,” he said. “First of all, we know that septic tanks have a finite life. They’re going to fail. Secondly, we know that the vast majority of Brown County, the topography and soil conditions are terrible for septics.
“How do you figure out how many are failing now? That can only be done if you know the history of how it was used, how it was put in, who’s been living there, how many people are living there, how much it’s been raining; otherwise, you can go see a septic that appears to be failing that 30 people stayed there on spring break and now the two people that ordinarily live there, it works fine.”
“But what we do know is that you can check ditches and lakes in the area and measure the E.coli counts and say we have failed septic tanks in this area, that area,” Oestrike said.
The former health officer, the late Dr. Paul Page, did allow and direct Kennard and former health department employee April Reeves to do house-by-house inspections in the Coffey Hill and Orchard Hill neighborhoods around the time Nashville annexed them, Oestrike said.
Kennard said that was mostly because Page was “kindhearted” and wanted to prove to people who were on fixed incomes that the project was absolutely necessary.
In response to a question from The Democrat about what kind of documentation of project need is either “required, recommended or customary for communities to gather and submit to the state when they are putting together a possible sewer project,” Severson answered that “a community survey is not always needed.”
“ISDH can often assess sewage disposal practices by reviewing permit records and using GIS to look at lot sizes and age of the homes in the area,” he wrote.
The sewer board made a public records request to Kennard, Oestrike and former health department office manager Judy Swift in October, asking for documents related to septic systems in the Bean Blossom, Woodland Lake, Greasy Creek Road, Creamer Road and Freeman Ridge Road areas.
Werling showed a letter from the health board’s attorney asking for his request to be revised because it was not particular enough and referred to septic systems “in” the roads instead of “along” or “on” the roads.
“When that happened, we gave up trying to get any information,” Werling said. “Talk about a slap in the face.”
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Kennard said the sewer board was offered another method of gathering information. The board was offered help to send postcards to people along the possible sewer routes, asking if the owners wanted sewer service.
Werling said the sewer board didn’t accept that offer because it would take too long to get a decent level of response back through the mail — and he and other sewer board members had already talked to people in the project area and knew they wanted sewer.
He said they were still working on getting documentation from the health department, so they didn’t try the postcard method as a backup. “How many times do you have to be stabbed in the back, spit on, before you realize you have a health department that won’t work with you?” he said.
He said he was afraid that if the health department wasn’t behind the Bean Blossom project, the project could get underway and the department could suddenly stop it.
Kennard and Oestrike said that wouldn’t happen. “I can’t tell you how many times in public meetings, he and I have said that we are in full support of the new sewer district,” Kennard said.
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Werling didn’t interpret their actions that way. “He cannot provide you with one iota of evidence that he ever tried to work with us,” he said about Oestrike, mentioning an email he sent to him offering to work together to find “positive solutions” for all of Brown County, to which Oestrike never responded.
“I didn’t see any reason to,” Oestrike said about responding. “I run the health department, but if he wants to know about sewers and other things, he needs to go to John or April. That was not going to happen.”
Werling said “the biggest disappointment” he’s had in all of this is losing Oestrike as his friend. “I love that guy,” he said.
The two used to meet for coffee multiple times a week, but they haven’t since Oestrike began working at the health department about four years ago.
Leggett described being at a health board meeting in November at which Oestrike lobbed “a whole bunch of cute expletives” at the sewer board.
The minutes Oestrike signed from that meeting say that Oestrike expressed being “very disappointed” with the board and that “no one from their board will talk to John Kennard, and he’s the expert.”
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More than once in the May 2 meeting, Werling mentioned a quote Kennard gave for a March 8 story in The Democrat that the sewer board needed to “get its act together.”
In response, Werling pointed out several problems he saw with the health department’s operations, including recordkeeping practices and a 2015 state review on select septic system installations. He asked the audience to think about whether or not the department was “out of control with ineffective management” and whether they have “been lied to by our local health department.”
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Werling told the audience he could fix the department’s records “in a matter of two months. I’ve been doing this all my life.” He later clarified that that doesn’t mean he wants to run the health department.
“No way in the world I would take on that project, with John Kennard and Dr. Oestrike in there,” he said, citing prior heart attacks and a pacemaker.
He also talked about projects Kennard had been involved in as a commissioner, which Werling said he studied and found to be financially unsustainable and unwise. He later clarified that he brought those up not to dwell on past wrongs, but to establish his credibility with the audience.
So, now what?
The resignations leave two members on the sewer board: Mike Leggins and Debbie Larsh, who’ve been involved in trying to bring sewer service to the Bean Blossom area for more than a decade.
The county council will need to appoint two more members, and the county commissioners, one. An advertisement is in today’s Marketplace section.
Leggins and Larsh said they didn’t know the resignations were coming.
The board had voted in February to build a sewer plant in the Bean Blossom area and had been talking about financing options.
They also had begun negotiating with Helmsburg about a possible sewer district partnership — one which that sewer board is interested in discussing, according to a May 4 letter from its lawyer.
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Leggins said he also saw some of the roadblocks Werling had been seeing, but he hoped the agencies could move past all of that and work together because he believes sewers are critical for the future of Bean Blossom and Brown County.
That’s one thing all parties could agree on.
Werling said he would be “elated” if the Helmsburg sewer district were to agree to partner with the Brown County sewer board for a project. “That will be a wonderful thing, because I think it is needed,” he said about sewer service.
“We’ve got to get it done no matter who comes on here next,” said Larsh, who’s lived in the area most of her life and said she’s gradually come around to believing in the sewer project.
“We’re intimately interested in having sewers, because that’s the only long-term solution for Bean Blossom and Brown County sewage,” Oestrike said.
“Internet, water, those are all important … but if you don’t have a (functioning) sewer district, they’re not going to do you any good,” Kennard said, talking about business opportunities.
“This doesn’t help,” Leggins said about the divisions among people working on the project. “The only thing that will help is industry, and that’s not going to happen without a sewage system.”
ABOUT THE BOARD
Evan Werling was appointed to the sewer board in January 2016 by the county council, replacing then-member Debbie Larsh. A retired CPA, he is a former member of the Brown County Economic Development Commission (resigned in March 2013; board no longer exists) and a former original member of the Brown County Redevelopment Commission (removed in February 2014 when Kennard was a county commissioner). Werling was elected president of the sewer board at his first meeting, replacing sitting president Steve Staley, owner of the Bean Blossom Trailer Court who had been on the board for 17 years. Staley resigned in March 2016 because of “conflicts in the board.” Werling said he took the sewer board appointment at Schultz’s and Leggett’s request. Werling’s term would have ended in 2018; he resigned May 2. The county council will appoint his replacement.
Terri Schultz was appointed to the sewer board in January 2015 by the county commissioners, replacing Teresa Oestrike, who resigned. Teresa Oestrike is married to Dr. Norman Oestrike, the Brown County health officer. Schultz’s term would have ended in 2019; she resigned May 2. The county commissioners will appoint her replacement.
Nina Leggett was appointed to the sewer board in January 2015 by the county commissioners, replacing health department employee John Kennard, who is responsible for septic system oversight in Brown County. Kennard said he would have liked to retain his seat. Leggett’s term would have ended in 2018; she resigned May 2. The county council will appoint her replacement.
Debbie Larsh has been a sewer board member since the days it was called the Bean Blossom Regional Sewer District, pre-2013 when the region was expanded to take in all areas in Brown County not covered by another sewer district. After missing a few months of board membership in early 2016 when sis didn’t reapply in time, Larsh was appointed by the county council to fill Steve Staley’s seat after he resigned. Her term ends in 2017.
Mike Leggins said he has been a board member for at least 14 years. He owns properties in the Bean Blossom area. The county council appointed him to a new four-year term early this year, ending in 2020.
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