Water authority criticized for alleged disrespect toward customers

May 17—A member of the public offered blistering criticism of a Meadville Area Water Authority (MAWA) customer service staff member during the authority's meeting this week, making claims of rude behavior on the telephone and retaliation.

"I try to treat customers and clients with respect, but this girl has no respect and I'm not going to put up with it anymore," Linda Peters of Meadville told board members and authority administrators during their monthly meeting Wednesday.

Using what she called "plain language," Peters portrayed her history of negative interactions with the same MAWA employee as part of a larger pattern of disrespect toward customers by water authority staff.

"This has been going on for years and years," she said.

"I will put it right on the table — what I hear on the street: The water authority is nothing but a Gestapo and she is the worst [person] you have to deal with," she added, using an expletive to describe the woman.

The Gestapo was the notorious secret police force of Nazi Germany.

The "final straw" that led Peters, who is a rental property owner, to make her concerns public in a tongue-lashing that lasted nearly 20 minutes came after she recently sold a Highland Avenue property. The purchaser, she said, received a letter from the water authority informing that the property must undergo water authority testing within 30 days.

Peters said she was treated rudely when she called to learn more about the testing, was told she had received five letters on the subject in the past, and was advised to find relevant information on the website.

About 10 days later, she said, she received an unsigned letter from the authority informing her that she needed to upgrade a backflow prevention device within 30 days.

Peters told the board that she felt the letter was retaliatory.

"How would you feel?" she asked. "This isn't an accident that this letter came to me after I called in here and got reamed out to read the website."

Project Manager Bob Harrington said that opening Peters' electronic account during her phone call would have triggered the letter automatically, but he agreed that the sequence of events would likely have upset any customer.

"I think it could have been handled differently," he said. "I understand why you interpreted it the way you did."

Board Chair Tim Groves told Peters that the board shared similar concerns about customer service generally and the specific employee criticized by Peters.

"There's certain people that love her because she knows her business, and I've heard a lot of the things that you've been saying also," Groves said. "I can assure you that we've taken steps to try to upgrade our customer service training and we'd like to hear from more people if we're having problems. We would like to correct it. Nobody likes to hear what you had to go through."

Board member Dennis Finton told Peters that the authority already has plans to close the office for an entire day of customer service training in June.

The concerns raised by Peters are not the first time the authority has confronted customer service issues in recent months.

In a January appearance before Meadville City Council, Harrington said customer service concerns had played a role in staff turnover late last year. Two new staff members had taken over responsibility for answering incoming calls, he told council members, before urging empathy for customer service representatives who express frustration.

"There are times not everybody in our community is as friendly as this group, OK?" he said. "And when you're telling people things that they either don't want to hear or can't afford to hear ... they're not going to be friendly about it. And when you get to your 25th one on a Wednesday, it could be a long day."

At the MAWA meeting Wednesday, Harrington's empathy was directed toward Peters when she recounted receiving the warning letter.

"You'd be [upset], too," Peters said.

"Yes, yes," Harrington replied, "I agree with you."

Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.