KID settlement should serve as warning to others

City councils and school boards tend to be monitored fairly well, but the Tri-Cities has many small, obscure public boards and agencies that largely go unnoticed.

Usually that's not a problem, as most public servants follow the rules. But every once in awhile, conflicts and issues arise that warrant checking. When those conflicts get out of hand, the taxpayers ultimately pay the consequences.

The recent whistleblower case between the Kennewick Irrigation District and one of its former employees is a good example of how a dysfunctional board and management team can cost the public plenty.

A Benton County Superior Court jury recently agreed with Brad Wellenbrock's claim he was fired as the KID engineering manager because he complained about a former board member improperly using KID water.

The jury decided to award Wellenbrock $750,000 after a two-week trial that emphasized how former KID board member Loren Watts allegedly used his position to benefit his business, Watts Construction.

Wellenbrock had complained to his boss that Watts took KID water for his company's water trucks during summer 2007, as well as rip out a KID weir box so his business could build a private irrigation system. Both instances allegedly occurred without KID permission.

Watts Construction crews also were said to have forced their way into a fenced KID irrigation pond at Hansen Park to install a pump so the construction trucks could have access to even more water.

Wellenbrock spoke up about the alleged conflict of interest between Watts' actions and his position on the KID board. Some time afterward, he was fired.

This is the kind of thing that looks bad all around. Once Wellenbrock voiced his concerns, someone with authority should have looked into the situation, reigned it in and made sure everyone at KID knew such actions were not acceptable.

But it didn't work out that way. Firing Wellenbrock only made the situation worse. The perception went from one KID board member abusing his power to a full-out agency coverup.

Wellenbrock was within his rights to pursue the case in court. The irrigation district, which serves about 21,000 residential and agricultural customers in the region, did not say how the verdict would be paid.

The current KID board has said that steps have been taken to ensure any potential whistleblower is heard and protected from retaliation.

Whatever these steps may be, other public agencies might do well to implement something similar if they don't already have a clear policy in place.

The majority of public boards operate quietly, but if someone does bring up inappropriate conduct or a possible conflict of interest in a public agency, there is a right way and a wrong way to handle it.

Let what happened to the KID serve as a lesson -- and a warning.