Tom Butt for Richmond City Council The Tom Butt E-Forum About Tom Butt Platform Endorsements of Richmond Councilmember Tom Butt Accomplishments Contribute to Tom Butt for Richmond City Council Contact Tom Butt Tom Butt Archives
E-Mail Forum
Why People Are Skeptical Of Government
March 9, 2002
Three weeks ago, a Richmond homeowner noticed sewage overflowing from the drain of his washing machine. He called Rescue Rooter, which responded by attempting to run a “snake” through the line from a cleanout to clear it. After the attempt was unsuccessful, the Rescue Rooter service person decided to try working from cleanout further downstream in the house waste line. Anticipating that when the lower cleanout in the garage was opened, sewage between it and the upper cleanout may run out, he was prepared with a garbage can to catch the overflow. Much to his surprise, a huge amount of sewage shot out of the cleanout under pressure from downstream. This was an indication that the problem was probably a blockage in the main, so the Richmond Wastewater Treatment Plant was called. A crew came out and eventually was successful in clearing the blockage in the main, which had resulted in sewage in the main upstream from the blockage being forced into the homeowners lateral and into his home.

When the homeowner requested the City of Richmond to clean up the spilled sewage, some work was done, and then the cleanup crew disappeared. The homeowner was referred to Risk Management, whose director, Will Venski, proceeded to blame the homeowner and Rescue Rooter and declined to finish the cleanup job. Here’s what Mr. Venski had to say:

“A blockage in the City sewer main led to a minor spill in the second level laundry room in the home. Instead of calling the City, [the homeowner] called Rescue rooter. Their service person opened an upper level cleanout and sent a “snake” through the system, instead of contacting the City, as they should have. They were unable to clear the line. At this point, there is no question that the serviceperson should have contacted the City, but again failed to do so. Instead, the worker opened a lower level cleanout causing a large spill into the garage of the residence. Finally the City was called. The Wastewater crew responded, removed a rootball blocking the main, and the water flowed from the property owner’s lateral system.”

Mr. Venski goes on to say, “The action taken by Rescue Rooter was negligent.” For some three weeks, Mr. Venski refused to continue the cleanup, and according to the homeowner, would not return phone calls.

Eventually, after three weeks, numerous requests by the homeowner, a plea by me at last week’s City Council meeting and three phone calls to City staff from me, the City stepped up and resumed the cleanup.

In my opinion, the way this homeowner was treated by the City was unconscionable. I have searched the City website and found no information advising homeowners what steps to take in case of a sewage problem. In fact, under the “information” page of the website, under “utilities,” there is not even a mention of who provides sewer service, despite the fact that there are three sewer districts serving Richmond, only one of which is operated by the City. Since sewer service fees are billed with property taxes, there is no information distributed with bills about what to do in case of a sewer problem. Under “Departments” in the City web site, there is a listing for “Wastewater Treatment Plant” and a number, 412-2002, for “sewer emergencies.” I called it, and the line was busy. I called the only other number listed, 412-4001, and there was no answer. I called the manager’s cell phone, and there was no answer. I went back to the “Wastewater Treatment Plant” web page link and found a glowing report praising the Wastewater Treatment Plant but no information about what to do in case of a sewer problem. The fact is that the City has never provided any information to homeowners that they should first call the Wastewater Treatment Plant if they experience a sewer problem.

I have to say that I would have done exactly what the homeowner did. It never would have occurred to me to contact the City as the first responder for a home sewer problem. If the City wants to be the first responder, they have a massive public education campaign to embark on.

I find Mr. Venski’s explanation of why the homeowner should be responsible highly improbable, and in fact, insulting.

A similar problem occurred last year at 221 Buena Vista, in which a home at the bottom of a hill was flooded with sewage after a blockage in the main downstream from the home forced sewage up through the lateral and out of a toilet. In this case, first a neighbor, and then the homeowner called the City. Sewer crews came out three times, the first two times denying that the problem was in a City main. Finally, they found the problem in the main and cleared it, but the City never did take responsibility for the spill. Eventually the homeowner arranged to have it cleaned up himself because he had become exhausted trying to deal with the City.

Richmond’s Risk Management Department apparently believes their mission is to avoid paying any claims from the public, whether or not they are valid. However, when City employees are involved, it is a different story. Consider the following:

A public safety officer claimed that a back injury warranted a workers compensation payment from the City. The City and the employee jointly agreed to have a physician examine the officer. The physician declared the officer was 29% permanently disabled and deserved a payment from the City of several tens of thousands of dollars. The same physician also declared that the officer was fully fit for duty. The city attorney, who is also in charge of the Risk Management department, agreed and recommended the payment while acknowledging that the officer’s condition would likely deteriorate and result in additional claims in the future. A majority of the City Council thought the advice from the physician, city attorney and risk management was sound and voted to make the payment. Some of us questioned it, wondering how a public safety officer could be 29% disabled and fit for duty at the same time. The city attorney acknowledged that the whole thing defied common sense but that it was beyond our control. So now you have a 29% disabled person, with a windfall bank deposit, on the streets protecting you from fully fit bad guys. Go figure.