by Jay Thorwaldson
Palo Alto officials are taking a new look at procedures that have produced erupting toilets, after recent incidents around town created both a messy bathroom and a messy political situation.
The most recent incident occurred Aug. 31 at the Chimalus Drive home of Richard Placone, a longtime observer and occasional harsh critic of city operations. Two earlier incidents were reported in the past three months, both reportedly relating to sewer work being done nearby.
"My 9-year-old granddaughter was just finishing her shower when suddenly the toilet erupted over 3 feet into the air, spraying raw sewage over the walls, sink, garden window, shower glass walls and the floor," Placone wrote in a Sept. 3 post-cleanup letter to City Manager Frank Benest, with copies to City Council members.
"She ran screaming from the bathroom calling for her grandmother. When Jeanne arrived at the bathroom, she was able to grab enough towels to keep the flood from flowing into the hall and ruining the carpet," Placone continued.
"She then went outside to confront the City of Palo Alto Utility Department workmen, who had been working on the sewer main since early morning.
"When she explained what was happening, she was told, somewhat dismissively, that they were using pressure to unblock the main line and sometimes this resulted in a back flow into a nearby home," Placone wrote.
He prefaced his complaint with a reference to modern literature: "If you have read the Harry Potter books you will be familiar with the wizard mischief of placing a jinx on a Muggle (non-magical person) toilet so that it flushes in reverse, i.e., becomes a regurgitating toilet."
"Can you imagine, Mr. Benest, the scare this gave to my granddaughter? Can you imagine the fright if someone was actually using the toilet when this eruption occurred?"
Utilities Director Valerie Fong said Thursday she is preparing a response to Placone's complaint, and "feels very badly" about the incident.
"Nobody should have to deal with that," she said, adding that there have been problems in that area before. She said the city is now sending video equipment on a small robot into the lines for a visual inspection, and that utilities operations and engineering people are working together to resolve the problem. She said she hopes the video survey and analysis of the video will be completed within a week.
It could mean repairing or even replacing the sewer main, she said.
The department also has launched a home-by-home survey of houses to make sure everyone has a cleanout in the line — which she said Placone's home lacked — that would allow any excess pressure in the lines to be released outside. .
Placone said when his "steaming" wife reported her conversation with the crew to him he went out to question the workmen.
"They explained that they had inserted a pressure device into the main line and when the pressure was released it must have backed up into our bathroom.
"This happens, I was told, but this time not so dismissively."
But Placone said the eruption was only the first half of the problem.
"Soon (Wastewater) Supervisor Frank Alvarado came to the house and inspected the bathroom. He told me to call the city and they would arrange to have a cleanup crew come and clean up and make repairs to the damage.
"I asked why we were not informed in advance that such an event might occur so that the toilet could have been closed and sealed. He had no answer to this.
"He did say that there should be a safety valve located near our house and since one was not there he would see to it that one was installed. Our sewer line empties into the main right where the manhole cover is, so it would be the one to experience back pressure."
Placone said he immediately called the city manager's office, "since in my past experience Emily Harrison is the only one who seems able to get some action in an emergency like this." But Harrison was in a meeting, Benest was not in the office, and the woman who answered referred Placone to an administrative assistant.
"After I explained the problem to her, she said she would transfer me to a person who would arrange for Roto-Rooter to come and address the problem. I told her a blocked sewer was not the problem, at least not my sewer, but she said the company also did this kind of clean-up work.
"She then transferred the call and another woman answered, to whom I again explained the problem. She didn't know what I was talking about as she turned out to be the city's dispatcher. She said she would transfer me to Utility Department operations.
"The woman who then answered the phone listened to my problem, but when I asked her to please arrange that the cleanup company come at once to clean up the mess, she said that it was not in the city's protocol to do such things. This was something I would have to do, and then I could file a claim with the city attorney.
"When I told her that the city manager's office told me she would take care of it she said that 'they' didn't know what they were talking about, that this was not in the protocol of the Utility Department. I told her I had no idea whom to call and she suggested the yellow pages."
Placone then summarized with an overall assessment of apparent management failures within the city:
"Excuse me, but I am now convinced that you and your management staff, with the possible exception of Emily Harrison, have no idea how to manage this city, and the proof can be seen in the deteriorating infrastructure, the ongoing deficits, the scandal-ridden and inept Utility Department and the cavalier attitude of some city staff when confronted with a citizen who needs urgent help," he summed up.
Benest is out of town at a League of California Cities meeting and could not be reached for comment.