Mayor Pat Murphy was in for a surprise at an Aug. 11 public hearing about the New Milford sewer plant.

Sewer Commission members and a former commission attorney turned out to question the mayor's attempt to put the plant's employees under her purview.

The hearing was held to solicit public input on a plan by the mayor and Town Council to have wastewater treatment facility workers become town employees under the mayor's jurisdiction.

Sewer plant employees have long been under the jurisdiction of the Sewer Commission.

"Hiring at the sewer plant is based on experience and qualifications as stipulated by the (state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection)," said longtime Commissioner John Heaton to the mayor and Town Council.

"The Sewer Commission members were all vetted by you; in that sense, we are all town employees. I would think that if the Town Council was unhappy with the commission, it would have come to us."

Longtime plant supervisor Ken Bailey died in January, leaving the head position open.

Ronnie Ploof, the plant assistant chief, then assumed the reins and DEEP gave the Sewer Commission one year to fill the supervisor's position.

Murphy announced her plan in July.

"The employees at the plant are doing a very good job, and the best they can with DEEP assistance," she said then. "This change would add town oversight."

Heaton announced recently Robert Pudelka has been hired as supervisor (see related story, S2).

He added the plant is now fully staffed under good management.

Attorney Jeff Sienkiewicz, a former Sewer Commission counsel, offered his feelings about the mayor's plan.

"I think it's a bad idea. I think this violates state statute," Sienkiewicz said. "The whole sewer system is designed by legislators to separate the Water Pollution Control Authority from direct town government involvement."

Sienkiewciz added the statute says nothing about a mayor appointing sewer plant employees.

"In March 1995, the (state) Department of Environmental Protection talked about isolation of the WPCA, and about the history of sewer facilities suffering because they were under general town government authority," he said.

The Water Pollution Control Authority -- in the body of the Sewer Commission -- is given by state statute the authority to acquire, construct and operate a sewer system. It adopts rules and regulations and renders contracts, he said.

"New Milford did a fine job in establishing how the WPCA does finances with a budget separated from the general town budget," Sienkiewicz said.

Town Councilman Walter Bayer moved to table the decision about jurisdiction over sewer plant employees until the entire council could hear the tape of Aug. 11's meeting.

Only five of the nine council members were present. Bayer's motion was approved.

The Town Council will resume its discussion during its Sept. 8 meeting.

stuz@newstimes.com; 860-355-7322