By Jane Smith

A former Delray Beach water quality inspector filed a federal complaint against the city on April 18, claiming she was wrongfully dismissed for pointing out problems with the city’s beleaguered reclaimed water program.
Christine Ferrigan, who earlier received Florida whistleblower protection from Palm Beach County’s inspector general, said she was let go in January, five days after she filed a written retaliation complaint against two of her Utilities Department supervisors.
City Manager Terrence Moore said then that Ferrigan’s position was eliminated in a reorganization “done for efficiency and austerity reasons.” However, Ferrigan’s position was the only one eliminated in the reorganization of the Utilities Department, according to her complaint.
Moore sent Ferrigan a Jan. 26 email saying her services were no longer needed, effective immediately. Ferrigan turned in her badge and was escorted out of the building, she said in an April 25 conference call interview that her attorneys also attended.
Her son also was let go from his job in the city’s Public Works Department on March 2. His job loss was described in the complaint as “the City’s continuing agenda to retaliate against” Ferrigan.
The city does not comment on pending legal action, but spokeswoman Gina Carter said in an email to The Coastal Star:
“The City has the unfettered right to organize (and reorganize) its departments in ways that are efficient and fiscally responsible. In the case of Utilities, Director Hassan Hadjimiry chose to streamline efficiencies within his department. The position Ferrigan held was not related to reclaimed water but rather to the City’s Industrial Pretreatment Program.”
Ferrigan, though, said she received approval in the summer of 2018 from her now-retired supervisor, Scott Solomon, to set up the city’s reclaimed water program. Reclaimed water is highly treated wastewater suitable only for lawn irrigation, not for human or pet consumption.

OSHA to probe complaint
Ferrigan’s complaint is filed with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. One of her attorneys, Richard Condit, called it the “first step” in her legal fight with the city.
She is seeking 11 remedies, including back pay, a different position because hers no longer exists, training for staff and managers about whistleblower rights, and attorneys’ fees.
OSHA will conduct its own investigation, including interviewing witnesses and reviewing reports, Erika Ruthman, U.S. Department of Labor spokeswoman, said in an April 26 email to The Coastal Star. The Labor Department oversees OSHA.
Ruthman said whistleblower investigations vary in the length of time. Ferrigan’s attorney, who specializes in such cases, said most last between six months to a year. If either side does not agree with the results, then it can appeal to an administrative law judge, Ruthman said.
Ferrigan, hired in June 2017, often sided with barrier island residents and provided information to the Florida Department of Health after it began investigating the city’s reclaimed water program.
In late 2018, Ferrigan inspected South Ocean Boulevard locations and interviewed residents who were reporting being sickened after the reclaimed water was connected in the area. The city issued a boil-water order for the area in December 2018.
According to Ferrigan’s complaint, the city should have reported the illnesses to the Health Department and let the department investigate whether the water was responsible.
The Health Department investigation began after it received a January 2020 complaint from one of the South Ocean Boulevard residents, who said she did not understand the cross connection that occurred at her house in December 2018.
Cross connections happen when the drinking water pipes are mistakenly connected to the reclaimed water lines.
In February 2020, triggered by the resident’s complaint, the city shut down its entire reclaimed water system to avoid a citywide boil-water order.

Whistleblower status

When giving Ferrigan whistleblower protection in September 2020, the county inspector general wrote that the city’s staff and elected officials “potentially still are being less than truthful in documenting and describing the city’s water problems.”
However, in a May 2021 report, the inspector general was not able to link the illnesses of the South Ocean Boulevard residents to the reclaimed water.
The Health Department’s investigation led the city to sign a five-year consent order Nov. 9 with the department, agreeing to pay $1 million in civil fines to settle issues in the reclaimed water program.
But the same month the consent order was signed, Ferrigan reported to the Health Department concerns of fellow staffers who feared retaliation, according to her complaint. They had been ordered by Hadjimiry to remove information that was required from the city’s database of backflow preventers, the complaint reads. Backflow preventers stop reclaimed water from flowing back into the drinking water supply.
This is Ferrigan’s second whistleblower battle with a South County coastal city.
She claimed whistleblower status in 2008 after she was fired from Boca Raton’s water department. She sued the city, claiming she was let go because of information she provided to state environmental officials about the city’s backflow and cross connection programs.
Ferrigan and her attorneys received a $537,500 settlement in 2014 from the city’s insurance company, published reports said. The city did not admit any wrongdoing.

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