Madison Water Chief Resigns

Ron Seely

Wisconsin State Journal

David Denig-Chakroff's tenure as general manager of the problem-plagued Madison Water Utility will end next month.

Mayor David Cieslewicz announced Monday that the city has negotiated a $130,596 buyout of Denig-Chakroff's five-year contract, a contract that was penned just last year as the utility was reeling from a series of management mishaps, including a slow and inadequate response to high levels of manganese in several city wells and repeated failures to be forthcoming about other problems.

The agreement, which will be presented to the City Council on Sept. 4 for its approval, calls for Denig-Chakroff to leave his post on Sept. 21. Cieslewicz said City Engineer Larry Nelson will oversee operation of the water utility until a new general manager is hired.

"Given the number of concerns that have surfaced recently at the water utility, David and I agreed that this was the best course for the city and for him,'' Cieslewicz said Monday afternoon in a statement. "I support this settlement as a fair way to end his employment. I thank David for his long service to the city.'' In a statement released by the mayor's office, Denig-Chakroff said "I am confident this settlement is the best course for both the utility and the community.'' The buyout of the contract, which was to have run until 2011, will pay Denig-Chakroff $75,535 in accrued benefits such as vacation and sick time and $55,061 for five months worth of salary and health insurance premiums. Money for the settlement will come from utility funds and not tax dollars, according to Michael May, city attorney.

Starting over Ald. Zach Brandon, 7th District, who has repeatedly expressed concerns about leadership at the utility, said the buyout was probably the best resolution to a difficult situation. Denig-Chakroff's contract included a provision that prevented the city from firing him until next year, two years into the contract. It would have been difficult for the city to endure another year of controversy, Brandon said.

"This and crime have become the two hot-button issues,'' Brandon said. "You can't go anywhere without somebody bringing it up.'' Brandon added that some of his constituents had lost faith in the city's ability to right the listing utility.

"This allows us to start over, allows us to push reset,'' Brandon said. "The mayor's office and the city attorney feel pretty strongly that a protracted disciplinary action would have cost us more in the long run.'' Brandon, who said he was planning to introduce a resolution of no confidence regarding utility management, said he anticipates that more management changes may be ahead at the agency. He said one of the first steps will be an evaluation of the rest of the management team. "A lot is going to have to change,'' he added.

Ald. Brenda Konkel, 2nd District, agreed. She said problems at the utility run deep, including a lack of commitment to more open communication with the public.

"I don't think this action alone is going to solve the problems,'' Konkel said.

Cieslewicz said Denig-Chakroff's departure is only the first step in a number of other necessary changes. He said he expects Nelson to evaluate operation of the utility during his interim stay and to make recommendations for further improvements.

"The first thing is to re-establish public trust in the water utility,'' Cieslewicz said. "I think David's moving out is only part of what we needed to do. We'll be looking at communication and we'll be looking at how the rest of the staff works together.'' Priscilla Mather, who heads the water commission but is scheduled to step down in September, has been a supporter of Denig-Chakroff. She said many of the changes he put in place in the last several months will help make the transition to new management easier.

Mather said Denig-Chakroff was undone at least partly by a sea change in the way such public utilities are now operated. She said utilities must be much more answerable to the public than in the past and more open to communicating about technical and public health issues. In the past, she added, the utility was a "cozy little backwater,'' that received little attention from the public. That has now changed, she said, and that change may have been difficult for Denig-Chakroff.

"What have been considered public works functions now have to be transparent and understandable to the public,'' Mather said. "That was a challenge. In the future, utilities will always need to keep as a priority the education of the public.'' Water commission member Jon Standridge, who has been a vocal critic of Denig-Chakroff, said necessary change at the utility, including a commitment to more openness and a more participatory management style, were not pursued aggressively enough under Denig-Chakroff's leadership.

"The spark wasn't there,'' Standridge said.

His biggest regret, Standridge said, is that action wasn't taken sooner. "Now, I think we're headed in the right direction.'' Denig-Chakroff's view In interviews later Monday, Denig-Chakroff said he will take a few days off before returning to the utility to work with Nelson to ensure a smooth transition. He said that after he leaves the utility he intends to take some time off but then will seek a management position with another utility.

"He's done this for 30 years,'' said Marie Stanton, Denig-Chakroff's attorney. "He's not ready to give it up.'' Discussing the problems that led to his departure, Denig-Chakroff said he is disappointed that much of the focus in recent months has been on the negative rather than on some of the utility's more positive accomplishments under his leadership. He said that, with regard to manganese and other problems with city wells, he tried to make the best judgments and always tried to act in the interests of the city and its residents.

Denig-Chakroff also praised the utility's workers. "I thank the dedicated employees of the utility for their contribution to the progress we have made and the achievements reached these past 10 years,'' he said in a statement. "Their commitment to the strategic planning goals we have set is strong. While I am disappointed our work together is coming to a close, I am confident this settlement is the best course for the utility and the community.'' Denig-Chakroff, 56, has served as general manager of the water utility since 1996, through three mayors. His accomplishments included a lead pipe replacement program that received national attention and the construction of a new headquarters and office building for the utility that replaced badly outdated quarters.

Manganese problem Trouble surfaced in 2005 when complaints started pouring in to the utility about gray and even black water flowing from taps, especially in the Nakoma neighborhood. The culprit proved to be manganese, a natural mineral that can cause health problems at high levels for infants and people with liver problems.

Utility officials said the water was safe. But information about potential health problems continued to surface and the utility was slow to respond to the high levels of the mineral in four city wells.

A series of stories in the Wisconsin State Journal after the initial manganese problems also revealed numerous management problems as well as water quality issues with other wells, including high levels of cancer-causing carbon tetrachloride in Well No. 3 on the city's Near East Side. That well has since been shut down. The newspaper's investigation also revealed numerous instances when utility managers failed to be forthcoming about other problems, including a break-in at one of the city's water towers.

After those stories, Cieslewicz issued a plan to improve operation of the utility and restore the public's faith in management of the water supply. The plan included hiring a consultant to address issues at the utility. But problems continued and as recently as last month, Denig-Chakroff was upbraided by the City Council for management miscues, including spending $140,000 on a $300,000 consultant contract without prior authorization.

Much of the criticism directed toward the utility has been about lack of communication with the public, especially about water quality problems. The public was not notified, for example, when Well No. 29, one of the wells on the city's East Side with high levels of manganese, was brought back into part-time service and the manganese-tainted water was pumped into the drinking water system. Denig-Chakroff said the press notice about the well being put back into use did not get released as it should have been.\ \ The Madison Water Utility under Denig-Chakroff's management

March 1996 - David Denig-Chakroff hired as general manager of the Madison Water Utility.

February 2000 - City Council requires replacement of all lead pipes within a decade, a program Denig-Chakroff pushed for and which gained national attention.

October 2004 - The utility is getting complaints about badly discolored water due to the presence of the mineral manganese. Callers to the utility are told the water is safe to drink.

March 2005 - A task force formed by Mayor Dave Cieslewicz to study the manganese problem recommends against drinking or cooking with the discolored water. The report also notes the dangers of too much manganese for infants on formula as well as people with chronic liver disease.

June 2005 - A new utility office building and shop, built under Denig-Chakroff's leadership, opens at 119 E. Olin Ave.

April-May 2006 - A series of stories in the Wisconsin State Journal reveal numerous problems with management at the Madison Water Utility, including failures to report such problems as water tower break-ins and carbon tetrachloride contamination at one city well.

May 2006 - Cieslewicz issues a 10-point plan for improving operation of the water utility and restoring public's faith in the water system.

June 2006 - Cieslewicz recommends a new five-year contract for Denig-Chakroff.

Oct. 2006 - An investigation is ordered by Cieslewicz into why a city well wasn't treated for bacteria and viruses for 38 days before the utility discovered the mistake.

May 2007 - Mayor orders an investigation of at least four chlorination failures in previous months.

July 2007 - Water commission member George Meyer says he will seek disciplinary action against Denig-Chakroff for not following through on recommendations of investigation into chlorination failures.

July 2007 - City Council criticizes Denig-Chakroff for spending $140,000 on a $300,000 consultant contract without prior authorization.

August 2007 - Cieslewicz announces he is reviewing Denig-Chakroff's contract and performance and is considering possible disciplinary action.

August 2007 - Three public members of a water commission subcommittee on improving communication send a letter to the mayor criticizing Denig-Chakroff for failing to notify public about manganese-tainted water from Well No. 29 being pumped back into the water system.

August 27, 2007 - Cieslewicz announces buy-out of Denig-Chakroff's contract.

Copyright 2006 Wisconsin State Journal

This story originally appeared in August 28, 2007, editions of the Wisconsin State Journal. Ron Seely can be reached at