“Aurora” post, surveillance questions dominate McCleary city meeting

Multiple issues about camera and social media use have sprung up lately

Angry comments from the public about a city of McCleary social media post last week laying the cause of a failure in the city’s water chlorination system at the feet of the solar storm that swept the hemisphere rang through a city council meeting on Wednesday evening.

City council members also grappled with the issues around the city’s camera system, as they seek to get the use logs for the cameras amid reports of misuse.

Mayor Chris Miller was absent from the meeting.

Chlorine spikes

“The chlorine spiked pretty intensely for 24 to 36 hours last weekend,” said Councilor Max Ross. “Let’s talk about it. I just want the guy who runs the water treatment plant to be here.”

The pumps were running at far above normal chlorine levels for two six-hour periods, said Public Works Director Chad Bedlington during the meeting. The chlorination spike occurred because of a pair of interlocking issues, Bedlington said.

“There’s two main causes for this. One is human error. The other is a fouled sensor that works with our chlorine pumps,” Bedlington said. “Humans make errors. This is something that was not monitored and should have been monitored on a consistent basis.”

The fouled sensor, which reports the chlorination level to the system, which then adjusts the chlorine level up or down, had been reading 0 parts per million, Bedlington said, and as a result, the system was dumping chlorine into the water in an attempt to adjust the amount to the target, between .5 ppm and .65 ppm.

“A swimming pool is 1 ppm. We don’t want spikes hitting 5 and above,” Bedlington said. “We hit 5 and above.”

While Bedlington stated that he believed Kevin Trewhella, the city’s water and wastewater manager, had contacted the state’s Department of Health as is procedure when levels reach that high, Bedlington said he did not have confirmation of that fact.

“The mechanical failure was a lot to do with that sensor that was failed. It was cleaned three days prior,” Bedlington said.“Kevin is ultimately our utility manager and he’s taking full responsibility.”

An automated system that was meant to notify operators, also failed to call or text as it was meant to under the circumstances, Bedlington said. That system has been fixed since the incident, as well as a regular chlorine log started, and several other problems dealt with.

“We found another issue that came up,” Bedlington said. “We think we had a bad reagent batch. As soon as we changed it out, the graphs stopped spiking.”

The system is set up with new routines to prevent a similar situation from occurring, Bedlington said.

“Those changes have been made,” Bedlington said. “I don’t want anyone to ever feel uncomfortable drinking the water.”

Social media post

Many residents found out about the issue from a social media post on the city’s official page, which stated that the geomagnetic storm contributed to the irregularities. Residents and councilors found this assertion unlikely.

“The excuse of a geomagnetic storm that affected the chlorination system … is that the best excuse you guys could come up with?” said Jeff Geer, during the public comments. “I know the mayor believes the education level of the city of McCleary is 8th grade or minus. Does he think this is the land of Oz and he’s the wizard?”

The use of the city’s social media pages is not a new issue; Miller’s posts have caused strife before, The Daily World previously reported.

“Something has to be done about the stuff that keeps getting thrown out,” Geer said. “When (Miller’s) going to get caught in (a lie) he doesn’t show up.”

Bedlington would not comment on the authorship of this specific post, but pointed toward science and experience with public water systems as his guidance for saying what the issue had been with the chlorination system.

“Frankly, I don’t agree with the post. I didn’t post it. I wasn’t involved in authoring it,” Bedlington said. “I’m basing my comments tonight on what I believe to be true.”

Miller is generally the guiding hand for the city’s social media posts, Bedlington said.

“The message is pretty much driven by the mayor,” Bedlington said.

Issue was also taken with the comments on the post being turned off and residents being unable to get good information or even get clarity on what the issue was, said Councilor Andrea Dahl.

“The post was embarrassing,” Dahl said.

Surveillance issues

Issues the city council had with Miller’s conduct didn’t end there. The city’s security cameras, which were installed in order to provide footage of any public security-related incidents, were shut down last month by the council in the absence of a policy for their use after they received reports that Miller had been frequently watching over them.

“We discovered we did not have an adopted policy for the cameras around town,” said Councilor Brycen Huff. “Logs were requested as part of guiding the policy.”

The logs would show who has been using the camera system and how; whether they’ve been live-streaming, downloading data, or use it in other ways, Huff said. The logs were requested, but have not been received.

“When I followed up with the mayor he said there is no timeline,” Huff said.

Unhappiness with that state of affairs was apparent throughout both the council and the public.

“I think the public needs to know that your mayor is lying to you,” Councilor Jacob Simmons said during the meeting. “Your mayor is hiding something. Your mayor has been watching live-streaming.”

The cameras, supplied and supported by Verkada, a security company, are currently recording black screens while the council drafts and institutes a policy for the camera use, Bedlington said. The cameras have to be manually sighted, and have an audio capture capability that the city doesn’t use, Bedlington said.

“I’d like to see where the cameras are located,” Dahl said. “We used to have a document on the website showing the locations of all of them and I can’t find that document anymore.”

The proposed policy would put control of the surveillance system entirely in the hands of the police department, with no access given to the mayor or other elected officials. Police Chief Sam Patrick would be the primary user, according to the proposed policy, but would require training on the system.

“I thought we took them down because the police did not have that access. The people who should be running them were not running them,” said Councilor Keith Klimek. “I don’t want anybody else but the police to be doing that. He doesn’t have a lot of training. This is something he also needs to train.”

Dahl echoed the comment.

“If (Patrick’s) the sponsor for this, he needs to know how to use it,” Dahl said. “If he can’t do it, we need to find a new chief.”

Miller’s unwillingness in providing the logs has provoked a good deal of ire.

“The delay in getting council the login for the surveillance system, the infringement on privacy, is unacceptable,” Simmons said. “The mayor’s response is unacceptable.”

Ross said that he hopes that can get the system in the right hands and up and running again as soon as possible; that having the system in place but unused for its designated purpose would be a shame.

“We have the cameras for public safety purposes,” Ross said. “I’d like to get them back up and running.”

The council also said they’d approach Verkada itself about pulling the logs.

“We know and the public knows that this system is being abused. How long does it take Verkada to give the log in information?” Simmons said. “The mayor doesn’t want you to see how often he’s been livestreaming.”

Getting the information from the company itself would be preferable, Dahl said.

“I don’t trust the information that’s coming from the mayor,” Dahl said.

Miller could not be reached for comment at press time.

Contact Senior Reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or michael.lockett@thedailyworld.com.