Harlingen WaterWorks launches search while officials question GM’s departure

Harlingen Waterworks System office is pictured Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, in Harlingen. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)
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The Harlingen WaterWorks System is launching a search to replace former General Manager Tim Skoglund while some city commissioners are questioning his sudden departure.

On Wednesday, Chris Bartnesky, chairman of the WaterWorks System’s board of directors, said board members are working with a firm to search for a new general manager as the agency embarks on the biggest project in its history — a five-year, $258 million master plan aimed at overhauling the aging sewer system.

At WaterWorks’ offices, officials declined to disclose Skoglund’s salary, requesting the Valley Morning Star file a public information request.

Now, David Sanchez, a longtime department director, is serving as interim general manager, Bartnesky said.

In a special meeting May 1, board members met in executive session to enter into “deliberation on the appointment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline or dismissal of a public officer or employee — general manager,” the meeting’s agenda stated.

Since then, board members have declined comment on Skoglund’s departure.

But Skoglund described his departure as stemming for “disagreements about personal management style.”

On Wednesday, Bartnesky declined to disclose whether Skoglund had resigned, adding he would speak with board attorney Gene McCullough regarding the matter.

“It was an executive decision by the board,” Bartnesky said regarding the vote leading to Skoglund’s departure.

Meanwhile, Michael Garza, the board’s vice chairman, referred questions to McCullough, who couldn’t be reached for comment while on vacation.

Board member Steve Brewer, a former La Feria mayor who described himself as newly appointed to the WaterWorks board, said he didn’t know what triggered the vote leading to Skoglund’s departure.

“I like him,” Brewer said in an interview. “He seemed pretty smart to me. I had no idea what the issue was. I guess it was time for a change.”

During the board’s closed-door meeting, Brewer abstained from voting on Skoglund’s agenda item.

“I felt what I knew wasn’t enough,” he said, referring to his decision to abstain from the vote. “I didn’t think I had the knowledge. I didn’t feel comfortable voting.”

On Thursday, Skoglund said his departure stemmed from “disagreements about personal management style.”

“I am proud of what WaterWorks accomplished in planning to address very significant capital improvement needs,” he said in an interview. “I think WaterWorks in is great shape — much better off than when I took the helm.”

The Harlingen Waterworks System office is pictured Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, on East Van Buren Avenue in Harlingen. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Skoglund described WaterWorks as entering a “transitional phase.”

“I think WaterWorks is in a transitional phase, from planning to execution of the largest capital improvements project WaterWorks as ever seen,” he said.

“I left behind a very good team and I think WaterWorks’ future is bright — brighter than it’s been in decades because of the capital improvements projects.”

During an interview in April, Skoglund said he was planning to stay on the job to carry out the new five-year $258 million master plan aimed at upgrading the city’s aging sewer system. Some pipes spill over amid increasing demand.

For months, Skoglund worked with consultants to propose a five-year series of water rate hikes which commissioners passed in April to help fund the master plan’s projects.

At City Hall, some officials remain stunned over Skoglund’s departure.

“The WaterWorks board decided to go another way,” Commissioner Rene Perez said.

Like many, Commissioner Ford Kinsley believed Skoglund was planning to stay on the job to carry out the master plan’s projects.

“Obviously I’m concerned,” Kinsley said in an interview. “This is the guy who put the plan together. When he gave the presentation, I had no indication that a couple of weeks later he wouldn’t be part of the program anymore.”

Harlingen City Hall is pictured Thursday on Tyler Avenue on Jan. 7, 2022. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

Since he found out about Skoglund’s departure about two weeks after the board’s action, Commissioner Michael Mezmar said he still doesn’t know why the WaterWorks manager left office.

“I don’t know what happened,” he said, describing Skoglund’s departure as a personnel matter. “I have no clue.”

Meanwhile, Commissioner Frank Morales said he had “mixed feelings” over the board’s action.

“I had several people say, ‘This man’s a genius, but he needs to have this thumb on everything. He over thinks,’” he said, adding some considered Skoglund a “micro-manager.”

At WaterWorks, officials are working to carry out the master plan.

“We’re still (continuing) with any planned projects with consultants and engineers,” Bartnesky said.

In March 2017, a previous board of directors hired Skoglund, who had been serving as a project manager with the San Antonio Water System, as WaterWork’s general manager following a three-month search.

Skoglund was hired at a salary of about $135,000 to $140,000, Garza said.

Skoglund, who holds a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Texas and a master’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Maine, had previously served as the McAllen Public Utility system’s utility engineer from 2003 to 2015.