Johnson Utilities ACC hearing

Johnson Utilities officials, from left, attorney Jeffrey Crockett, CEO Gary Drummond and Chief Operating Officer Brad Cole, listen as the Arizona Corporation Commission questions environmental officials about past sewage violations alleged against the company April 17 in Phoenix.

PHOENIX — Tensions rose on Wednesday as the Arizona Corporation Commision’s hearing on Johnson Utilities ground on for its third day.

Testimony from Trevor Baggiore, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s water quality division director, stretched past noon in its second day, and he continued to evade attempts by ACC staff and the Residential Utility Consumer Office to get him to give his opinion on the appointment of an interim manager or to directly connect violations to managerial failures at Johnson Utilities.

Staff became visibly frustrated as Baggiore continued to deflect any questions intended to elicit his professional opinion on the San Tan Valley utility’s operations.

When asked around the eighth hour of testimony, after spending hours going through a litany of violations, especially raw sewage spills, whether Johnson Utilities was struggling, Baggiore replied that the word “struggling” had no context.

Queen Creek and Florence lawyer Albert Acken did get Baggiore to give his professional opinion that raw sewage flowing down the street represents a clear danger to public health.

When asked if there was anything about Johnson Utilities’ relationship with ADEQ he would like to see improved, Baggiore replied “not currently.”

David Dunnaway, value stream manager in ADEQ’s water quality division, also took the stand and described ADEQ’s relationship with the utility as typical and satisfactory, while also admitting that they had more violations than other utilities of the same size and that they were the only utility with which ADEQ held regular quarterly meetings.

Johnson Utilities representative Jeffrey Crockett tried to paint a picture of a utility that worked well with regulators to fix violations, and to minimize the violations detailed by the other parties in the case.

ACC staff and RUCO representatives kept circling back to a December 2016 incident in which ADEQ was locked out of a Johnson Utilities facility and had to get a warrant to take samples at the plant, delaying the water sample collection by a couple of days.

Dunnaway admitted he had never heard of a similar incident taking place in his line of work. He also said that it is not unusual for Johnson Utilities to be overdue in coming into compliance on violations and over the last four years, they were overdue 53 percent of the time. Dunnaway said that some problems noted by ADEQ in inspections were due to managerial failures, but resisted characterizing management as failing generally.

Despite these lines of questioning, both ADEQ witnesses maintained that the current working relationship with Johnson Utilities was acceptable and continued to avoid taking a stance on the appointment of an interim manager.

Pinal County lawyer Kevin Costello did not question witnesses, as has been the county’s protocol the entire hearing.

Meanwhile at the Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor Mike Goodman urged the county to take a more proactive approach in the hearings and expressed disappointment that the county was not calling witnesses.

“Intervening allows our constituents to be witnesses through the county, providing them added legal protection from Johnson Utilities litigation,” Goodman said.

He said there are incidents of raw sewage spillage that continue to be undocumented by Johnson Utilities.

“We have also had spillage in common areas of subdivisions and in our streets. … I believe it’s our duty to be involved and see that this problem is solved once and for all,” he said. “If we continue to take a back seat — in my perception, that’s what we’re doing — and are not proactive in this matter now, my concern is that this will be a bigger issue down the road.”

At the end of the ACC hearing, those present resigned themselves to the likelihood that the testimonies will continue into next week.

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